Lesbian Ghosts on a Road Trip, from Paris to Palermo and Istanbul at the beginning of the new century
It was the 14th of July, 2000. I was flying from Paris to Palermo. I was to visit Sicily for the first time.
Years before I had graduated in Philosophy in Florence. When I was living in Italy I had often thought of Sicily but I had never seriously considered actually visiting the place. I liked to travel on my own and in my head, Sicily was full of Mafiosi and their friends and accomplices, the whole population of the island, in fact. A small island, crammed full with Mafiosi falling from the rim of the gigantic cup that Sicily was. Not my cup of tea, really!
I cherished choice, the opportunity to disagree, to be different and to change things. I also objected viscerally to women's’ subordination and oppression. I was obsessed with the ideals (and ideas) of Freedom, Choice, Dignity. The Dream was my attack line. My main belief was that you can force reality to respect you and to take into consideration your (female) wishes. No, Sicily didn’t seem to allow all that. So I have never been there.
This perfectly balanced picture of a world of freedom against a world of doom was to change soon. As soon, in fact, as my plane touched the ground. I was going to discover this hidden island, forgotten from history. Sicily. The whole island placed in a dark corner of our western world, suffocating under the weight of stereotypes. Discovery was awaiting me.
During that time, my first Sicilian lover was also waiting for me at the airport. She was the reason I was undertaking this adventure. I had met her in Paris a few months earlier and I had been very surprised to discover that she was gay, professional and honest and, what was an even bigger surprise, she had chosen to remain in Sicily!
To be nourished with what? To be occupying what social space? To be enjoying what visibility and dignity? And, lastly, paying what price of solitude and social exclusion? I had wondered all this time and now answers were going to come my way, at last. I respected her enough to finally act and attempt to clarify the black hole Sicily occupied in my mind.
Up in the sky, my brain raced full of contradictory thoughts and feelings. Time was diluted. The flight was lasting forever. I was getting impatient. I couldn’t wait any longer. I longed for Sicily. We landed with a spectacular turn of the airplane, seconds before it crashed against the black wild rocks standing on the side of the landing corridor. First image: Blinding light, deep blue sky, earth releasing heat and the impression that something was hiding behind this typically Mediterranean scenery on a hot summer day. My friend was waiting in her car and I asked her to show me the sea. We drove along the seaside motorway away from the airport and soon she stopped in the middle of the road. We got out and she showed me flowers left against the railing at this quite anonymous spot. She said, indicating the flowers: “This is where the mafia killed Giudice Falcone by placing explosives in his car and blowing the whole thing up”.
“A heritage of death and terror,” I thought with sudden clarity. The heat was suffocating us; the air was heavy with danger, envy, and hatred. We needed a drink.
The rest of the day made up easily for the dramatic start. We visited small seaside villages, nice food, warm sea, busy people shouting and going on with their lives. This was a perfect picture of summer on a Mediterranean island. Just as well: we were on holiday! We rested a bit and in the evening a surprise welcome party was awaiting us: a garden party in a villa out of town, right in the middle of the countryside, a sort of green and hilly desert with no other houses or people in view outside our party. A friend of hers, a married politician and mother, was inviting her female friends over, accompanied by her female lover.
“What?” I wondered; “A married woman with her female lover? A lesbian party at the house where she lived with her husband? With her daughter present (a daughter who was a lesbian as her mother was)? ”The crust of convention was breaking down and behind it, another more original, private and secretive, version was appearing. OK, I was going to start uncovering the mystery of gay existence in Sicily. The garden was the image of a luxurious paradise, palm trees, and banana trees opening up their sensual green leaves, touching a grass so well-tended it seemed a Sicilian invention! A buffet covered in immaculate white fabric was installed under the trees and waiters in tuxedos were offering drinks and snacks to the guests. I was missing such a luxurious underground while I was wasting my time in dark smelly bars, lost in the northern capitals of Europe for so many years, an innocent victim of my ignorance! If this was invisibility, then I preferred it to the seedy visibility I knew, all screams and aggression.
Here everything seemed so beautiful, serene and harmonious. I met the host, her daughter and the other women guests (the host’s husband was not there, strangely enough!) and I was informed about their Sicilian ways of being queer: Men and Women got married, somehow negotiated the intimate meaning of such a straight solution and then on they went with their gay lives, in secret of course. Closeted in a golden closet and big enough to contain all Sicilian Queers inside it...I was told that evening that most of the gay men cruising by the port at night were in fact married! Well, here you have it! Then I found out about a great number of secret parties that were taking place at people’s homes where all the women were gay and had been around with almost everybody else in the room, an easy-going queer atmosphere that seemed solid and established and which disappeared like smoke in the wind as the party was over and the women were back to their closeted social lives.
This was sheer madness; total schizophrenia; a confusing mental game; and a very fragile one. I almost saw the definitions written on neon lights over the clear sky of the island, perfectly invisible to anyone else but me. Naturally enough, as soon as a love affair ended, the women fell into the open arms of void and invisibility. A single gay woman didn’t actually exist; she needed a lover to acquire the secret, private dimension that society denied.
Anyway, after visiting beautiful places all over the island and seeing examples of extreme poverty next to luxury and glory, I and my lover decided to consolidate our newly formed emotional partnership by sharing a love journey of discovery: A road trip! She wanted to visit Greece as she had her own Greek at her disposal for once (me!) and I wanted to go to Turkey, a country that had always intrigued me and I had never visited. So we made a compromise deciding to go first to Greece and then to Turkey. As my friend had a problem with her knee it was decided that we would travel by car from Palermo to Brindisi and from there to Patras, Athens and finally, to Skopelos and Alonissos, two small Greek islands that were not too touristy and had the vital privilege of wonderful sandy beaches and rich vegetation, an exception in Greece where most of the islands are hot and arid.
