My first view of Sicily is from the water. We have travelled by train through the afternoon, our table in the first class carriage scattered with the remains of our picnic; white wine in cups made from plastic bottles and huge slab-like sandwiches wrapped in paper, Italy rolling sedately past the huge picture windows.
As the light becomes soft and golden in the slanting late afternoon, we reach the harbour and the train slides on board the waiting ferry in two halves, like hands into gloves. I stand out on deck, knuckles white against cold metal railings as I lean out to watch grey waves break against the bough, preferring the breeze that whips my hair against my face to the close warmth and styrofoam tea of the ferry lounge. Sicily appears ahead, a shaft of light breaking through the threatening clouds to illuminate the craggy coastline in the gathering dusk.
The train finally pulls to a stop on the other side a couple of hours later, the station platform at Palermo cloaked in the soft darkness of a warm summer night. We tumble ourselves and our luggage from the train in a swift, well practised motion, and wait in the pool of light cast by a curling iron lamp as the taillights of the train are lost in the blackness. An insect hums and clicks lazily overhead. For the first time in several months, I am nervous.
We are waiting to be collected from the station by our hosts for the week, Adela and her daughter Pamela. Adela is Romanian by birth, and has lived in Sicily for 11 years with her Sicilian husband Pinot. All three are profoundly Deaf.
If I couldn’t use words, how could people know me? How would I know them?
We are here as the result of serendipitous circumstances. Rikki’s Mum, who is also Deaf, traveled solo to Sicily ten years ago for a five week backpacking trip. She met Pinot one day in Palermo, when she interrupted his football game to ask for directions, and found herself initiated into an enduring circle of friendships with the Deaf locals of Palermo. When Pinot heard that Rikki and I were travelling to Italy, he immediately invited us to stay, and so here we were.
I had travelled alone for months at this point, communicating with people from everywhere in the world; relying on broken English and whatever words of local language I had managed to pick up, gesturing with my hands, expressing gratitude or anger through my facial expressions. I had learned the value of words, the way that even a few words spoken in a native language can evoke surprise, trust, respect and a degree of acceptance. But the prospect of no words at all scared me more than I could say; I have always relied on my way with words. Words are my tool, my weapon and a projection of my identity. Words are the way in which I leave my trace on the world. If I couldn’t use words, how could people know me? How would I know them?
Quite easily, as it turns out.
The thing with words is, if you don’t know the right ones, you’re pretty stuck. There’s only so far you can go with ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ when you don’t share a word of language with the person you’re speaking to, and those language barriers can put a stop to true communication before it’s even begun.
Perhaps it’s the fear of failure, of being laughed at. Perhaps it’s the expectation; I always feel a little guilty in Europe that I’m not bi-lingual. If you’ve ever tried to order food from a French waiter, only to have your order repeated back to you in disdainful French-accented English, you’ll know what I mean.
But Deafness, like travelling in places in which you don’t speak the language, necessitates creativity in finding ways to communicate, and here were people who were familiar with adapting to make themselves understood. So I spoke with my hands. And when I didn’t know how to get my meaning across, or used a sign that was wrong, people did laugh. And do you know – the world didn’t end. And after they laughed, they showed me how to say it correctly, and I learned.
Of course I wasn’t speaking ‘sign language’, but I was making myself understood in a way that I could never have done in spoken Italian, and it was that lack of expectation – of myself, as much as anything – that made me feel comfortable enough to try.
What surprised me the most was the depth of conversation that could be reached when words, and therefore traditional language barriers, were removed from the equation. We used our hands to speak of music, culture, the way that governments in our respective countries treat old people, disabled people; the rise of feminism. Topics that we would never have been able to discuss in spoken English or Italian, because the language barrier was too high.
Deafness, like travelling in places in which you don’t speak the language, necessitates creativity in finding ways to communicate, and here were people who were familiar with adapting to make themselves understood.
On our last evening together, Pinot drove us to the harbour in his tiny red car for dinner at his favourite seafood restaurant. Nine of us sat around the table; the Sicilian, his Romanian wife and her teenaged daughter, his next door neighbour and his Tunisian wife, all of them Deaf and in possession of a complex combination of Italian, Romanian and Tunisian sign language. Next to them sat the modelesque daughter of the neighbours, who was Hearing and spoke Italian sign language, and her Italian boyfriend, who was Hearing but spoke no English; Rikki, fluent in British sign language, and me.
We sat by the blackly swelling ocean, beneath the twinkling harbour lights, at a table piled with sparklingly fresh seafood, and the conversation went something like this. I would say something, using my hands to form the few words I had learned and gesturing at the ones I hadn’t. Rikki would translate into BSL. Pinot would translate that into Italian sign language. The neighbour would translate for his wife, and his daughter would translate into spoken Italian for her boyfriend. And that’s how my words, spoken in English, were moulded and shaped by a variety of different hands into a message that everyone at the table could understand.
We stayed in Sicily for around three weeks, and by the time we left I knew more words in Italian sign language than I would have ever imagined. I am braver now when I meet people on my travels, less timid at the thought of attempting to communicate in a language I don’t speak. I better understand that mistakes are the best way to learn, and that the greatest lessons come from admitting weakness and trying anyway. This is as true in life as it is in language.
I still don’t speak any other languages fluently, although I hope to change that. I still find myself using the Italian signs for things instead of BSL. And I still love words. But communication is a resilient thing; and can be found in a million different ways in every corner of the world – not least a harbour front seafood restaurant in Sicily.