I walked into my favorite lazy day café in Sicily, part bookstore, part chocolate paradise. I was nervous to enter for it had been over a year since I came here every Sunday, especially when the weather turned bitingly cold.
I thought I would glance at the Italian books, maybe get ambitious on my plane ride home and read an Italian novel. Then I heard the sweetest of sounds come from the hot chocolate bar. “Sei ritornata!” Those words translate as you might imagine, “you have returned”.
Behind those words was the woman who ran the café, a glasses on the tip of her nose, frizzy haired Sicilian. I never had a formal conversation with her. I never really knew anything about her. She just was the giver of liquid chocolate, complete with complimentary cookies. She gave me that recognition of a stranger, that confirmation I wasn’t just a ghost that used to linger around this town.
I quickly turned around, flustered and a bit surprise she would remember me. It probably showed on my face as I said yes, I had returned and how surprised I was that she remembered. She kept saying, “Certo! Certo!”, Certainly! Certainly! in English.
Travelers often forget that when they leave a place and come back, they may have never left. I have reflected on going back to Sicily after a year of being away before. Feelings of not fitting into to the town I once called home were apparent. My apartment wasn’t mine. My gelateria was closed. The streets just didn’t look the same.
Walking into another shop that day, a store I never entered on my time spent in Ortigia prior, I was on the hunt for a ring. I often pick up a ring wherever I go. I like to gaze down at my hand and recall where, when and who sold me that ring. It is my attempt to keep these places at my fingertips so to speak, my act of memory.
I started looking around the closet of a store as a little old woman in a blue suit looked up from her newspaper. I greeted her and went about looking and then I heard, “Sei ritornata!”. A store I never entered and a woman whose face I never noticed remembered my presence in town. I expressed my surprise yet again as the woman said she saw me pass by all the time when I lived here a year ago.
As travelers these people and places enter our lives. There are a few things that tie us to a place. It could be as simple as a ring on your finger or it could be a length of time. What I think we forget are a setting’s ties to us. We get so bogged down in remembering a place and our ties to it, loading up every finger with rings, when we forget that place is just as much trying to remember us as we are trying to remember it.
These two women with their “Sei ritornata”s gave me that sense. While life goes on in these places you leave and your life goes on, there are still those ties, those acknowledgments of remembrance. I like to think of it as we need to feel special. I once walked into a Starbucks while out of town and had the man behind the counter thank me for submitting my application. I looked at him puzzled and said, “I’m not from here”. He quickly apologized saying, “Well someone that looked just like you was here.” I told him I thought I was special. I thought I looked different. He said, “Well there are however many billion people in the world, so you’re not so special”.
Being a traveler can be a way of feeling more special, even if there are billions of people just like you. You don’t look like everyone else depending on where you go. You can stand out with clothing or culturally ingrained mannerisms. You, in the process are special, but not in the eating the paste sense. Locals may remember you more. Settings may seem to eerily embrace you. Rather than trying to remember a special place, we must consider that feeling of having a place remember us. It creates an overwhelming sense of connection, one you need to gain through travel. You have returned and the place is returning to you.
Have you had a similar experience where a place remembered you? Why do you think it is important for places to remember us as travelers?