His badge looked homemade, worn, not really aspiring to anything. Like himself, slumping in the shade under an old olive tree in the outskirts of the The Archaeological Park of Neapoli, Syracuse. On the bench beside him sat his water bottle and a tired looking panama hat. He did nothing to attract attention to himself or his services. Rather on the contrary, looking like he’d be forever grateful if the world would just leave him alone. I don’t know what made me approach him…
Maybe his disinclination to promote himself, perhaps a hunch that there was more to him than met the eye, that there was something within the worn looking figure waiting to come out. As I was nearing what felt like his private retreat, he slowly came to life, greeted me and invited me to sit down beside him. His English was slow and deliberate, and (in his own words) simple. Where his vocabulary was lacking he resorted to French or Italian, a tactics which worked surprisingly well.
We talked for a while, and he told me about his father working in the park, introducing him to ancient worlds which he came to love, in turn inspiring him to study arts and archaeology. He did not talk of the hard times that later had befallen on him. There was no need to; his demeanor told that story for him. Not in detail, but clearly enough for anybody who cared to listen.
I wasn’t able to figure out if he actually was an official guide, but decided to take my chances and asked if he would take it upon himself to guide us around the park. Our negotiations turned out not to be about what he would charge us, which was very reasonable, but how long the tour would last. He wanting to give us the whole story, not rushing, not taking any short cuts. He insisted on giving all or nothing, out of respect, I think, for himself, us and the peoples whose stories he wished to tell.
“Slowly”, he said. “I’ll talk slowly, and we will walk slowly”. We would also, it appeared, whenever possible walk and talk in the shade. Like good Sicilians, as the joke goes, not walking or driving on a certain side, but in the shade. Which makes sense when the temperature in the middle of the day reaches the lower forties, the intense heat convincing even the most passionate sun lover to seek cover.
He took us through time and space, literally step by step, starting with the 2500 year old Greek Theatre. With reverence he talked about its ingenious acoustic design ; the high wall behind the backmost tiers of seats, the orientation of the semicircle construction allowing for the steadfast southerly winds to sweep in from the sea, aiding in carrying the sound from the stage all around the theater. Proudly, as if they were his very close friends, he named the ancient playwrights, philosophers, rhetoricians aiming not only to entertain, but also enlighten the people.
With slightly less veneration he spoke of the Romans. Their oval amphitheater staging brutal fights between man and beast, their entry on the Sicilian stage initiating the decline of the prestigious city. While relating the roles and rules of the Byzantines, Arabs, Normans and all the others who wanted a piece of the strategically, climatically, gastronomically and in all other respects delicious island, his facial expression changed between joy and sadness. When he told us about the disgraceful dismantling of the ancient structures to be used as building materials for fortifications and similar mundane purposes, his agony was almost tangible.
In the big Latomie (stone quarry), he painstakingly described the hell-like conditions under which the slaves lived and labored to realize the dreams and ambitions of the elite. How it used to be a covered underworld, the vaults of the caves supported by huge pillars around which the stone was quarried from the 6th century BC. And how an earthquake in 1542 made the roofs cave in, paradoxically transforming the former Gehenna into oday’s paradisiac garden. Lush with colorful plants, fragrant, cool, sustained by the aqueduct originally built by the Greeks to carry water from the river Anapo 35 kilometers away.
The same aqueduct that inspired the slaves to hew out the stone, following its course, resulting in the elegantly shaped Ear of Dionysos. A cave named after the tyrant of Syracuse from around 400 BC who supposedly listened to the voices of the slaves in the quarry through this opening. A freak of nature, or maybe it was someone’s intent, made sure that the grotta has extraordinary acoustics. Demonstrated to us by our guide Laurence as he put his mouth to the wall and started singing in a low voice. The tones of an Italian love song carried around the walls to every corner of the cave. The effect was mesmerizing, the sound enveloping you, gently caressing your eardrums. I could have stood there forever, listening, happily engulfed in sound and dream world..
The entry of “Speedy Gonzales” (so named by our guide) quickly made me snap out of it. looking spic and span, with a train of tourists in tow, he swept into the grotto, speaking loudly into his microphone. My deep hearing, a second ago experiencing a near-ecstatic pleasure, was now begging for mercy. We quickly excited, guide voicing under his breath what we all felt: the outrageousness of the sacrilege that was now being committed.
They were both guides. Speedy Gonzales hurrying his group from place to place, in an utterly detached way, spewing out information like bullets from a machine gun, leaving thirty seconds for photographing, before hurrying on to the next site and eventually his ultimate and main goal for the day, La Uscita, the exit. Immediately embarking on another fact-crunching tour. Our guide, low key, speaking and walking slowly, dedicated, intense, lovingly recounting the lives of peoples and individuals of long gone worlds. Trying to install in us an understanding of the lives of slave and tyrant, Sicily in the world, the world in Sicily. Never taking on more than two or three tours a day, as each one left him drained, having invested his all in his unrelenting efforts, like his long dead soul mates, to educate the world.
At the end of the tour, searching for change, he produced two wallets with a wry smile. One, he explained, holding money to
pay his bills. The other catering for unforeseen expenses like, judging from his slight body frame, food… His wealth was in his dedication, through his work constantly enriching his own life, as he had enriched ours this hot summer afternoon. We paid him double of what he’d charged, which was still very inexpensive, and said arrivederci. When we left him, he had sunk back to his former posture, slumped on the bench, a water bottle on his one side, a tired looking panama hat on the other…