jueves, julio 18

On vacation in Dante’s Inferno – POLITICO

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Antoaneta Roussi is a cybersecurity reporter at POLITICO.

RIPOSTO, Italy — Stepping off the airplane in Sicily feels like entering a furnace. It’s 43 degrees in the shade.

We land in Trapani, 300 kilometers west of Catania, the original destination of our flight. We were rerouted because of a fire at the airport, an issue which will also occur some days later in Palermo. It’s just the start of things to come.

As the reality sinks in — that our vacation has taken us to the hottest corner of Europe, and we’ve been packed onto a cramped bus and transported across Sicily — the theme of our long-awaited Italian break emerges: Dante’s Inferno.

The original plan was to stay in a century-old Sicilian villa, owned by friends of my husband’s family. But since it’s 37 degrees Celsius at night, we opt for a hotel with air conditioning after our 10-month-old son refuses to sleep. My in-laws choose to stay at the villa.

The next day we decide to make the best of it and drive to a nearby beach. By 9 a.m. the temperature is a sizzling 40 degrees. No fun for baby, for us or, frankly, for anyone. We dip in the sea but floating around us are pieces of ash from nearby wildfires, a harbinger of what is to come. Barely anyone is at the beach.

After two hours of bothersome heat, we leave for the hotel room. Curtains closed, air conditioning on. It brings back memories from my time spent reporting in Sudan’s capital Khartoum, where all houses have blacked-out windows to stop the oppressive heat from coming in. 

Day two is the most feared. The Italian meteorological society warns it will be 46 degrees. We drive to the villa to check in on my in-laws. As we sit around the breakfast table bearing the heat, a black plume of smoke appears in the distance. We go out onto the terrace to see more clearly and the column is only about a kilometer away. The wind blows on us like a hairdryer.

The phone belonging to our host Paola starts ringing urgently, and she leaves to go help. We stay a little longer but once a palm tree catches fire — a matchstick effect — we pack up my in-laws and leave. The 86-year-old grandma whose husband bought the property so many years ago looks on with glazed eyes at the flames. 

Back at the hotel, fires are erupting all around, darkening the sky as holidaymakers bathe nervously in the pool. The light is an eerie yellow. At one point, my husband helps the lifeguard extinguish a fire that has auto-combusted in the parking lot.

Again, we spend most of the day inside, four adults and a baby packed into a hotel room. By 5 p.m., my son is very restless and so are we. We decide to drive to the nearest place we can have a walk and be cool: the Conforama mall. The wind burns my face as we make our way to the air-conditioned car.

Entering the mall, we realize that everyone has had the same idea. A woman is rocking a baby to sleep; a group of old women are fanning themselves on a bench; children are playing with shopping carts. The electricity is going on and off, so the stores are dark. The mall, a symbol of the Western mass-consumption lifestyle which has spurred climate change, is now paradoxically the only refuge we have.

Behind us, a group of young boys shout “Hallelujah” as they enter.

Houses and landscapes destroyed by fires near Catania, Sicily, on July 25, 2023 | Fabrizio Villa/Getty Images

On day three, temperatures drop to a still-sweaty 34C thanks to a strong wind blowing. But the residue of the fires is pervasive. Our phones light up in the morning with a warning of “extremely poor” air quality. After getting breakfast, I return to the hotel room and my hair smells of BBQ. 

We tap out and decide to leave Sicily. On the boat to the mainland, we’re all visibly defeated. Our holiday was ruined, yes, but there’s a much bigger tragedy. What of the livelihoods of my husband’s friends and all of the people living around Catania, which are so intrinsically linked with the land and with tourism? What’s the future for them?

Paola’s neighbors couldn’t save their house; they were 147th in line for the fire engine.

We step off the boat in Reggio Calabria and are greeted by rain.