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Life and light at the end of the patio

For a town plunged into pitch darkness, San Vito was a happening place. Perched on the northwest corner of Sicily, San Vito is picture postcard perfect.

For a town plunged into pitch darkness, San Vito was a happening place. Perched on the northwest corner of Sicily, San Vito is picture postcard perfect. It offers sailors making the passage from Sardinia the first sheltered bay and provides a good jumping-off point for those going the other direction. It has a broad expanse of white sand beach, street vendors, bars, cafes, artisans, yummy bakers and, well, a Mediterranean je na sais quois which is shorthand for the marina has no toilets and everything except the street vendors and bars shut up tight between the hours of 1 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Given the temperature, humidity and general lack of air conditioning, those hours make imminent sense.

San Vito also has close ties with Canada. After World War II, much of its adult, male population — the part that was left after the failed experiment in Fascism — emigrated to Canada, settling in Toronto and Windsor. It is that generation to whom Canadians owe a debt of gratitude for, among other things, ceramic tile that comes in colours other than white, food that contains garlic without being scandalous, and, at least outside Quebec, the whole idea of table wine. Grazie guys.

Had I known that earlier in the day, I wouldn’t have been so surprised when the friendly-looking guy running the gelateria and bar interrupted a gushing Italian conversation with his other patrons to say, with a perfect, southern Ontario accent, “Hey Canada, where ya from?”

I was shocked. I was impressed. Mostly I was surprised my assimilation into Canadian culture was so complete an Italian guy knew immediately I was from Canada. I was feeling pretty good about this until my Perfect Partner reminded me C-A-N-A-D-A was written on the back of my T-shirt in six-inch letters.

Vince — last name lost to the fog of travel — had grown up in Windsor, worked on the assembly line at Chrysler, traveled to his father’s hometown 18 years ago, fell in love with an Italian woman, moved back into the house his father still owned and was now living in a three-generation household with his children and his parents who moved back a year after he did. Vince missed Canada, or at least the concept of Canada. He didn’t miss winters, the uninspired agricorp food, the pace of life. His wife hated Canada. He was happily resigned to life in San Vito but overjoyed any time a Canadian stumbled into his place, especially in the middle of a torpid afternoon to enjoy the lemon granita he made with lemons from his own trees.

When the power went out later in the evening, life went on pretty much as it had been, just darker. For a town plagued by power outages, many businesses seemed both totally unprepared and totally indifferent. The pizzeria we were just finishing dinner at had no candles, no backup lighting, no generator. Why bother. The pizza oven was wood-fired, they would demand cash instead of trying to process credit cards and everybody seemed to have the modern-day equivalent of a candle — a cellphone. Tables were aglow with eerie blue light from opened cellphone screens. People stumbled down the dark streets stooped in a Groucho walk lighting their way with dim blue cellphone light. Menus were read, bills presented, conversations punctuated, woo pitched all by the glow of phones. I half expected the milling masses in the street to break into impromptu song, illuminated cellphones waving rhythmically in the air: All we are saying, is give peace a call.

With unerring accuracy, we wandered back to what just may be Sicily’s finest pastry shop for a birthday cake we’d spotted earlier in the day. The shop itself was pitch black. The chillers were silent. The multitude of cream, ice cream and almond paste cakes were silently melting all to the indifference of the shop’s owner. In the back, under the dim glow of, you guessed it, several cellphones, the woman who we’d seen earlier in the day stuffing fresh cannolis was, without missing a beat, stuffing fresh cannolis. Animated conversations pierced the darkness and somehow, business was transacted.

Cake in hand, we wandered past the town square where the local Italian Idol rock wannabes had been hammering out hard-drivin’ rhythms of over-amplified guitar rock and blues. The crowd waited patiently for the power and noise to return, cellphones at the ready. Cops lazed against their cruisers, lights flashing, lending a throwback strobelighting effect to the street scene. I’m not certain they were there to control looting or just waiting for the music to fire up again.

We followed my stomach’s GPS system to a gelateria we’d seen during the afternoon that had a liquor-based granita I needed to try. Surprisingly, it was lighted, the owner — whose wife was from Windsor — having grown tired of melting inventory every time the lines blew somewhere between San Vito and Palermo had invested in a backup generator. He kept our cake in the cooler and we talked about how tourism had changed San Vito during his lifetime. Like Whistler during winter, San Vito welcomes a flock of fresh-faced seekers every week. Planes full of sun worshipers disembark pasty white and eager to embrace beach sand, sun, cheap beer, indifferent service and food with a hint of intrigue but featuring an emergency egg and chip choice should the differences become overwhelming. Their still-warm seats are immediately filled with glowing, sunburned bodies heading back to mind-numbing normalcy and the comforts of egg and chips the way they should be made.

We finished the night, ‘round midnight, back at Vince’s bar. It was dark and deserted except for Vince and his father, Andy, sipping espresso at a patio table. While Vince searched the darkness for limoncello, Andy and I talked about life in San Vito. More to the point, we talked about living in a tourist town where noise and parties seemed to linger into the wee hours every day. We were interrupted when Vince’s wife and kids, Andy’s wife and an assortment of other family members arrived in full party swing. It was then I noticed just how many kids and multi-generational families were out on the streets, well past North American bedtime, both enjoying and creating the streetscape around me.

I told Andy Whistler — he’d heard of it — was forcing its patios to close up at 11 p.m. because of a concern about too much noise. I might as well have told him I was from Mars. He couldn’t believe it. Wasn’t Whistler a tourist town? How could a tourist town close up the sidewalks at 11 p.m.? I was joking, wasn’t I?

Just then the lights came back on, the band started playing again, the town came to life in a way it never is during the hot, humid afternoon hours. “So the noise this late at night doesn’t bother you?” I asked.

“Noise is life,” he shrugged.