Benediction statue, Villa San Giovanni, Sicily, Italy

Sicily With Unpredictable Events Connecting to Chance Encounters

Story and Photos by Stephanie Levin.

The crater of the Mount Etna Volcano, Sicily, Italy
The crater of the Mount Etna Volcano

Sicily to Rome by train was never on the map of my travel itinerary.Then nature intervened. My flight sat on the tarmac when Etna abruptly erupted, spewing volcanic ash from Catania to Palermo, cancelling all incoming and outgoing flights for two days, or until the volcano settled down. I’d been in Sicily a month, hiked Etna on a stunning warm day, and the largest volcano in Sicily decided the hour of my one-hour flight to Rome to flex its volcanic muscle.

Unpredictable events coupled with chance encounters is an apt definition for a woman traveling solo. The cancelled flights created pandemonium for everyone except Sicilians, who apparently were used to volcanic burps, but as a sea of people swarmed the single Ryanair agent like agitated bees, I felt adrift and confused. Since so much of Sicilian life revolves around food, I figured I’d come up with a solution over pizza and beer. Juggling beer, pizza, and a small pack with two hands while making sure my wheely suitcase didn’t roll away between my legs, my culinary dilemma caught the attention of four musicians ( Willow & Wood ), who moved their guitars and invited me to join them. We huddled around a table munching pizza and drinking beer while brainstorming what to do.  We introduced ourselves, yakked about music and their recordings.  We were all orphans from the Rome flight. They had to be back in Seattle on Tuesday with a flight home Monday. It was Sunday. I might get two days in Rome instead of four if I could get off the island.  Anchored by the humor and kindness of four new acquaintances I had met  hours before, my shared predicament bolstered my resolve to eke out a plan. My four buddies took a cab back to the hotel they had checked out of that morning.

Thankfully, the BnB I had left that morning, Casa Barbero, ( had an available room in Catania. I hopped on the airport bus and stopped at the train station on my way to see if there might be a train to Rome the next morning. The line for the single ticket window snaked around the lobby with people I recognized from the airport. After 45 minutes standing and chatting with a family from London, a short, stout Sicilian man, sporting the Sicilian berreto cap rumbled up to the window, gesticulating as he shouted “dovresti vergognarti di te stesso, solo uno sportell apertro per I biglietti e tutta questa gente che aspetta”– you ought to be ashamed of yourself, only one window for tickets and all these people waiting. The elderly man then retreated to his place in line, waited a few minutes and repeated his announcement.  The ticket agent ignored him as if to say, “who knew the volcano was going to erupt on Sunday sending people scurrying here for a train ticket?”

Catania Central Station (Photo: courtesy of Phil Richards, UK on Wikimedia Commons)
Catania Central Station (Photo: courtesy of Phil Richards, UK on Wikimedia Commons)

The early train was sold out.  Emotionally thrashed, I treated myself to a first-class ticket for 98 euros departing at 11:20am Monday, a 10-hour train ride with no changes; 30 euros more than my plane ticket.

The Sicilian Trenitalia Intercity train to Rome is not  high-speed; it’s four or five wagons with just one 1st-class wagon. It turned out to be the wagon with no air conditioning. The vending machines didn’t work on the train and there was no dining car. The little Sicilian train route snails toward the Strait of Messina, where it hooks onto a ferry to cross at Villa San Giovanni to Calabria for a 20-minute ride.  I’m sitting across from an Italian film director who says he has never taken a 10-hour train ride in his life, would have never thought of it. Cristian had also been on my aborted flight. He lives in Naxos with his wife and young daughter, and flies to Rome for work weekly.

Ferry workers on the train from Sicily to Rome, Italty
Ferry workers on the train ferry from Sicily

The train lurches forward and crawls to a stop at what appears to be a ferry, though not a ferry in the contemporary sense.  I think to myself, this is the strait where boats sink, and people drown seeking a better life from Africa or the Middle East.  We sit in stifling heat for 30-minutes. A gaggle of track workers scoot about in official yellow vests.

