Patti Chiari - Sounds of summer

Fri, 07/02/2010 - 06:15

Words by Pat Eggleton

The sound is still faint but it is definitely there and I have heard it, at dusk, for the past week. Yes, the cigali or cicadas are back and their chorus means that it is summer in Sicily. As the summer progresses, their song will become louder and louder, reaching a crescendo in the late evening,when you have to turn the volume on your television up to be able to hear it.

And when you hear the cigali in the day, you know the temperature has soared to forty degrees or more. At the moment, I can only hear them from my bedroom, which looks out onto countryside but soon I will hear them from the living room, the “town” side of the flat and from all my windows. Sometimes I just open my balcony doors and sit, mesmerised, by their song.

The opening of balcony doors is, in itself, quite a ritual during a Sicilian summer. In Britain, unused, as we are, to the sun, we fling open all our doors and windows at the merest sign of sunshine but here you must do the opposite: if you want to keep cool, you have to keep all your doors and windows firmly shut – and that means the shutters as well – between about 9 am and 7 pm. I admit that I don’t quite follow this rule, for I have to have enough light to read and write by, but mostly I have got used to living in a sort of penumbra in the daytime.

I always know when it is seven o’clock for you can hear everyone opening their shutters and doors for the evening. You can almost hear a collective sigh of relief, too, as the cooler air is welcomed.

This is when families sit on their balconies, chat to neighbours opposite sitting on theirs and enjoy watching the world go by. Later, much later, some of them will bring a plastic dining table out and slowly partake of a delicious supper, relaxing in the evening breeze.

Further down my street there is a row of small, municipal houses and each has a little terrace. Here the lady of the house will sit, often hidden by plants and washing so that I am quite surprised when those I know call to me as I pass. They sit there for hours, fanning themselves, not reading, not writing but just looking, at nothing in particular. The Sicilians’ ability to be still with their thoughts is something I have come to admire.

A couple of weeks from now, however, most of the balconies will be empty, for almost everyone has a house at the sea or in the country and if they don’t, they have a relative who does, so that is where they go to escape the heat of the city. Some will return in September but others will stay away until November.

In August, too, most shops and stores and even bars and restaurants will close for the two weeks around the 15th August holiday and the town will become very quiet. Food stores do not close, except for the 15th itself, but many do not reopen in the evening during August. This is a habit that still drives me mad because it is hard for an Anglo-Saxon to understand why a whole enterprise has to close and I am lost without my hairdresser! “Why can’t he just put in a manager?” I wail.

But “When in Sicily you must do as Sicilians do” and I don’t get as fraught about the situation as I used to.
So the sound I most associate with a Sicilian summer is not a sound at all: it is silence. It is quite pleasant in a way.