Sunday, July 14, 2013

Stuck on the Island - My Sicilian Obsession

The ferry is closed, rough waters in the Strait of Messina. Airplanes cannot fly in and out of Catania airport, too much ash from Etna. And the long anticipated bridge has yet to be built. I’m stuck on the island.

I’ve been home two weeks now and am going away again, soon. But I am obsessed with Sicily. I fear I need an intervention.

This is an ongoing theme, one that has been playing on and off since 1971, so it’s not about to go away easily. There’s a current that runs through my life, starting with the time my dad decided he was going to take his family, my mom, two sisters and me, to live in Palermo in the late 1950’s, for a year. I remember being excited about it. In fact, the whole family seemed to be ready for it. Thinking about it now, it was an unknown. We lived in a suburb of Los Angeles, in a settled area, big trees, very civilized. Very conservative. Low crime, high smog. But growing up there, it seemed nice. I climbed on olive trees, walked down the street to visit the grandparents, crushing carob pods with my shoes along the way. The nearby mountains could be seen when folks weren’t burning their incinerators. The beach was 30 minutes away. It was a nice life for a kid. And then my dad decided to take us and leave it all to a town that ten years earlier had been bombed by the Americans.


But it never materialized. For some reason, I think, my dad’s dad probably put the kibosh on it. My grandfather liked to control the process. And my dad was the perfect subservient Italian boy to his father. Too bad, my grandfather probably was acting only in his own interests. Probably guilt-tripped him, saying things like my dad’s mother would be sad to see her three grandchildren go so far away. Even if for only one year.

When it didn’t happen, it left a hole inside me. I don’t remember what my sister’s reactions were. I recall my mom was disappointed. I probably would have learned Italian much better.

Flash forward 15 years. 1971. I decide to go on my own. First time out of the country. Los Angeles to Rome. Rome to Naples, via train. Naples to Palermo via the overnight ferry. And bam, late August, and I’m wandering the Centro Storico, the markets, all of Palermo, a piedi with my trust CanonVIT rangefinder, wide angle lens and slew of Tri-X. Happy boy.


What happened in that time set the stage for something I would seek for the rest of my life. What is it? Maybe it’s my “Rosebud.” I’m not really sure, because it’s more of a feeling, an impression, a sense of place and time that reminds me of nothing about any experience I have ever had in this life. Recognizing that this is a little irrational, or non-linear at best, I’m clear in that this all seems like something out of a dream more than a hard and fast reality. And maybe that is at the core of the enduring appeal of Palermo, and Sicily.

For sure it has nothing to do with the clichés we saw coming out of Hollywood. My experience at the Teatro Massimo was much different than Michael Corleone’s. In fact, my experience with Sicily has never been so much visceral (which can dominate) as abstract. The colors, the smells, the temperature, the flavors, the textures are more like a painting that imbues an impression. No Visconti-esque neo-realism residue in this dream.

And how does this relate to the wine trail, which seems to have veered onto one of those famous Sicilian bridges to nowhere?

Wine impressions, starting with the most important one, one which probably had as much to do with me getting into wine as any one thing. The bodega in Palermo which sold Marsala in casks.


I still remember when I walked into that dark, cool, long space and saw elderly barrels of wine. Honey, orange, clove, musk, sweat, chestnut, steam, egg, nutmeg, the aromas bombarded my senses. I put my camera away, closed my eyes and breathed in a bouquet for the ages. Life oozed out of those casks.

Recently, on the slopes of Etna in an ancient vineyard. The farmer handed me a strawberry. It exploded in my mouth; there was a universe of flavors, as if my mouth had become Vishnu’s. Right then I saw the magic of the volcano. That strawberry taught me as much about Sicilian (Etna) wine as anything. How do you tell a young sommelier seeking his fame and fortune, who also controls a wine list, about something as important as that? It’s too abstract, even though it was a primal, direct lesson from Mother Earth and La Mutagna.


Another time, in Noto, I’d just had a short but very deep philosophical exchange at Caffé Sicilia with Corrado Assenza, whom Marian Burros of the New York Times once called a  "mad genius." I walked outside, turned and went into Dr. Gaetano Sanfilippo’s farmacia. It was there I found a salve that I wish I would have gotten more of. It was balmy, pungent and sweetly reminiscent of the fields we had just been in. I put some on my face and it took years off my life. It was a gateway to the fountain of youth, found next door to Caffé Sicilia. I walked back to the caffé and had a canollo, only one. I didn’t want to be young and overweight.

Smells, tastes, potions, what else contributes to this mania of a lifetime that has been stalking me?


Right now Santa Rosalia is turning Palermo into a giant, muggy extended festival. Lights, pastries, music. Ah yes, music.

Horns. Soulful, slow, lamenting, funereal. Bells. They ring at different times in different places, but they have a way of transforming time into something timeless. These two sounds, alongside the hum of the city and the buzz of the country, they sonify my immersion into this bottomless spring. Add to that the occasional chime of a ship as it announces its approach to the harbor. I remember lying in my great grandfather’s bed, feverish and semi-delusional, hearing the bells, the ships and the buzzing of the motorinos and they scooted rashly up the Via Roma. The cities are a cacophony of staccato. Meanwhile, in the country, it’s so still you can hear every fly buzz by, lighter than the scooters, silkier in texture, not as provocative but announcing “I too am alive.” Yes, many things proclaim they are alive, even the ones long gone.

And that leads me to something that is really at the crux of this waking somnambulism that has been a lifelong compulsion. I love to wander. By foot, by car, with a camera, without, in front of a computer, in dreams, anywhere and anyhow. And Sicily is fertile ground for the wandering soul.


That is how I see it, awake and in dreams. There is no barrier between the two worlds when it comes to Sicily. Eating, not eating. Breathing awake and dreaming about the perfume at 1:00AM. Sicily is a conduit between the waking and the dream worlds. There is little distinction between the two as polarities; they co-exist harmoniously in my world. With or without the refreshing granita of the street vendor, the sensation can easily be recalled.

And that is how I am always drawn back, again and again to this island state of being.



wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W

3 comments:

Do Bianchi said...

I know there is a English translation of Leonardo Sciascia's powerful book, _Sicily as Metaphor_. I bet you can find a copy using WorldCat.

So much of what you've been writing about Sicily echoes his thesis re. the Sicilianization of Italy...

Keep going back... we'll follow...

Marco Sagana said...

In Sicilia e la verita. Just what I needed to read first thing in the morning, like being in a lemon grove in Vittoria.

From Your Mindseye said...

Again, I am left feeling like I have been deprived of some visceral experience that was meant to be.
I remember feeling great disappointment that we did not go to Sicily. I often wonder how different our lives would have had we gone through that sliding door into another world. It was Nonna that made a huge fuss about us going. She had some intuitive sense about it not being a good time to do that. I think in light of the family dynamics of that time, she was probably right. But I have always longed for the experience. You bring it to me in the beautiful and poignant way you right about our heritage. Bravo, mio fratello.

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