Through the Fire

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Once I went to Italy for three weeks and roamed around the streets of Milan, buying shoes wherever I went. I ate rabbit stew and polenta cooked in large pots over a stone fireplace in a house with frescoes on the walls. I visited a few museums, the Duomo, buildings from other centuries. I drank grappa one night nonstop until I thought I was hallucinating. And then I took off south, climbed to the top of a live volcano at midnight and stared down into its fiery mouth.

The volcano was on the island of Stromboli-the northernmost member of the Aeolian chain, just off the northeast coast of Sicily. Named after Aeolus, Keeper of the Winds, the secluded isles have received a gust of visitors over the ages. Settled by ancient Greek refugees, the islands were taken by the Romans, ravaged by waves of North African pirates and, centuries la-ter, turned into a makeshift prison for Italian exiles. The Aeolians were all but forgotten by the '50s, but my journey to Stromboli, the liveliest member, would shed a little, make that a lot, more light on things.

It was a surprise trip that came out of a quick phone call to an old college friend, an Italian exchange student from Milan. 'My dad died last month,' I told her. 'I've gotta get out of here. I can't eat or sleep. I'm going crazy. Can I visit?'

Giulia needed a break herself, and so we took off for Stromboli. She brought along Pietro, the on-again, off-again boyfriend who was mostly on-again while we were on Stromboli. Giulia told me that the sexiest thing they'd ever done was go to bed fully clothed in sleeping bags on top of the volcano. They had an agreement that they would hold hands and try to stay awake all night. As soon as one of them thought they couldn't make it, couldn't fight sleep any longer, they were supposed to gently squeeze the hand of the other. They ended up squeezing each other's hand at exactly the same moment, falling asleep together at the same instant and dreaming the same dream.

'Volcanoes do things like that to you,' she told me.

We took a train from Milan to Milazzo, then hopped a boat to Stromboli. From the ship we could see the volcano in the distance, a black mountain rising out of a blue-green sea, whitewashed houses clinging to the hillside in sharp contrast. Narrow roads wound up one side of the mountain, one of only two populated areas on the island, and black sand beaches spread out like the ruffle on the bottom of a girl's skirt. Most of Stromboli is deserted, thanks to stray lava.

The port was bustling with fishermen selling their catch and women bargaining for dinner. A few fancy restaurants and hotels lined the streets close to the port, flowerpots of blooming geraniums coloring their terraces. No cars are allowed on the island, just motorbikes ridden by Sicilian boys fetching goods, helping their mothers.

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