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Something Fishy...


No one dies in this story. No one comes close to dying. This fact is important to remember as you listen, we promise.

Filliberto never meant to have a nemesis. He was, (is - he is, he’s fine,) by all accounts, the most mild-mannered guy anyone in his small town in Marzamemi, a picturesque fishing village on the coast of Sicily. But, he had one. His name was Leo and he looked like the Italian version of John Stamos in the late 90s. Leo was a smooth talker and always had a plan. He knew what he was going to do this Friday night and the rest of the Fridays in the month. He knew that he wanted to take over his father’s fishing empire and export to fancy sushi restaurants all over Europe. He knew who he wanted to marry (her name was Theresa, she was on board,) how many children they would have (three, Theresa was fine with this too,) and what their names would be, (Theresa disagreed on all points.) This was impossible to compete with but that didn’t stop Filliberto from trying.

Filliberto had often felt invisible. He didn’t stand out. No one remembered his name. He was just another one of the Bruno boys, of which there were dozens. The girls at school would confuse him with one of his many cousins and the yearbook even printed his name wrong his senior year. He wanted so badly to be noticed. But he didn’t know what for. Filliberto’s mother would always tell him, “Filliberto, tesoro, there are plenty of fish in the sea.” But he didn’t believe her when it came to Leo. Because Leo was the most excellent fisherman and also seemed to catch everything in the ocean and on the land.

Filliberto’s childhood was pretty close to idyllic. All day, cousins would pop in and out of his mother’s yellow-tiled kitchen. They played in the sand, caught crabs, and made lobster traps out of scrap wood from Filliberto’s father’s shop. They ate tomatoes directly from the garden and would run home from their little schoolhouse for lunch every day where their mother would have something exceptional prepared. Filliberto tended to the animals on the small farm next to the house. He could spend hours helping their sow give birth or nursing the runt of the litter back to health. It was a good life. And a recent one. It’s easy to imagine kids living like this a hundred years ago, but, no, this just happened.

When he turned 18, Filliberto still didn’t know what exactly his future should look like. His great, great, great (we’ll spare you the generational details, sorry, his family could be traced back to Umbria from the mid-1800s) grandparents had bought an acre of land on the seaside and it was where his entire extended family called home. It could be a lovely life. It was predictable, friendly, simple, really. Why would he go anywhere else? In the mornings, his mother would bombard him with horrific headlines from the rest of the world. Why would he leave their idyllic town where, comparatively speaking, nothing bad happened? Sure, there were the usual small-town dramas that would force his mother to cross herself and look towards the sky, but, this was not a place with the problems of a big city. Or America.

The week after high school graduation coincided with Infiorata. The Infiorata is a religious celebration that takes over the entire region. Beautiful images with nothing but fresh flowers line the streets and the result is truly incredible. Earlier in the year, people place themselves into ‘teams’ and spend weeks gathering flowers for the endeavor. Because it’s Italy, it's of course both beautiful and old. A celebration of the Corpus Domini feast, the tradition dates back to at least 1602.

Filliberto’s heart wasn’t in the celebration this year. As his mother hammered him over his chores, he felt stuck, frustrated, and a bit claustrophobic. He hadn’t made any life plans. It was assumed that he would either take over his father’s woodworking business or become a successful fisherman like so many of his uncles. The problem was, he didn’t seem to have the luck of the sea. Uncle Homer, his mother’s youngest brother, had even banned him from his boat after a nine-hour day together where they caught so much as two sardines. What was he to do? He wasn’t his great, great, great, great grandfather, he had the internet, he had options. But, somehow, he felt like he didn’t. It was hard to explain. There should have been a huge world beckoning him to explore, but he didn’t know where to go or what path to take.

He woke up the morning before the Infiorata to eleven texts from his fishing buddies. One had been tracking a school of giant tuna and was going to pick up Filliberto in seven minutes. The chain of messages could have taken place a hundred years earlier, minus the technology,

-We have to catch a bigger tuna than Leo-

-F yeah, I paid for the upgraded tracker. We’re going to find the spot.

