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Posts Tagged ‘Sicily’

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“O sanctissima” (O most holy) is a Roman Catholic hymn in Latin, seeking the prayers of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and often sung in various languages on her feast days. The earliest known publication was from London in 1792, presenting it as a traditional song from Sicily; but no original source or date has been confirmed for the simple melody or the poetic text. The tune is often called “Sicilian Mariners Hymn” or similar titles, referring to the seafarers’ nightly invocation of Mary as their maternal protector. (Wikipedia)

“Travellers all agree in their account of the effects of the simple air called ‘The Virgin’s Hymn,’ sung in unison by the whole crew of the Sicilian seamen on board their ships when the sun sets, or when it is the twenty-fourth hour of Italy.”
William Seward 1792.

Imagine if you will, a calm evening on the black waters of the Mediterranean. A group of small fishing boats bobbing gently in the swells, a few lights twinkling like the stars above. Then from the boats the rough voices of the fishermen rising in uniform with the solemn strains of the hymn.

Also, note the interesting rhyming pattern in the Latin version.

O sanctissima, o piissima,
dulcis Virgo Maria!
Mater amata, intemerata,
ora, ora pro nobis.

Tu solatium et refugium,
Virgo Mater Maria.
Quidquid optamus, per te speramus;
ora, ora pro nobis.

Ecce debiles, perquam flebiles;
salva nos, o Maria!
Tolle languores, sana dolores;
ora, ora pro nobis.

Virgo, respice, Mater, aspice;
audi nos, o Maria!
Tu medicinam portas divinam;
ora, ora pro nobis.
O most holy, o most loving,
sweet Virgin Mary!
Beloved Mother, undefiled,
pray, pray for us.

You are solace and refuge,
Virgin, Mother Mary.
Whatever we wish, we hope it through you;
pray, pray for us.

Look, we are weak and deeply deplorable;
save us, o Mary!
Take away our lassitude, heal our pains;
pray, pray for us.

Virgin, look at us, Mother, care for us;
hear us, o Mary!
You bring divine medicine;
pray, pray for us.

 

Many, many years ago, I was a mere callow lad and altar boy in the Italian-American Parish Assumption Church in Tuckahoe New York. The parish and church existed mainly because at the time Italians were discouraged from attending the much larger so-called American Church nearby. At morning mass most of the worshippers were black-clothed vecchiadelli (Old Women). I would often listen to them singing this hymn in that strange reedy nasal voice that characterizes Sicilian singing. It has remained a fond memory of mine, even until now 70 years later.

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I have just finished reading the second installment in the series of my current book crush, The Adventures of Auntie Poldi. Although the books purport to be detective stories, I, frankly, do not recall in either of the two novels of the series I have read so far who was killed or why. Nor can I claim they are great or even good literature. So, what attracts me to these books?

Perhaps it is the magnificently exuberant and shameless bit of overwriting with which the author begins his novel:

“Although in the past few months Poldi had temporarily thwarted death thanks to solving her handyman Valentino’s murder, her romantic encounter with Vito Montana (Polizia di Stato’s chief inspector in charge of homicide cases), her friendship with her neighbours Valérie and sad Signora Cocuzza, my aunts’ efforts and, last but not least, her own love of the chase, we all know the way of the world: peace reigns for a while, the worst seems to be over, the sun breaks through the clouds, the future beckons once more, your cigarette suddenly tastes good again, the air hums with life and the whole world becomes a congenial place pervaded by whispers of great things to come. A simply wonderful, wonderful, universally familiar sensation. And then, like a bolt from the blue, pow! Not that anyone has seen it coming, but the wind changes. Fate empties a bucket of excrement over your head, chuckling as it does so, and all you can think is “Wow, now I really need a drink!” And the whole shitty process starts again from scratch. So it was no wonder my aunts became alarmed when Poldi still had no running water after two weeks and Lady was murdered. No doubt about it, the wind had changed and the ice was growing steadily thinner.”
Giordano, Mario. Auntie Poldi and the Vineyards of Etna (An Auntie Poldi Adventure Book 2). HMH Books.

 

Or perhaps, it is Auntie Poldi herself, a lusty sixty-year-old German woman who had married a Sicilian immigrant to Bavaria and who after his death retired to her husband’s ancestral town on the slopes of Mt Etna there to “drink herself to death with a view of the sea.”

Poldi wears a wig, dresses usually in brightly colored caftans, enthusiastically and vigorously enjoys sex, and as the daughter of a Bavarian chief of detectives is compulsively drawn to solving crimes, photographing cute policemen in uniform and bedding dusky and hunky Sicilian detectives (well one in particular).

On the other hand, Poldi was a woman of strong opinions as well as strong appetites. As she explained to her nephew whom she had appointed to be the Watson to her Holmes:

“I’ve never been devout,” she explained later before I could query this in surprise because I knew that Poldi harbored a fundamental aversion to the Church. “I’m spiritual but not devout, know what I mean? I’ve never had much time for the Church. The mere thought of it infuriates me. The males-only organizations, the pope, the original-sin malarkey, the inhibited cult of the Virgin Mary, the false promises of redemption, the proselytism, the misogyny, the daft words of the psalms and hymns. Mind you, I’ve always liked the tunes. I always enjoyed chanting in the ashram, you know. I screwed every hippie in the temple of that Kali sect in Nevada, I’ve meditated in Buddhist monasteries, and I believe in reincarnation and karma and all that, likewise in people’s essential goodness. I don’t know if there’s a god and if he’s got something against sex and unbelievers, but I can’t help it, I’m Catholic. It’s like malaria: once you’ve got it you never get rid of it, and sooner or later you go and make peace with it.”
Giordano, Mario.Auntie Poldi and the Vineyards of Etna (An Auntie Poldi Adventure Book 2). HMH Books.

Or on even another hand, perhaps it is the authors alter ego, Poldi’s 34-year-old unmarried nephew, the narrator in the books, a self-described but inept author who works at a call center in Bavaria. He has been attempting to write the great Bavarian novel for years now but seems to have only recently gotten inspired to write the first four chapters the last of which he enthusiastically describes in a blaze of overwriting:

“I was in full flow. I was the adjective ace, the metaphor magician, the sorcerer of the subordinate clause, the expresser of emotions, the master of a host of startling but entirely plausible turns of events. The whole of my fourth chapter had been completed within a week. I was a paragon of self-discipline and inspiration, the perfect symbiosis of Germany and Italy. I was a Cyclops of the keyboard. I was Barnaba. All I lacked was a nymph, but my new Sicilian styling would soon change that.”
Giordano, Mario. Auntie Poldi and the Vineyards of Etna (An Auntie Poldi Adventure Book 2). HMH Books.

He found himself periodically called to travel to Sicily and reside in an attic room in Poldi’s house whenever the Sicilian relatives believed Poldi was skating on the thin edge of reality or whenever Poldi herself demanded his return because she felt she needed someone to beguile and complain to.

Or perhaps, it is the denizens of my beloved Sicily, like the three aunts fascinated and often shocked by, and at times participants in, Poldi’s escapades. Or her partners in crime, so to speak, sad Carmina and the local priest. Or, Poldi’s French friend, Valerie her forlorn nephew’s love interest who Poldi steadfastly refuses to allow him to meet.

“For Valérie, like Poldi, happiness possessed a simple binary structure, and the whole of human existence was suspended between two relatively distant poles. Between heaven and hell, love and ignorance, responsibility and recklessness, splendour and scuzz, the essential and the dispensable. And within this dual cosmic structure there existed only two kinds of people: the deliziosi and the spaventosi, the charming and the frightful. Rule of thumb: house guests, friends and dogs are always deliziosi, the rest are spaventosi. At least until they prove otherwise.”

“‘You see,’ Poldi told me once, ‘Valérie has understood that happiness is a simple equation. Happiness equals reality minus expectation.’”
Giordano, Mario. Auntie Poldi and the Vineyards of Etna (An Auntie Poldi Adventure Book 2). HMH Books.

 

Or perhaps, it is just that I am a child of Sicily, have lived as well as visited there many times and loved that large rocky Island whose citizens have suffered almost two thousand five hundred years of continuous occupation by a host of invaders— Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Germans, French, Spanish, Bourbons, Nazi’s, and even British and Americans. Where the inhabitants were considered so irrelevant by their foreign overlords their cities, unlike the rest of Europe, were built without defensive walls. Where the people are reticent with strangers but boisterous and generous with friends and family, where Bella Figura reigns supreme, the cuisine extraordinary, people speak in gestures and revel in the mores of their medieval culture and where “Being Sicilian is a question of heart, not genes” (Giordano, Mario. Auntie Poldi and the Vineyards of Etna, An Auntie Poldi Adventure Book 2. HMH Books.)

Whatever, the reasons for my own enjoyment of the books, Pookie says you should check them out, after all, as Auntie Poldi says: “Moderation is a sign of weakness.” (Giordano, Mario. Auntie Poldi and the Vineyards of Etna (An Auntie Poldi Adventure Book 2). HMH Books.)

