Museum of Travellers in SicilyMarch 17, 2021
Saint Sebastian at SiracusaMarch 20, 2021
A dark wooden bookshelf, with an open door, as if someone had just taken a book out and forgotten to close it. Some sheet music on a stand in the middle of the room. Raffaello’s The School of Athens hanging from the wall.
Susi Kimbell welcomes me here, in the library of her school in Ortigia. I don’t know it yet, but those objects describe Susi, tell the story I’m about to hear.
I've never met Susi before, I don’t know anything about her, yet from the first moments our short conversation runs smoothly, with no awkward silences or embarrassment. Unfortunately, the room she welcomes me in and the words she allows me to hear are seen through a computer screen and muffled by distance. For the moment, we can’t meet, shake hands, or sit together on the sofa underneath The School of Athens. Nonetheless, Susi begins to tell her story and I forget about how unusual it is to meet someone this way, how difficult it is to understand each other when the camera is glitchy, the internet connection is unreliable, and the microphones switch on when they shouldn’t and turn off when they’re needed.
Susi was born in Scotland, an English father and German mother, both of whom are musicians, and she has always looked at the world through a “European lens”. Her father would sometimes travel to Italy to study documents. “I would ask to go with him, but he always said no, telling me I would go to Italy when I grew up”. During high school, after a school trip to Rome and Pompei, a child’s wish turned into a woman’s ambition.
Susi applies to go to university in Edinburgh, and her choice is slightly unusual: a joint degree in Art History and Italian. At the time, those are her passions, and they lead her along a road that takes her abroad. As part of her degree she has to spend her third year in Italy. “By chance, I found a job as an au pair in Siracusa - this is how Susi’s story in Sicily, in Siracusa begins - I was made to feel part of the family I stayed with, I met many people and made friends during my stay”.
After her year abroad, Susi returns to Scotland to graduate, and decides to continue her studies with an MA in the restoration of paintings. During this time, whenever she can, she travels by train, with only a backpack, from Edinburgh to Siracusa and back, so she can once more enjoy the historic streets, the buildings, the sea in Ortigia.
Ultimately, the driving force behind her decision to stay is love. During her visits to Siracusa she meets the man who is still her husband today, and “with a little courage” she decides to stay. It’s 1991, and Susi has been part of the city ever since. She runs the Exedra Mediterranean Center in Ortigia, a center that welcomes international university students for study-abroad programs, and Susi teaches them not only Italian, but also about culture and tradition, and what real life in Sicily means. She never gives up her love for art, which is a big part of her job, such as organising site-visits with student groups, but also doing historical-cultural translations, as “everything that is cultural, historical, visual” is what she enjoys most.
Susi’s other big passion, which she gets from her parents, is music. Susi plays the cello, and she found space to cultivate her talent in Siracusa too. “I have always played - she says - I’m part of a few amateur groups”. “Music is fundamental, it’s my therapy” she says with a smile.
I ask myself if after all this time, despite the fact that she talks about her life in Siracusa with joy, despite the way her eyes shine when she sees Piazza Duomo, if despite it all she is still happy with the decision she made. Maybe the screen hides my embarrassment, maybe Susi makes me feel at ease, so I ask her and she responds readily “I’m still happy I made this choice. It’s not that I don’t love the place where I was born and where I grew up, but I don’t regret my choice in any way. I’ve been lucky in love, and lucky with the city that welcomed me”.
“I love living here. It obviously has its problems, but the positives outweigh the negatives.” She mentions some of these positives, she tells me about the places she loves the most in Ortigia. “The hall of Castello Maniace, and the Cathedral - she says - Every time I visit them I get goosebumps, they vibrate with history and you can feel it when you walk in. A friend of mine says that things that are genuine and old 'sing'. Those places sing their hearts out!" These are the first places she thinks about when I ask what her Top 3 in Siracusa are, but during our chat she always returns to the sense of gratitude she feels when she crosses Piazza Duomo every day. “I’m lucky I get to walk across the piazza every day, and I still notice it, see it, every day, years later.”
La Giga Ensemble con Marco Terlizzi direttore, alla RNO Saline di Priolo
Susi tells me about her relationship with other people, and I ask if she found it difficult to socialise. Susi takes part in countless activities though, and this helped her from the start. “Music, volunteering with the FAI (Fondo Ambiente Italiano), getting to know other mothers when my kids were in school, the fact that I speak Italian quite well … it all helped me to create a network that developed very quickly, I have never felt very lonely.”
An important part of this, she admits, is the fact she has always lived in Ortigia. Then again, this was the “deal” she made with her husband when she moved to Sicily: a house in Ortigia, but at a time when Ortigia was not yet what we see today, when her friends told her going to live in Ortigia was madness, the houses were old, with no heating, and the island was almost empty. “At the time, there was only one pizzeria in Piazza Duomo, the Vecchio Pub, and not much else.” “We were undeterred, though, we bought a house, we’re still here, we’re still happy”.
What makes Susi happy, besides admiring the historical and artistic beauty of Ortigia, thanks to her "occupational obsession", is the human side of the island, its size, which makes it more like a small village. “Living and working in Ortigia allowed me to meet countless people - she explains - they may not be friends, but they’re always friendly faces”. “The shopkeepers, the traffic wardens, they’re all people you know, who you stop and chat to, even if not for long, even if just for a quick hello”. Speaking as another “ortigiana”, I think this characteristic is what helps to make it more “Ortigia” than the Temple of Apollo or the fountain of Arethusa, and is what helped Susi feel at home
And Susi truly is at home. She describes herself as 'ortigiana', and this may be what our connection is based on; two 'ortigiane' who love their little island, their 'village', which overflows with beautiful places, art, culture, but above all, with stories and people.
CATERINA DE BENEDICTIS
Vivo a Trento, mio malgrado, perché ci lavoro. Non sono facile ma amo le persone, soprattutto quelle difficili. Odio chi fischietta e chi canticchia. Mi piacciono i gatti, ma il più bello è il mio Martino. E mi piace il Sud. Incidentalmente sono anche sociologa, ma solo per vera passione.