-Bring your muscles, guys, it’s gonna take all of us to haul in one of those monsters.

Filliberto chimed in. He knew he needed to make himself love fishing if that was going to be his life. He also knew that you could train yourself to be good at something. He had stitched up his neighbor’s goat after an incident with barbed wire and the little guy was now as good as new.

-I’m in! Let’s show that guy what smart dudes can find.

The day on the boat would lodge itself in Filliberto’s memory. The sun gave off the perfect amount of heat, penetrating the guy’s spring skin, and relaxing their muscles. The sea was as calm and smooth as blown glass and clear straight through to the white sand.

They did their best to follow the fishing app through spotty cell service and a directionally challenged captain. Filliberto’s friends drank beers and talked about their post-grad plans. A few guys were going into the military as their fathers had done. Most were working at their family businesses. One guy was going to college in Rome but only because he was expected to be a dentist. His friends laughed. The guy could not handle a drop of blood without fainting like a Victorian woman. He was going to be terrible at this specific profession. Something about the perfect day left an unsettled knot in Filliberto’s stomach. It was a fear he couldn’t place. Maybe because an eighteen-year-old guy in a fishing village in Italy doesn’t use the word anxiety like we do. Regardless, something was up.

They caught a couple of fish that day. Mostly Branzino that would have made their mothers happy on a Tuesday but nothing special for the Infiorata. The other guys didn’t seem to care. With sunspots clouding his vision, Filliberto couldn’t help but take the lack of catch for a bad omen. But he didn’t share that with anyone. He’d been trying to shake the reputation of being a Debbie Downer for most of his teenage years. He couldn’t help it - he saw where things were wrong.

As the guys sped towards the dock, they heard yells and cheers around the bend of trees. Filliberto’s heart sunk. He knew what it was. He wasn’t remotely surprised to see Leo and his crew on their fishing boat, drinking and yelling. He wasn’t surprised that they all looked like they’d spent all the hours at the local gym that Filliberto spent on his farm. And, he was only a little surprised to see an insanely enormous tuna lying on the deck. 780 pounds, if we’re being factually accurate here. The boat’s rail had been broken, there was a mess of fishing lines everywhere. Clearly, these guys had gone through quite the fight to reel in that monster.

Filliberto tried to ignore the excitement of the guys on his boat. His friends were so impressed, way too impressed, he thought, with Leo’s catch. They puttered behind the trophy boat and watched the locals whoop and laugh and clap at the sight of this slippery beast. This would be the centerpiece for the celebration, for sure, and would take a whole lot of preparing and cooking over the next twenty-four hours. Filliberto carefully tied his vessel to the dock and slumped away from the impromptu fire pit and beer-drinking party that had emerged on the shore. He didn’t sleep well that night.

He got up, careful not to wake anyone in the creaky farmhouse, and took a walk and a cigarette down to the water. The smallest goat, the one he’d saved when it was only weeks old, followed him the whole way. It must have been a cute sight, the Italian teenager and his devoted goat, standing at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea. But, like so many snapshots of life, it wasn’t as it could have been portrayed through a Hollywood lens. Filliberto was not having a moonlit moment, he was having an existential crisis.

That sea used to look so big, so dangerous, with so many unknowns. From his perch on the rotting picnic table with a small goat at his feet, it seemed foreboding, like it could drown him right then and there. He didn’t know who to talk to. And it wasn’t a Hollywood moment so he didn’t talk to the goat. But, that would have been cute. Instead, he internalized a tidal wave of dread, indecision, and fear of his future.

The morning took forever to come. Filliberto stood in front of the espresso machine, downing an extra shot, refusing to let any family member skip the line. His mother had opened all of the windows and the air was fragrant with the millions of flowers so carefully placed lining the streets, and throughout the square. Everyone was in a good mood and talking about Leo’s incredible catch. Everyone but Filliberto, of course.