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On the day before Christmas, I did not leave the house until the evening. That was OK. It was a grey day with a light drizzle and I was not feeling well. I did not sleep much during the night and the side effects of the cancer treatment played havoc with my body and emotions. I spoke with HRM on FaceTime. He had just finished a day of snowboarding at a ski-resort above Lago Maggiore. He looked well and happy.

HRM at Lago Maggiore

Nikki was there also. He looked pleased but seems to have put on weight. HRM is soon off to England to spend a few days with Adrian’s family after which they will all fly with Nikki to NYC to welcome in the new year among the Times Square throngs.

I rested in the afternoon. Then I prepared to attend the Christmas Eve party with Naida’s children and their families. Naida spent part of the day practicing Christmas Carols on the piano. I concluded that meant we would spend a good part of the evening caroling.

I expected the side effects of the treatment will limit my eating, drinking, and singing. I hoped it would not put a damper on anyone’s enjoyment.

I remember, one night in Sicily about 50 years ago following the local automobile races. The participants and their families gathered at a large farmhouse among the vineyards. The old grandmother, who was bedridden, insisted her bed be dragged from the bedroom and positioned in the center of the salon. She spent the evening lying there telling all who would listen that she was happy everyone was having such an enjoyable time singing and dancing and how much suffering her various maladies caused her. It was all great fun. Later my girlfriend and I slipped out of the house and walked through the vineyards until the music and the laughter drifting out from the open windows spread across the hills adding their silver sounds to the silver light of the full moon. There we spent the rest of the night until the first light of sunrise brightened the eastern skies somewhere beyond Mt. Etna.

Shortly before we were to leave for the Christmas party, I gave Naida the present I had bought her, a large brown leather purse. She was distressed that the present she had gotten for me had not arrived yet. She rushed out to the mailbox to see if there was a late night delivery.

She returned carrying a large box and happily announced, “It arrived!” She then left me to open the box, took the purse and went upstairs to prepare herself to leave for the party.

I set about cutting away through the tough cellophane tape that bound the box closed. After a while, I had severed enough of them to be able to rip open the box. In it, I found the box filled with dried flowers. Lot’s of dried flowers.

Now, I have learned in the past few months that Naida’s thought processes could be quite subtle and so I decided not to jump to any conclusions and spent the next 15 or 20 minutes attempting to unravel the conundrum of symbols and goals that this gift, one of love I was sure, represented.

I couldn’t help but recall the 0’Henry story of the down and out Babbitts of NY. She who cut off her magnificent hair to purchase a watch fob on which he could hang his grandfathers pocket watch of which he was so proud and he in turn selling that same watch in order to buy her a glorious baret to display in her hair.

Eventually, I gave up trying to rationalize my way through the puzzle and carried the box upstairs. There I found Naida in distress. “I cannot find the purse,” she exclaimed. “It just disappeared.” Now, this was not some little purse, but one of those giant ones that someone could carry everything they own in it, even a small car. We searched everywhere. No purse.

I then showed her the box of dried flowers. “No,” she said, “it’s supposed to be a Hat. The winter hat you wanted, not dried flowers.”

We eventually reasoned that the dried flowers belong to one of the medical students living with us who plans to wed in a month or so. “But,” she said, “where’s your hat?”

We drove to her daughter’s house. Along the way, I noticed Naida appeared distressed. I asked her what was that matter. “I must be losing my mind,” she replied. “First, your present to me disappears and then there is no hat.”

The party was pleasant. We sang carols. Naida and Jenifer, her daughter, played the piano. I was a little too ill to fully enjoy it all.

Caroling in Sacramento.

After returning home, I climbed the steps to the bedroom with the dog trailing along behind. He scooted over to his bed and sat in that proud erect way dogs sometimes do. He stared a slightly arrogant stare into my eyes. “Oh ho,” I thought, “what do we have here?” I looked closer and saw a small patch of brown leather peeking up from a fold in the dog blanket. He glanced were I looked. He knew he was caught out. He tried to resume his arrogant look but could only manage shame. “The game is up.”

Apparently, while Naida was otherwise occupied, he dragged the leather purse to the dog bed — the purse being about the same size as the dog bed. He carefully tucked it in the bottom so it lay perfectly flat. He then dragged over one of his blankets and tucked that in so that the purse was well hidden.

I called Naida to come upstairs. When she arrived, I told her the story and added, “See you are not going senile at all.” She seemed dubious. “Look at it this way,” I said. “We solved not one but two mysteries. We had a good time at the party. We discovered our dog to be a master criminal and we came away with a great story. What better Christmas could one have.”

She remained dubious. “Yes,” she drawled, “but what about your hat.”

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A. IN THE GOLDEN HILLS.

Thanksgiving Day brought with it an intermittent sun playing hide and seek with the rain. We had lunch in the Golden Hills with HRM, Uncle Mask, Adrian and N. I was surprised to see N there. She had come to California a few days before and will remain until late December when she will take HRM to Italy for the Holidays. The lunch featured a well-made ham with several toppings to choose from. I was a bit disconcerted because I had expected I would be minding H during Dick’s absence in early December but with N there, I expect that would not be necessary.

N and HRM

Later, we drove back to Sacramento for dinner with Naida’s Daughter Sarah, her family, and their two dogs, a black and white brindled standard poodle named George Washington and Franklyn Delano Roosevelt, a large mixed pit bull and retriever. We brought along Boo-boo, a mixed Chihuahua and whatever, who although he may have lacked the size and prestigious name of the other two dogs, by the end of the night had clearly acquitted himself as an equal.

Dinner included turkey with all the fixings and pumpkin pie and cheesecake for dessert. The cheesecake made by Sarah’s son Charlie, who happily explained to all of us the secret of making a perfect cheesecake — first rule “do not beat your eggs,” mix them slowly using only a certain rotation of one’s arms and shoulders. He then demonstrated the movement. It looked quite painful

B. POOKIE’S ADVENTURES IN THE ENCHANTED FOREST:


The rains have returned soft and gentle. The streets, lawns, and pathways in the Enchanted Forest glisten a brilliant red and yellow. Here and there pods from the Deodar Cedar litter the walkway like little banana slugs. For the first time, it seemed like autumn.

As usual, we attended the Saturday morning coffee at the clubhouse. Surprisingly, as many men attended this week as women. I sat a bit off to the side, observing as I often do. I could not help noticing the usual neatly coiffed hair on the spy who goes by the name “Ducky.” It always looks as though she just came from the hairdresser. Unlike most of us at this advanced age whose hair of various colors gone drab, interlaced with streaks or dreary grey, and winds about our heads like birds nests, hers, a brilliant white, sparkled like icy snow in the sunlight.

I decided to survey hands today. Most of the woman had long slender fingers gone knobby with age. The model’s fingers were the longest. Like many whose movements are often characterized as elegant, the tips of her fingers seemed to move as though they were independent of the hands to which they were attached. Naida’s hands, unlike the others, were the hands of someone who spent a life of a farm or a ranch, thick and strong.

I noticed while most kept their hands relatively still when they talked they would now and then gesture whenever they were making a point. Naida again was an outlier. Her hands flew about vigorously as she talked. She would not be out of place in Southern Italy. In fact, in Sicily, the Sicilians would consider her an uplifting and ebullient person before even hearing a word she had spoken. Alas, to these same people, her hand movements would appear to them as gibberish — meaningless noise. Americans use their hands while speaking only as punctuation. Without words it is meaningless. In Sicily, the gestures are words and have meaning independent of what is spoken.

We then returned to the house, Naida to work on her Memoir and me to write this. Later we walked the dog along the levee beside the American River. The setting sun shining through air recently washed clean by the rains lit up the autumn colors like fireworks.

On Sunday we sat around the house. Naida read to me sections from her memoir. As she read the words, my mind transformed them into scenes from a movie — the frightening 25 mile skate down the frozen Big Hole River; learning of her parents divorce; the comical introduction to her father’s new girlfriend; the infatuation of a 13 year old girl with her handsome uncle; the fight with her brother over a plate of macaroni and cheese; the dreams, the fears and the sorrows… It will be a wonderful book — a Little Women with real drama.

The Author at Work in Her Studio

Monday I had an appointment with my primary care physician. As he entered the examining room, I said, “Since my surgeons agree I am a dead man walking, I intend to go out happy, pain-free and without my bowels turned into cement. So, I need you to prescribe the pills that will allow me to do so.”

“We are from birth all dead men walking, ” he responded. “Nevertheless, I think I can provide what you need. I even know of something that relieves pain without constipation.” He added that he understood what I was going through because he has had two bouts of his own with cancer. Also, his seven-year-old child was struck with bone cancer and had to have his leg amputated below the knee.

Once again, I found myself embarrassed and humiliated by my misplaced sense of humor.

