The first time I was in an earthquake was in Augusta, Sicily, in December 1990.

Our ship was sailing into Priolo, on the eastern coast of Sicily. It was about six o’ clock in the evening and we were listening to BBC news on the radio. There had been an earthquake at Syracuse, about 14 km south of Priolo.

My husband and I planned to go to Syracuse the next morning. Of course, we were behaving like a couple of idiotic tourists, just wanting to gawk at the damage caused by the earthquake. The ferry service to Syracuse was cancelled, so we went to Augusta instead, ten minutes by boat to the north. There was no damage to any of the structures there – though it was only 35 km from Syracuse –  except for an ancient church, the Chiesa Madre, whose plaster had fallen off in places. That was all.

But what a sight! People were camped out on every available inch of open space. All buildings had been vacated out of fear of a quake or aftershocks. But the day passed uneventfully.

The next morning I went up to the bridge to look at Mt. Etna through binoculars as I had noticed small puffs of smoke coming out of its crater. Joško, the second mate, came up to make a cup of tea. He had just finished his watch and was going to Augusta to take in the sights. He asked if I wanted to go along. We had lunch at a restaurant there. I remember having spinach tortellini and some strong red wine.

We paid the bill and sat there talking about Yugoslavia over the last bit of wine. Those days, Yugoslavia was in political turmoil and was about to be carved into several independent countries. Joško often said, “There’ll be no Yugoslavia when I go home!” with a touch of gallows humour, but was really worried about his family back home, especially the girl he had married just a few months before.

Suddenly we saw everybody running for the exit. People were crying, shouting and hugging each other. We asked people –¿Qué pasa?– in Spanish, hoping they’d understand, as Joško didn’t know Italian either. People were too numb to bother to answer us. We wandered out and asked a couple more people. Someone answered “Tumulta!” Wow! There had been an earthquake? Joško said, “That wine must’ve been strong. I never felt it either.”

We ran to the ferry boat and made for the ship. It seemed the safest place to be. We casually asked the boatman if he had felt the tremor. He nodded with a troubled expression and told us in English that his daughter was out there somewhere, and he was worried about her safety. His eyes glazed over as he stared at a distant memory and murmured something about the last time there was an earthquake. We didn’t know what to say. Was this a way of life for these people?

And here we were, excitedly looking around like there was a film shooting going on, and the whole thing was a movie set. We had addressed the boatman in much the same insensitive tone that we find offensive when used by interviewers on television. Although – between us – we claimed the novelty of the experience as an excuse, we felt quite ashamed of ourselves and silently stared out at the shore as we sailed away from Augusta.

On reaching the ship we rushed up the gangway to the Cargo Control Room. The third mate, Boris, was on duty. We told him about the earthquake. He said it had been just a mild aftershock. Obviously then, the locals had been on tenterhooks and had overreacted. Joško and I were glad to know that we hadn’t been too drunk to notice an earthquake!


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