Sunday, August 29, 2021

50 years ago ~ notes from Palermo ~ August, 1971

After booking passage on the ship from Naples, I spotted the bay of Palermo, the Conca d’Oro. My family was supposed to be meeting me at the dock. I felt like Vasco da Gama, or Amerigo Vespucci, in reverse.

My grand aunt and uncle were there with their family, welcoming this young, gawky Americano in jeans, carrying a back pack. I must have been a sight.

They spoke very little English, the younger ones more conversant than the elders. I spoke a smattering of Italian. But we were family! We can do this!

In fact, learning Italian by immersion works. I’m not saying it worked on me then, but I was thrust into a culture and a language and I had to find oxygen. I had to speak Italian.

These days when someone asks me if I speak Italian, I tell them that I am conversant, but not fluent in the language. But there are other languages, unspoken ones. I am more adept in those silent tongues.

I’m sure there’s an Italian professor out there who, if he is reading this, will shake his head and feel like all that effort was for naught. But it wasn’t. I see in the dark. I hear the crackle of the sun on the rain-spit piazza. I’ll be OK.

My aunt was sure I hadn’t eaten for days, so she rushed me back to the family compound to fatten me up.

What do I remember? Early mornings on the roof of the building overlooking the Centro Storico of Palermo, watching the ships come in and go out. Drinking caffe latte, so smooth, creamy, sweet and restorative. The seagulls chanting their staccato symphonies. The ships calling out from afar. The bells, the many bells of the churches of this ancient city. I love Palermo so very much. It is like going back into the family tree and visiting my ancient forbearers.

On the street, though, modernity is in bloom. Everything is hustle and bustle. It’s a big city atmosphere. Nothing like where I grew up in the little village on the desert. It was a bit intimidating. Survival in Palermo was, and still is, so basic to the daily comings and goings. The shopping at the open markets, preparing lunch and dinner from a menu of fresh items found in the stalls. The daily specials. And the wine.

Sicily is like Italy in some ways vinous. And in other ways, it is like going back in time, the time when wine began. Basic stuff, now so swank. Red wines from Perricone. White from Insolia and Catarratto. We didn’t know about Nero d’Avola and Nerello Mascalese. Etna was, for all intents, on the other side of the planet. This was Palermo, the center of the universe. We were fine with what we had.

The wines I remember were often a bit rough. I remember my uncle was always putting something in the glass with the red wine, be it sparkling water or a peach.

And then there was the habit of taking a glass of water and putting a milky liquid in it, making the water cloudy and mysterious. And when cold, quite refreshing, tasting of licorice. I loved how the water would cloud up. I still love that stuff, 50 years later.

I slept in my great grandfather’s room. He would haunt me during my afternoon naps. Just like my dad does sometimes. We have these conversations, me with the dead guys. They are always asking me “Why am I here?” and telling me “No, I am not dead!” Truly. I try and be courteous, but if they aren’t alive and they are talking to me, what does that make me? Eventually I wake up, with the sounds of the street below, Via Roma, the clapping of the horse hooves on the ancient avenue.

Everything about that trip 50 years ago, prepared me for an Italy which to this day, still excites me. It is a wondrous place. My relatives, all gone now, only come to visit in dream-space now. I’m so grateful I made my way to them, finding my roots, but really discovering another world. One which I loved then, and love to this day. 

wine blog +  Italian wine blog + Italy W

2 comments: said...

Thank you for reminding me how much I love our culture. The dead ones visi me too. So glad they do. Love you Sis.

Unknown said...

Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!

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