On the slopes of Mount Etna
for The Independent (London)
A plaster statue of the Virgin Mary with a lava base trembled slightly
as the explosion made the windows of the chalet rattle. "It's business
as usual up above, nothing to be scared of," said Rosa Puleo with a dry
smile, as Mount Etna noisily vomited up more magma.
Rosa, her husband Augusto and the 12-inch-high (30-centimeter) Madonna were parked on the steps of their souvenir shop at the Rifugio Sapienza, the last tourist station before the climb to the crater.
Some 15 feet (3 meters) away, a hastily built earth wall was all that separated them and six other kiosks from the molten mass. Civil protection workers have worked hard to divert the lava flow into wasteland below, but a spillover higher up could bury the entire row of kiosks.
"I was never afraid of Etna," Rosa said. "We live with this volcano. It's like a family member and most of the time we live quite happily together. I'm not sleeping much obviously because we risk losing our livelihoods, but that doesn't make me resent Etna."
Locals like Rosa who live in the shadow of Europe's biggest volcano refer to it as "il gigante buono," the good giant. The slumbering giant stirred 13 days ago and in spite of its alleged goodness, has since then destroyed ski lifts and part of the Rifugio Sapienza, cut the mountain highway in two and spewed immense quantities of lava. The flow has come to a temporary halt about two-and-a-half miles (four kilometers) above the bustling town of Nicolosi.
"We are used to having lava up above our heads," said Alessandro Corsaro, 26, with a chuckle. "The only difference is that now it's breathing down our necks."
Alessandro is the third generation of a hotelier family who have been forced to move their premises before. The current hotel Corsaro was built on the site of the 1983 lava flow, which engulfed the previous premises. Another restaurant that the family owns further around the mountain has been half-destroyed by the latest eruption. "Everything around us reminds us of the precariousness of material objects," he said. "I hope we will be spared, but if not my brother and I, like our father and grandfather, will start again."
Vulcanologists believe Etna first began regurgitating its red-hot innards more than half a million years ago. The Romans thought it was home to Jupiter and his blacksmith. In medieval times it became associated with the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, Etna being seen as a slice of hell in the fertile paradise of Sicily. But for generations, local people in Nicolosi, the last town before the top, have established a curiously intimate relationship with the 10,000-foot-high (3,000-meter) volcano.
While people stroll up to viewing points at night to watch the glowing orange spectacle, the rhythm of life in the town, which numbers some 7,000 inhabitants outside the two holiday seasons, remains remarkably uninterrupted.
"You get used to the occasional bangs and booms and shakes," said Onofrio Provenzano, a young doctor who moved to Nicolosi several years ago when he met his wife. "I remember when we were courting I'd jump if the earth moved, but my girlfriend would just take it in stride."
The late Sicilian author Leonardo Sciascia put his finger on the nature of the relationship between Etna and those who live on its slopes. "It's like a huge house cat that snores quietly; every now and then, it wakes, yawns, stretches lazily and with a swipe of its paw destroys a valley here or there, wiping out towns, vineyards and gardens."
Yet no one talks of moving. "Every morning when I look out from my balcony at the mountain my heart swells," said Gaetana Di Stefano, adjusting a row of lava-ashtrays in her souvenir shop. "It is a joy to live near such a magnificent force of nature." However, her turnover has plummeted as the usual crowd of hikers, skiers and tourists flees the area.
"It's all the fault of you journalists exaggerating," said Matteo, at the local tourist office. "Look around you! Do these people look terrified? No!"
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