And so we did depart for Greece a few days later, traveling by car then ferry and alternating between the two several times before we reached our final destination. The Greek islands were both very beautiful and peaceful and we encountered no problem at all as a gay women's couple. We performed our romantic rites amongst the most widespread indifference. Nice. After spending 2 weeks in the islands we drove north to Thessaloniki and from there to Turkey, arriving in Istanbul a few days later.
An anecdote illustrating both the hidden surprises of beautiful Istanbul and the silliness of stereotypes about uncivilized Turks and Turkey: Upon our arrival my friend wanted to offer me some of the beauty and refinement of the town in the form of a romantic evening out. So we looked in our Gallimard Travel Guide that I had brought from Paris for a restaurant with a panoramic terrace. There was a mention of a “small brasserie” but with a magnificent terrace. We set off to discover it. Nothing prepared us either for the magnificence of the venue or the extreme example of French arrogance that was unfolding in front of our surprised eyes: A huge white building made of marble, offering a long water facade and huge parking was standing in front of us. The “small brasserie” was a huge, marble palace worthy of a Disney princess!
The following days we visited more sites and markets, ate at very good restaurants, didn’t manage to talk to local people at any meaningful length and so in the middle of our stay we decided to explore the gay dimension of the town looking for secrets and ways to understand its people. We didn’t have the “Lonely Planet” Guide where there is always a gay section and we didn’t want to buy one. No mention of gays in our hip Gallimard guide, of course. So we followed two Italian guys who happened to cross our street one sunny day and naturally enough they did carry the object of desire, Lonely Planet and they also offered us personal accounts of the Turkish scene. We wrote it all down and we were ready for adventure the very same evening. We chose a mixed disco, a place where both boys and girls went, close to the center, in a large back street. We found the place quite easily as a long queue of young Turkish people was formed outside, noisily chatting and joking. The guys were more gay looking than the girls and the girls were all extremely good looking.
A beautiful young girl with long black hair came over to us, Susheila, a gay girl who worked as a model and who confessed to us that she was forced to get married to calm social and family violence down. Be a gay girl was unthinkable, she explained, you actually put your life at risk. You had to behave like a straight woman, embrace all conventions, husband included and then you were left alone to your secret and worthless life. Society was like a stone sitting on gay people’s hearts and suffocating them. The reality was especially violent against girls as a society allowed men to do what they liked as far as they had, or exhibited, a woman.
We had a great time as the whole disco was dancing together and people came to talk to us, smoke a cigarette and share a drink, all were friendly and smiling and no power and punishment games were played openly as is the case in Western gay discos. Later Susheila offered to show us the town at night as we had our car waiting outside and the weather was warm and inviting. We were driving on a busy street very late at night when a police car stopped us. The three policemen peered inside our car and asked Susheila to show them her I.D. Then they let us go after asking her a few questions about her address and her profession. They were not aggressive but they emanated the sure confidence of people who could abuse you if they so wished. The danger I had anticipated outside the disco earlier this evening was showing a small corner of its ugly face.
The next evening we discovered for ourselves how overbearing police presence could become, even for foreigners. We were sitting in the car parked not far from the Casino by the water edge and were looking at the dark outline of the city emerging over a straight line of water and preparing to act romantic thoughts when we heard a loud metallic knock against the closed window and we came quickly back to reality, seeing fully armed policemen that had surrounded our car and were asking us questions about what we were doing there. We pulled quickly away from each other and explained that we admired the beauty of the landscape and they let us go away, banging their guns over the opened windows. We did so and we drove away from the town looking for more time and new images to catch our breath and recover from our shocking surprise. Soon we discovered that we were not far from a huge military camp. We started laughing thinking about what would have happened if they had come a few seconds later and found us kissing! Two Western women in an Italian car kissing, what would the police do? Beat us up or smile and pretend nothing happened? A mystery destined to feed on suppositions!
After two weeks spent in Istanbul, we left for Ismir, the Greek Smirni and a very important town for the Greek Diaspora. Entering what now was called Ismir on all maps, our most urgent problem was to find the appropriate hotel for my friend who had special requirements to impose on the local tourist industry. I asked my ritual question and the kind reception staff answered in a chorus that “...Yes, Madam, we do have a king-size bed for you”. I smiled in thanking them and asked my friend to come in. She came; white-haired with a pearl necklace around her neck dressed in elegant sportive Italian style. Her arrival caused quite a disturbance that I couldn’t explain till I was addressed by the reception clerk as he was handing me our key. Then I immediately understood. “Here you are, Sir,” he told me with a timid smile.
The next day more theatrical enjoyment was awaiting us when we visited the swimming pool. We were both wearing flowery swimming suits as we laid down on our chairs asking for a chilled drink. When the waiter came with our drinks we had the right to more “thank you, Sir” for me and “thank you, Madam” for her. So our trip ended on this surrealistic image, two women sipping their drinks by a Turkish swimming pool, one hiding an invisible Gentleman inside her. Social prejudice and deeply buried homophobia gave us a phantomatic company that transformed reality to suit its deformities. That didn’t stop us from enjoying our trip and the many opportunities it offered us for both cultural and personal discovery for ourselves and others.
(c) Haris Metaxa, Paris 2002
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