Sunday, June 12, 2011

Palermo: One last stroll before leaping

La Vucciria and beyond...

I love the legend about the Sicilian philosopher Empedocles, who at the age of 60 leapt into the abyss of Etna. In the summer of '71, who knew a mere 40 years later one would find themselves standing on a similar precipice? A year later at the base of Mt. Shasta in Northern California in a Zen Monastery a retired restaurateur would repeat his favorite Zen koan, “Nothing above, nothing below, so I leap off.” Time is no longer linear, but stitched together perfectly for this traveler.

Certainly I leapt into Sicily with all the youthful vigor my 20 year young frame possessed, held together by insecurities and testosterone, bound by the dread of the unknown and fear of loss. Recorded by my trusty Canon VIT rangefinder and a wad of Tri-X film. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and because of that, I wasn’t frozen by panic. I jumped and jumped often. Thankfully I plunged into the pond of my ancient tribe in Palermo. And while they didn’t quite understand this tall lanky American who looked oddly like them, they let me be. I would swim around for awhile, and then they would feed me and give me their wine. They caused me to be reborn as a young adult coming into a world I would come back to again and again. Sometimes for work, sometimes to replenish some ancient battery inside that only Sicily and Palermo could recharge adequately. And as I sit on the precipice of time in the same frame of time as Empedocles, I look above and below and am ready to jump again.

But rather than a plummet into the blazing fissure (there is time enough and all of eternity for that) I took one more walk around my beloved ancestral grounds and the market place, La Vucciria, for one more look before I headed away from this ancient island.

In the market I saw my people, and myself, at all stages of life. Young child, woman, teenager, man in his prime, old man, prince, beggar, Olympian and cripple. We were all there and connected by mind and race and blood and the thick brodo of Palermo. In the walkways of the market all manner of languages could be heard, and if one could imagine, all manner of ancient chattering girdled the stands, like flies upon the fish, swirling and buzzing, mobilizing from the primal slime of Palermo.

If one could say they remember their baptism, I would have to say it was on those blisteringly hot days where fish and vegetables danced their tango, where buttons and frying pans chased one another, where young women and young men courted, made love, married, had families and died in the torrent of life that is La Vucciria.

Walking, walking, stopping. Focus, set exposure, walk on. 20 feet ahead, all set. Walking. Seamlessly integrated into the spirit of the place so that I disappear. And then the world was frozen for that moment, myself included. I was invisible even to myself. And then to walk on some more and again and again.

That's what was on my list of things to get at La Vucciria. No sword-fish this time, no anchovies, no ties, no pastries, no pre-artisanal heirloom DOP tomatoes. No consumables. My Marshall Plan focused on gathering memories and material for the future.

My natural being has forgotten many of those moments, but the scads of books of black and white negatives are still there to pick up and find another riff, another note.

Funny, how those images are more important to me than a fast shiny car, or a carton of fresh burrata. Or a fancy Nero from Avola. The 20th century mystic Therese Neumann once said "I live by God's light." And while I am no Therese Neumann, or Empedocles, there is something wonderfully symmetrical, looking back 40 years, thrusting these images and memories into the future as if they were a guide post for something to come.

I miss Palermo, intensely. But the Palermo that travels constantly by my side is an old and trusted friend. So really, there is no loss, just a slice of silly, nostalgic weakness.

The light that I live by was once made up of silver halide crystals. Now the light is gathered by patterns of 1’s and 0’s. The brain and my soul feed upon these images. And I am kept, for a little while longer, from the flames of Etna.

In the morning, after the Sunday supper with the family, we said our farewells. Palermo, and Sicily, is my lapis philosophorum. But the train ticket says Palermo to Cosenza. So back on the (wine) trail to Italy. To Calabria. And right into the heart of a lusty, soulful, carnal, picante side that awaits this young summer traveler. Ciao, Sicilia. Alla prossima.

On to Calabria...

written and photographed by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy
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