July 5, 2019
Sometimes I think my favorite thing about being on vacation is the mornings; waking up happy and knowing what you have to do today is to explore, eat, drink, see, adventure, have fun and relax. In normal life, I am a miserable morning person. Days start with confusion, “Why is everything so bright?”, “Why are people talking to me?”, “Why does this keep happening?”, “Can I just lie down again?”. I slump over my coffee, nursing it in hopes of it nursing me. Vacations are something completely different. I greet the morning with enthusiasm. After all, see the day’s itinerary listed above. My first morning in Palermo, I pull on shorts and a t-shirt and stroll a few blocks to a local cafe I spied. The counter is packed with people. The barista looks like a young, Sicilian Javier Bardem. When it’s my turn to order I shyly recite the Italian I have been practicing in my head as I waited. The barista quickly makes me an espresso and places the croissant I ordered on a plate. Then he moves to the next customer. I stutter, unsure if I pay now or how it works. He waves me off with his hand and some Italian I only half comprehend. I take my seat outside. The morning mist still cools the air. The threatening hot sun still a little ways off. That morning vacation serenity caresses me. I read my book, Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch. It’s a fantasy novel about con artists in an imagined but familiar 1700’s Venice like city. It’s my custom to start my vacation mornings reading. My croissant has a surprise filling; surprise to me at least. Like raspberries and prosciutto? Unexpected, but yummy. My espresso goes down fast and I debate ordering a second but decide to not be so American. In the peace of the morning air, in between bites of food, I lounge and read. It’s a perfect way to start to the day. Hard to miss, no one is buried in their phones here; not at this cafe or in any bar or restaurant I visit during my time in Sicily. Everyone is talking or, at the very least, people watching. There are also no TVs. They are present, in a way I feel that is so often lacking in my life in Los Angeles. When I finally pack up to leave, I go inside to see how much I owe. The barista has no memory of what I had. I guess things run on the honor system here. I walk back to my AirBnB to take a quick shower and attack the day.
Today I am organized. Unlike the aimless wanderings of yesterday, I have a plan. Old City Palermo is fairly concentrated. I am going to walk around and peek at all the major sites. I have the Rick Steves Sicily guide book complete with “Palermo Walk” on me for reference and information. I start by walking Via Maqueda until I hit the opera house, Teatro Massimo. From what I can tell the two most important facts here are; it’s one of the premier opera houses in all of Europe and the final scene in Godfather III, when the Sofia Coppola character is shot, takes place on the front steps. It’s a magnificent, old dame of a building. I pass on the tour. I’m too anxious and the timing just isn’t right. I try to sneak in, I get caught, play dumb and am escorted out. Oh, well. Instead, I press on, rolling through a series of sites and relics. Down Via Bara all’Olivella a small side street across from the opera house. The street is filled with puppet makers, woodworkers, restaurants and arts and crafts shops of all variety. Most of all I’m struck by the smell. It smells like Grandma’s kitchen; like tomatoes, basil, bread, and coffee. Next, I pop out on the grand fairway Via Roma. The first thing I see is the giant, austere and imposing post office, Mussolini’s contribution to the city if I understand correctly. Fascism letting us know if this post office ever got into a fight with another post office, it would totally kick that puny post office’s ass. I sit on the steps and chat with my Dad via What’s App. Everyone is excited to be converging soon in Syracuse. Dad offers comfort, not all of Sicily has the garbage and trash issues that Palermo currently suffers from. It’s kinda funny now that the Mafia is gone there are sanitation problems. The Church of San Domenico, also known as Church of the Martyrs is my next stop. The other name I see listed for the cathedral is the “Pantheon of illustrious Sicilians”. Life goals? Several famous Sicilians are entombed inside, including Giovanni Falcone, the magistrate largely credited with bringing down the mob in Sicily. He was assassinated before he could finish the job. The Church of San Domenico shows it’s age. Seems true of the many churches I visit in Palermo. And unlike Rome, you don’t stumble upon great works by famous artists. Rust and copper are common colors. Tears in paintings, chips in statues, worn down woodwork are the norm. Sicily bears its scars like a proud biker gang. Next, I’m wandering through La Vucciria Market. What I love most about the markets in Sicily, is how they are a way of life. Every city, every town, every day. Fresh ingredients for all your cooking needs. I’m flying high on this thought cloud when I spot Taverna Azzurra. I don’t even get twenty feet past it when I turn around, decide, no, it’s not too early to start drinking and walk back. I know greatness when I see it. Stories happen here.
Marble and stone frame Taverna Azzurra. The assortment of old weathered men and daytime drunks is as essential to the joint as the wood finishings. Walking inside my eyes are wide and a goofy smile adorns my face. Naturally, I start by petting the neighborhood mutt that’s looking to the cool marble floor for help to escape the heat. I order a Moretti. The bartender and 3 men inside who seem to take ownership of the establishment while performing no obvious function, study me as a curiosity. Maybe it’s the kid at Disneyland glint in my eye. Taverna Azzurra is a tale of Sicily itself. It’s a black eye and a wry smile on a dazzling Greek statue of Adonis refitted with a Roman nose. A life lived chiseled onto the faces of those who inhabit. It’s been a hard and glorious battle. Madonna and child framed painting resides next to Italy team soccer photos. I sit outside on the bench and take a swig of my beer. It’s almost 11 am and the sun has burned away any traces of cool morning air. My new canine friend, Piccola, comes outside and hides under the bench. That’s when things get interesting because I meet Piccola’s owner.