“Oh my god, unbelievable,” notes the director smacking his head, remarking on the time it is taking to get the train onto the ferry. The train finally wheezes onto the ferry and passengers pile out of the train and up the stairway of the ferry to the snack bar, the big windows, and the sea air. A 20-minute reprieve from the stifling train before we scuttle back down as we reach Calabria’s shore and onto tracks.  No movement: we sit for another 30 minutes while two official railroad workers in pressed blue uniforms and caps try to resolve the air conditioning problem by thumbing through their iPads for the answer.  No luck. A third official railroad worker joins the duo to try and figure out the problem.

“Mamamia, unbelievable,” blurts the director.  We look at each other and burst out laughing. What else is there to do but laugh?



Benediction statue, Villa San Giovanni, Sicily, Italy
The benediction statue as the ferry leaves Villa San Giovanni
The Straits of Messina, Sicily, Italy
The Strait of Messina

A woman from Naples marches up to the three workers who are still scratching their heads over the lack of  air conditioning and informs them that there are children on the train, older people on the train, and they are suffering from the heat. The officials assure her in the most courteous, official Italian that they will have it fixed shortly. The loudspeaker on the train blurts out a public  apology for the delay.

The announcement must have been the last straw for the Napolitano woman. She turned her back on the officials and the announcement, but not before muttering an Italian profane phrase.

I laugh. “You understand that?” asks the Cristian. “Of course, everyone understands it; it translates in all languages.” We burst out laughing again. What else can we do?

Calabria Coast and Port seen from the Sicilian ferry to Rome
Calabria Coast and Port seen from the ferry

With the air condition fixed, now 35-minutes behind schedule, and numerous mia culpas through the speaker of delays, the train wends up the Route 66 of Italy, Calabria, the southwestern toe of Italy’s boot. It’s difficult to grasp the varied landscape from a train window. Yet, I spy stretches of delicious blue sea before it disappears amidst rolling hills peppered with olive, orange and lemon trees often usurped by rugged hillsides and an occasional mountain range. Ancient villages appear and disappear like stars between jutting rocks, tunnels, sunshine, and rain. It takes four hours to go through the region before the train turns toward Naples, but not before stopping at every small train junction along the way; sometimes sitting for ten minutes, as if it had a schedule. In one of my I’m not sure this train will arrive In Rome moments; I notice a rainbow stretching across a mountain top; I take it as a good omen.

Calabria countryside as seen on the train from Sicily to Rome, Italy
Calabria countryside

The director tells me he is not a well-known director and works at times as an assistant director. He’s worked on the set with Scorsese and Daniel Day Lewis. I ask if he has studied film, and he says no. He grew up watching films and worked his way into the industry doing odd jobs. We pass the hours discussing American and foreign directors, our favorite directors, the best directors, the most difficult to work with. We hash over Italian and French films, the film industry and financing, or the difficulty of financing a film in Italy compared to the United States. I assure him that money makes it easy, but doesn’t translate into creativity; foreign films in my film-critic opinion are creative, and when you don’t have money, you discover a creative process you didn’t know existed.  A good film and a brilliant director stay with you, touch something in your heart, and sometimes keeps you awake thinking about a film such as the Sicilian director, Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso about an aging Sicilian projectionist and his friendship with a young boy in a small Sicilian village after World War II.  We dissect what made this film so memorable. I tell the director that I’d gone to Cefalù where the film was made, waited until 3:00pm in the rain for the tiny theater to open. The original camera reel from the 1930s used in the film is still there. We agree that the Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu is astonishing, and I inform Cristian about Iñárritu’s latest film Bardo, a title that denotes the Buddhist existence between death and rebirth. I explain this is a similar experience I transcend when I travel alone; I’m in transition between my own country and foreign countries; I think of it as more of a supernatural state-I leave my identity home and I’m never sure of what new identities I will encounter in my travels, which always alter my mindset and outlook on life.

