Life and Death in Palermo
After getting lost in Genoa I ended up on La Superba, a massive ferry the size of cruise ship run by the Grandi Navi Veloci (GNV) on what was supposed to be a 17 hour run down to Palermo in Sicily and ended up in, what I later discovered was typical Italian style tardiness, at 21 hours. I shared a room with a rugged and overly clean Italian truck driver. (I counted three showers during our voyage.) He slept most of the trip, except for the 3 hours spent playing arcade shooter games. And at one point he said to me, almost in disbelief, “You no sleep?” But apart from the usual 8 hours of sleep I am accustomed to, I did not sleep. Instead I wondered around and explored the vessel. And I ate a long meal for lunch and wrote.
But I did have one big worry. The Wi-Fi (say ‘wee-fee’) did not like my credit card. And having had problems in the past with my cautious bank back in Alaska suspecting fraud, even when I’ve been merely over the border in Canada, the thought of having the money spigot turned off mid-trip was not pleasant. And so task number one upon our late arrival in Palermo, was to get a few more euros from a ‘bancomat’ and to determine my financial state. Thusly I was suddenly, without much of a clue, on a warm, what to my Alaska blood felt like mid-summer, December evening thrust into the traffic maw of Palermo. But then I noticed something curious, as I tried in very broken Italian to communicate my need, that the Sicilians were indeed quite friendly. Though I met very few Palermitanos that spoke English I always received help when I gesticulated, and hand gestures are the order of the day, since Italians are fluent in that. And yes, I did still had a connection to my bank. I could breathe easier. All I had to do was find the B & B La Fenicia and to get there I had to find a bus, a sweaty proposition, and when I did hail a bus the driver waved me off when I tried to pay and took me straight to the station, which was near my gracious and friendly hosts Nadia and Ninni at the B & B. And so I after indulging in a spleen sandwich from a vendor in a cart across the street from La Fenicia I settled down for the night happy to be in Sicilia (See-cheel-ya) and with no idea what I would find.
Well after far too organized Switzerland to have one’s next town be Palermo Sicily is to all at once be slapped in the face by trash on every street and the noisiest city I think I’ve ever been in, and I used to live in New York City. Yet what a lively town! And made up of some of the most talkative people on earth. Renown for it’s street food, pane ca meusa (spleen sandwich) was just the beginning. And pizza? Yes! This was real Italian style pizza. One individual pizza averaged about 4 euros ($5). And fresh? Like the tomatoes were growing yesterday. And when I told my hosts Nadia and Ninni about the American penchant for putting pineapple on pizza at first they were uncomprehending. And then they laughed at the joke. After 16 years in New York I’d been too bitten by the Italian (Sicilian) bug to do anything but concur. And that’s the thing. In New York City most Italians are Sicilians and so this culture did not seem that foreign to me. And I was happy to see the Old Country.
And so then there was exploring the town. I walked through Ballarò Market area, which was fantastically labyrinthine and exotic, filled with marzipan in the shape of fruits, unbelievably long light green Italian zucchinis and Mediterranean seafood of all descriptions. All being hawked by a chorus of street vendors chanting their wares. Then I just rambled aimlessly for a while. And Palermo is a great town to just come upon some forgotten cobble stone street corner decorated by the statue of a saint under dilapidated buildings.
And that’s what I found so intriguing about the town. That beneath its layers of grit there was a vitality few towns have: Loud Palermitanos yelling from balconies to each other. Children playing on a safe bustling street corner in the evening. When they saw my camera they all wanted me to take a photo! And this same liveliness certainly extended to the puppet shows I saw. There were a few tourists there. But certainly not like Rome or London. And plenty of obvious recent immigrants. But then again Sicily has always had people dropping in (or invading) from all parts of the Mediterranean world, and beyond. Normans, Moors, Romans and the ancient Greeks have all left their mark. But in the end, those that stay become Sicilians. Sicily if just too much itself to be colonized and digested by the outside world. Where else would you see gangs of guys and girls with scooters (Vespas!) and small motorcycles hanging out behind the McDonald’s at the only mall in town, popping wheelies and coming their hair back in 2017? It’s an infectious culture. Everything is a lengthy conversation, backing the car into a parking space or discussions about the contemporary state respect for la famiglia.