The doctor a youngish man, in his late thirties or early forties, is built like an NFL linebacker and specializes in sports medicine. At my prior visits to his office, I noticed a deep sadness in his eyes that made me wonder. Now I know why.

He prescribed a healthy supply of Xanax to keep my spirits up, a pain reliever that keeps my bowels lubricated and even a topical that eliminates the irritation caused by my clothing rubbing against the tumor. Finally, he explained that the most important thing he’d learned from his own experience with cancer was that one ought not to concern one’s self about the future but concentrate only on what needs to be done that day. In other words, take it one day at a time. I am not a fan of platitudes (unless they are my own, of course) but appreciated the effort.

C. TO SAN FRANCISCO AND BACK AGAIN:


On Tuesday we left for San Francisco to spend the evening with Peter and Barrie before my visit with the physician at UCSF early the next day. We brought the dog along with us because Barrie thought it would be a good idea to see how he got along with their dog, Ramsey.

That evening, leaving the dogs with Barrie, Naida and I went to a French restaurant on 24th Street where Peter’s trio was performing. They were very good, as was the food. Peter played bass, the leader of the group, guitar, and the third member, the violin. Peter told us he (the violinist) is or was first violinist in the LA Symphony. If you’re ever in the Noe Valley area on a night they are playing you should drop in.

The Boys in the Band.

The next day, I met with the oncologist at UCSF to explore potential treatment options including clinical trials. As usual, I began with an inappropriate joke. When the doctor entered the room and settled into the chair opposite me, I said, “Now that two surgeons have agreed that ripping out a part of my throat and slicing off parts of my body with which to fill the resulting hole was not advisable, what options are available to me?”

The doctor a youngish Korean-American oncologist with a national reputation was not amused. Nevertheless, after asking some questions he played out a treatment program that appeared to me to be promising if we could get the insurance company to approve it in a reasonable amount of time.

D. BACK IN THE ENCHANTED FOREST AND A VISIT TO THE RIVER OF RED GOLD:


On Wednesday, I rested all day and Thursday, I turned my attention primarily to a request of Terry’s that I am sure, as usual, will turn out more interesting than beneficial. I also received a call from my doctors that the insurance company approved my treatment plan and it will start early next week. Hooray!

If I have learned anything from life (I am pretty sure I have not), it is that that one learns less from success than from failure and it’s more interesting too. Also, behaving foolishly is a lot more fun than propriety could ever be.

On Friday, I accompanied Naida to Meadowlark Inn at Slough-house on the old Jackson Highway. There Naida had a luncheon with a small book club (about eight women). They discussed her California Gold Trilogy. Later we all went to the historical Slough-house cemetery several of the characters mentioned in her books were buried. Naida told some fascinating stories about the area — the Native American, Chinese and European settlers, the gold discoveries, the massacres and the private lives of the people buried in the cemetery that she had garnered from their diaries. She even found the grave of the old woman who had become her friend and whose diary had begun her interest in the area and became an important part of her books.

The Girls at the Cemetery.

Following that, we drove to the bank of the Cosumnes River in Rancho Murieta where the Indian village described in her books stood. She became quite upset when she saw that the great old mother oak, sacred to the Native Americans who were buried in the ancient midden that lay beneath its branches, had been chopped down by the developer (despite his promises not to.) We then walked along the river bank and explored the rocks containing many native grinding holes and the stepped stone platform where she was sure the natives gathered to listen to the orations of the head man whenever there was a festival or a party. Naida mentioned that the area was so productive that it has been estimated the average time native male worked (built things, hunted and so-on) was only 45 minutes a day and the average women 3 hours. It was a peaceful paradise that existed for over 600 years until it was utterly destroyed by European immigrants from the United State in less than twenty.

On the Banks of the Cosumnes.




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When I first arrived in Sicily, now about 50 years ago, although the modern technology of the time, telephone, automobiles, television and the like had been well established,  much of the social life of the people remained medieval — Marriages were arranged, dowries negotiated, crimes of honor legal and common, crime organized, autocrats vicious, noble families if not admired then respected, and government remote and rapacious. It was a place for travelers, not tourists, for those that traveled with no schedules expecting discomfort, not those with schedules, sights to see and an expectation of basic comforts. Yet, despite their suspicion of strangers, the people were welcoming when that suspicion waned, the food good, the wines better and the climate benign.

Since then, most of that has changed, the young are more independent (although my female cousins, PHDs all, will not leave the island even for brief periods without their mother’s consent), suspicion lessened, crime diminished, noble families dispersed and the government still corrupt but no longer remote. The food has not yet been completely homogenized to suit the food production industry and the wines are perhaps even better and while tourism has become accepted, old historical sights cleaned up and new ones developed, it is still not as easy to get around, make schedules and enjoy pure luxury (Taormina and a few other places accepted — but it was always like that). On the other hand, there are few places that afford the wanderer such a variety of experience, even ones that are not so good but, on the other hand, rarely so bad either.

My visits to Canicatti and to Antonio’s house* are neither as a tourist or a traveler, but are simply a returning home. As I grew older, I found, at least for me, there is no one “home,” a principle place of residence perhaps, but many homes identified by the fact that there reside, people, I love and like to be with. In Antonio’s case, there is also the food and the wine.

*Antonio’s House the home of Antonio Cani, physician, master chef and Airbnb Super Host. In my opinion, he serves the finest Sicilian foods on the Island.

(For more about Sicily See also my blog at: https://josephpetrillo.wordpress.com/2018/08/21/this-and-that-from-re-thai-r-ment-by-3th-28-shadow-0007-july-18-2018/)

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A. POOKIE’S ADVENTURES IN SICILY — GETTING THERE IS HALF THE FUN:

Following a delightful breakfast of coffee, brioche and a fried egg with pepper chips, we set off to Cosenza and the train station. After a series of the usual misadventures and annoyances, I boarded the train to Sicily. It was the same cattle car I remember from years ago when I used to take the dolorous train from Sicily to Rome, a train carrying the impoverished Sicilians to jobs in the North (Sicilian Il Norte) — standing room only for the 13-hour trip. This time there were no impoverished workers going north, but many not particularly impoverished people going south for whatever reason. Passengers still were standing in the aisles and sitting on one another’s laps. My reserved seat was among a group of young women and families going somewhere in the same direction I was. They did not appreciate my expropriation of the seat one member of the group occupied. She then continued the trip sitting in the lap of an older man accompanying them or walking up and down the aisles.

I was also disturbed by the loud braying voice of one of the men traveling with that particular group. I could not make up my mind if he was a “cafone” ( loud, ignorant and oblivious) or “pazzo” (crazy). I decided it was a little bit of both. Even those traveling with him seemed to either humor or ignore him. When the women next to me left the train at Messina, I moved into her seat by the window. He sat down next to me and began to fling his arms about, pester me with questions and opinions and generally acted grievously obnoxious. I seriously considered braining him with my cane. But, long checkered experience in dealing with situations like this has taught me to act like I understand nothing about the language, am old and feeble and a little bit addled and confused (which is not too hard to do at my age). Inevitably, they either give up in frustration or some woman comes to my aid and drives them off. It happened like that here. The women in the group began to yell at him and told him to stop bothering me. The high point of the trip other than when he got off the train was the crossing of the Straits of Messina on the train ferry.
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Scylla and Charybdis. (The Straits of Messina)

 

The trains were decoupled and stacked into the hold of the ferry. We disembarked the train and climbed to the top decks where we could sit, walk around, buy snacks and enjoy the half hour or so trip across the straits.

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The train ferry.

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Messina.

 
We disembarked at Messina. They reassembled the cars into several trains depending on their destination. Ours set out for Catania. Along the way, we passed Taormina and Mt, Etna blowing out smoke from its caldera.
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Mt. Etna.

 

I changed trains at Catania, boarding one for Caltanissetta where I expected to change trains once again to take me to my final destination, Canicatti the ancestral home of my mother’s family. Unfortunately, after arriving at Caltanissetta, while attempting to read the train schedule to find out from which track my connection would leave even though there was only one other train at the station, that train, my connection, left with me running after it banging at the side of the cars until it left me standing at the end of the platform forlorn and alone as the train disappeared into the distance.

I was truly alone and forlorn when I realized I was not at the train station in downtown Caltanissetta as I had thought, but in an almost derelict and abandoned station far out in the countryside at the end of an unpaved and weed overgrown dead end road — and the night was descending. It seems that that station was used only for passengers to disembark from the express train to Palermo and catch the now departed train to Caltanissetta Central and Canicatti. So I called up Antonio and asked him to come and save me. He good-naturedly agreed and explained it would take at least 45 minutes for him to get there. So, I stood there in the gloom and watched hoards of swallow type birds flitter through the sky in search of those insects who dare to come out at dusk, while a hawk sat calmly on a phone wire contemplating tonight’s dinner. A group of young men arrived driving a truck containing a jitney type vehicle in the back, They met some other men who came from somewhere I did not notice although one drove up in an old car with cardboard covering a broken window. They took the jitney down from the truck bed and began pushing it up a hill toward an abandoned building. The jitney got away from them and began rolling down the hill sending the men running in every direction. It then tipped over and skidded to the bottom of the hill. I thought I was watching a Buster Keaton silent film. They then all stood around — wondering what to do, I guess. I never found out what happened next because Antonio arrived and drove me to his home.

