La Svizzera e’ vicina, the employee at the telephone exchange had assured me when, after an hour’s wait, the sole telephone booth was finally free; direct dialing had been introduced some time ago, we only needed to dial the number and the phone at the bank back in Switzerland would ring. So I dialed and a quarter of an hour later I was still dialing. La Svizzera e’ vicina and the air was stuffy and a smell of decay which turned my stomach was rising up out of the dried-up river bed in the middle of Agrigento and direct dialing may have been introduced long ago but only a single cable linked the island to the mainland and was constantly overloaded even two hours later and the next morning as well. When I finally got through in the afternoon, and after many inquiries I was able to talk to a man who knew all about telegraphic transfers and asked him to send me money to the local Banca di Sicilia immediately because the car had broken down, the heat was killing and we couldn’t even shift from the lousy hotel that we had had to move into after paying for the repairs. It was comforting to hear that even Sicily, telegraphically speaking, was also not far from Switzerland and the money would arrive tomorrow at the latest. And so with our last few lira we bought a large can of air freshener and covered the scent of decay in our hotel room with the scent of violets and used the glossy brochures on the Greek temples to squash the mosquitoes. And it got even hotter, a cloud of smog hung yellow and sulphurous over the sweltering pile of stones, spilled over into the dining-room to which we had been condemned and choked us. But the atmosphere was not bad, la Svizzera e’ vicina, the money on its way and three bottles later the wine tasted alright too.
Next morning at two minutes past nine we were standing bleary-eyed in the marble hall of the Banca and waited, until the elderly gentleman who was busy at a desk behind the counter using an adding machine to check an endless column of handwritten figures against a long list faltered and I was able to use the break in the clatter to call out and ask whether the money had arrived. The shake of his head drove us back into the stench and two hours later we were back again in the now overcrowded bank waiting in a long queue while in front of us the interest was recorded in savings books and the money transfers were checked and the Calcio football results were talked over and the telephones finally gave up ringing from sheer heat. This time I wasn’t going to be deterred and in my broken Italian insisted that the money must have come, it simply couldn’t be taking so long. La Svizzera è vicina, capito? Molto vicina, I repeated over and over in response to the head-shaking which became ever more uncomprehending the more vigorously I insisted and which finally changed into a friendly smile that bypassed me and invited the farmer behind, who had been impatiently waving around a bundle of ten thousand lira notes, to come to the counter…
And the combination of violets and stinking mud rushed to my head, I began to get into a lather, my shirt clinging to me scruffily, and cursed my bad Italian and the car and the plonk and finally roared my name and the word telegrafico at the teller several times and kept on repeating my name to the rhythm of my fist hitting the smooth polished marble of the counter until I succeeded and his face lit up and he suddenly began to grin and the supervisor of the tally supervisor began to whisper to the filing supervisor who also began to grin and both went over to the acting head of Giro paper processing who after glancing disbelievingly at me laughed so much he nearly knocked over the five piles of files on his majestic desk. And soon the entire staff was laughing and savouring the flavour of my name like a sweet on their tongues and the waiting customers soon joined in and nobody had heard an unbelievably idiotic story since this Sicilian temple tourist trap had been in business, namely that somebody, a tourist of course, proving once again how matti they all were, would have cabled himself eight marks. In Italian otto marchi. But the acting head simply refused to believe the joke – to him it sounded too good to be true, and he came up to me and politely requested me to show him my passport, cleared his throat in mischievous fashion behind his hand and simply said to me: perche’ non cinque franchi? -why not five francs?
Translated from the German by Alyth Grant