Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Midwives of Palermo

in search of Marsa Allah

Where did you go? We were worried about you!” My Aunt Vitina thought something had happened to me out in the streets of Palermo. And indeed it had. I witnessed my birth in an ancient bodega, filled with Marsala and surrounded by the midwives of Palermo. I was too invigorated to even speak; she must have seen the look on my face. “Thank God you are alright, if anything had ever happened to you, I don’t know what I would tell Alfonso and Giulia.”

I would slip out again and again. And for the next moments, months, years even, I would go back into that delivery room in the quiet little alley, filtered with shade and sunlight, and sit there, listening to the barrels tell me their history.

Outside the streets were filling up with women, shopping for the evening meal. Where were the men? Off on some hunt? Still lingering in the arms of their divertimentu? Maybe embroiled on some sinister plan to regain a neighborhood or a city even? Or maybe still sleeping, swept by the fan, keeping them safe in their dreams, away from harm, or from doing any further.

On these little streets I wasn’t invisible anymore – they were staring at me. Why? What have I done, other than to land in their territory? Little did I know the real reason back then. Now from the tunnel of time it is a little clearer.

The wine – will I ever get back in there to taste from those barrels? Or maybe the question is – will I ever get out?

So it is I walk the searing streets year after year, dream after dream, searching for that piece of me that will finish the puzzle. An image pulls up, a hint appears. A wind blows and the proof sheets scatter to the floor and I forget what I was looking for.

I saw those words Oro, Ambra, Fine, Superiore, Vecchio, Vergine, Mandorlato, Secco, Dolce and others. Zibibbo. Riserva. Storica. Hard to determine as they were written in a script almost like calligraphy. Cryptic, exotic, forbidden.

Back home in America a year later I would be taken out to a bar on my 21st birthday. My brother-in-law wanted to buy me my first drink. We waited until midnight, somewhere on Balboa Island, and walked into a sad little bar, filled with regulars. I didn’t have the heart to tell him Sicily had beaten him to the punch. I’d had not only my first drink, but birth, baptism and confirmation, all of them, in the dank little bodega in Palermo. And there was no going back.

I would spend a good ten years as an apprentice to the invisible master, but the mere smell of that room, with exotic spices, flavors, smells, filled me with a knowing that I couldn’t imagine in words. It was beyond the visceral, right to the molecular, like a spear to the side.

And all along the way, the women with their knowing glances, odd for a place that moments before I had been invisible. Maybe I still was. Maybe they were too. Maybe it was just us in spirit-semblance, uncloaked, in pure essence, accepting.

Not an easy thing in the Palermo of post-Moor Sicily. This place still rang the bells of the Jesus' God and Muhammad's Allah, calling their chosen ones to prayer.

And the al-cohol in the Mars-ala? I start as I type these words, both imbued with the Arabic influence. No wonder this place is so antipodean. Men asleep, women awake. Men at war, women making things. Men are from Marsala, women are from Enna. Why, oh why, did I let those bells awaken me to this convergence of confusion?

Still, I must plod ahead. No time to think, the precious liquid has been cast upon the inner inferno. I must keep walking, taking pictures, staying awake, becoming alive. I am on fire, burning with the sun of August.

Must not fall. Must not sleep. Must not stop. be continued

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