Music always calls up memories. There are times when a song comes on the radio while I am driving and I immediately leave the present. Songs remind me of friendships, places, even relationships — unfortunately. At the moment, I am sitting on my couch, reading a magazine while the television blares in the background. Suddenly a commercial for Perillo Italian Tours comes on. But I am not paying attention to what Steve Perillo is saying. The song he is playing on his piano reminds me of the many experiences I had while living in Sicily. It is “O mio babbino caro” by the great Italian composer Giacomo Puccini.
This is not the first time that this particular song has transported me to the past. Every time I hear it, whether in a movie, a music video, or other commercials, I just relax and allow my mind to take me to an earlier time in my life.
Puccini composed many operas of which the most successful are La boheme, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and Turandot. Some of his arias, such as “Che gelida manina” from La boheme, “Nessun dorma” from Turandot, and “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi, are now a part of popular culture. Gianni Schicchi is a one-act comic opera Puccini composed to an Italian libretto by Giovacchino Forzano, and the third and final part of Puccini’s Il trittico (The Triptych). Il trittico was originally written to be presented together, but Puccini broke it up into three one-act operas. “O mio babbino caro” is an aria in which Lauretta begs her father Gianni Schicchi to allow her to marry Rinuccio, whose family Gianni despises. In the song, Lauretta threatens to jump into the Arno River in Florence if her love for Rinuccio is in vain. I never knew how dark the lyrics were until one of my Italian friends translated them for me. I failed to become fluent in Italian, so I always had an affinity for the instrumental versions of the song, particularly the piano solo.
As I listen to Steve Perillo play “O mio babbino caro” on his Steinway, memories of Sicily flood my mind. My feelings about that island are ambivalent, much like the aria that summons them. “O mio babbino caro” begins softly and slowly builds to a dramatic arc. Like my experiences in Sicily, it is at once relaxing and exciting. I think about my villa in Motta Sant’Anastasia, surrounded by olive trees, and its winding front staircase with grape vines wrapped around the banisters. My nearest neighbor was a hundred feet away and we were separated by many trees, which allowed me to enjoy complete tranquility on the weekends. I cherished those moments that came once I was settled, but after spending my first night in that villa I was tempted to call the broker and beg her to find me a more modern house. A storm took the lights out, and I had no candles. As I laid in bed with my laptop open to provide light, I thought I was going to die. I laugh at it now, but as the wind wailed and beat against my bedroom windows I imagined a wild beast climbing into the house, seeking refuge from the storm. Eventually my laptop died. I refused to fall asleep that night, and it showed the next morning as I dragged myself to work with eyes that screamed “HANGOVER!” Hoping to attract some sympathy from my coworkers, I was disappointed to learn that most of them went through the same ordeal. They told me to “suck it up.” “This is the norm in Sicily,” said one person. “Buy a lot of candles and wine,” suggested another. I did, and those stormy nights became a lot more bearable.
Listening to “O mio babbino caro” brings back so many memories that they become an orgy of thoughts, and I have to feel my way through the thick fog of experiences before my mind settles on just one. Amazingly, I miss everything that annoyed me about Sicily; even the driving. One wonderfully productive Saturday morning after cleaning the house, eating a hearty breakfast, and washing my car, I headed to the mall. I was in a great mood as I blasted by car radio with the windows down. Suddenly, traffic came to a halt. I figured it was just someone trying to parallel park on the narrow, two-lane road. Then I realized that no cars were coming from the opposite direction. Thinking there was an accident, I got out of the car to assess the situation only to see two drivers — one in each lane — having a conversation about God knows what. They were catching up on old times at everyone else’s expense. I was about to head over there and light a fire under their asses, but I noticed the other drivers waiting to get through. They were so unbothered. Mothers joked around with their children; young women danced to Italian rap music. I was the only one upset about not getting to my destination fast enough. I climbed back into my car, took a deep breath, and laid my head on the headrest. It was another fifteen minutes before we started moving again. I spent a lot of time waiting in my car during my stay on that little island, particularly when 80 or so geep — goat/sheep — blocked my path on my way to work.
If I learned anything after almost three years in Sicily, it is to live in the moment and not rush. “O mio babbino caro” puts me in that mentality. It calms me. It is the perfect representation of the Italian temperament, because, although it crescendos, it never gets to the point where the drama is too much for the listener. It is as contradictory as the people of Italy. The drama of Puccino’s most popular aria reminds me of having to leave my car doors open when I parked on the streets of Catania while running errands, so that petty thieves did not have to smash my windows to search my car for anything of value. To this day I have to remind myself to lock the doors. The parts of the aria that soothe me, take me back to driving up the Sicilian coast, lounging on the beach, and watching the locals interact with one another. I remember walking through Elephant Square during siesta, when most of the stores are closed, and only a few people are on the quiet streets.
“O mio babbino caro” will always be the quintessential Italian song to me, because of the never-ending memories of Sicily it evokes. The highs and lows of my experiences on that beautiful island will forever be a part of me, and “O mio babbino caro” will always make me want to return.