Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Rome & Sicily: Impressions of a Different Kind

Sunday 22 November 2009
[Some postings after the fact due to spotty Internet access.]

It would be hard to imagine a greater contrast than my experiences in Nairobi and the visit I’ve embarked upon in Italy. The transfer out of Nairobi was easy, the process very simple (in fact, I was thinking I wouldn’t mind a little tighter security focus). There were very few people in the terminal and the lounge was comfortable with interesting food; as usual in Kenya, the airline personnel and other people with whom I interacted were just wonderfully friendly and pleasant to deal with.

A fellow could learn to like this.

The trip to Zurich? No big deal. The flight was comfortable, the food good (this was Swiss Air, so why not?), and travelling so late at night, it was easy just to fall asleep and wake for breakfast before we landed in Zurich.

And if I had wanted more security in Nairobi, the Zurich airport more than makes up for it. My transfer was on a tight schedule, and I made it to the gate with only five minutes to spare, but I’m not complaining, even about three full-scale security checkpoints, and these following a passport and identity check as we left the aircraft, even before the passengers had reached the gate to enter the terminal. It’s what travel is all about these days.

Rome – as a place to experience – was somewhat neglected upon my arrival, since I was sleeping only overnight and transferring the next day to Palermo. I did manage to have a lovely dinner with friends at a sweet bistro-type place. It was Ristorante ‘34 on the Via Mario dè Fiori near the P.zza di Spagna. Very pleasant, and the meal provided a very comfortable transition between Nairobi and Palermo, giving me much to anticipate when I come back to Rome next week. Good food, good conversation, and a very casual and unpretentious ambiante, as one of my friends would say.

Palermo. Sicily. How does one begin? By quoting others, I suppose. Apparently Goethe pointed out that if you come to Italy and don’t visit Sicily you can’t know Italy. Another early visitor spoke about how Palermo “dazzles the eyes with its perfection.”


Modern Palermo is an amazing combination of so many things. And amazing contradictions. There is beautiful scenery and you see lush plantings everywhere, including gorgeous date palm trees. The central metropolitan area is dominated by ancient noble palaces – the ones that survived WWII bombings – and even more ancient public buildings. Everywhere you come across stunning varieties of art and architecture. And excuse my ignorance, please: I had never heard of “Arab-Norman” architecture – since in architecture my exposure has been primarily to the Western “classical” tradition. Arab-Norman architecture is fabulous, a complicated amalgamation of looks and engineering that makes for buildings such as I would never have expected to see. And the many eras and epochs that make up Sicily’s history seem to give new meaning to our ideas (and ideals) about the integration of peoples and cultures – despite the horrors of the Inquisition that decimated the Jewish and Arab populations.

Of course Palermo has – shall we say? – its particularly distinctive characteristics. For one, I’m still surprised (although I had been warned about this) that from more than 60 years ago there are still many war-damaged buildings. Not that they are everywhere, but there are plenty of them, and while much money was poured into the city from various sources it somehow didn’t get put to the use for which it was intended. It isn’t at all unusual to look next to a restored building or palazzo and see a view of what would have been other houses, now roofless and with grass and moss and wildflowers growing atop the jagged walls. And to be fair, there is now a considerable amount of effort being put into using bomb-blasted ruins – if they are at all usable – for galleries and concert venues and the like.

Still, these old ruins make a distressing sight but one often relieved by the laundry flapping in the breeze. If citizens of New York and Berlin are delicate about laundry hanging out where it can be seen, the good folk of Palermo have no such compunctions. Every flat has a balcony of some sort – often tiny – and some sort of drying rack or pulley-line rigged up for drying laundry. And it is everywhere! Every day people wash and hang their clothes out to dry, and no street, alley, or other passageway lacks its display of drying family clothes catching the warm breeze.

There’s more. At the moment there’s a strike of the streetcleaners (now into its third week) but the situation isn’t awful yet.

And there is definitely an upside to some of these unique characteristics in Palermo. Our first day – a Sunday – was also the first day of a new rule forbidding traffic on the streets of the city center, turning the whole area into a very nice promenade for strolling and shopping. Very pleasant for walking about in the sunshine.

And the food! I suppose that’s why many people come to Sicily and I can see why. Just on my first day one of the local specialties – al dente spaghetti with sea urchins – caught my fancy and it was a memorable meal. So tomorrow I’ll tackle spaghetti with sardines, another famous local dish that appeals to me.

And since that first day was a Sunday, it seemed appropriate to spend some time poking about in the many (there’s no way to describe how many – perhaps I should just say MANY) churches and historical religious sites that contribute so much to the city’s architectural character (and religious as well, I suppose, but I didn’t give that much thought).

With Guisi Nicoletti, our enthusiastic and very well-informed guide, we started with the famous Fontana delle Vergogne (Fountain of the Shame) on Piazza Pretoria, just across from the hotel. And there is a religious connection, as you might guess, based on how you feel about looking at the beautifully sculpted nude statues. The many beautiful nude statues surrounding the fountain are especially fetching, and there are many idealized human shapes to be seen, in almost all their glory.

I say "almost." The fountain is located within close sighting of a religious order, and when the fountain was installed back in the 16th century, apparently the good sisters of the cloister were deeply offended (hence the fountain’s name). So offended, so the story goes, that they took hammers to the suggestive statuary and struck off the male appendages. And after they had done their damage, what did they do with what they chopped off, I wonder? Take them back to the cloister?

The remainder of the Sunday was spent visiting churches and finding myself just a little overwhelmed by the variety of interior styles, the exteriors – as I’ve noted – so often built over the centuries in the elegant and stark Arab-Norman style of the type mentioned earlier. Inside the churches, you find the beautiful mosaics of the Byzantine craftsman, or the outlandishly theatrical Baroque, or even – to my surprise – the neo-classic, this latter replacing what must have originally been a much different look in one of the biggest churches I’ve ever been in. All are impressive.

Other Sunday impressions include the fantastic markets located throughout the city (surprisingly, to this American accustomed to different shopping hours, the Palermo markets are open every day and until about 2:30 or so on Sundays). We happened to pass through one of the biggest. In the midst of a huge array of produce, fish, every kind of meat (prepared or raw) under the sun, breads not to be believed, and just about anything else you might be looking for, we got to sample panella, the wonderful chick-pea fritters the natives eat like we eat potato chips. So good. Then we walked along, continuing to be amazed by what we saw. Would you believe zucchini four feet long? Normal in Palermo. What about swordfish being sliced into thick slabs, with the rest – continually diminishing with each customer – resting in the ice just waiting to be bought? No subtlety, no phoniness. Just the freshest food available since – by common agreement – it is the freshness of the ingredients that makes Sicilian food so special.

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