During the ride, I noticed much of the highway between Caltanissetta and Canicatti that they had been building two or three years ago when I had last been here has been completed. It is exceptionally lavish. Where it is not elevated it is tunneled. To construct the tunnels they first tear down the hill. Then they build the tunnel. Then they put the hill back on top of the tunnel. I’m not kidding.

When I first arrived in Sicily, now about 50 years ago, although the modern technology of the time, telephone, automobiles, television and the like had been well established but much of the social life of the people remained medieval — Marriages were arranged, dowries negotiated, crime of honor legal and common, crime organized, autocrats vicious, noble families if not admired then respected and government remote and rapacious. It was a place for travelers, not tourists, for those that traveled with no schedules expecting discomfort, not those with schedules, sights to see and an expectation of basic comforts. Yet, despite their suspicion of strangers, the people were welcoming when that suspicion waned, the food good, the wines better and the climate benign.

Since then, most of that has changed, the young are more independent (although my female cousins, PHDs all, will not leave the island even for brief periods without their mother’s consent), suspicion lessened, crime diminished, noble families dispersed and the government still corrupt but no longer remote. The food has not yet been completely homogenized to suit the food production industry and the wines are perhaps even better and while tourism has become accepted, old historical sights cleaned up and new ones developed, it is still not as easy to get around, make schedules and enjoy pure luxury (Taormina and a few other places accepted — but it was always like that). On the other hand, there are few places that afford the wanderer such a variety of experience, even ones that are not so good but, on the other hand, rarely so bad either.

My visits to Canicatti and to Antonio’s house are neither as a tourist or a traveler, but is simply returning home. As I grew older, I found, at least for me, there is no one “home,” a principle place of residence perhaps, but many homes identified by the fact that there reside, people, I love and like to be with. In Antonio’s case, there is also the food and the wine.

 

 

 

 

B. ANTONIO’S — THE FIRST NIGHT.

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A view of Canicatti. Antonio’s house is behind the tree on the left.

 

We arrived in Canicatti my mother’s ancestral home and drove on to Antonio’s house at the edge of the town. After getting settled in my room and meeting the new houseboy, a young man from Bangladesh whose name I cannot remember (Friday, the previous houseboy from Nigeria, left to sell shoes in Venice), Antonio suggested a light snack before retiring. I agreed. Here it is:

 

The first course, lamb stew piccante in tomato sauce.
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The second course, arancini con panel.
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The third course, melanzane parmigiana.
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The Fourth course, Pasta Norma.
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The Dessert, local berries, and lemon granita. All accompanied by wonderful red and white local wines and finished off with Limoncello and grappa.

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C. ANTONIO’S — DAY TWO

The next day, following breakfast and a brief nap, I went for a walk. By that time most Sicilians had returned to their beds for their afternoon siesta. Antonio worried about me walking around during the hottest part of the day. He insisted I carry my phone and call him if I passed out from the heat.

It was hot. Antonio’s home stands at the border of the rural area and the commercial-industrial area of the town. I chose to walk into the rural lands. I walked along a mostly white stone covered unpaved road through some olive groves. The sun’s glare reflected off the white road hurt my eyes even though I was wearing dark glasses. Reaching the end of the road I was traveling on and sweating a lot, I decided to return to the house and take a nap until dinner — and so I did.
IMG_5424Through the olive groves.

 

There were two couples and me at dinner. One couple from Germany traveling with a two-year-old boy, an inveterate explorer, were staying the week. The other, a delightful older English couple, were only staying the night. What follows is the meal:

 

The first course, four different local goat cheeses with a suitable different (local) fruit preserve on each,

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The second course, ripe fig from Antonio’s garden with speck, local goat ricotta with fruit preserve and fried squash blossoms.
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The Third and fourth courses were the same melanzane parmigiana and arancini as I had the previous night except I learned the parmesan cheese had been replaced with a local cheese.

 

The Fifth course, a soup, the ingredients of which I no longer recall, perhaps seafood
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The Sixth course, mixed fresh local seafood and a vegetable of some sort.
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The Seventh course, local fish, the name of which I missed, cooked in an olive, caper and tomato sauce.
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The Dessert, the same local berries and lemon granita as I enjoyed last night followed by a flute of different local berries and a different granite. I have eliminated the photo here out of pure exhaustion.

We also drank copious amounts of delicious red and white wines from a vineyard located closer to Agrigento (Antonio seems to feel something grown ten or so miles away as not fitting his definition of “local.”) And of course, limoncello and grappa. We all got very drunk and began telling each other our deepest darkest secrets. Ok maybe not our deepest and darkest, we never tell those even when drunk, but we certainly told those that we would otherwise be embarrassed if anyone but our dearest friends knew about them.

I guess I should write a little something about Sicilian cuisine — at least as I understand it. It is not simply indigenous recipes made from fresh local products improved over the centuries by the addition of spices, condiments, and recipes to overcome whatever deficiencies existed in the local agricultural products. It is also a cuisine that requires the reuse of food not consumed the previous day, not by simply reheating leftovers, but as foundational elements in completely new recipes. Another element of the cuisine is its adoption and development of the tremendous variety of deserts and sweets gifted to them by the Muslim community that ruled the island for so many centuries. Finally, the use of sweet liquors in Sicily, like in much of southern Italy, appears to be some sort of a religious ritual to celebrate a meal well cooked and well eaten.

Note: I will no longer post photographs of each course I enjoy since that would extend this issue of T&T beyond tolerable limits.

 

D. ANTONIO’S — DAY THREE:

This morning, I decided to go into Canicatti to walk around, search out places I remembered from when I lived here 50 years ago and also do a little shopping. Antonio drove me to the center of the town and I set off walking.

Canicatti is not a tourist city, there is nothing to see here. Monuments built by the rich and famous are usually reserved for the hilltops where they lived in their grand villas and palaces. Canicatti, set in a broad agricultural valley, has always been a commercial town for the sale and distribution of agricultural products. It looks grubby but is actually more prosperous than it appears.

I found the park where my mother had told me she played in as a child before she was sent off at seven years old to America in the early Twentieth Century version of indentured servitude. It is now a scruffy little park. It was much grander fifty years ago when I first saw it.

I sat on a bench among other old men and listened to the harsh guttural tones of Sicilian that Marlon Brando mimicked in Godfather I. I wish I could say I thought deep thoughts as I sat there, but I didn’t.

I eventually left and walked through back alleys and streets looking for the cafe where I would sit with friends fifty years ago. The cafe with the bullet holes still in the walls. Bullet holes made by American soldiers in WWII in the Canicatti Massacre when the American commander lined up random citizens and had them shot as a punishment for the town harboring the Germans. The fact was, there never were any Germans there.

My friends and I would gather at the cafe and watch the white-suited Mafiosi stride into the place with their jackets draped over their shoulders and the furtive hand gestures among the other customers ringing as loudly as shouts. The cafe where I sat those long afternoons so long ago with Gigi, Piccolo Gaetano, and others. Alas, I think it is no more, swept up by the years like unwanted refuse.

I looked for the Landowner’s Social Club building that, so long ago, I sat in front of one afternoon with the Baron La Lomia, the head of the hereditary ruling family of the town, a fat overdressed little man with a great square beard who was making his annual appearance at his demesne. As each resident of the area would approach to pay their respects to the Baron, he would say to them “And, I would like you to meet my good friend Mr. Petrillo who traveled all the way from America to be with me today.” And, I would shake the hand of each person in that long line as they passed by. I could not find that place either. Did it exist and was eventually blown away as an anachronism like the dust and litter blowing around as I walk or was it simply my imagination? Who cares? There is no difference — imagination, memory, reality — all the same.

I also looked for the tiny park with the statue of the erstwhile patron saint of the town, the Blessed La Lomia, a missionary in Brazil killed by the natives who saw through the baloney he was trying to sell them. I could not find it. So I sat down outside of a little cafe across from the Church where I was to meet Antonio and ordered a coke and a lemon granita. I chose the cafe because the outdoor tables were shaded by a large tree and an awning.

Alas, I soon realized it was probably the place where the dregs of the town congregated. Those young people who lived at home had no job and wanted none. One table was occupied by a boisterous threesome, two young men, and a tiny young woman. One of the men would shout at me and make faces. The other young man and the tiny young woman would every now and then rise from their chairs and chase each other around the table, ending in a brief wrestling match. I do not know why they did it. A very large tattooed man carrying a beer came in, sat on a bench facing me, not more than three feet away, and stared at me for a long time, then declared “Hot isn’t it?” I agreed and responded, “Yes it is.” He continued to stare and sip his beer. Various people who seemed not in complete possession of their mental faculties would enter, wander around, and sometimes stand next to my table and stare at me. I loved it. The chances of anything dangerous happening was minuscule. Yet the frisson of excitement drove away any residual melancholy remaining from my walk around the town.

