It’s turned chilly here in Los Angeles with the arrival of December. Jackets and Ugg boots are out in force and everyone is talking of the cold in the rather embarrassed way that we all do here. I took a very brief drive last night to our neighborhood Ralph’s for some essentials rather than walk. In the mood for music before I set off, I googled, as I periodically do, the only I line I remember of a song that has haunted me since the time I spent in Sicily during my undergraduate degree at Oxford. Anyway, the words are, ‘I will be your fisherman’ and I remember the song because it was the opening favorite of band I played with during my time there. All of a sudden, like some strange and unlooked for magic, the title of the song appeared in my browser- I have never been able to find it before. As the opening bars of Fisherman’s Blues by the Waterboys filled the air, I was lifted away on the swift wings of memory almost as if Hermes himself had flown me back to the time which shines out from my past like a golden beacon.
It will be twenty years this spring since I travelled in realms of gold and so this week I thought I would reprint an article I wrote in the St Anne’s College Classics magazine, annales, in March 2000 about my time in Sicily. I hope you enjoy it and please forgive any naivety - I’m younger than that now!
Kaleidoscopic Catania- Recalled by Roz Stott
I arrived in Catania, Sicily at the beginning of April and stayed until the end of June 1999. It was a whirlwind three month experience that I was lucky to have had and one that proves impossible to forget. I have a kaleidoscopic array of memories from the period, a few of which I will try to capture in this article.
I have wanted to live in Italy for some time and my stay in Catania was a wonderful introduction. From the academic perspective it was an interestingly different experience from that of Oxford. As a student in Catania, I had little direct contact with my Classics tutors. Therefore most of my study time was spent working alone on translation and a dissertation. Following on the heels of a Mods driven term this was a stabilizing and refreshing experience.
In itself Catania is a visually striking city. Due to volcanic activity it has been rebuilt several times. Situated directly at the foot of Mount Etna, a live volcano, it is dominated by her brooding presence. In fact, with much of the baroque architecture partly constructed in black lava stone, she seemed at times to walk through the city streets. This did not tally with the picture created by the various guidebooks I had read. Although, as with any city, there were the more dangerous parts, I rarely felt unsafe. Living in a fourth floor apartment we had beautiful views. The shimmering dance of rainbow lights that appeared each night is an unforgettable memory.
However my favourite places in Catania were three small fishing villages just outside the city itself, Acicastello, Acitrezza and Acireale. They are beautiful places having both exquisite restaurants and panoramic views. My interest in Homer fueled my love of Acitrezza. Here, planted threateningly in the sea, a little way out, were three savagely jagged rocks which Polyphemus threw after the fleeing Odysseus. It was this ability of Sicily to create visual reality from legend which impacted upon me overwhelmingly. It is hard to explain or even understand the emotion which sights like that engender; thousands of years of myth making taken in with just one glance. My stay in Catania illuminated my understanding of the peril of the Lotus Eaters for Odysseus’ men.
I crossed from Messina to Calabria, during my last few days in Sicily, on a slow moving car ferry. The sight of the coast of the mainland brought Aeneas to mind. The sun was sinking in a rosy glow on the water behind me (as in Aeneid 11.913-14) while the boat chugged along. It was a moment out of time, frozen on the water between two lands. Sicily is apparently leaving Italy at the rate of a centimeter every year- or so I was repeatedly assured.
My three days in Reggio were a beautiful close to my Mediterranean experience. I made a long awaited visit to the museum to see the Riace Bronzes. After a sadly cursory tour of what I thought was the building’s only floor I was dismayed to discover that I had come to the end without a bronze in sight. Somewhat dejected I returned to the entrance; suddenly a sight caught my eye and within seconds I was running down a flight of stairs to the ‘Subterranean level.’ Standing in a large white room they were a more majestic and powerful sight than even the best photography can convey. My Mods sculpture tutor has told us to make pilgrimage to Reggio to see them; I am glad that I did so.
My last night contained a poignant surprise. I was taken to a small fishing village called Scilla. A hideous profusion of rock rose up before my eyes as I rounded the bay. In the dark she truly seemed like a terrifying sea monster. The current around her is vicious by all accounts. Homer and Virgil must have gazed upon this monstrosity when writing of Scylla. Overcome by this unlooked for discovery, I wandered through the winding streets in a blissful daze. The houses were built on the water. Riotous red, purple and pink flowers grew everywhere in the crevices and small fishing boats were pulled up in rows on the bay. Soft Italian floated out of warmly lit restaurants. Prospero may have said ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on,’ Scilla, to me, was of such quality.
I would recommend a stay such as mine in Catania to anyone seeking to put Classics in its wider perspective. The time between Mods and Greats was the perfect opportunity. Having spent three months in Sicily I felt completely ready for the different pace and greater depth of attention which is required by Greats. My horizons expanded and my love for the subject increased. I am very grateful to Dr Leigh for having made such an opportunity available to me. As well as bridging the gap between Mods and Greats, my experience in Sicily showed me that I have merely begun to scrape the surface of the potential rewards of the study of Latin and ancient Greek civilization.
Roz Stott is a third year Classicist and President of the St Anne’s Classical Society