Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Day in Palermo, Sicily

June  1994

The hot midday sun assaulted me as I left the air-conditioned cocoon of the cruise ship Costa Romantica. It wasn’t just hot; it was stifling. That blazing Mediterranean sun, Apollo of legend and essential ingredient of La Dolce Vita, can be so intense you feel you're being broiled alive. I almost leapt back into the ship, but I'd set my mind on having a nice  lunch in Palermo, so I soldiered on.
      Whizzing Vezpas and heedless Fiats normally make crossing the street in front of the port of Palermo a matter requiring equal amounts of courage, resignation and agility, but this afternoon they were nowhere in sight. No psycho-drivers drove into your side of the road. It was Saturday, and noontime at that, a time of day when  throughout Italy all work must stop, and life, in the form of a long, leisurely lunch, a nice nap and maybe a little afternoon delight (for lovers), commenced.

      My search for a suitable trattoria involved a little walking around the old part of Palermo. Shops were closed. The heat stunned everything into a sullen stillness. One felt that  any attempt at movement would inflame the blood of things and make the air explode in violence. Italian words like "forno" and "omertá" rose  and fell in my brain unbidden and unremarked.
In most Mediterranean countries, the great noonday pause, the siesta, the tempo mezzogiorno, is a time that is jealously observed. Filipinos used to have prolonged siestas, before the go-go nature of American acculturation rendered it a thing of the past. Filipinos still take their siestas, but Philippine shops don't close anymore at midday.  I am glad the Italians still haven’t chucked off this practice. Italians still observe siesta as much as a matter of centuries old habit as well as of law. There are signs that it’s being shortened, but I don't think it's going to die out any time soon.

      Most of the buildings in Palermo were unkempt and grimy. They did not seem to have been scrubbed for a long time. Everywhere I saw the sign “In restauro”. This meant buildings were ostensibly being “restored”. Later, a fellow musician from Naples who should know about these things laughingly informed me: “ Si, they have been in restauro for 15 years and nothing has been done.” I asked why? Rubbing his thumb against his index and middle fingers, he said: “ Per i soldi (for the money). The Mafia”.

      At the time, so he told me, Palermo’s famous opera house was already in restauro for 15 years with plenty of money spent and no visible improvements in evidence. As to why Palermo was grimy, the same fellow told me that the Mafia prevented anything from being done. If you wanted to clean up or do improvements to a building, you had to deal with the Mafia somehow, which will proceed to extort money from you. Faced with this predicament, people give up restoring anything. There were sections in the city that hadn’t even seen any repair or rebuilding since seeing damage in World War II.

      Out of curiosity I entered a courtyard on Via Roma. Two large statues graced recessed cornices, their features indecipherable from weathering. Weeds grew between the flagstones and sprang from out of cracks on the walls. Louvered windows were shuttered or broken. A square patch of brilliant blue sky smiled above, while the sun blazed down on the ravaged scene below. A side-door  opened and a man strode out into the courtyard. He  eyed me curiously.  I retreated back to the street.

      I saw several funeral parlors along the Via Roma. Business must be good.

      Still searching for a place for lunch, I wandered through a medieval-looking archway, and found myself in a busy market. Here were stalls  selling mostly cheap clothing. The smell of frying fish hung in the air. No siesta here, just plain, time-less commerce.