On another journey through Palermo after trying to get my shoes repaired and being so tempted by a new pair of Italian boots that just felt so comfortable, while being unable to justify the cost, or the weight of lugging around my Doc Martens, and after I passed the Quattro Canti, the four way divider of the old town, I came upon the Pretoria Fountain, where strange animal heads spouted water amongst what originally were scandalous nude statues below a homemade banner that denounced the mafia. And in the midst of this scene a fashion spread was being shot featuring a willowy brunette model moving with curious rhythms on the steps. Somehow this mixture of archetypes captured an aspect Palermitan life for me. And so I stuck around to try to use the contradictions to create something for myself.
By far what made the strongest impression of my five day sojourn in Palermo was a visit to the Catacombes dei Cappuccini. A true city of the dead. Back in 1500s the Capuchin monks started to hang and dry the corpses of their dead brethren. Eventually the custom was adopted by many others as well and continued until approximately 1920. 8,000 corpses now hang in this underground mausoleum. Not skeletons, but desiccated humans in their finest. Palermitanos used to come in and point to a spot and say “I want to hang there.” And so I came to have a look, to confront my own mortality in way.
Descending into this dark world after paying my 3 euros I soon found myself engulfed in dried bodies. They surrounded me from above and below. I carefully peered into their faces. I found myself often passed by others who were obviously just walking through the place as quickly as they could. But I wanted to see. Some bodies were more or less skeletons. Others had a layer of shrink wrapped human leather covering their faces. Often there was the indignity of that expression that comes in time as the gases of the body leaving through the mouth creating the appearance of howling. There were bodies behind fences, bodies in boxes, bodies in vaults, in the marble floor below, bodies standing in alcoves, bodies reclining. And sometimes, when I really began to take it in, I would look up and see the skull of a cloaked figure, sockets without eyes, glaring down on me. Then look away directly across from the glaring skull to find a leathery figure gaze cast off into heaven as if to plead to God on behalf of the human lot.
And then came the inexplicable things. One section was for young children only. The dark sorrow here was beyond measure. Each of these children had been accompanied by mournful Italian wailing as they were placed here. Lives ended too soon. In another hall there was a nearly animated preserved young boy in a glass case. The monks had perfected a kind of embalming technique. Then there was a chamber for virgins, at the beginning of a hall for women. This too had a great sorrow attached to it. Girls in white. Hanging on a wall. Nothing of them left in the world but these remnants of their physical bodies.
And then looking further down the hall of women I would occasionally be arrested by the appearance of a woman, whom in her day must have truly been a stunning beauty. You could tell by the structure of her face, the parched skin clinging to her features, how this woman must have stopped hearts as she walked down the street. And yet here she is, just a lifeless doll on a shelf. And I thought about this: someday everyone I know will be this way. We shall all be stiffs in the ground. (Unless you escape up the crematorium’s smokestack.) Right now my mother looks like this. All of my good friends will end up like this. I will become death myself. My bones leeched of their essence. The howl of indignity on what is left of my visage. And so…
And so we live today. Not foolishly. Not addictively. Not proudly. But humbly, knowing we only have an allotted time to walk around. And then we shall be no more. (I’m not dealing with afterlives right now.) Then we too shall be corpses in the ground. But I can hear those folks who say “But I want my ashes to be scattered to the wind.” Yeah fine. But you might be doing this because you can’t face the meaning of the skeleton. But that’s one reason I came to Palermo. I knew this was here. I wanted to face death and consider my own. Which really means to consider the point of one’s life. And that I did. A frightening proposition.
But reason number one for coming? L’opera dei pupi. The Sicilian marionettes. One of the oldest styles in Europe. And my adventure among the pupazzi was just beginning. But first give me another arancine followed by a fresh cannoli!
Life and death indeed!
On the Rome to Milan train
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