The Stories that Remain

The island of Ortygia is both the symbolic and literal heart of Siracusa (Syracuse), the largest city on the eastern coast of Sicily. The streets are rich in medieval and Baroque palaces, one of the most light-filled piazzas in Italy and equally poetic wrought iron balconies bright with flowers and linen fluttering in the wind.

And water.

Ortygia is a small enough island that almost every turn opens out onto views of the Ionian sea, and the few enclosed narrow lanes that do exist seem to compensate. One of the city’s two main piazze features the Fonte Artusa (Arthusa Fountain), depicting the nymph Aretusa who, when pursued by the river god Alpheus, took refuge on the island of Ortygia and hid by changing into a spring. Though surrounded by the sea, the island’s drinking fountains built into walls run with fresh water.

Ortygia’s second public gathering place, Piazza d’Archimede (Archimedes Piazza), tells the story of the famous geometrician Archimedes who was born in Siracusa in 287 BC. Archimedes was so absent-minded that he would frequently forget to eat, drink and bathe. His servants needed to drag him to his bath, and it was there where he discovered his principle: any body immersed in water loses weight equivalent to the water it displaces. So delighted by this discovery, he jumped out of the bath and ran naked through the streets of Ortygia shouting “Eureka!” (I have it!)

Archimedes was also instrumental in defending Siracusa against the Romans by setting fire to the enemy fleet by focusing the sun’s rays with a system of mirrors and lenses. His concentration was so great that when the Romans succeeded in entering the town anyway by surprise, he didn’t hear them and a soldier ran him through with his sword.

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Words

Words are on my mind. That might not seem surprising coming from a writer, but this time the concept feels broader than usual.

I’m traveling in Italy, partly for pleasure but mostly to participate in Bread Loaf in Sicily—a writing program that takes place in the far northwest town of Erice. Travel to any country where you’re not a native speaker can’t help but get you thinking about words, and these past days that I’ve spent in Palermo and Siracusa have heightened that sensitivity.

When we speak our native tongue, it’s so easy to take for granted that we can make ourselves understood—well, at least if we’re not discussing politics these days or other controversial topics. But even with a rudimentary working knowledge of another language, that baseline pretty much disappears. My Italian is improving, yet my most productive and satisfying conversations seem to occur with the small children of the owners of albergos where I’m staying.

At breakfast, I listen jealously as my hotel hostess seamlessly shifts from Italian to English to German to French. I think about so many writers who have written in more than one language—to someone in the midst of linguistic struggles, an unimaginable prospect. I think about my own Polish grandfather and the many U.S. immigrants who must make a new life with a new language—a necessary undertaking rather than an avocation.

And yet there’s something so alluring and powerful about words I cannot read. The posters, graffiti, even the shop and restaurant signage. Maybe it’s my background as a visual designer that lets me look at these as something intangible and beyond meaning. Something absolute, which lifts the burden of significance and allows me to simply enjoy their secret beauty.