Tuesday, September 11, 2007
sticky fingers in sicily
Sarah is in Messina for a conference, so I'm going down to meet her and see a bit of Sicily together. I catch an overnight train from Venice, boarding at 7:03 pm and disembarking at 11:00 am. I had an whole couchette car to myself the entire trip. The conductor and I established fairly early on that we didn't speak each other's language, so except for dropping off an overnight kit for me (paper slippers, sleep sheet, pillow, single serving of water, all delivered one by one) he leaves me alone. Until some point in the evening when he walks in, and speaking in Italian, demonstrates how to pull out the lower bunk. "Buona notte." He was rather nice, and had a snappy cap. I kinda wanted to try it on. At the port of San Giovanni, the train rolls onto a ferry, and rolls off the other end straight into the Messina Centrale station. According to the paper that is delivered to my cabin, I'm due for some torrid weather, but it doesn't seem unbearable when I get off the train. Tucson, AZ in the summer was way worse.
I have no map of the city, and no idea where my hotel is. Thankfully, tourist offices generally exist for people like me, and the tourist office in Messina is right by the train station. When I walk in there are about six people behind the desk, and after establishing that I don't speak German, they have a funny little conference to decide who gets to deal with me. Most of the Italian I know comes from listening to opera, most which doesn't do a whole lot of good when arriving in a new town, although it is how I know the word for "where", which has come in handy a few times. The woman who helps me knows plenty English, and gets me going in the right direction.
The concierge at the Jolly Hotel is clearly enamored with American pop culture. At the presentation of my passport he sings a few bars of "Born in the USA", and when I ask him about wireless, he points out the double antennae. "Like Batman." Yes, I suppose it does loosely resemble Batman. I should have asked where Robin was.
Seafood is a main staple in Sicily, and Sarah and I do our fair share of sampling local cuisine. Normally I don't eat a lot of seafood; it's mostly in protest of the fishing industry trashing the ocean floor, scooping up marine life it doesn't want and then chucking it out of the boat (dead), and generally screwing up the marine ecosystem. But sampling local flavors is part of the whole travel experience, so this time I'm overlooking my morals and tucking in. Also, I figure seafood here has a fairly good chance of having come off a small, local boat instead of a commercial trawler.
I ate one of those tentacles. Sort of crunchy and chewy at the same time. But even better was the plate of fried olives I ordered, not really knowing exactly what a fried olive was. I got a plate of what amounted to olive fritters. If I ever see them on a menu again, I'll be ordering them. They were so damn good. Eating right when traveling and being almost constantly on the move can be hard. It's easy to keep a bag of nuts or an apple in my bag for snacking, and to keep hunger pangs at bay, but for the most part, I buy food and eat it right then. A lot of my diet until Sicily had been made up of mozzarella and tomato sandwiches (tasty, cheap), so I can do with a dose of protein.
Something else I tried here was Chino soda; spicy, bitter and not too sweet. I still haven't figured out what flavor chinotto is, but I didn't turn into any sort of cat, either cute or ferocious, after drinking one.
I didn't actually see a whole lot of Messina, since I was there for just under 24 hours. After a brief excursion to find a cappuccino and some fruit (leaving the fruitstand with four peaches. I'm pretty sure I only asked for two. My pronunciation must be truly terrible), I spent the afternoon of my arrival taking a nap, and strolled around only a little in the evening. Evening is really the time to enjoy the Mediterranean. I didn't really figure it out for a couple of weeks, since I always wanted to run out first thing to do stuff. But the evenings are cooler, and since a lot of people are heading to restaurants, walking the sidewalks can be a little more mellow. Mediterranean cities pep up at night. The map the tourist office gave me was actually quite a good one, and pointed out a lot of pretty, historical buildings that would have been worth a look if I had hung around longer. The next morning we left early by bus, to Taormina, just down the coast.
Greta Garbo and Winston Churchill both stayed in Taormina, so we figure we should stay there as well. It's one dinky town, so dinky that I managed to find our hotel simply by walking around (the tourist office was closed when we arrived). It's dominated by a major shopping/perambulating thoroughfare, which is dominated by two churches and a cathedral, which on a Saturday are dominated by couples getting married. At least four couples tied the knotty knot in Taormina that day, and provided photo ops for the hundreds of vacationers who were clogging the town. Why someone on vacation would want to take pictures of a wedding couple they don't know, I can't fathom, yet a whole bunch of them were waiting outside the church, cameras in hand, waiting for the bride to appear. The only reason we were there is because one of the churches is across the street from a library housed in a medieval building that we really wanted to check out. Unfortunately, it was closed. Maybe the librarian was getting hitched.
