The night before my flight departed from Cologne to Sicily, I received a text.
“Hi Andreas, I’m Gaspare della Marsala…”
The next day, Gaspare from Marsala would be picking me up at the Palermo airport and driving me down the coast to Santa Maria hotel, where I had booked a week of vacation to kitesurf. When the airline sent me an e-mail announced a 45-minute delay, I passed it on to Gaspare, who responded casually “Ok Andreas, see You tomorrow night at the airport in the bar see photo, good trip.” He attached a picture of the airport bar where we would meet.
When I arrived at the airport the next day, Gaspare was sitting at the café with an empty espresso next. I waved at him, he clapped his palms together three times in big, sweeping gestures, and stood up to shake my hand. He was not tall, maybe 5’4” and had a round stomach. He was wearing a snug button-up, shirt, jeans and brown loafers. He gestured to the bar as if to ask me if I wanted an espresso. I shook my head and we made our way to his car.
It was on the way to the car, after I asked him if there would be any wind this week, that I realized that Gaspare barely spoke a word of English. After I asked him the question, he took out his phone, opened a translation app, tapped a microphone icon on the bottom of the screen, and held the phone in front of my mouth the way a mother might feed her child a slice of New York Pizza. I opened my mouth, looked up at him, then back at the phone, and asked in a too deliberate tone, “Will there be wind this week?”
He took the phone back. My question was there on the screen in plain English. Gaspare pulled down his glasses and scrutinized the screen as the words reshuffled, dissolving from their position in the sentence. Then the letters dissolved from their position in the words. Soon there was just a string of white lines whizzing around a green screen as if the Matrix were being realized.
“Sì sì sì sì,” he said. The letters had rearranged themselves in Italian. This is how we would communicate.
Gaspare drove confidently. Stop signs, like the barely visible paint demarcating highway lanes, were taken as advice and not as order. We spent most of the transfer from the airport in the left lane. When traffic ahead of us didn’t make way for his always accelerating white fiat, he pulled up to the length of a spaghetti noodle behind them and flashed his brights until they merged right. This happened a few times. Each time, I laughed to myself, softly and hesitantly. He said nothing.
Gaspare told me to text him any time I needed a ride, so when there was no wind on my first day I texted him and asked if he could take me to Trapani, a nearby city. On the way there, we drove by Erice, a town and commune that sits on a mount 750 meters above Sicily’s western coast. As we drove by it, he moved his hands at the sky like the director of a philharmonic. There’s a very good restaurant at the peak he said, and he gesticulated while talking about it as if he were summoning the grandeur of the view and the menu within his swirling hands.
Later on, we drove by a man riding a bike powered by “panele solare.” Gaspare he laughed for a minute straight. Then he continued talking about the iodine-rich salts, the mills that harvest them along the coast, and the importance of the industry for the island’s economy. He delighted in Sicilian ingenuity.
Then we passed a vineyard. I asked him if the grapes would be used to make red or white wine. He took out his phone, nudged the steering wheel slightly to bring the car back in track before we veered off the road, and spoke the answer into his phone. What came back was an esoteric-sounding nonsensical quip that was almost certainly a false translation. But in that moment I was fully convinced they were the sage and meaningful words of a veteran Sicilian, portending wisdom as old as the island soil. “The divine plant is equal for both the white and the red.”
I had four days of wind after my trip to Trapani, so I didn’t see Gaspare until he picked me up for the airport a week later. When I got notice that my flight was delayed he insisted on taking me to a café on the way. There, I ordered a cannoli. That wasn’t enough, he said, because you need to eat two desserts from ricotta, so he ordered a cassatta (a crescent-shaped cake filled with ricotta-based cream) and some almond milk to wash it down.
When we got to the airport, Gaspare got out of the car to shake my hand. He pointed to the ocean, holding his translator phone in his hand. Three hundred meters away, the waves were breaking against a rocky shore. He brought his phone back to his mouth, spoke slowly into it, and then put his screen back in my face, “There is more wind for you.” I laughed and thought about all the different ways to get places.