The festivities began as they always did, with a competition between the flower creations and mock crying for the losers. The potluck was especially impressive that year. The folding tables buckled with the amount of food families had brought and an entire buffet had been dedicated to the dozen or so dishes made with the freshly-caught tuna. There was tuna tartare, crudo. There was tuna Scicillian-style with anchovies, pine nuts and tomatoes. Filliberto chuckled to himself, thinking of Forrest Gump’s buddy Bubba rattling off the hundreds of shrimp dishes. And, of course, Leo was the star of the day.

The band had a ball, the little kids raced around underfoot like puppies on speed, and everyone ate. Everyone except for Filliberto since the knot in his stomach that had taken up residence 24 hours before showed no sign of leaving. When he recounts this story, he remembers the food being served around 2:00. He thinks most people were sitting and eating by 2:30 or 2:45 and the local paper reported the incident happening somewhere around 3:15.

No one knows exactly what happened, because it was never tested, but, well the tuna was bad. Really bad. There was one public bathroom in the town square and approximately two hundred people in attendance, at least half of whom had eaten the fish. Or, at least, enough of it that it went straight through them. It started out slowly. One person, then another excused themselves from a communal table. Then the line for the restroom became unbearable. Then children with no sense of decorum started yelling, “Devo fare la cacca!” which is “I have to poop!” for those of you who didn’t understand desperate Italian. Parents tried to help their little ones, only to be rendered incapacitated themselves. The euphoric smell of flowers was replaced by an entirely different scent.

People were hiding behind trees, and cars, and running into the ocean fully clothed. Babies were crying. Grandparents were crying. Everyone was sweating and, yeah, pooping. One could say, the party went to shit. The news story went viral. That year’s Infiorata was described as “apocalyptic.” It took days to fully sanitize the cobblestone streets and to get everyone back up on their feet. As karma would have it, Leo apparently had it the worst after making a big show of how much tuna his muscular body could ingest. He tried to escape embarrassment by jumping in his car, only to crash into a tree (he was fine) as he lost control of his bowels. This made it into the paper. Filliberto looked around at the absolute chaos and decided, right then and there, that he needed to leave his sweet town. Also, that he would never eat fish again.

What did Filliberto did during those quiet summer days while everyone else in town hid in their homes, close to their toilets and peppermint tea? He researched. He applied. He found a veterinary school in Geneva that was still taking applications for the following academic year starting in September. He didn’t want to be a woodworker. He clearly was not going to be a fisherman. He needed to leave the village of his ancestors and, of course, he knew he could come back.

Months later, packing his bags into his rusted Fiat, he kissed his friends and family goodbye to head North to school. He had mostly forgotten about the incident during the Infiorata and had not realized that a lot of the world and all of Europe had heard about the news story until he arrived at school.

Filliberto had not focused at all on what his social standing would be in this new environment. He’d spent so much time worrying about Leo and his daytime television good looks and fishing luck, that he’d used up that part of his brain and had lost all interest in being what anyone would consider “popular.” It’s funny, they say, be careful what you wish for. Because there he was, on campus, introducing himself to his new classmates and soon-to-be fellow veterinarians when someone shouted out,

“Hey, isn’t that the town where everyone shit themselves on bad tuna during Infiorata?

Yes, yes it was. And everyone wanted to hear the story, from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. And they didn’t want to hear it once, they wanted to hear it after school over an aperitivo. They wanted to hear it while hiking on the weekends and in the middle of studying biology. And it wasn’t just the guys who wanted to hear the story. The girls loved it too. They laughed until they wiped the tears from their eyes. They laughed loudly at parties where he, for the first time in his life, was the center of attention. Poor Filliberto told the story so many times that he had to stop eating seafood altogether. His association with those dishes and poop was just way, way, way too strong. But it’s funny. Because it got him a girlfriend. A bright animal lover who was also from a small town where a goat followed her about her day. Yes, this story is ridiculous. And true. And Filliberto would like to be done telling it.

And that’s why he wanted to share it here. So whenever anyone asks about the time in Marzamemi, he can just send them the podcast.

“My friend, Morgan, will tell you the story.” And she has. So, thank you, Morgan. Now we are all going to Google how to tell if fish has gone bad. Gross.

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