Mediterranean Magic

Vernazza at Twilight

Have you ever been in the presence of magic? I am not talking about mere sleight of hand trickery or illusions crafted to deceive the eye. I am talking about genuine magic; a power capable of “casting a spell” over those fortunate enough to bear witness to it. There isn’t anything supernatural being implied here. This power exists. I have witnessed this magic and experienced firsthand the effect of its presence. It is out there, and in these times of ever-increasing negativity and divisiveness, it is important to remember that there is still magic in the world, and it has the power to unite us despite whatever differences we may have. Let me share the story of when that magic once touched my life, and how I work to carry a little piece of it with me wherever I go.

The year was 1999. My wife and I had been married for three years, and before starting a family, we wanted to travel and see some of the world. Two summers before, we had traveled to England, a country that serves as my wife’s second home after having spent two years there as the daughter of a Coast Guard officer stationed at the American Embassy in London. We were looking for something new to both of us in that year before the millennium turned, and it was to Italy that we turned our gaze. After a year of intensive research and planning, we set off on our four-week, self-guided exploration of the country where the magic, unbeknownst to us, was waiting.

We landed in Milan, and immediately boarded a train that would take us to our first destination—Vernazza—a rustic, almost medieval little village virtually carved out of the cliffside overlooking the Mediterranean on Italy’s northwest coast. Vernazza is inaccessible by car; the train passes through it on a regular basis, but once there, you need to be prepared to walk, under very hot and humid conditions, to wherever it is you are heading.

Upon arriving in Vernazza, the first priority was to eat; we were starving after having had little more than airline fare since leaving home. So, where does one eat in a seaside Mediterranean village? Well, my wife is not one for flying by the seat of her pants; a more methodical trip planner you are unlikely to meet. She had researched this very situation, and walked straight to a quaint little restaurant overlooking Vernazza’s harbor as though she was a native of its narrow backstreets. We were seated outdoors at a picnic table on a terrace commanding a full view of the approaching sunset over the western Mediterranean. I closed my eyes and let the sounds of lapping waves and the laughing of children on the beach down below us carry away the stress of the hectic, non-stop transportation marathon it had taken to get there. Now the relaxation could officially begin.

Of course, when dining in a restaurant so close to the sea, one might expect that seafood was a pretty prominent menu item, and not just any seafood, but seafood that had literally been living in the sea not 45 minutes before arriving at your table. I watched as local fishing boats would pull up to a dock in the harbor below, met by staff members of the very restaurant where we were sitting, who would purchase whatever delicacies the fishermen had harvested and run them up the hill and into the restaurant’s rear entrance. No, this wasn’t yet what I defined as magic, but it definitely met the “fresh” seafood standard.

Now, full disclaimer—I am not the biggest seafood fan. I was raised pretty far from the ocean, and as a child if my parents ever said we were having “fish” for dinner, I knew what to expect: frozen, batter-dipped fish sticks or fish kebabs that just had to bake in the oven for fifteen minutes, with a side of home made “tartar sauce,” or mayonnaise and relish. This was my sole seafood exposure for the first 24 years of my life. Leave it to the Coast Guard daughter I had married to expand my culinary horizons. It was time to get daring.

I was a definite pasta fan, so being in Italy, the local pasta was also on the “must experience” list. So, in the spirit of adventure, I selected the menu item I felt would both demonstrate my openness to trying new things and hopefully also prove appetizing. I was hungry enough to eat just about anything, so I felt I couldn’t go too far wrong. “Black Pasta” won the first “try new and unorthodox menu items while on this trip” lottery.

According to the menu, this was fettucine that was seasoned, and colored, with the ink of a squid. I wondered if the squid could ever fathom its ink being put to such a benign use. I certainly hadn’t, but hey, when would I ever get a chance to tuck into a plate of something like that again? It hasn’t made it to Olive Garden to this day.

It was while I was waiting for my squid to spew its ink on my pasta that the magic began. A soft, melodic sound was drifting across the terrace. I looked over my shoulder in an attempt to identify the source, and that’s when I saw her for the first time. An old woman (she must have at least been in her seventies) was seated on a stone just outside the restaurant’s perimeter, her shoulders covered in a tattered gray shawl, a rainbow-colored bandana tied around her head. Her hands were working a concertina, or small accordion. She had her eyes closed, and a small smile pulled at the corners of her mouth as she plied the instrument, swaying gently back and forth to the melody she was conjuring. I was mesmerized; the music seemed to just hang in the air as if it were exhumed from the very land beneath our feet. It provided the last piece of ambience necessary to create the quintessential Italian experience.

I am not sure how long she was there. When our food arrived (the pasta was very black; and very good) my wife fell into conversation about our plans for the day to come, and the music became a background feature for a time. When it came time for dessert (Tiramisu anyone?), I noticed that the music had stopped, and the woman was no longer there. I felt a momentary sense of loss, but expected that we might encounter her again before leaving Vernazza.

