On Monday I stood in a summer hailstorm near the top of Mount Etna. Then it started to thunder. An hour earlier it had been a sunny day on Taormina’s beachy coast. Now it was freezing and wet; there was no visibility. I was on top of the world near Vulcan’s forge.
All the other tourists had on rain gear or ran for cover like they had good sense. “Bloody hell,” was the most apt description overheard. I, on the other hand stood there grinning like a Cheshire cat. In college, I thought Rocks for Jocks, er, Geology 101 was like being tuned in to the universe in a new way. I even color-coded my notes–red for igneous rocks (named after the Greek word for fire); blue for sedimentary; I have no idea what the green one was–and have thought of the earth in multi-colored layers ever since. Mythology, on the other hand, always seemed bizarre to me. I had little appreciation of ancient tall tales until I actually experienced the Mediterranean landscape.
Comino, the tiny island north of Malta, is one that lays claim to being the Isle of Calypso. I passed it on a ferry ride to Gozo. The lands of that entire area are bare and rocky monochrome, surrounded by miles of deep blue water. But in the lagoons and inlets, glimpsed through patches of rock, you can see bright turquoise patches of water on the beach. None of us had to be duct-taped to the mast but I could understand the sirens’ call in terms of vivid color sparkling on land during such a mesmerizingly bland, endless sea voyage.
It’s also easy to imagine either Vulcan or the Cyclops setting up residence on Etna as well. Lacking a knowledge of earth science, any society would search for an explanation of the cranky, tempermental landscape that could swallow a village whole with little warning. Even now the buildings merely perch among the layers of green and black, temporary but patient. If you had told me during the heat wave in Rome that I would soon be buying a souvenir sweatshirt at a tourist stand 2500 meters above civilization, I would have laughed and welcomed the irony. Apparently that afternoon’s stormy reminder was to assure us that the volcano would happily have eaten us alive. But she didn’t need a snack.
As the bus meandered down the mountain, the vibrant Sicilian landscape reemerged, revealing patches of almond and olive trees planted in neat rows along with layers and layers of unkempt trees that looked like moss on stones from a distance, all engulfed by clouds and pale grey sky, guarding us from the sea. Then a rainbow spread out between us and Etna, as if to apologize for the outburst up there. By that time, our group had found warm coffee and dry socks; of course we forgave her.