Thursday 1 April 2010

Oranges and Horse Heads

Souvenirs from Sicily, part III

Exploring Palermo is quite an ambition, as you will know if you have ever been there!
The city is big with over 600.000 inhabitants, noisy, bustling, and full of places worth seeing as well as places you should not be seen at, especially not if you are, like Brigitte and myself, so obviously not a native Palermitana.
Imagine the two of us leaving our cheap old-fashioned hotel, a narrow sooty building squeezed in between equally sooty buildings:
Brigitte does not quite reach 1,60 m, she has milky white skin, blond curly hair and a figure like Marilyn Monroe after two or three pregnancies, while I am taller than most men here at 1,74 m, most of which is legs, skinny compared to Brigitte, a coppery tan, and my hair dyed henna-red.
We truly stick out, and it is an experience I have not made before in the 19 1/2 years that I have been around.

Heads turn when we walk past, women look away and men look our way. Two guys are carrying a long wooden ladder. They see us, both turn around, and PLONG goes the ladder against a cast-iron lamp post (we are, after all, in the old part of Palermo). We start giggling and they can not help but laugh, too, at their own daftness, and we walk on.
Brigitte advises me NOT to look any guy straight in the face - they will get the wrong idea.
That is something else I am not used to, but it will become a habit during the next 2 1/2 weeks.
She also recommends keeping a firm grip on my modest handbag. And generally be as invisible as possible.
Right... how do you become invisible when you look like me in a place like this? Or like her, for that matter?

Instead of thinking about myself, I focus on the place.
Palermo has the sort of shabby glamour that tells of old, more glorious times; it smells of car fumes and the Sea, heavy sweet perfume that the ladies seem to prefer here (not just the ladies, actually) and garbage. The noise is ceaseless and the sunlight very bright - this explains why almost everyone here is wearing sunglasses. Yet another characteristic I do not share - I simply can't afford sunglasses made to the specifications I need for my poor eyesight.
There is a lot of charcoal black in Palermo: the slabs of the pavement, the roads, the sooty facades of the old buildings, the cast-iron lamp posts and balcony rails. I learn that a lot of the building material used here is lava, hence the colour - and the dust. Lava makes for sturdy surfaces, but it rubs off if it is not kept moist with grease or wax, and of course nobody waxes the pavement and the outside of the buildings.

Brigitte and I keep walking until we find a small paninoteca. Our first meal on Sicily consists of a panino and some bottled water - I have not yet developed the habit of drinking coffee, and with all the dust, I am really thirsty, so water is the best choice. We purchase two more bottles to carry around, and move on.

1987 is a long time ago, and I'm afraid I can not recall our route on that first walk through Palermo in detail. But I know we walk a lot - and that is exactly what we want after two days of not being able to move around much; first, the long train ride from Heidelberg to Genua, and then the 20 or so hours aboard the ferry.

At some stage, we reach the Vuccirìa. Here, we find much more than just a groceries market. The maze-like assortment of streets, alleyways and tiny squares was originally (in the 12th century) the meat market. It was then called bucceria, which derives from the French boucherie, meaning butcher. Over time, other merchants added their goods to the flourishing market, and people began to call the market Vuccirìa, meaning "confusion" in Sicilian - a fitting name if I've ever heard one!

Any ingredient you can ever imagine using in the (Sicilian) kitchen is to be found there - along with the merchants offering them with voices as loud as possible, each of them striving to be louder than their neighbour, to make sure customers buy at their stall and not somewhere else.

We walk past stalls where the head of a horse tells us people do indeed eat horse meat and horse salami here (another first for me - we do not eat horse in South Germany, at least not anymore), where beautiful vegetables in all colours and shapes are piled into the most astonishing pyramids, where silvery fish stare at the sky with dead eyes from their bed of crushed ice, where the scent of freshly baked foccaccia fills our nostrils, where oranges and cactus fruit are laid out in endless colourful rows, and herbs and spices add their multiple aroma to the mixture of sights, sounds and smells.

