July 2nd, 3rd & 4th 2019,
I left on a Tuesday night and arrived on a Thursday morning. A car, four planes, a train and now my feet taking me over the finish line. The train station to my AirBnB is supposed to be a ten-minute walk. It’s taking longer. I’m having trouble orientating myself. Palermo has greeted me with mid 90s temperature and high humidity. My legs are in open protest of the jeans I have been wearing for two days. Tired, hot and uncomfortable, I drag myself and my rolling, carry on suitcase over dirty cobblestone streets. It bounces and continues to tip over on its side. My backpack is heavier than I want and I can feel the sweat against my back and shoulders where it’s pressed against me. Shuffling from the train station to my AirBnB is not the most scenic walk. I’ve learned you can see a lot of the world these days on a budget. But don’t think the travel won’t hurt a little. This is the hurt part. Gravy soon. I work to remain oblivious to my surroundings, delaying till I am in the right frame of mind. How did I even get here? Like flashes, in and out of consciousness, only certain moments remain.
Among Johnny’s travel necessities are headphones. You don’t have to spend a ton, but get yourself an okay pair and you can carve out a little oasis in crowds. Also makes for better in-flight movie watching. I always press play on my music when they start lining folks up. My boarding process is scored. Jeans, sneakers, comfy sweater, baseball cap, and headphones is how I’m adorned as I sashay onto the plane. Warm glow in my chest, not just an adventure, we’re tracing our roots here.
First I embrace the culture; I siesta. I reposition the two fans in the bedroom of my AirBnB so they are pointed at me. I can’t hear anything over the wind tunnel sound effect they produce. I slip hard into a deep sleep. After a nap and a quick shower, I do as I always do when I arrive in a foreign country, I go bolting out into the streets with no direction or plan. I walk out the door and immediately into The Church of Gesu across the street. Baroque, ornate, a feast for the eyes. I am momentarily overwhelmed. Let’s pause the religious experience a tic till I can see a little more. Next, I’m strolling down Via Marqueda. It’s a grand fairway, with a multitude of shops, eateries, and bars. The joy starts to percolate. The buildings that frame Via Marqueda are old and stoic. They are worn by time and violence. I take in the statues, churches, squares and the grand Quattro Canti (Four Corners – the center of Old Town Palermo) at the intersection of Via Vittorio Emanuele. But my favorite first day moment may have been watching an old Italian
Grandma yelling down from her perch at a child on the street. Close second, the old men sitting outside waiving hands and shit-talking each other. Shadows of a mirror world I grew up in. My stomach screams so I purchase my first of many arancini. If you don’t know, its a rice ball, breaded and fried, with some filling in the center. Grandma made them for us as kids, usually with peas and chop meat inside. In Sicily, they are everywhere with a variety of fillings. For 2 euros my first arancini promises prosciutto and mozzarella at the center. It’s heavenly and I wolf it down.
Like Schrodinger’s cat, I am both asleep and awake on my flight. Eye mask on, neck pillow in place, earbuds and bundled comfy dutifully for hours and yet I never really achieve sleep. At JFK in between LA to NY and NY to Paris, I change terminals only to discover the international terminal at JFK isn’t open yet. It’s not a 24-hour terminal. I won’t be allowed through security till 11:30 am. It’s 7 am. Fuuuuuuck. I hit Starbucks for some coffee and sit in a food court area watching CINEMA PARADISO on my laptop. I wanted to watch a film that takes place in Sicily. What a masterpiece. It sends sparks through my overly romantic heart. And, it sticks the landing like no other. As soon as I can I am through the gate and into the Air France Lounge. This is my first Priority Pass experience. It’s worth it for the shower alone. Next, I hit the buffet hard and the complimentary selection of French wines harder. The label is lost to time but the Sauvignon Blanc blend I was enjoying had high acid, bright lemon, lime and melon flavors. What’re two more glasses? I’m not flying the plane.
