Friday, May 20, 2011

Palermo: The Invisible Prints

Love in the time of Catarratto

The front has been perched above the city for days now. Hot, humid, hovering. Stalled. All the while I have been locked in the time machine, trapped in another place and era, Palermo in 1971. And while I go back there to retrieve an image or a memory, this time I am walking the streets in August, alone, invisible, camera in hand. What will I bring back this time?

Pictures, poetry, imprints from a time that seemingly was just yesterday. As time will have it, it was nearly half a century ago, mind boggling to grasp something like that. But the tunnel of life shreds time as the wind blows hot and steady across the Sicilian plains.

Shards from a poem found, on aged and discolored paper, written in 1971 on an Italian typewriter:
kid scream horn honk smell of fish pervades all.
walking down this crazy via somewhere in Palermo,
don't know why, everyone's asleep, the city's mine
at 4 PM.

Yes, the bells of Santa Maria Assunta in Piazza Vigilena tolled four times and entered into the dark room upon the rays of light that streamed to wake the sleeper. I awoke to find not the twin beds I had spoken of to my great grandfather, but a large bed in this room of his. Drowsy and bored, I threw on my clothes, and snuck out into the street without waking my aunt and uncle. I so wanted to be on the prowl, alone with camera, to wander, to see this city of my ancestors on my own. And so it was, and has been, for all this time.

I practiced being undetected with a camera before I realized I had been invisible my whole life. In a world of billions, why would one think otherwise? We all are the center of our own universe, but those universes rarely intersect with others. Along the Via Roma I could travel through time as though I were watching the film. In this case, with a load of Tri-X film and my rangefinder. God was I happy.

Imagine being 20, to not understand what anyone around you was saying, to be invisible and to have an afternoon to explore that world. Isn’t youth something of what that quintessentially is? But to not know is even more delicious.

The heat. Stifling, save a rare breeze, which only served to turn up the heat on the main thoroughfares. A dash into one of the ancient vicolos, where shadows and cooler breezes dwell, refresh. But the pleasure is fleeting, as in the alley there is no life, like the underground catacombs lined up with the dead from previous generations of Palermitani.

Back onto Via Roma, where the life streamed out of the buildings from the afternoon siestas, looking for dinner, bargains, for a way to quench the thirst of life, if only for a moment or a memory.

I was walking on the streets that Sciascia and de Lampudusa walked, in their neighborhoods. In the neighborhood where my dad, as a kid would play, and his father and father’s father would play and work and live and die. And the sleepy little kid from California knew nothing. But the camera would record and remember for the day when the clouds finally moved on and the light would reveal.

To dodge the heat I dashed into a shop. It was filled with people queuing up for food, from baked goods to the thick, viscous, deliciously bitter espresso they served in Palermo. The streets reeked of roasted coffee, one of the few aromas the nose doesn’t tune out. Inside the parlor, the tribes of Palermo convened to sip, to catch a breeze from the fan, to sweeten life a little with a sfinge, pastine al sesamo or pietrafendola which was ubiquitous in August.

Feeling strengthened by the bitter and the sweet, I ventured back out into the avenue. Wandering, slowly, looking for the first time at a world I oddly recognized. I was in a dream in a dream. And then I came upon another shop. It was filled with barrels on one side and a long bar on the other. As I walked by the barrels I saw the words Oro, Ambra, Fine, Superiore, Vecchio, Vergine, Mandorlato, Secco, Dolce and any number of variations. I‘d found the ancient Marsala bodega and wine bar my uncle was telling me about - the beginning of my world, of wine, and the path upon which for the next 40 years I would tread.

Finally, the rain falls. be continued


Marco Rosso Malpelo said...

I searched Marsala wine a while back and got this gem: "Is Marsala like Merlot?"

My last time in Palermo, I found a wine shop in Mondello that had some 15 year old Marsala. I bought a bottle after tasting the spirit of place within the liquid elixir.

You conjure up the memories like a true Sicilian wizard, amico.

Val said...

Sometimes wandering the streets alone is the best way to get a feel for a place, to allow it to ingrain itself beneath the surface a little more. Bravo - somehow you were able to allow me to revisit that grit & intensity I remember as I wandered those streets in Palermo, always using Vias Roma & Vittorio Emanuale as a point of reference if I got too lost (which is quite easy when I'm too distracted by putting things in my mouth & scoping out wine lists).

Brian Reyes said...

I loved this piece Alfonso! It's beautifully written, heavy with with nostalgia. The pics too! But I take this phrase above all: "I practiced being undetected with a camera before I realized I had been invisible my whole life. In a world of billions, why would one think otherwise?" Wonderful mate, truly wonderful.
Greetings from Gib,

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