Dinner was the usual many course affair, a mixture of old and new. The new included a fava bean soup, crawfish and the melanzane parmigiana with capers and other savory items replacing the cheese. Dessert included cassata as well as the berry and granita dish.

At dinner tonight was an Argentine couple, Herman and Christina who live in Florida and run a business finding investment properties in the US for foreigners. They also have started up a treasure hunting business in Columbia to raise several sunken Spanish Galleons. The twist of this effort compared to other treasure hunting schemes is that instead of distributing the treasure to the investors as it is recovered which when attempted by traditional treasure hunts runs into severe legal and political problems, they intend to keep the treasure hoard intact, but use its value base for the creation of a new crypto-currency and pay the investors with the crypto-currency. Crazy perhaps. But, Trump made a career of persuading people to invest in much less and look where he ended up — the bitch for an insecure Russian autocrat who trapped him in a wired Moscow hotel room taking a golden shower.

As coincidence would have it, about twelve years ago, I had a small practice representing treasure hunters, almost all of whom failed. The dream never dies.

 

E. ANTONIO’S DAY FOUR:

Following another excellent breakfast, the Argentinian couple invited me to join them on a trip to the beach. They had asked Antonio to suggest a remote and secluded beach and he did — at a very remote and far distant location. We drove at least 40 miles before we turned off the main road and on to an unpaved track that wound its way through farmland with many abandoned farmhouses and a few appearing not so abandoned. We saw three maybe four very old men working in the fields, and a very old and hunchbacked shepherd driving a small flock of undernourished sheep — no-one else. At times, we drove through weed forests with the cane like stalks twice as high as the car cutting off all view. We drove for five or six miles up steep hills and through narrow canyons before we came to a dirt parking lot containing a few cars and a small shack with a somewhat rotund gentleman standing in front. He took our money and announced in very good English that it was at least a two-minute walk to a sandy beach where it was suitable for swimming which he called “Beach One.” “Beach Two,” he said, “was a ten-minute walk up the coast and was good for taking photographs but because it was rocky was not good for swimming but suitable for snorkeling.” Beach three he explained was a twenty-five-minute walk down the coast, but I forget what it was good for. We walked the allotted two minutes and came out of the towering weeds and saw a very attractive sandy beach containing a few bathers but still many more than I thought would ever chance the treacherous drive.
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Pookie at the beach.
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The Beach.

 
After setting up the umbrella in the sand, instead of going swimming, I abruptly announced I was going to hike the ten minutes to the photogenic beach, and then set off. I do not know why. I found a small weed overgrown path that seemed to climb up what appeared to be more than a hill but less than a mountain. After several minutes of climbing, huffing and puffing, and sweating profusely, I realized I was all alone on this steep rocky path that I knew not where it went, without water, becoming rapidly exhausted and convinced I was about to collapse. But like Scott in the Antarctic, foolishly pushing ahead only for the irrational pleasure of beating Amundsen, I went on. Like Scott, I thought I could beat Amundsen too,

I noticed the path was strewn with the bleached shells of snails. I could tell they were not laid down here due to some ancient geological catastrophe, they were strewn around not buried in rock hardened silt. I then imagined massive escargot eating rituals by Sicilian cultists in honor of Diana the Huntress every night of the full moon. But, finally decided they were simply the carcasses of egotistical land snails who believed they could make it across the blazing hot paths in the middle of the day and were fried for their arrogance. I picked up one desiccated bone white shell, put it in my pocket and continued struggling up the slope.

I little later, I came upon a single quill lying on the path. I stopped and stared at it and wondered what sort of quilled creature survived the five thousand year commitment by Sicilians to rid their island of every mammal except those they could domesticate and rats and mice. Unable to reach a conclusion, I picked it up and put it in my pocket too. I also picked up and pocked some interesting small stones and happily contemplated carrying them back home and washing them, not to study but to remind me that it was not a figment of my imagination that I chose to climb this damned path at midday.
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The Treasure.

 

Eventually, I reached the top and found myself on a high bluff overlooking a beach with no way down. I then realized I could have reached that same beach by simply walking a few feet from where I began and wading in ankle deep water around some rocks. Annoyed by this discovery, I began to retrace my steps. I was further annoyed when a family with two young children carrying beach equipment and towels jauntily passed me by having clearly enjoyed their morning at the ten-minute walk rocky photogenic beach.

When I returned to the Argentineans they were just packing up to leave. So, we left, renegotiated the weed jungle and drove another twenty miles or so to Sciacca to have lunch.
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The Photogenic beach?
Sciacca (pronounced Sha – ca) is a fairly large town on a hill near the water with an interesting if arcane history (look it up). At its base was a large working fishing port.
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The Port of Sciacca.
We entered a restaurant directly across the road from the port. It had a great view and served freshly caught fish. We chose our fish and from a comely waitress ordered them grilled and then ate them along with an extremely tasty salad.
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The fish.

 

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The comely waitress and the Argentinians.
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The cooked fish.

 

For dessert, I had cannoli made with local ricotta.
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The sacred cannoli.
On the way home, we came upon a traffic snarl caused by an electrical transmission wire having fallen across the road. There were no police or first responders anywhere so passengers would jump out of their cars hold the wire up over their heads while the driver drove the car through, then drop it and jump back into the car. Thinking I could be as brave and foolhardy as the women in the photograph below, I jumped out of our car, held the wire over my head until Herman drove under it and then jumped back into the car and we sped away. No, I did not die.
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The brave but foolhardy women of Sicily.

 
That night I played my first game of chess in 50 years with the German gentleman and I won. It took the sting out of Croatia’s loss in the World Cup final. There had been no meal prepared. Antonio was gone for the evening so we snitched some sausages he had cooking on the stove for tomorrows meal. I went to bed happy. It was a good day after all.

 

 

F. ANTONIO’S — DAY FIVE:

Today is my last full day here. Tomorrow, I fly to Milano and two days later back to the Enchanted Forest and Naida. I am both sad and eager to go. Sad because I feel so comfortable and relaxed here and eager to go because I feel too comfortable and relaxed here. Too much of a good thing can become irritating if it goes on too long.

After breakfast, I said goodbye to the Argentineans. Then Antonio, the Bangladesh houseboy and I left for Licata, a town on the coast, to buy some fresh fish for tonight’s meal. I pictured a large fish market open to the fishing boats tied up to the wharves, burly men pushing crates around slick cement floors while fishmongers in their stalls lined up their wares with military precision on beds of gleaming ice. It was not like that at all. It was more like a dope deal. First a stop on a remote road on the edge of the city for a telephone call. Then two more stops at gas stations for more calls. Then a wait in a cafe drinking espresso until a man arrived and engaged Antonio in a whispered conversation. Then we get back in the car and follow the man’s car through the back roads of the city until we both come to a stop on the side of the road and Antonio and the man get out of their cars and walk around a building and disappear for a fairly long while. Then Antonio returns with a small plastic bag that I presume contained the fish and we drove off returning the 50 or so kilometers to Canicatti.

Back in town, I asked Antonio to drop me off at the church so I could go to the bank and withdraw the money I would need to pay for my stay. The charges amounted to about $70 per day for the room, breakfast, and dinner and all the wine, grappa and limoncello one can drink. It is not so bad a deal when I consider that I probably drank $20 worth of alcoholic beverages each day.

After, withdrawing the money, I returned to strolling around the town looking for places I knew — no luck there. I then looked for the ice-cream shop I had spotted two days before that made the best ice–cream in the area — but it was closed. I then thought about walking up the hill to where my mother lived in a section of the city called the Borgo, the old center of the town before they filled in the stream from which the town got its name (Cane Brook, for the dense cane like plants that flourished along its banks. Wikipedia, on the other hand, says it comes from the Arabic word meaning “muddy ditch”). I thought it would be good to see my mom’s old house again. But, I looked up at the hill I would have to climb, felt the heat of the sun and concluded it was not going to happen on this trip, so, I chose to sit in a cafe on the main street drinking a very good chilled white wine and nibbling on the little snacky things they brought me. Around me sat a number of young men and women. The men all had beards and the women all had tattoos. In my day, the men all had beards also.

I napped the afternoon away.

That evening, my last here, Antonio made dinner for only him and me. There was a wonderful salad of vegetables picked that day from the garden including sweet onions all in a vinegar, olive oil, and pepper dressing. He also broke out his favorite local white wines from Canicatti. Since he was busy cooking I drank most of the wine.
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He indicated we were going to have a light dinner this evening. For pasta, he prepared a dish with zucchini and mushrooms.
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Zucchini and mushroom pasta.

