Ciao ragazzi! Come va?
It’s that time of the evening again, when I realize I have a lot of homework that I should be doing, and it therefore becomes apparent that I haven’t blogged in several days.
It’s really very strange. It doesn’t seem like long ago that I was getting off the plane in Rome for the first time, breathing the air and feeling like a newborn baby, ready to experience a foreign world and speak a new language (I was even patted down by men in rubber gloves, so the rebirth was all too realistic). Now, there’s less than three weeks left on this trip, and I have to deal with the harsh reality that things will inevitably go back to normal.
The Coliseum will, again, just be something I see on travel shows and in guidebooks, instead of seeing it every week on the bus. The Spanish Steps will be a couple thousand miles from where I go to class, instead of a couple yards. Pasta will seem like a main course, instead of a starting dish to a glorious feast. Red lights will actually mean “stop,” instead of being mere street decorations.
It’s a hard pill to swallow, really. But a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. So it’s good that I spent this past weekend with some friends in Sicily, where there’s an abundance of sugar and spoons.
When I’m asked by people here why I decided to learn Italian (it’s not the most worldly of worldly languages), I have to explain that it was a personal choice, influenced by my grandmother who was Sicilian.
Ok, she was born in the U.S., but that doesn’t matter, because her parents were from Sicily, and she was born after they relocated, so that definitely counts. But she died when I was still pretty young, and it seemed reasonable that I should, at least, try to revisit her (and, consequently, my) heritage by coming to Italy to live here for a short time.
So, apart from learning to speak Italian (which I think I’ve done a fair job of doing), it was also important that I get the chance to visit my ancestral home city: Palermo.
Sure, Rome is wonderful enough with all its museums, piazzas and Vaticans; but this trip to Italy really wouldn’t have meant as much without spending a little time on it’s wonderful island to the south (I think Conan O’Brien described its geography best: If Italy’s a boot, then Sicily is the dog shit that it’s stepping in).
Getting to Palermo turned out to be startlingly simple. The cheap plane ride only took about 50 minutes. And, given the fact that I had to wake up at about 6 a.m. to go to the airport, the city was really just a short nap away.
And it’s quite a sight to see from the plane window, because you don’t really get a view of the island until just before you land, which means the plane is low enough to really give you a view of the amazing landscape. I’ve described before that the landscape in Tuscany was something awe inspiring and marvelous, but the mountains in Sicily give Tuscany a run for its Euro.
It was also pretty easy to locate our hostel in the city, since it was a short walk from the central bus station. So, unlike normal travel nightmares of losing luggage at the airport and circling the city for hours looking for the place you booked, this visit to Palermo seemed predestined to be a good one. But we didn’t really know just how good.
For starters, our hostel was the type where the owners are just as excited for you to be visiting as you are. So, right when we arrived, the guy who runs the place pulled out a map of the city and started highlighting all the things he thought we should see and do on our short visit. He also told us that the hostel would be bringing the guests out to dinner later in the evening, and possibly even have a sangria party.
Well, the sangria party didn’t happen, because, I guess, there weren’t enough people. But we did still have a bottle of spumante between all of us to celebrate the fact that they had just acquired another unit in the building to use for guests. They then took us out to dinner at a local place that had (dare I say it… yes) the best seafood ever! But it wasn’t for the faint of heart.
It’s the kind of place where they don’t filet the fish or peel the shrimp for you. Everything comes out fresh with its eyes looking right at you as you dig into its juicy, delicious insides. There was even whole squid, looking like it had just finished writing its last will and testament in its own ink, before being thrown to the grill and served, tentacles and all. At the end, with shells and bones strewn all about, the plates seemed much more full than when they arrived, as were we.
But the fun-loving hostel proprietors didn’t call it a night at this point. It was now time to go party.
This was a Saturday night, which, we came to realize, is the serious party night in Palermo. So, we were taken to a piazza in the city where everyone gathers to hang out, talk, dance and drink. The beers were huge and cheap, and this, of course, means that I was no stranger to them. There were also grills at the end of the piazza that filled the air with thick smoke, but we were far too stuffed from the dinner to have any interest in partaking in more food (though I say that apprehensively).