After a few hours of aimless wandering around Old Town Palermo, I grab a seat and the official drink of Sicily, an Aperol Spritz. My conversion to local is well underway. Happy to be off my feet, I am forced to shoo away Gypsies that take a rather aggressive assault approach to begging. Somehow always holding a baby, performing a monologue of sorrow in Italian. Years riding New York subways have made me proficient at dismissals such as these, but it always with a tinge of pain in my heart. Highlights from first day’s wanderings include San Giuseppe dei Teatini, Capo market, and Piazza Pretoria (also known as: Piazza della Vergogna, the square of shame). To say nothing of the city itself, which is teeming with life. Vibrant, dirty, ancient and alive. It’s been a long time since I visited Italy (Rome, Florence, Cinque Terra and Venice on my honeymoon 85 years ago), but Sicily is undeniably different. Conquered, occupied and operated at different times in its history by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and North Africans before becoming part of a unified Italy, it is a mosaic of different influences. It’s not uncommon in Sicily to visit a Catholic church that was once a Mosque. The facade rebuilt, but both styles still coexisting. Drops of these different civilizations are expressed in the architecture, art, culture, food and on the faces of the people. On my face. The people are darker here. Swarthy, as I’ve often been described and never once without wincing. But it’s impossible to miss. Sipping my Aperol Spritz I’m texting with a friend from childhood and I remark, “being here, looking at the people explains my hair and your love of black women”. I once had an agent, during our introductory meeting in Los Angeles, continuously banging his own head against the desk repeating “you’re so ethnic”. Here, sitting on the street in Palermo as though deposited from a dream, all these memories swarm. It comes into focus how unbeknown to me I have always been, in fact, so Sicilian looking. Today I started to feel that burst of life I’ve become addicted to with my solo travels. A cocktail of tranquility and fervor. But there is something different. Something that’s only a whisper; home? To borrow from Israel, Birthright.
I say goodbye to my wife and kid and start to run. Let me back up. On the flight to Paris, I am seated next to a French woman and her infant. No matter what I say, or what she says, we are continually treated as a couple flying with our child. “Does your baby need…?”, “Does your wife want…?” never stops despite our protests. At a certain point, I accepted it. I own it. The flight attendant probably thinks “glad those two worked it out”. We are late arriving and the flight attendant tells me in no uncertain terms, I will not make my connection. I decide I will and we’ll leave it at that. I am pushing my way off the plane and once off I do what I do best, I run. I run at top speed to customs. Wait, wait, wait. I run, at top speed, through Orly airport. Confused who what and where I am, I am yelling in English and Italian apologies and for people to get out of the way. My backpack bouncing, my rolling carry on continually twisting this way and that but my pace never slackens. It’s not a short distance to cover, but I cover it. When I arrive at the gate, they tell me it’s too late. No, I say, or was it begging? They call on the plane and the cabin door isn’t shut yet. They wave me through. When I board, the airplane gives me applause. 15 passengers from my prior flight had this transfer, only I made it. I topple into my seat, suddenly aware of how much French wine I drank at the Air France lounge yesterday (?) and how little I slept on my second overnight in as many days. Am I gonna be sick? The plane lurches into motion. Next stop, Italy.
Trattoria del Pesce Fresco is situated across from the marina in Old Town Palermo. My father and Janine ate here a few days ago. Did I not mention several members of my family are in Sicily all set to converge in Syracuse, the Province my Grandmother is from? Yeah, that’s happening. We’ll get there. When I approach the Maitre’D I mumble my way with limited Italian to explain my parents sent me. This was as they instructed. Apparently, my Dad and Janine make quite the impression, I am hugged and introduced to the entire restaurant staff. “This is Mario’s son!”. I still have no idea what happened. The owner even comes to my table. They select a fish to be grilled for me and I complete the feast by ordering eggplant caponata and bottle of Grillo, (Sicily’s most popular white varietal). The Grillo is medium acid, light-bodied with notes of lemon-lime, grass, white roses, and a hint of pepper. Very refreshing. My server keeps checking in on me no matter how many times I say “bene”. I resolve to throw out a “molto bene” next time. He won’t know what hit him. And I don’t know what hit me when after I devour my eggplant and the fish. I am overtaken with drowsiness. Suddenly no one is attentive and we play a little game which involves me trying to pay in between nodding out at the table. Very dignified. The walk home is perfectly pleasant. It wakes me up just enough to spend a little time sitting out on the balcony of my AirBnB. Illuminated by the Church of Gesu across the street, lulled by the sound of the occasional moped and Italians yelling, a resounding calm overtakes me. Relaxing in the night air. I am here. I am in Sicily.