      The space was enclosed on all four sides by  tenement buildings grim with neglect, their windows spewing out clothes hung out to dry on stretched wires.
Not being in the mood to shop, I again retreated and walked out to the main thoroughfare.
      The sight of a church with three pink cupolas drew me forward  Across from the church with the cupolas was another antique church. On the piazza  between these buildings nestled  a  dining place, Pizzeria Bellini. With its large canvas awnings, pots of geraniums, and sheltered proximity to the churches , it was the perfect place to be, if one wanted a proper Italian atmosphere for  lunch. When I was seated inside the restaurant, I looked out not so much at a piazza as a setting for a grand opera (say,"I Vespri Siciliani" or "Cavelleria Rusticana" both of which were set in Sicily, if not Palermo).
      From the friendly waiter, I ordered the mixed antipasti, the spaghetti a la sardine, and a chicken cacciatore. The antipasti featured a tasty   stuffed sardine and roasted vegetables (eggplant, peppers, broccoli). The spaghetti had a topping of ground sardine and fennel and hit the spot.The chicken cacciatore was a curious dish. It was smothered in olives, tomatoes, basil and olive oil, but turned out to be sour, as if it had been pickled before being cooked. Was this an authentic Sicilian dish, sour taste and all, or a culinary miss? I did not finish it. This puzzling repast was saved by the light and crusty sesame-seeded bread. The accompaniment of a half-carafe of dry white wine, and dessert of standard tiramisu washed with strong espresso erased whatever misgivings I had about the meal.

      More interesting to me was the lunchtime Italian opera buffa that was unfolding before my eyes. There is always an element of melodrama in scenes of everyday Italian life. From the florid gesticulations accompanying their conversations to effusive hugs and kisses and dire arguments, Italians seem always to be on the verge of either killing each other or performing an aria. An exaggerated sense of drama is so ingrained in their character they had to invent opera in order to give vent to their tempestuous emotions. I’m sure Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were no shrinking violets.

      Take, for example the scene inside the pizzeria Bellini. Two young women and a portly gentleman occupied the table in front of me. One woman wore dark Audrey Hepburn sunglasses and  spoke rapidly, her long, manicured fingers dancing to the cadence of her words. Sitting  beside her was a dark-haired, Moorish-looking  woman who remained silent, save for interjecting a word here and there  The man sat with his back to me, but every now and then I’d catch his profile. He wore prescription glasses and looked like a professor. An ordinary enough scene, but something in the air and the setting  suggested to me that they  could have  come straight out of a Pirandello play. Label it: "Characters in Search of a Voyeuristic Tourist".

      A  tour bus rolled into the piazzetta. A flock of tourists—perhaps from our cruise ship—clambered  out of the vehicle and were herded into a side alley and into the large church. They did not stay long there, and soon filed out again and into the bus and were gone.

      An Oriental-looking couple, Japanese most likely, appeared on the scene, took photographs of each other in front of the church, and  then  vanished.

      A man in a blue suit yelled at somebody across the piazza. Soon he was engaged in a loud, long-distance shouting match with this invisible somebody, their voices reverberating in the enclosed space as of two tenors performing a little heavy-duty duetto. Soon the other’s voice took the form of a slim young man of about twenty who opened the door to  a little Fiat that had been  blocking the other man’s white pickup. Two elderly ladies in summer dress cheerfully piled into the young man’s car and they were off.

      I heard   somebody wailing "Aheu! Aheu!" several times.

      The man in the blue suit parked his mini truck in front of the potted geraniums adorning the picket fence of the trattoria. He then opened the back door of the truck and brought out a quantity of printed T-shirts. He handled them carefully, as if showing to everyone and no one in particular how lovely his shirts were.

      The bell-like voice of a child singing rang out in the square. It had a startling sweetness, like that of the shepherd boy at the beginning of the third act of “Tosca”. I've encountered several kids like him in the course of the afternoon, children singing confidently, without self-consciousness. A Sicilian trait? Bellini the composer was Sicilian, and most Italians have music in their blood. This came as no surprise to me.
     After paying my lunch bill at the Pizzeria Bellini, I resumed my excursion.

I followed the route the bus tourists took. The church was closed (most historic buildings here in Italy don't re-open till 4 PM), so I entered an alley and came out to another piazza featuring a large, many-statued fountain--the Piazza Pretoria. The multi-level fountain ran amok with  nudes whose attitudes were not necessarily heroic, more like soft-porn.  A veritable zoo supported the marble basin: heads of lion, sheep, goat, what looked like a llama, and of gargoyles peered out from beneath. Above the basin rose the statue of a youth taking a pee. A sign on the railing said “Acqua Non Potabile”—Water Not Drinkable. This was repeated in English, German, Spanish and French. The faded, rusting façade of the Church of Santa Caterina occupied one side of the piazza, the municipio ( town hall)  another, as well as a palazzo all covered up for restoration. I spent a few minutes in this square, silent now and almost devoid of people save for a few children romping about.
Grimy, dirty, Mafia-ridden or not, Palermo is grand.