 
Then came the fish course.
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Antonio with the fish.

 

I do not know if that was the fish we pursued that morning, but it seemed like a lot of fish for two people. It was cooked with oranges, capers, and tomatoes in olive oil. After, deboning and serving the fish, Antonio brought out another bottle of white wine from Canicatti vineyards. “This,” he said, “is the best white in Sicily and perhaps is all of Italy.” While the previous bottle was made from Grillo grapes, this he said was made from a blending of four local grape varieties.
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The Great White.


The white wines from Sicily I have tasted so far on this trip have been very smooth and suitable for drinking with food or alone. They seem to lack that slightly astringent aftertaste of other expensive white wines.

After the fish course and having downed most of two bottles of wine, I was —well drunk or at least well on my way.

Dessert was a cassata followed by an absolute smashing mulberry granita accompanied by limoncello (a lot of it) but no grappa.

I was helped off to bed and woke up the next morning with no hangover.

 
G. DEPARTURE

Breakfast, some puttering around packing and then Antonio drove me into town to catch the bus to the airport. Hugs and kisses all around. Then a two hour or so ride through an ofter relatively bleak and empty Sicilian countryside I arrived at the Airport waited for several hours and flew off to Milano.
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The Sicilian Countryside on the way to Catania.

 

 

 

 

 

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I have just completed reading a mystery novel entitled “Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions” by Mario Giordano. Surprisingly, the author is not Sicilian. He is German. A descendant of a Sicilian laborer who had left the Island seeking work and a better life in the Colossus of the North. The novel itself is no classic work of literature. In fact, it barely makes it as light summer reading. I liked it, however, because of the kind-hearted way it plunges into the history, landscape, and foibles of the people and places that I have grown to love.

 

The main conceit of the novel lies in the author’s alter ego, a young struggling writer recording, at the behest of his Auntie Poldi, her adventures, and misadventures in Sicily. Auntie Poldi a dipsomaniac, over-sexed, bi-polar, caftan-wearing, overweight, sixty year old widow from Bavaria who, after the death of her Sicilian born husband, buys a home in a small coastal village in Sicily in the shadow of Mt Etna where she intends to “drink herself to death with a view of the sea.” Unfortunately for everyone, Auntie Poldi is also loud, pushy, nosy and her father was chief of detectives in some city in Germany. As a result, when she discovers, on the beach, the dead body of her part-time handyman, the handsome young Valentino, she drafts her dead husband’s three sisters and goes on a hunt for the murderer. Along the way, she also shags the handsome but mature local detective with the improbable name of Vito Montana.

 

Pookie says, “Check it out”

 

“[T]he worst thing that can happen to any Italian male, especially a Sicilian. Economic crises, volcanic eruptions, corrupt politicians, emigration, the Mafia, uncollected rubbish and overfishing of the Mediterranean—he can endure anything with fatalism and a bella figura. The main thing is never to present a brutta figura, a figuraccia. Bella figura is the Italian credo. The basic equipment for this includes a well-groomed, unostentatiously fashionable appearance, a pair of good shoes and the right make of sunglasses. Above all, though, bella figura means always looking good, never foolish. For an Italian this is a must, not an option, and quite indispensable. It also means you don’t embarrass your fellow men. Impatience is unacceptable and direct confrontations are taboo. You share restaurant bills with your friends, don’t put your foot in it, never receive guests in a dirty or untidy home, ask no intimate questions, address anyone with a university degree as dottore, bring some dessert with you when invited to dinner and—even at the risk of rupturing your abdomen—finish everything on your plate. You put your faith in beauty and proportionality and try to make the world a better place. Sometimes you even succeed.”
Giordano, Mario. Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions (An Auntie Poldi Adventure). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

 

Note: The Sicilian language has no future tense. It is scary to think about a culture that lacks the ability to express the future. It does have a special tense to express the remote past that has ended. Sicilians use it a lot in their conversations — Everything is in the present or the far past and there is no future.)

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Sicilian men (of which I am one) prefer to discuss the minutia of history and almost anything else rather than answer a personal question and risk making a brute figura of himself. Here is an example taken from a novel I am reading:

 

“Uncle Martino talked at me without a break. He pontificated on Sicilian history, the source of the best pistachio nuts, Lord Nelson and the Brontë siblings, life in the Middle Ages, Frederick II, Palermo’s Vucciria market, tuna shoals, overfishing by Japanese trawlers and the mosaics of Monreale. He commented on Radio Radicale’s live broadcasts of debates in the Italian parliament. He lectured me on the Cyclops, the Greeks, the Normans, General Patton, Lucky Luciano and yellow silk scarves. On the only acceptable way of making a granita. On angels, demons, the trinacria, the truth about Kafka and communism and the relationship between physical stature and criminality in the male population of Sicily. His rule of thumb: the shorter the man, the more threatening and the more likely to be a Mafioso. That I scarcely understood a word didn’t bother him. My Italian was appalling—in fact it was practically nonexistent apart from one or two helpful swear words and che schifo, allucinante, birra, con panna, boh, beh and mah, which constituted an adolescent’s vocabulary on the beach.”
Giordano, Mario.Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions (An Auntie Poldi Adventure). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

 

 

For those interested in a translation of those common Sicilian words referenced by Giordano:

 
Che Schifo — how disgusting.
Allucinante — hallucinating, stoned.
Birra — beer.
Con panna — with whipped cream.
Boh — I don’t know.
Beh — I don’t care.
Mah — maybe yes, maybe no.

 

Facility with these few words will allow you to communicate adequately anywhere in Southern Italy and Sicily, but only if you also know how to gesture properly with your hands
Pasted Graphic

 

 
These are only a few of the gestures used in Southern Italy and Sicily. As with any language, it takes a while and a lot of repetition to learn. Failure to learn a language properly can lead to confusion and embarrassment. For example, after examining the chart, I realized that during my sojourns in Sicily I never quite understood the difference between the gestures for  what, where, why and you shitted your pants eh — much to my embarrassment in those cases where I have confused them and much to my annoyance in now realizing that I had failed to recognize when someone who I thought was asking a question was, in fact, commenting on my ignorance or worse.

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I. England

In 1968, I was living in London with my two and a half year old son Jason and decided it was time to visit my relatives in Sicily.  No one on my side of the family had visited there since 1912 when three of the four siblings of my maternal grandparents emigrated to America. So, one rainy and foggy London morning I, with my son and my luggage, walked to a nearby used car dealer where I bought a Trojan 200. I bought it not because I thought about whether it was suitable for the trip, but because I liked the way it looked and it was cheap.
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The Trojan 200

 

Britain’s Trojan Cars Ltd under license from Germany’s Heinkel Flugzuegwerke sold the Heinkel’s bubble car as the Trojan 200. The car had three wheels and weighed a little over 1000 pounds. Powered by a one-cylinder four-stroke air-cooled engine it produced a grand total of 9 horsepower that could push the vehicle to a top speed of a little more than 50 miles per hour over level ground. Portions of the automobile were constructed from surplus WWII airplane parts.
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The Engine

 

I immediately piled my son, the one suitcase that held our worldly goods and a huge supply of disposable diapers into the vehicle and took off in what I had hoped would prove to be the general direction of Sicily.

The first problem we faced was the British convention of driving on the left side of the road. I exited the used car lot directly into a busy one-way street in the opposite direction of traffic. There was not enough time to panic (as I am sure I would have preferred) so, I maneuvered my way through screeching tires and blaring horns until I reached a place where I could move on to the proper lane.

The second was escaping from the maze that is London in the general direction of Dover where I was reasonably confident I could find a ferry that would transport us to the continent. By keeping the River Thames on the right side of me, I was able to make my way to the edge of the city where I located signs pointing the way to the coast.

We soon found ourselves driving along a pleasant rural road towards our goal. Suddenly the car stopped cold.

I tried to suppress my worry by attending first to changing my son’s diaper and carefully depositing the used one behind a nearby bush. (In 1968 I had not yet become environmentally conscious or for that matter socially responsible.) We then went for a short walk to observe the visual pleasures of the English countryside.

Upon our return, I placed my son back in the car, went to the rear of the vehicle and opened the cover of the engine. There I saw staring back at me a grimy little thing that seemed too small to propel a toy wagon much less an automobile.

My working thesis was that by staring at it long enough I would either be able to figure out what was wrong or frighten it sufficiently to scare it into operating again. After a few long minutes, it was clear the first option was not going to work, so I closed the cover, returned to the cab and turned the key to start the engine. I do not recall whether or not I was surprised but the engine started right up and we soon found ourselves back on the road.

Every now and then, throughout the rest of the trip, this mysterious stoppage would recur. Rather than worrying, it gave my son and I the opportunity to commune together on beauties of whatever countryside we were passing through at the time.
Not too long after, we arrived at Dover or Folkestone or wherever the ferries docked. I originally wanted to take one of the hovercraft that had been newly introduced but the fare was too expensive. So, we parked in the cavernous hold of one of the regular ferries and immediately went up to the top floor and sat in front by the big glass window.