Really though, what struck me most about the scene was the look and feel of the piazza as a whole. The buildings around us were apparently very old, and many of the windows and their shutters looked like they hadn’t been repaired since they were installed (or, at least since they were destroyed in WWII). Despite all the lights and loud music, the setting really seemed like a page out of history. And there I was, drinking my beer and feeling like an anachronism from the New World, on the other side of the looking glass, taking it all in. That kind of thing really gets me excited, but hey, dancing is fun, too.
And, there was more to be done in Palermo than simply have a party (In fact, I didn’t know that that would even be part of the tour). So, one of the sights we decided to see during our visit was the catacombs of the Cappuccini.
Wait, where does that sound familiar?
Oh yeah, now I remember. There were also dead corpses at the “cemetery” of the Cappuccini in Rome, which I mentioned in a previous post. But, I gotta tell you, these Sicilians don’t screw around. The Rome version seems like a dollhouse in comparison to what we saw in Palermo. (Warning: the following images may give you the urge to watch The Shining for the mere comfort it provides)
Yeah, so, at least the Roman version was just skeletons… As you can clearly see, these people still have skin and hair! And they’re not kept 20 feet away behind metal barriers, they’re literally lining the walking path. If one so desired, they could lean in and see into these people’s ears. Not saying that I did that, of course. I mean, that’d just be weird. Why would you even bring that up? Why are you looking at me like that!?
So, after seeing the Cappuccini in Palermo, it suddenly made sense why my great grandparents decided to sail to the U.S. This is the kind of thing that not only makes you want to find the nearest exit, but also the furthest country possible. At least in America we don’t dress up our corpses and hang them on walls… we give them makeup and call it Sex and the City.
And, from here, the next obvious segway is to talk about more food we ate.
The guy from the hostel told us there were basically six Sicilian foods that we had to try before leaving: the arancine (fried balls of rice filled with cheese and meat or vegetables), the traditional pasta with sardines, Sicilian pizza, the famous cannoli, cassata siciliana (a type of cake) and a dessert with seven layers of different chocolates.
We succeeded in trying all but one, which was the chocolate cake thing, but we felt pretty accomplished in trying all the others. Now, obviously, these aren’t things that can only be found in Sicily. As a matter of fact, you can pretty much find them in any Sicilian bakery here in Rome. The appeal is that you’re actually trying the “authentic” versions of the foods, which, only having two days in Sicily, seemed like the proper tourist thing to do.
But, really, they were right. I thought that everything we ate in Sicily was outstanding. I’ve already become a big fan of arancine during my stay here in Rome, but the ones we got in Palermo were triumphant monsters compared to the Roman ones:
I also really enjoyed the pasta with sardines, which may sound a little strange at first, but I guarantee it’s good. I apologize that I didn’t get a picture of it, but my friend Vicky did, so maybe I’ll borrow it from her in the near future to post. There was also the pizza, which we only tried from a street vender at a market. It was certainly tasty, but it consisted of much thicker bread and a tiny layer of cheese (180˚ swing from Chicago style pizza), so I wouldn’t really consider it life-changing.
As for the desserts… it’s pretty well known that Sicily is awesome with regard to sweets. That’s why Sicilian pastry shops are so popular in Rome. The local desserts in the Roman part of the country are basically crackers with a light sprinkle of sugar. So, the way that Sicilians use ricotta cheese and fruit must seem like very advanced culinary technology.
But, whatever it is they’re doing, it works. Because I consumed more desserts during my two days in Sicily than I ever hope to again. And that amount of sugar really has a weird effect on the body. I couldn’t tell if I was sleepy or energized. All I knew is that I couldn’t breath. But, if I was going to die of asphyxiation, what better way than with a cannolo in hand?
As always, I’ll end before fully explaining all the things I got to see and do. But, this should be a decent example of how my life continues to go marvelously on this dream journey to Italy. I’ll try my best to not focus on the fact that it’s almost over, and, if I find that I can’t avoid it, I’ll at least remember that I’m coming home to people that I don’t mind seeing again all that much after three months apart.
Love to all at home, Dom Dom