Indulging in midday refreshments is essential here, so we plop ourselves at a cafe. Our waiter, an older gentleman with very well-toned arms and sporting closely cut grey hair that's almost white, is a master at the art of indifference. He's moving through the tables with slow ease, wearing a little smile that suggests that he knows something you don't, taking orders with the absolute minimal amount of conversation that any waiter can manage, and afterwards has a tendency to linger next to the table for slightly too long, causing us to wonder if we've committed some potational faux-pas. He doesn't seem in any hurry to do anything, but maybe that's the way it should be. If you sit down in an Italian cafe, you shouldn't plan on being anywhere soon. That's what drinking at the bar is for.
Other fun facts about Taormina - incomplete translations, for one:
And a dog sleeping on a windowsill. I've seen lots of cats in windowsills, but this is the first dog I've seen that was crashed out on one. His name was Rocky, and he really couldn't have cared less that we were standing there, thinking he was cute:
In Taormina we ate at Il Ciclope, where I got a plate of mixed grilled fish. Included in that was the entire back half of a fish. I think the front half was in Sarah's bowl of fish soup. Also two shrimp, eyes and legs still present. The place was staffed almost entirely by cheerful old gentleman. If you go to Taormina, consider eating a meal at Il Ciclope, and get the truffle gelato for dessert.
The craters of Mount Etna are swathed in mist and clouds, and positively chilly. Just standing there doesn't indicate that this is still an active volcano, but all you need to do is scuff up an inch or so of the top rocks with your shoe, and you can grab a handful of toasty stones to warm your hands. Something is going on down there. The forge of Hephaestus is busy. Heading up to the crater, we didn't really expect any action, but, kaboom! the earth was barfing out smoke and chunks of rock. Unfortunately, it was all shaking at a crater further away from where we were, so there was no danger of getting pegged by a hunk of lava rock and taking home a few volcanic souvenir stitches. Hoping to inspire more thrilling geologic action, we looked around for a toddler to feed into the crater we were standing at, but all the ones we spotted seemed well guarded. We should have just waited. Mount Etna erupted two days later, and we missed it. Rats!
To get to the craters, you first need to take a cable car, and then a volcanic flow-proof Mercedes Benz minibus will lurch you the rest of the way. I think I caught some air going over a bump.
We're led around one of the craters by a rugged guide wearing the latest alpine fashion. It's a monochrome world up there. The ground is black, and the smoke and mist are white. Standing on top of a volcano is pretty cool, but after a bit, there really isn't a whole lot to see. After our guide leads us around the crater, feeding us fun facts in Italian that we don't understand, we didn't linger too long at the top.
But someone has to do something with all that volcanic rock, and the the souvenir shops of Sicily are stuffed with figures fashioned from lava, and dressed up with a little glitter. And the most common figures? Jesus and Mary of course. And, Mussolini. Or, a face that is supposed to be Mussolini. None of them really look like him, but there's no doubt who it's supposed to be. I snapped this outside a shop in Taormina, and have no idea why my camera chose to focus on the Blessed Virgin instead of the Dictator. Divine intervention, I suppose. Or else she was just in the focus frame.
I've seen lots of Annunciation paintings in my many museum visits here, and having no religious education whatsoever, was curious why the Virgin Mary is always depicted reading a book. No better person to hit up for info than Sarah, the lapsed Catholic who holds a degree in theology. Annunciation paintings abound, but her favorite is Antonello da Messina's Annunciata. This painting features Mary alone; Gabriel presumably somewhere out of frame. Normally housed at a museum in Palermo, it was recently in Taormina for an exhibit. I ask Sarah why this painting appeals to her, and she said that Mary has a really lovely face. I think she does, too. You can judge for yourself, because we nicked a poster of the exhibit.
The exhibition was over, so really, we did a public service by removing outdated information. But it wasn't all that easy. The decision to liberate it from the display case for a second, happier life on the wall of Sarah's flat was cake, but the display case was in a really public area, pretty much the most public any area in a town can be. Our decision to pursue careers as petty criminals made in the afternoon, we cruised by after dinner one night, but there was still way to much going on. Our last chance was the next morning, on the way out. Emerging into the square shortly after 8:00am, the first thing we see are three members of the carabinieri, one branch of law enforcement, who are just standing around chatting. Hmm. Also, the display case is directly next to a taxi rank, which at that hour is totally full, and since we're carrying our rucksacks, the drivers think we want a cab. Waving them off, we wait for the carabinieri to stroll away, then get busy (a) opening the case, hoping the cabbies are too busy smoking to notice what we're doing, and (b) looking like we're busy doing other things (taking photos, sniffing an orange). It's a double-sided case, standing in the middle of a planter, so all we need to do is loosen the two bottom nuts and slide it out. Except, it's taped up inside. My Swiss Army knife finally makes itself useful, and cuts through sticky tape goo. Poster in hand, we scurry off to the bus station. I only regret that I didn't put my map of the town in its place, to help future travelers like us, who show up in town without a map when the tourist office is closed. It was kind of a thrill.