      Not having the time to visit these storied buildings, most of which were closed anyway, I continued walking and presently came upon a botanical park whose main feature  was a banyan tree with roots grown so large they were already tree-trunks themselves. My surprise at seeing this tree was not so much brought on by  the realization that banyan trees grew in Sicily as that they grew to the same size as in tropical countries!

      Following the sign that said Via Monumentale, I slipped into the courtyard of the Palazzo Abatellis--a museum. Funny how these buildings are located in Italy. The grand palazzi of Genoa are located in the confusing, slum-like old quarter of the city. Pompeii, the excavated Roman town, is buried by the massive outer ring of the new modern Pompeii. Everywhere In Italy,  the modern and the ancient co-exist beside, below, above, before, beyond, because of and  despite, each other. Here in Palermo, auto-repair shops stand cheek-by-jowl with the museum.This would be something like having  Al's Auto Repair Shop right beside MOMA. You learn to accept the physical intermingling of past and present in Italy as both inescapable and inevitable.
     The admission ticket to the museum was 2000 lire, the cheapest by far that I’ve had to pay,
     The museum was virtually deserted.
     Here were fragments of ornately carved wood beams from Saracen houses, Byzantine icons, religious paintings and sculptures. There was a grisly fresco, a brilliantly colored,"Il Triumfo di Morte", (The Triumph of Death). Death in the form of a horse-riding skeleton armed with a scythe  occupied the center of the composition. On the ground, impaled by arrows. writhed bishops, nobility and common people . Here, too, were musicians disconsolately tuning or playing their instruments . Other characters in the painting, disporting themselves with falcons, didn’t seem to have a care in the world.

     I came upon a thoroughly appealing sculpture, that of the Virgin Mary suckling the Baby Jesus—the Madonna Del Latte, the Madonna of the Milk. Until now I'd never seen a bare-breasted Mary feeding her Bambino.  It's a representation of her that made sense and was more common in Italy than I realized.
     There were so many treasures to see in this museum that I was loathe to leave. I promised myself to return here another time.  
      I went out into the street of auto-repair shops and Agip gasoline pumps, and walked along the highway beside the sea.

      Traffic was becoming busy. A ferris-wheel announced the presence of an amusement park  at the seaside. It boasted a giant rocket ride emblazoned with  white and blue stars and stripes and the legend: America/USA. Across the autostrada, wicker sofas and sun umbrellas  waited on the sidewalk  for buyers. Another church materialized before me. As the door was open,I went inside.  I saw men in dark suits, women in summery dresses and flowered hats, children with posies. Masses of white and yellow flowers and potted palms filled the church. A wedding looked set to take place. I left before the bride came. I didn't want to get caught in a "Godfather" moment, if it came.

      I followed the highway and once more saw ruined buildings and once grand houses and  porticoes. A giant staircase that rose up to what I presumed was a walk had access denied by a locked steel gate. I could see the Costa Romantica's yellow funnels  a short distance away. It was time to call it a day.

      My last sight in Palermo that afternoon before  I reboarded the ship was that of an old man pulling a cart. This was no ordinary cart: it was richly painted and decorated, like a Philippine jeepney. I saw carts like this everywhere in Palermo, some drawn by donkeys, others by men.  In fact  similarly painted panels, hooks still attached to them, were on sale  for millions of lire in an antique shop near the port. The cultural richness of Sicily in a cart: now, that’s a thought. I think the Sicilians and Filipinos are not that far removed from each other. They both have colorful conveyances, corrupt politicians, long siestas, Catholicism, mayhem and giant banyan trees.

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