About an hour later, my wife and I took a walk down along the edge of the harbor after picking up small dishes of Italian gelato (Italian ice cream). Yes, two desserts that night—go ahead and judge me. We were in Italy, and my wife had made it explicitly clear that the local gelato was to be sampled in every city we visited. It was a rule; a quite reasonable one I might add. We hopped down on the sand of what the map actually designated as the “children’s beach” and strolled along the shoreline, the light of the rising moon reflected in the gentle waves of the harbor. A group of about 20 kids had assembled on the beach and were engaging in an enthusiastic game of football (soccer by my American designation) while their parents dined and socialized on the balconies of the buildings and other restaurants looking down on the beach. “Can you believe we are here?” my wife asked. Before I could reply, I heard the music again. Apparently, so did the kids playing football; their game came to a sudden end and they all ran squealing up the beach and threw themselves down in the sand near a large bush by the corner of a building. Then, out from behind the bush stepped the concertina player from the restaurant. Gone was her shawl, replaced by a clown costume and make-up, red nose and all. She was also about eight feet tall. It took my brain a moment to really process what I was seeing; here was the same woman who had serenaded the diners at the restaurant earlier, now dressed as a clown and playing her concertina, all while walking on the uneven and sandy surface of the beach…while balancing on stilts.

The delighted children began cheering and clapping as she sang and played her instrument while literally dancing around them. Yes, dancing–while on stilts. The children started to run in and out of her long legs as she took wide steps in time with the music. Soon, what must have been 500 people, native Vernazzans and tourists combined, of every nationality and age, were clapping, singing along, or simply held spellbound by the magic of the concertina lady. This spectacle lasted for almost two hours. We did take a photograph of it to try and preserve some evidence of the event, which sadly did not turn out. All it shows are some of the lights above the beach, and one or two of the more brightly colored shirts some kids were wearing; the rest is in darkness. It’s just as well. It’s like when you take a picture of a sunset that awes you, and then you are disappointed that the picture doesn’t capture the grandeur of it. No picture would have done the experience justice; it had to be personally witnessed. I have the spectacle of it recorded in my mind’s eye, and I know I have not been able to relate the experience fully in words. That’s the thing about magic; it is spontaneous, personal, and not easily recounted or replicated—but it must be remembered.

My wife finally elbowed me in the ribs and said “We need to get some sleep.” It was three in the morning, and we had a long day of hiking and exploring ahead of us. How long the concertina lady continued to amaze her international audience that night I’ll never know. Reluctantly, I trudged up the beach toward our bed and breakfast, where I would not find much sleep that night; the magic was in my head, as powerful and vivid as if I was still a part of the gathering on the beach down below. I could still hear the music, laughter, and applause for at least another hour, and I had rarely felt more alive.

Two days later, we arrived at the train station in Pisa, the next stop on our tour. As we stood on the platform, double-checked our luggage and looked over a map of the city to get our new bearings, I happened to look up as the train pulled away—and saw her again. The concertina lady was on the train, leaning her bright bandana shrouded head against a window, her eyes staring out across the platform. She looked so sad, so lonely in that moment. I will never know what thoughts occupied her mind, where she was ultimately headed, or what the future would hold for her. All I could do was instinctively wave. She didn’t see me. To this day I wish that I had seen her there while we were still on the train. We might not have shared the same language (who knows?), but I would have sat with her for just a moment to thank her for the magical memory she had implanted in my soul. I would have tried to tell her to continue to use the power of her performances not only to entertain children, but to bring so many people together from so many different nations and walks of life in common appreciation of a shared expression of beauty. She had such an amazing gift; I fear she is no longer with us today, but I can’t know that for sure. What I can be sure of is that I will never forget her and never lose appreciation for what she shared with us that night on the shores of the sea beneath the shadow of Vernazza Castle.

Each of us has a talent or gift, that when shared with others, is capable of harnessing the souls around us and bringing more magic into the world. That was magic I saw on the shores of the Mediterranean; the power to unite people in wonder, and to appreciate our individual talents and the beauty they can create. This magic, as stated earlier, is not supernatural. It is very much a part of our human natures, and we have a duty to use it to brighten the lives of those around us and bridge the divides that threaten to tear us apart. Respecting and acknowledging the beauty inherent in art, music, dance, and storytelling is a time honored and universal human capacity. Each of us has our part to play on that canvas or stage, and there are those waiting for you to share your magic. So whatever it is you do, be it writing poetry, singing songs, playing an instrument, dancing, drawing or painting a picture, or sculpting something out of clay, find a way to share it with others so they might smile and know that the magic is still out there.


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