The sun had just parted the clouds leaving us in glorious sunshine. We chattered happily to each other and bounced up and down on our seats as the boat sped across the silver water towards the dark line of the continent on the horizon before us.

 

II. France

I do not recall where we landed, Calais perhaps. Jason and I got back into the Trojan 200 and drove off the ferry into France.

I had never been to Europe before. As for France in particular, for some reason, I had been convinced the French were rude, arrogant and anti-American, and as a result, it was my intention to drive through the country as quickly as possible, hopefully in a day or two.

It was late afternoon when we entered the old town of St Omer, not too far from where we disembarked. We were both hungry and tired so I checked us into a small hotel with an attractive restaurant on the ground floor. I thought a good night’s rest and some food would better allow us to push quickly through France and into Italy as I had planned.

The room was pleasant and after we rested a bit, cleaned up and played around with the bidet and giggled (we had never seen one before), we went down to the restaurant for an early dinner.

As we entered the little restaurant, a rather arrogant looking waiter, a bit chubby with curly reddish hair, a bow tie and striped starched shirt and apron approached and motioned for us to follow him. After we were seated, he said something in French that I did not understand. I responded in English, of course, that I would like whatever he considered appropriate for dinner with an extra plate for my son. I also requested a glass of the house wine. He reddened a bit, made a slight noise like the chuffing of a hog and disappeared in a huff.

Now, my mother was a great cook and my family owned a number of Italian restaurants so I was used to eating good food, but I never had experienced the wonders of a full French meal before. I was stunned. Course after course was brought out and, for at least an hour and a half, Jason and I happily and greedily ate them all. (I learned a few years later that this place was a Michelin two-star restaurant)

The only problem was the wine. I had asked for a glass and he brought me a bottle. I thought that I was about to be charged for the entire bottle. I was determined not to give the arrogant bastard the pleasure of fleecing me, so I drank the whole thing. (Much later I learned that they only charged for the amount of wine one drank.)

I was no stranger to drinking wine being Italian-American, but this trip occurred long before the American wine revolution. The wines available in the US then were generally straw encased bottles of cheap Chianti, Italian Swiss Colony Red, Almaden white and the like. They always tasted as though the winemaker left a bunch of metal shavings at the bottom of the bottle. This wine was different, as smooth and mellow as a good night’s sleep.

Following the meal, I staggered with Jason back to my room and after putting him to bed fell into a long deep dreamless slumber.

Thereafter, my plan to race through France was at an end. Every day, I would wake up a bit groggy, pack Jason and myself into the Trojan, drive two or three hours then stop to check into a hotel. We would eat lunch at which I would drink the entire bottle of wine. After this, I would stagger back to our room where we would nap until dinner. As a result, my intention to traverse France in a day or two turned into a ten-day trek before we even caught sight of the Alps.

One day shortly before reaching the mountains, we were traveling along a lovely two-lane road through the French countryside when I heard a large clank at the rear of the Trojan and it abruptly coasted to a stop.  I got out of the car to find out what was wrong. What I saw appeared to me as though the Trojan was a giant prehistoric bug that had just taken a metallic crap in the middle of the road. The pile of metal was the car’s engine. This, I realized right away, was probably a much more serious problem than the mysterious stoppages.

Nevertheless, I proceeded with my usual approach to these things — changed Jason’s diapers, threw the used one into the bushes lining the road, walked with him a while and returned to the car. There I sat cross-legged on the road next to the pile of metal with Jason nestled on my lap and began to contemplate my options. I certainly did not relish the thought of hitch-hiking the rest of the way to Sicily. Nor was it appealing to contemplate finding a French mechanic who might be able to fix the machine. Eventually, I noticed that the pile was composed primarily of two large pieces of metal and a number of smaller ones. This fact seemed to demand a closer investigation.  Jason by that time had fallen asleep so I carried him back to the cab, laid him on the seat and returned to the pile.

I picked up the two large pieces and found that they fit together perfectly. I then opened the engine cover and discovered I could fit those prices snugly around whatever was remaining attached to the vehicle. So, taking a long piece of thin wire that a prior owner of the auto had left in the cab, I carefully fitted the two pieces in place and then wrapped the wire tightly around the whole thing until it seemed relatively secure. I then fitted what small pieces I could back into the engine, throwing the remaining ones into the car just in case they proved to be important.

Satisfied with my efforts, I returned to the cab, turned the key and after a few coughs, to my great surprise, the engine started and we drove off towards the looming mountains.

 

III. Italy

Not long after entering the foothills of the Alps it became obvious to me that a vehicle with an engine producing only nine horse-power had little chance of climbing 10,000 feet or so in order to find a pass through the mountain range. So, I began searching for an alternative —which led me to a train on to which I drove the Trojan and in which Jason and I sat for the duration of the trip under the mountains. It was so much fun. We jumped up and down and squealed with delight as the tunnel lights flashed by the car’s 360-degree view or when we would pass out of one section of the tunnel briefly, see the huge mountains and blue sky and then plunge into the looming dark again.

Eventually, we were deposited on the other side of the Alps. We seemed to be quite high up because the road in front of us snaked a long way down. I did not know what country we were in but assumed it was Italy since the signs indicated we were passing through the Val d’Aosta and we could see small villages and large castles dotting the valley or clinging to mountain outcroppings far below. We continued coasting down the south face of the Alps until we hit the hills of the Piedmont and Turin.

At that time Turin (Torino) looked like most industrial cities, dark and grimy. Instead of the floral exuberance of classical and baroque architecture, we were met with the basic brutalism of 20th-century factories and worker housing. We took a room on the outskirts of the City and left early the next morning for Rome.

A few miles from the city we came upon the Autostrada to Rome. This was the first limited access highway I had seen so far in Europe. The Italian system had begun building a few years before and the road from the North to Rome was the first section completed.

I decided to take the highway believing it would knock several hours off my trip. Almost as soon as I entered on to the highway I realized my mistake. It was an Italian system, which meant its purpose was to test top speeds of the vehicles and the nerves of the already high-strung drivers. Since the top speed of our little car was somewhere between 40 and 50 MPH, even while driving in the slow lane I was greeted with the loud crashing of horns, red faces and hand gestures, predominating with the extension of the middle finger.

Rather than exiting the system, I decided to try driving on the broad shoulder. This seemed to work somewhat. At least the faces of the other drivers now were less red and sometimes even smiling, the toots of the horns less insistent and the previous hand gestures for the most part replaced by putting the thumb, index finger and middle finger together and shaking it up and down.

In this way, we traveled from Turin to Rome dutifully stopping at all the wonderful rest stops in between where we ate and played. Luckily Jason was as willing to eat anything placed in front of him as he was to dispose of it without notice. The only concern I had was the tremendous whomp that would strike the car whenever one of those large two-trailer trucks whizzed by.

We arrived in Rome. After driving around a bit, we checked into a small hotel across the street from the Barberini Palace (now the national museum). The hotel still exists. There we stayed for two or three days. I was too exhausted to run around touring so Jason and I mostly would walk up the Via Veneto stopping at one of the sidewalk cafes for an hour or two. I would order an espresso and Jason would have a hot milk and some cookies. At that time the places were still primarily coffee houses and had not turned into the expensively bad restaurants they are today.

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The Hotel

 

The ladies of pleasure still displayed their wares along the street. At times when one would take a break, she would come over and play with Jason for a while. On the second day, she decided to take a long cigarette break and walked with me to the playground in the Borghese Gardens. The Gardens had not yet been crisscrossed with highways and was still a wonderful park. I let Jason loose. She went to stand near the kids’ playground and smoke her cigarette and I laid down on the grass and stared through the pines into the blue sky beyond. I must have dozed because the next thing I remember is her shaking me and telling me she had to get back to work.

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The Borghese Gardens

 

The next day we left Rome.

Ever since entering southern Europe the three-wheeled bubble car became less a car than a curiosity. So it also was in Rome as I tried to find my way out of the city. People would come out of the shops a stare or wave as we drove by. Years later I discovered that one of those onlookers was my cousin “Gecco.” He greeted us as I drove by with his favorite hand gesture — the first three digits spread wide and twisted like a corkscrew.

I decided against the more direct route over the Alban Hills and chose to hug the coast. Somewhere south of Anzio we passed through the area where the finest Bufala Mozzarella was made. At that time, a few rude stands lined the highway where a traveler could buy some of the cheese — as well if they wanted, some bread, wine, tomatoes or fried peppers and olive oil. I loaded up and then crossed the highway to sit on the large rocks bordering the Tyrrhenian Sea to eat lunch (actually several lunches) with Jason. I then watched him play by the water before we got back into the car and proceeded on.