And in case you're wondering, the reason Mary is always reading is Logos. You can look it up.
Like Venice, much of Palermo are dilapidated, but you can still discern an antiquated elegance beneath the decay and dirt. But unlike Venice, it's not because of the natural elements; more because someone just forgot about part of the city. The life of Venice's crumbling exteriors is no doubt somewhat prolonged by lack of car exhaust, but Palermo is good and gritty. Except the post office, which has a totally scary (and clean) fascisty facade, although I suppose it's safe to assume your mail will be handled with ruthless efficiency.
Traffic is nuts. Everywhere in Italy the pedestrian is the lowest form of life. Step out the way for a car zooming down a narrow medieval lane, and the driver doesn't even give you so much as a glance or nod to acknowledge either your presence or your having moved out of the way. Nope, you'd be just another dent in their bumper if you hadn't moved. Although, I must say that I'm inspired to ride a scooter after visiting the Mediterranean. On the sidewalk, helmet unsecured, bag of groceries or hapless infant just sitting on the running board, wearing a string of pearls, and checking my watch instead of watching where I'm going. Since I was too busy trying to stay alive while crossing the streets I was never able to get a handle on when cars are supposed to go and stop. Sometimes they were stopped but I couldn't figure out where the traffic light that was instructing them was.
Italy is of course filled with old cars, many of them Fiats. Since I'm traveling here with Sarah, this is a good time to share the story of her paternal grandmother's navy blue Fiat 500, which met an untimely and unexpected demise on a country lane in Surrey, when a cow sat on the bonnet, crushing it beyond possibility of reignition. Sarah's father was obliged to render a drawing of the accident in order to secure insurance money. Having seen both a Fiat 500 and a standard British dairy cow, it's a wonder that Sarah's granny escaped unscathed. Physically, anyway. She never did own another automobile after that.
Palermo is my last evening with Sarah before she goes home, and I go to Greece. We arrived too late in the day to do much of anything except stroll around the streets, and we go out to dinner one more time. Sicilian cooking seems to combine tastes that perhaps at first glance don't really seem to go together. We find Casa Santandrea, serving seafood, in a tiny square behind a big square, next to an abandoned church and a sagging apartment building, and totally overrun with leggy cats and kittens topped with ears as big as their heads. They're hanging out in the square, and winding their way through tables. One of them deigns to let me give him a backscratch, but most of them are playing cold and aloof. Until our food arrives.
I've got a goat cheese basil ravioli topped with fish ragout, Sarah has a slice of sardine pie with more fish bits stacked on top, and both of us have cats at our feet, gazing up at us with inky eyes in pretty cat faces. Not doing anything, just staring. Staring and waiting. Occasionally playing with our shoes. They really are very cute, especially the kittens, who are prancing around in that gangly manner that only baby animals can do, when things are still growing into place and locomotion is still a new skill. Finally I hand down a chunk of fish, and faster than you can say meowmix, cute cat morphs into feral cat; claws out, eyes gone slightly deranged, and moving a whole lot faster than the previous languid strolls through the tables, my offering is swatted out of my fingers and disappears down a pussycat gullet. Sarah got the same treatment, plus her blood drawn. We probably both have rabies now. Thankfully lockjaw didn't set in immediately, and I was able to enjoy my dessert, a basil cream in a pastry topped with peaches. Basically, a pesto fruit tart. Sounds weird, tastes gooood.
Palermo has me in a ruminative mood. I've been in Italy for just about three weeks, and as much as I've seen and as much ground as I've covered, it really just amounts to wiping fog off a mirror. When I planned this trip I considered two approaches - stay in only one or two places and really get to know them, or keep moving and see many places. I chose the second, not because it's the right or better thing to do, but because I've barely seen anything of this great big planet, and I want to fill my eyes with new sights. I still want to do that, but it's also hard to leave things and places I've become accustomed to. I'm sad to be leaving Italy, but excited about embarking on something new. Especially if it involves learning how to read a new alphabet.