Palermo, mi manchi.

6223903220_f496024fd0_b6223898176_ec30d30067_bI’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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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Palermo: The Past Posts

It’s rather rainy and cold today, which means a blog post! WOO! I haven’t done one in a while…er, less than week, but in a young person’s life that can feel like forever!

Anyway…

Palermo is largest city in Sicily- the island off the coast of Italy, essentially being kicked by the boot. Sicily has a long history of being taken over as a vital trading/geographic place on the Mediterranean, and so the Arabs, Spanish, Greeks, English and Sicilians (and many other cultures) have been dominating the island for thousands of years.

Palermo is amazing in that it reflects all of those things in once place! On one corner of a street will be a Fascist style building, and down three blocks will be a Baroque church, cornered by a Greek-temple like building. Arab influence in the patterns on the windows and the language are still very much there. Sicilian itself is a mix of Arabic, Greek and Italian- a weird, hybrid language baby that nobody can understand except the 5 million Sicilians that speak it (A fair few, eh?)

Exa and I were in her dorm room one cold January evening messing around on the internet, when we decided to see what the cheapest place to go was on EasyJet. For less than 50 euros, we got round trip tickets to Palermo! Naturally, without thinking about it, we bought them. We knew Palermo was in Sicily, but we didn’t even think about the fact that we were going to Sicily, or how to prepare for such a random adventure.

The day comes when we get on the plane. Sicily is not known for it’s safety, so Exa boldly attempted to bring a Swiss army knife onto the EasyJet flight. Unsuccessful, it was taken from her- yet, somehow, I got pepper spray onto the flight. (It was in the bottom of my bag accidentally, I swear!) We had our hostel name, address, and we had the information we needed- I had scribbled it all down on a couple of useful notecards.

It wasn’t until we landed in Palermo (which is a very interesting landing situation), that we realized I had left the notecards on my desk. Noooooo! Shit happens when you travel, and so we merely embraced this small hurdle, determined to not let it interfere with our adventure.

Unfortunately, the directions to our hostel were on the notecards. We boarded a dark, smelly shuttlebus which went past deserted, decaying buildings in the pitch black for about 30 minutes…Exa and I were both nervous, clutching our bags and wondering how the hell to get to our hostel at night in Palermo. Italian cities are not know for their orderly and easy to find streets. Luckily, I had programmed our hostel’s phone number into my cheap pay-as-you-go Swiss cell. I called a number, and a heavily accented voice answered, “Pronto! A Casa di Amici!” (The name of our hostel). I got vague, fuzzy directions, and decided it was alright- we could get there!

We hopped off at a random shuttle bus stop…and realized we had no clue where we were. We were in a big, fancy square, and it was lit up. Some nice fellow on the street gave us directions on GoogleMaps on his iPhone, and we set off- surely the taste of victory was sweet in our mouths! Alas, we set off in the opposite direction- meandering senselessly into the labyrinth of Palermo at night- dimly lit streets, no sidewalks, and general chaos. We finally gave in and found a hotel and got a map, where a very sympathetic hotel employee highlighted our way.

We arrived at the Casa di Amici 2 hours later. The hostess, who I had spoken to on the phone, was livid in the way an Italian mother would be- mostly with worry.

“You girls! I thought you would never show up! You were supposed to be here hours ago!”

Regardless of the fact that we had never met, she treated us like her daughters, and ushered us in, relieved that we had survived and gotten to the hostel.

“It’s not safe at night, especially for you American girls, all pale and with your packs.” We agreed with her, got our keys, dropped our packs, and walked to the restaurant around the corner to celebrate our victory. We ordered pizza and wine, and then collapsed into a food coma.

The rest of Palermo was a blur- a delicious, complex, confusing, and scary blur. We wandered around to the ocean, got confused as German girls for most of the trip (our Italian has a German accent to it, apparently) and ate like kings- arincini, hot chocolate, pizza, lots of red wine (we would split a liter each night before bed) and tiramisu galore! We walked through Communist rallies after shopping at H&M (Palermo was having a mad sale on something), we went and saw The King’s Speech in Sicilian at a local theater, and mostly just took in the sights while trying not to be conspicuous (pick pockets are rampant in Palermo).

The Vucciria truly was the highlight of the trip, though. If you are ever in Sicily, you must go to the Vucciria- a mile long street bordered with food stalls and shops on either side. Sicilians hawk their goods and food loudly, shouting at you, and the streets are wet with sea water. The air smells like fruit, meat, cheese, and the freshest seafood I’ve ever seen. Octopus jostled for space with a stall of fragole (strawberries), and a cheese shop was entirely layered in giant wheels of cheese, shelf upon shelf of it. The Vucciria is one of the oldest food markets in the world. Vespas laden with new produce beep past customers and patrons through the cobblestone walkways, and the senses are delighted in everyway- it looks amazing, smells even better, and the spaces are so packed with food you image you taste it!

We bought fragole and ciliegi (strawberries and cherries) from an enthusiastic vendor- we bought so much he winked at us and give us each a DVD of him playing guitar and singing traditional Sicilian folk songs.

The next day we got on our plane home to clean, safe, and almost lifeless Lugano- at least compared to Palermo. It’s dirty streets, extreme noise level, beautiful architecture, and constantly busy atmosphere was amazing to spend three days in. I have days where I’m craving something really delicious and I think back to Palermo…a gourmance if there ever was one!

A dopo, ciao!