We arrived in Naples in the evening. The city still bore the horrendous scars from WWII. Whole neighborhoods remained bombed out. Knowing the city’s reputation for crime, I drove directly to the docks and on to the ship taking us to Sicily.

The staterooms I thought were too expensive so Jason and I curled up on the airplane seats in the hold of the ship used by backpackers and were quickly lulled to sleep by the thrumming of the engine.

In the morning we were awoken by a blast from the ships horn announcing we had come in sight of Palermo.

 

IV Sicily

Jason and I stood on the ferry’s deck as it approached the Port of Palermo, the three-thousand-year-old harbor originally built by the Phoenicians. The morning sun was shining brightly —the water a deep blue-green and the low-lying city a dusty brown with red Arabic cupolas here and there and the cathedral, a mix or gothic and Moorish architecture, rising up in the center.

At that time, 1968, the city had not yet sprawled beyond its medieval walls. Along the shore, those walls still bore the scars WWII bullets. Mount Pellegrino loomed over the city like a frozen storm.
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Palermo Harbor with Mt Pellegrino in the background

 

As the ferry docked Jason and I ran down into the hold, squeezed into the Trojan 200 and waited for the doors to open. They opened slowly. Light penetrated the gloom. The noise was almost painful as the engines in the vehicles revved up together, and then we moved down the ramp and into the city.

We drove into and through the city looking for the road that would take us across the Island to its southern shore and the town of Canicatti our destination.

While driving through the city we passed San Cataldo, The Cathedral, and the Opera Houses. Then we passed out beyond the city walls and headed toward the center of the Island.
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San Cataldo

 

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Palermo Cathedral

 

At that time, there were no highways in Sicily. Mostly two lane roads often rural and, at times, unpaved crossed the Island. Each road connected a town with the nearest one to it. Then it would pass through the center of the town and meander on to the next village.

After leaving Palermo, the first village we came to was perched on top of a mountain. The road swooped in long switchbacks until it entered the village. We started up the hill but soon the 9hp engine could go no further. So I got out of the car and pushed it up the mountain to the edge of the town. It was getting very hot and I began to sweat a lot. I got back into the car and drove it through the village.

As we wound our way through the narrow streets, the people came out to watch us pass by. Unlike towns in other parts of Italy where the people would shout, smile and gesture, the villagers here lined the road in silence — the women mostly dressed in black and the men with their caps slouched low over their foreheads. Only a child now and then would smile. When we came to the end of the settlement, I saw that the road swooped down from the mountaintop, crossed a small valley and then careened up another mountain upon which sat the next village. And so it went. I would leave a village, drive the car as fast as it would go on the downslope so that I could get as high a possible up the next slope, then get out of the car and push.
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The Road up to Mussomeli

 

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(The above photograph taken in 1970 shows the single narrow road up to the village. It also shows the land as treeless, barren and rocky. It no longer is like that today. After 2000 years trees are again returning to Sicily.)

 

Finally about eight hours later, I had traveled a total of 80 miles, my clothing drenched with sweat and every muscle aching. I decided I could go no further than the next village but as we emerged, I saw below not another mountaintop village at the end of the road but a rather large town in the valley, Canicatti.

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Canicatti

 

It was late in the afternoon when we arrived in the town. It was larger than I thought. That was a problem. I knew the last name of my relatives, Corsello, and the town in which they lived, Canicatti but that was all, no address and no first names. I had thought Canicatti would be a small village where everyone knew everyone else, but it was a rather large town instead.

I drove into the town past a small park where I learned later my mother used to play as a child and stopped by a coffee-house with chairs and tables sprawled haphazardly about. The wall by the cafe was pock-marked with bullet holes. I was later to find out that is was the site of the Canicatti massacre where American soldiers slaughtered a number of townspeople for no reason.

So, I started asking if anyone knew where a family named Corsello lived. Someone mentioned some people by that name lived just around the corner. We drove there. It was a new building one of the few in the town at that time. I found the name on a card and pressed the button. “Qui e” someone responded. After a somewhat difficult conversation since I did not speak Italian and they did not speak English we managed to discover that they were, in fact, the right family and they came down from their apartment to greet us. They invited us in. But before entering Vincenzo the patriarch asked, “What are we going to do about the car. We cannot leave it here where it will be stolen.”

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Giovanni, Vincenzo and I in 1968

 

 

V. Deterioration and Renewal

In order to store the car during my stay in Canicatti my cousin, Giovani, called a friend who had a large garage attached to his home. The friend, Luigi (Gigi) Gallo, came over and we took the car to his garage. I was convinced the car was on its last legs or wheels. The engine stopped working before we got to the garage. We pushed it the rest of the way. Once we arrived and settled the car in the garage, I unceremoniously turned my back on it and walked away.

Today forty years later I feel bad about that. After all, it safely took my young son and me almost 2000 miles across a continent from north to south, through one of the earth’s great mountain ranges. Yet as far as I was concerned its use to me was finished.

During the next four years or so while I lived in Sicily and Rome and even after I returned to the US, I would, at Gigi’s urging, return to the garage and check on it as its tires slowly flattened and dust and grime turned its white surface a pitted grey.

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Gigi and I in 1970

 

Eventually, Gigi took it out to his farm in the country where the children could play in the slowly rusting hulk. One time, for some reason, thieves stole it. Gigi called the police who found it and returned it in even worse shape than before.
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As restoration began

 

Gigi eventually became a locally well=known race car driver. When his son, Marco, was about 14 years old Marco decided to restore the thing he played in for most of his life. According to Marco, he remembered the stories his father told him about the strange American and his young son who drove in the automobile across Europe from London to Canicatti. He wanted to see what the car originally looked like. So he contacted the Trojan Automobile Club and began assembling the car’s original parts and restored it.

There now are only two Trojan 200s in Italy, one in Sicily and the other in Rome. Marco also became a successful race car driver in his own right and now lives in Milan and is a practicing sports nutritionist.
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Gigi and the Trojan shortly after restoration

 

Today the Trojan 200 of my journey sits in a garage in Caltanissetta Sicily along with Gigi’s race and classic cars. I finally got to see it again after forty years.
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Pookie with the Trojan 200

 

A few years ago, I returned to Sicily with my now adult son, Jason. He was too young at the time of our trip to remember very much it. Nevertheless, he had heard about it many times and was eager to see the car.
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Jason, Gigi and the restored Trojan 200

 

The joy, as well as the pain of any journey, are increased by who and what one travels with. For this somewhat epic trip, I was fortunate to have my young son and the Trojan along. I could not ask for better traveling companions.

End.

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I was feeling a bit out of sorts so I thought a visit to the Man Cave before picking up HRM at school would help. The Man Cave looks like a large dark living room; sofas, easy chairs and ottomans. There were five or six men there lounging about, smoking cigars and watching Sons of Anarchy on the big screen TV.

I had never seen the show before. It seems to be about the trials and tribulations of being a biker gang member. The actors and actresses stared solemnly at each other and spoke in tones so low that I could hardly make out what they were talking about but assumed it was very important to them because they never smiled.

No one seemed to work much. Now, I know dealing dope is not as vigorous work as digging ditches, but usually one has to do something – like meeting customers and suppliers, collecting money, distributing profits and the like – but these people did not do any of that. Maybe because they were not particularly good at anything but auditions. They seemed to fight a lot too. Maybe they were good at that also.

Anyway the visit did not cheer me up much. I have been feeling irritable and dissatisfied recently and unable to either understand or meet HRM’s needs. We argue every day and it makes me sad.

I look forward to my upcoming trip, at least the Sicilian part of it. I have not seen my Sicilian relatives and friends in about 35 years. I will try to take the Camilleri – Montalbano tour. There are two. One through Agrigento (Montelusa) and Porto Empedocle (Vigata) where the books are set and one in Ragusa where the TV series was shot. In Porto Empedocle there is a statue of Montalbano.

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When I lived in Canicatti, Sicily for a few months about 40 years ago, my favorite sea food restaurant was in Porto Empedocle.
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Here in The Golden Hills of suburban comfort, swimming season slowly bleeds into cross-country season. The hummingbirds have begun their long trek to the shores of the Caribbean. I sit here every morning in the Bella Bru Cafe watching through the window as flocks of young mothers, having dropped off their children at school, descend upon the outdoor tables that surround the fountain.

In Italy and even at times Thailand when sitting like this in some café, I usually have the feeling that everyone is talking to me even when they are not. Here each group seems encased in a bubble from which a low rumble of conversation escapes. Maybe it is not like that at all and I am simply eager to leave on my trip. On the other hand, perhaps it is just the increasing attacks of agita as I grow older that makes me more gloomy.
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Today at breakfast a woman walked into the cafe with her pre-school daughter in tow. She was wearing an American flag twisted around her neck as a scarf — I assume in remembrance of the twin towers attack. I recall 40 years or so ago displaying the flag like that would be considered an insult to it. It is interesting how malleable emotionally charged symbols can really be. Then again fashion rules all.

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