I’ve been reading the Inspector Montalbano series by Andrea Camilleri. These books take place in Sicily, in Catania, outside Palermo, where the clever, savvy, well-fed Police Inspector navigates working in southern Italy. The descriptions of the food he eats alone makes reading the books worthwhile, and they’ve taken me down memory lane quite a bit recently.
There’s one passage where he takes his lover to the Vucciria market (she’s from Genoa, up North) while they stay in Palermo and it brought me right back to walking through and smelling all the fresh fish, sea water, blood and flesh of newly slaughtered animali, fruits and vegetables, all mingling together, while hearing shouts of prices in Sicilian and people arguing, with slick, wet stone streets full of people not paying attention meandering, looking for ingredients or a meal. A marvelous assault on the senses.
I remember when Exa and I bought some enormous fragole and blood-red ciliegi, or strawberries and cherries, in the Vucciria, from a man who teased us for our passable Italian and gave us DVD’s of him singing songs- I still have the DVD somewhere tucked away. We ate our delicious meal on the balcony of our hostel, fat and happy.
Palermo itself an assault on the senses, visual included. It’s a mishmash of every architectural style all together- one moment you’re in a Baroque church, and the next a Fascist, morbid looking building is around the corner, while down the next block a Greek-style building proudly stands as the neighbor to a Norman-influenced structure. Sicilian itself is a gorgeously harsh dialect (or language- we could discuss this point all day), with Greek and Arabic roots woven in, and if your Italian is not very good, Sicilian will take you for a ride. (We rode the struggle bus the whole time).
The thing I do remember most were the epic meals Exa and I consumed. They will never be forgotten. We ate arancini, which are delicious rice balls full of meat and vegetables about the size of a fist. We had slightly bitter hot chocolate in tiny cafes, and ate at the same trattoria three nights in a row, splitting un mezzo litro di vino rosso every evening (Palermo at night for the two of us was a bit daunting and the trattoria was close by).
We stayed at a brightly lit, nicely located hostel run by a fiercely caring woman whose name I sadly don’t recall, in a room that was sparse with high ceilings. Outside our window was a courtyard with beautiful orange trees and lines full of laundry. The first night, Exa and I were very, very lost deep in Palermo when we arrived to the city with our packs on our backs, and we got phone calls from this wonderful woman on my cheap phone, frantic and telling us that we were quite stupid, to get to her soon, to be safe, because surely we would end up in a no good situation being silly American girls, who likely have no common sense. (We eventually got a map from a hotel lobby and found our way there without incident).
When we went to a museo, everybody assumed we were from Alemania- Germany- and that was why our Italian was so funny. We said, yes, siamo tedeschi, and quietly made up fake German-ish names to go by, even if it was just for a few hours. We saw gorgeous paintings, milled about in the midst of a group of schoolchildren while their teacher told them about the art. I lost a part of my heart to the most gorgeous fresco, Trionfo della Morte (Triumph of Death), which was the most fantastical example of Italian Gothic art I’d ever seen- it took up a whole wall, and the museum was very caring in placing it so that you could climb a set of stairs and look at it from a second story as well as from the floor. It was in poor shape, but the skeleton horse and it’s rattled-bones rider will never leave my mind.
For me, Palermo was very intimidating. Mind you, this is from a girl who lived in clean, orderly Ticino, Switzerland and grew up in quiet, rural Montana. Palermo was loud, it felt disorganized, and it felt like it had a film of age, but it was also utterly entrancing. Having been a major stop and trading outpost, it’s hosted the British, the Greeks, the Arabs, the Normans, and has been a beautiful mosaic of cultures and influences. Because Italy didn’t become a unified nation until the Risorgimento in the mid-19th century many parts of Italy feel like puzzle pieces in that they are all very different. Milan and Palermo, Rome and Florence, Genoa and Calabria, every city and region has its own wonderful histories. For somebody not used to so many energies, Palermo was an adventure in the best sense. (We also did happen to see a Communist rally that a man in a Superman suit marched into outside a mall. Ah, what oddness.)
In short, if anybody wants to take a trip to Sicily, please let me know. I’ll brush up on my Italian and we can eat to our hearts delight.