He introduces himself as Ragazzo, but I may have missed something in translation because Ragazzo means boy in Italian. Also, Ragazzo is blind drunk. He wears a NY cap with speckled dots of color, shorts and half off button down. He has to close one eye and squint to focus on anything or anyone. He introduces me to Ernesto. What a face! Ernesto has thinning hair and a grey beard with streaks of the black that once was. He’s skinny, tanned and leathery and never stops flashing me the gentlest, knowing smile I have ever seen though I can’t say entirely I understand why. Before I know it Ragazzo is sketching me. Street art seems to be his game. I can tell this makes him unpopular with the proprietors. When I say, “oh you’re an artist”, he replies “No, I’m normal”. He sketches, Ernesto smokes and I’m learning about Taverna Azzurra and Palermo. ‘This is my church” Ragazzo says, referring to Azzurra. “This is my office” echoes Ernesto later in an unrelated moment. They argue about how old the Taverna is, 98 or 102 rages the debate, but both agree it’s one of the oldest and most famous in Palermo. Everyone comes here, Ernesto delicately tells me, homeless, artists, doctors, engineers, everyone. All equal and all friends. Ragazzo continues informing me you can find anything you want or need at the bar. Do you need a dentist, craftsman, therapist, a joint, women for sex (unclear exactly how he means it)? Anything you need, you find at Taverna Azzurra. And at night I’m told it’s so packed, the party fills the whole street. Taverna Azzurra, the beating heart of Palermo. Ragazzo rages about how much he loves Sicily, Palermo in particular. Originally from Bari but Sicily now his forever home. It’s free. Ernesto finishes his thought, again soft and friendly, “Everyone is free here, Free to be anything you want. Free to just be”. They ask me where I am from, my accent sounds different to them. I tell them, Brooklyn, originally. Then that thing happens that has happened to me anytime I have ever told any Italian I am from Brooklyn… they have a friend from/in Brooklyn! There is a strange serenity to my time on the bench outside Taverna Azzurra, a moment in time for which I am deeply grateful. Ragazzo completed his sketch and it looks nothing like me. I throw him a few Euros as he was hoping for though he made clear it wasn’t required. Our party gets broken up when a woman on bicycle rides up and starts yelling at Ragazzo. I am pretty sure she’s going to slap him and a little dissapointed when she doesn’t. She wears an LA cap with the same color dot pattern. Later that night I see her selling sketches on the street. In the same colorful style as Ragazzo, all of her sketches are of a seated, naked woman with legs spread wide. They must be quite the couple. As their fight rages it moves into the bar, out and down the street. Piccola follows the progression of the argument by moving from shaded spot to shaded spot. Ernesto playfully rolls his eyes and giggles. His face is brilliantly expressive. What an actor he would make. It’s time to move or commit to a day of getting drunk at Taverna Azzurra. If I only had more time in Palermo. I say a warm farewell to Ernesto. Ragazzo has been lost to his quarrel.
A few steps more and I am in Piazza Caracciola. Fresh fish vendors boil and fry tasty delights for locals and tourists. I eye the polpo bollito (boiled octopus) but settle on a different old friend for lunch, panelle. Panelle Special was a staple of my childhood and
early adult years. It’s a fried chickpea patty, with ricotta and shaved parmesan on a toasted sesame bun. To wash it down, Brooklyn’s own, Manhattan Special, an espresso soda. A rich, savory, adrenaline rush of a meal. It’s a Sicilian specialty I have never found outside of Brooklyn and even there, it’s become an endangered species. At Taverna Azzurra I heard talk of panelle and with Ernesto’s help tracked down my target. No “special”, but a treat nonetheless. I select several items from a display of foods to fill my plate. For this I need no menu or translation, I know the players well. I fill my plate with panelle patties, eggplant rollatini, potato croquette, spiced meatball in sauce, fresh tomato mozzarella and basil. The heavens sing at this meal. Or maybe that’s Grandma I hear.
After my religious lunch experience, I take in some more holiness. I visit the Genie of Palermo, a bearded king with a snake biting his chest. The genie is a Greek and Roman symbol charged with safeguarding the city. Once the protector symbol of Sicily, he’s taken a back seat to the Catholic martyr, Santa Lucia. If I follow, the snake is foreigner invaders, sucking the life out of Sicily, but the King stays strong. Next, I take in street art and a series of blocks where buildings lie in rubble, decimated from World War II bombings and never rebuilt. Then, Piazza San Francesco and its’ church. A walk through the former Arab and Jewish ghetto. In shop windows, I sigh at Italian men’s fashion. If I was spending money on souvenirs I’d buy a whole new wardrobe. Palermo’s Trio of Churches is what follows; Santa Caterina, La Martorana, and San Cataldo. Baroque, Arab and Norman, the three churches in the same square highlight the mix of influences that is Sicily. Everything is ancient here. There are so many churches with martyrs who were tortured and killed. Old people hold court on every corner. I start to think about the context it lends to these local’s lives. The spectacle of death, art and history in your face on every street. Always present. The perspective that it must lend verse a culture only obsessed with youth and wealth. I’m falling in love with Sicily. The walking tour leads me back to the Piazza Pretoria, (Fountain of Shame) and the Quattro Canti (Four Corners). I’ve done all this and it’s only 2 pm. Beginning to think I don’t vacation the way others do. Maybe there is something I can do about that. It’s 96 degrees out. So I head home, change, repack, summon my courage and head out to Mondello beach. You’ll have to tune back to see what happens next. This post is long enough.