People are busy, the modestly dressed mammas brushing past us with their ample round figures, skinny children weaving in and out between the stalls, chasing each other (or being chased by some angry merchant whose stall is suddenly missing a particularly juicy fruit), while others take their time chatting and gossipping and haggling.

Again, we stick out, and eyes follow us; nobody approaches or speaks to us, though. We do not buy anything; walking and watching is already overwhelming enough without having to haggle (you do not buy there without at least some haggling).

Finally, we come to a quieter piazzetta with a dry fountain and walk across, enjoying the relative quiet. For a bit, we sit on the rim of the fountain and rest.
Then we decide we want to get back to the hotel, buy some postcards on the way and write them in our room.

The decision is good - the direction we take is not.
Without really knowing where we are, we stick to the quieter street ahead, and walk, and walk some more in the direction we assume we should be going.

All around us, the buildings start to look shabbier and the street dirtier. Soon, the buildings are not really buildings any more, but ruins. And people live in those ruins. Some have strung up a piece of cloth in front of a hole in a wall - and ready is a home for a family of six or more. Children with filthy black hair run after meagre cats and dogs, chicken are scurrying about. Women throw us glances alternating between aggressive and worn out. Men throw us glances we do not really want to know the meaning of. We have landed, let's face it, in a slum.

Brigitte keeps close to me, and we both keep close to our handbags. Good for us that we really look what we are - foreigners, yes, but certainly not wealthy tourists - and that we manage to keep walking at a pace that suggests we know where we are headed, even though we haven't got a clue.
It is close to sunset already, and if you have ever been on Sicily, you know that there is no such thing as dusk - the sun sets, and that's it; the natural light dies so quickly it feels as if someone has flicked a switch.

The idea of still being here when that switch is flicked is far from appealing.
We have no choice but to walk on and keep moving; just don't stand anywhere, don't look lost, not even for a moment!
In unison, we sigh with relief when we finally arrive at a piazza where the houses are houses again and there is normal (meaning chaotic) traffic. And there is an even bigger sigh of relief when, at the far end of that piazza, we make out a public telephone - and miraculously, it works.
(In 1987, we did not have mobile phones. We really didn't!)

Gianni and Luca had given us Gianni's number when they dropped us off at the hotel earlier, and while Brigitte is dialling, I fervently hope that he is at home.
He is, and the following short conversation ensues:
"I think we are lost," she tells Gianni. "OK... where did you go when you left the hotel?" he asks. The VuccirÍa, right. And after that? Umm... not sure. "Well, where are you now?" he wants to know. Brigitte looks around and finds a road sign and reads the name of the street out to him, describing the small piazza with the telephone booth and naming one or two shops she can see from here.
The line goes silent for a second, then even I can hear him shouting: "Per l'amore di dio, stai dove sei!! Non muovere, hai capito? Stai là e aspetti che vi veniamo a prendere!"
("For the love of god, stay where you are!! Don't move, do you understand? Stay there and wait for us to pick you up!")

Minutes later, our saviours arrive in Gianni's car on screeching tyres. They practically command us to get in, and take us straight back to the hotel (which happens to be almost the opposite way of where we went after leaving the market). During the ride, both repeat how lucky, how extremely lucky we were not to have come to any harm. Apparently, we have managed to land ourselves in the worst area of all Palermo.

In retrospect, I am not sure how much of it is true and how much of it is meant to impress on us two silly girls that it would be so much better for us to only leave the hotel in male company.
We dutifully thank the two of them and accept the offer of being shown a not too expensive trattoria where we can have something to eat before going back to the hotel.
Their next offer, to spend all day with us tomorrow, we politely decline - but we solemnly promise to be more careful and to stick to the maps and main touristic sights this time, and report to them in the evening.
Reluctantly, they leave us, and our first day on Sicily ends an hour later, when, truly exhausted, we fall asleep in our rickety double bed in the cheap little hotel.

Still no postcards.

(To be continued. Again, the pictures are not mine.)

No comments:

Post a Comment