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  • Writer's pictureNora Studholme

Scilla: A Swoon-worthy Calabrian Town

If you haven’t heard the Greek myth of Scylla, here’s a quick synopsis: There was a fisherman who fell in love with a young nymph (of course). The nymph spurned his love and the fisherman grew sad, and asked the sorceress Circe to help him win Scylla’s heart. Unfortunately, Circe was in love with the fisherman, and she was pissed that he wanted the nymph instead. So instead of giving the nymph a love potion, she poisoned the water where the nymph bathed and turned her into a six headed monster who then spent the rest of eternity chomping innocently passing boats in half. The end!


Like many Greek myths, the disappointing moral seems to be — sometimes people (or gods) do spiteful things that do absolutely nothing to improve their own situation but make other peoples lives either terrible or over. And there is nothing we can do about it.


Scilla doesn’t seem like it would have room for a monster like that today. Tight shouldered little houses lean toward one another on one narrow street along the water, and then a climbing terrace of cobbled paths up a sheer cliff to a piazza above the water; quiet, small. The most touristy thing we did that week was to wait in line for a swordfish sandwich that every blog I’d read insisted that we eat. We sweated and waited in the >100 degree heat, cursing the blogs, certain it would not be worth it, appalled that it was $12 euro for a panino! Still, we got two, one with crushed pistachio pesto, one with tropea onions and some other magic. And when we climbed up to the cliff and ate them overlooking the sea, it was with begrudging amazement. Those sandwiches are still what we talk about when we talk about Scilla.


Our B&B was built, like most of the restaurants and hotels of Scilla, teetering out over the water, so that from our third floor balcony we looked straight down into transparent water marbled underneath with rose-grays and chalk-greens, soft celebrations of life. We could even see the curved darkness of fish passing by.


This was also true of the breakfast patio, which was where we spent the first two hours of every day. The B&B was run by a mother and son — the son about Paul’s age — who were attentive, charming, and stereotypically chatty. Paul and Antonio soon formed a special bond built on teasing and Italian hand gestures

“You look so Italian! How can you not speak it? And she is so blonde and speaks! Mi dai…” (low wrist bobble).


I bonded with Antonio’s mother over her baking and her obsessive running of the tiny, 3 room B&B (“I do it all — we have a maid to clean, but I go with her to every room, otherwise she won’t clean under the beds! Can you imagine. But it’s ok, I will buy a Porsche and everyone will be jealous.”)

We sat there also because the mornings were the kindest part of the day. As the sun rose

higher it tugged a veil of heat over the sky, turning everything moist and heavy, so hot you could feel it on your skin like you were touching something solid. On the hottest day it rose over 105 degrees, and we swam out away from the shore, only to see wildfires boiling on the ridge above the city. No one seemed concerned, so we tried not to be, and instead watched the fire helicopter sweep back and forth with its bucket, dipping into the ocean again and again.


One of these days, we had decided to rent a boat. I should say in an effort to justify this decision, that online the boats looked pretty nice, with little shade canvases and comfy places to sit. The boat wasn’t not-nice, but it was just slightly less than expected in every way. The man who rented it to us — who wore sunglasses that took up most of his face, absurdly short spandex shorts in an electric blue color showing off his shaved, perfectly tan legs — gave us a safety briefing that consisted mostly of him explaining what we were to say if we were pulled over (“You’re borrowing this boat from your friend Guiseppe.”)


Off we set on our borrowed boat from our smooth-legged friend Gueseppe. We made our way up the coast, pausing at sweet coves, and once along a beach that was only accessible by water. It looked so tempting and empty that I swam to it to explore, but quickly went hopping back into the water. The stones were like pizza stones heated by the sun.


We stopped at a final cove and tried to have a sandwich and some water, but the boat kept turning and putting us back in the sun. Our flimsy canvas cover did little to keep us covered, and we were ready to go back. As we went to pull anchor, though, it refused to give. Paul dove down and came up looking worried. The anchor, he said, was jammed between three rocks. We moved the boat forward and back to try different angles, with little effect. He tugged from the water, and I tugged from the boat, harder and harder until — I slipped and smacked my knee on a metal screw, my whole weight on it.


There wasn’t much blood. It never bruised. But it hurt. A deep-down hurt. Something about the heat, and the surprise, and the blood made my vision fuzz at the edges, and I lay down and pulled a towel over my face to hide from the sun. Paul climbed back on the boat and found me there, fed me water, helped me cool off. Eventually I felt able to stand to drive, and we cut the anchor and started back to the harbor. The adrenaline got us back. But as soon as we were moored back at the harbor, and our smooth-legged man came to pick us up in the skiff, I knew something was wrong. Stepping onto the boat, my leg almost collapsed on itself and my vision starred again. Going up the stairs to the wharf, every step my vision got tighter, until by the top I just sat down, then lay down. I kept my eyes closed, somehow I knew that would help, and stayed on the conscious side of this strange, shifting darkness that kept pulling at me like an ocean. When I opened my eyes, there were old Italian men all around me. Smooth-legs brought me a glass of water and a sugar packet and helped me sit up, but my eyes went dark again and I laid back down. When I opened my eyes, the halo of old men were still there, arms folded, arguing with each other about what should be done.

“Elevate her legs,” one said, looking proud of himself, and smooth-legs hurried to my feet and held them up by the ankles. “Some water!” “She has some, she needs food.” “Not yet, it can be bad to eat if you’re nauseous!”"It's the heat, the heat is too much." "Yes, too much."


I couldn’t help smiling. A swooning blonde American on their wharf! This had to be the best thing that had happened to them in weeks.


Eventually, they helped me sit up, brought me snacks, and even drove me home. Nothing ever happened with my knee — it hurt and hurt for days, and then slowly, it stopped (although it still hurts sometimes now, maybe I’ll be able to tell when a storm is a-comin’.) The weather finally broke the next day, like a fever, in wild winds and rain and waves 6-8 feet slamming at the harbor town and shooting up between the boards of the restaurants. And we, relieved to be back on land and to have the heat swept away from us, returned to the porch to chat (chichiarare) with Antonio and his mother.


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