Calabrian coastal vistas as seen on the train from Sicily to Rome, Italy
Calabrian coastal vistas

The train chugs out of rural Italy as it passes block apartment complexes, clothes drying on balconies, tiny gardens, and vines. My stomach rumbles. I’ve finished my two pears, popcorn, and cheese and berate myself for not bringing a bottle of wine and a little picnic. I’m restless, so I read and write and avoid the now stopped up bathrooms. The Trenitalia train feels redolent of the trains decades ago, long before high speed trains, when sitting on a train for hours was an adventure, not torture.

Calabrian mountain vistas as seen on the train from Sicily to Rome, Italy
Calabrian mountain vistas

The sun has long dipped into sleep when the train rolls into Naples. I’ve lost track of the amount of stops the train has made. In fact, I’ve lost all track of time, and I’m worried no one will be at the hotel in Rome to let me in. I don’t know a soul in Rome, and I have a vision of curling up under a Roman statue for the night. It’s 9:30 pm, our original estimated time of arrival, and we are just getting into the region of Lazio, easily an hour or more from Rome if we encounter no more unexpected lags.

At 10:30pm, the Trenitalia arrives at Rome’s Central Train Station, but not before another announcement blurts out that if passengers were unhappy with the train ride, there will be someone at the station to take our complaint. Christian and I roll our eyes and laugh; everyone bolts off the train. The station is deserted, and the director walks me to a taxi stand. I’ve noted his Facebook page to keep in touch and a list of films he suggests I watch. He’s walking to his friend’s apartment. He needs air after the 11-hour train ride.

As the taxi zooms through the streets of Rome, I reflect on chance encounters that so often define my travels; my four musician friends were also on the train, along with the Italian director who filled a long, tedious train ride with humor, laughter, multiple mamamias, an insight into an industry I knew little about, all because of an unprecedented natural disaster.

Footnotes: Sicilian resident Cristian de Mattheis is an Italian film director and screenwriter known for Double Team (1997), The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Such a Great Love (2018).  Willow Scivnet and Kevin Wood are the names of the musicians who befriended me at the Catania Airport. Known as Willow and Wood, see more at their website.
Stephanie Levin, Mount Etna, Sicily, Italy
The author on Mount Etna before the eruption

IF YOU GO: If you are en route to Sicily and happen to take a long train ride, here are a few tips:

Food & drink:  The most important tip of all! Take a picnic and bottle of wine or some beer.  This is the most important tip of all, as none of these trains have a restaurant or buffet car, though you may find coffee & snacks available from vending machines in one car of the Intercity trains with payment by contactless bank card

 On board the ferry between Villa San Giovanni & Messina: The ferry crossing between Villa San Giovanni & Messina takes 20 minutes, although shunting the train onto and off the ferry takes longer.  On daytime crossings you’ll be asked to get off the train whilst it is on board the ferry and go up into the ferry’s passenger accommodation, perhaps getting a coffee or sandwich from the cafeteria and going on deck for some sea air and the views.  Leave your luggage onboard but take your valuables.

 Do trains run on time? In my humble experience, they may leave on time, but I would not count on arriving on time. There was no list of all the village stops along the way. At times, you may be able to transfer to a faster train in one of the bigger cities on the mainland that is headed to your destination, providing the intercity train arrives on time.

The Airport Alibus: The Alibus to and from the airports in Catania and Palermo are 4 euros each way. You can purchase your ticket on board, or at the ticket booth outside the airports where the busses stop. Tickets are good for 90 minutes to get on and off the busses. You should have exact change on the bus.

2 thoughts on “Sicily With Unpredictable Events Connecting to Chance Encounters

  1. Stephanie, We have all experienced journeys like this in one form or another, but few are able to bring it to life with your skill at walking the fine line between pathos, humor, and resignation. BTW: Jean’s mother came from one of those hilltop villages south of Naples. One of the many trips we planned bu did not happen.

  2. What an experience Stephanie? The girl in Italy. I loved your writing and you should write a Chapter and later a book about this trip. I’ll be in CA in July. We’ll get in touch. With fondest regards.



    Carlos Montero
    Quitó, Ecuador

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