Friday, May 14, 2010

Italian journey, 7: Palermo

Friday, May 14—

WE HAVE SPENT two full days and halves of two others in this city so far, and I have a few impressions, set forth here in no particular order:

  • Dogs: I haven't seen a great many, but they're part of the street furniture. Sometimes you'll see two at a time; once, near the Porta Nuova, we saw three. They seem to spend most of their time lying on their sides, eyes closed, legs out, motionless. If they dream, I don't know it.

    Yesterday we took our morning coffee in the Piazza Bologni, on an outside terrace, at the Bar Liberty (not very good coffee). A line of potted plants separated us from the piazza, and its statue, and clusters of tourists listening to tourguides telling them about all that; we saw only their heads above the foliage. We did not see the dogs, who were standing just the other side the foliage, conducting their own conversation. Yap! said one of them, a small dog I think; Yap! Yep! Yap!

    Whereupon another, probably a little larger but not much, replied Roggawogga! Wow!

    And so it continued. Yap! Yep! Roggawogga! Yap! Wow! while we had our coffee; and no one seemed to pay any attention.

    It doesn't seem to me anyone owns any of these dogs. There are dogs that are owned, clearly, often carried, or strutting along in front of their humans, off the leash. (The dogs I mean, not the humans, who carry the leashes dutifully just in case.)

    We've seen very few cats, and they have been miserable-looking things — scruffy, lean, wary. But, being feline, apparently quite proud of themselves, even as they sort through the garbage.

  • Garbage: it's piled up in streetcorners, doorways, abandoned buildings, and piazzettas, at least in our part of town, one of the oldest and poorest, still showing signs of the 1943 Allied bombardment. In 1943 I suppose the garbage would have been quicker to disappear, being mostly organic; now a lot of it is plastic. Metal, too: today we saw a couple of burned-out motorbike frames leaning up against buildings over in the northeast quarter. One of our guidebooks says a half alligator was noticed in that quarter last time the writer walked through. This may be an exaggeration; we haven't seen anything quite like that. I wonder which half it was, and how it had been halved, whether crosswise or lengthwise. It would be an interesting thing to see.

  • People: tourists and natives, of course; but a third layer, passers-through. I mentioned the other day the apparent lack of ethnic or racial clarity. There are Chinese shops, and you do see Arabic writing here and there. The internet parlors near the Via Maqueda seem to have a south Asian profile. Today at lunch most of the other diners were speaking French; we hear British English, too, and more than one dialect of Italian. Black Africans (we met one from Ghana) and Tunisians.

    The young natives, like all young Italians, seem slim, fashionable, plugged-in (they talk into their telefoninos while riding motorbikes), immensely sure of themselves, and unafraid of noise. The old people, those with money, seem very attractive. We struck up a conversation with a couple in their eighties yesterday; I was curious about an apparently abandoned building, an elegant villa in the Art Nouveau style out on the via Dante. The couple had been strolling arm in arm toward us, neatly dressed, probably tracing a course they walked every evening. They were short, of course; most southern Italians who grew up before say 1960 are short; there wasn't a lot of nutrient in those days.

    The man deferred to his wife about certain aspects of the the building's history, but then became more and more forthright, blaming its current condition on disorganization and failure of follow-through on the part of the local government. Sicily is full of stories, he said — the Italian word for "stories" and "histories" is the same — there's so much beauty and so much richness, and so much is wasted and thrown away and neglected.

    We rarely speak English here except between ourselves; there aren't that many who understand it. Waiters and shop-attendants clearly don't know English; even information-kiosk workers are unsure of it; it's as if it were not a language but some kind of cultish set of instructions for assembling something one would rather not have to deal with. So we get by in bad Italian.

  • Shopping: so far, a little food, a couple of bottles of wine, a USB modem for the laptop (more on that if I ever get around to Technology), a pair of shoes. The food came from the street market around the corner from our apartment, the Balarò. This market goes on a long way: lots of produce and fruit; a few cheesemongers; a butcher or two; people who sell dry goods: batteries, iPod cases, wrenches, shampoo, pots and pans, pens and pencils, socks and shoes, nearly anything you might need.

    Most of the produce stands also sell lumache, snails. These are very small, you could put three of them on the surface of a twenty-five cent piece, and they're quite elegant. They're sold live: they live in steep-walled basins for the most part, often with a stick or perhaps a braid of garlic at the center, which they crawl up hopelessly to demonstrate their vitality and urge toward liberty. We haven't tried them.

    We did buy a bottle of white wine for one euro, because it was bio or organic, and, well, only one euro; it was undrinkable and I poured it down the drain. We've bought delicious little almonds, and fennel, and tomatoes; and another bottle of better wine; but mostly we're eating out, as a look at Eating Every Day will show, though we do have an apple and some bread sticks at home for breakfast, before going out for our coffee.

  • Architecture: I've posted a few photos, link below. Palermo was badly bombed in 1943 (by the Allies, in advance of their landing), and some of the rubble has yet to be cleared away, nearly seventy years later. Most of it has, of course, and there are plenty of new buildings, few of them distinguished. There are also the occasional old façades with entirely new buildings behind them.

    Yesterday we took a walk up the 22 September, I think it was, looking for "Liberty Style" architecture — that Italian style that grew out of Art Nouveau. We found three really quite wonderful buildings, a little run down I'm afraid but still showing their pedigree. There remain some wonderful Baroque and Renaissance façades, and I find the prevailing late-19th-century style of six-story palazzo lining the avenues attractive enough. It's the new buildings, designed without ornamentation, that I find dismaying; they sit dumbly among all this older attractiveness, with perfectly blank exteriors emblematic, I'd say, of the shallow, blank character of the last forty years.

    Like the rest of Sicily, Palermo has known Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Arabic, Saracen, Norman, Spanish, Italian, and even British occupation, and there are architectural references to most of that. Sometimes the mix is really quite harmonious, as at the Capella Paletina. At other times you'll be walking a narrow street, come out into a piazzetta, and find a Norman tower left over from something demolished long ago standing lonely among slums. No one seems alarmed at this, so perhaps it's as it's meant to be. For what it's worth, my favorite places so far are S. Giovanni degli Erimiti and the Chiesa di S. Cataldo, which the Lonely Planet guide finds too plain.

  • Traffic: In our quarter the streets are narrow, crooked, and laid out apparently at random, probably millennia ago; and the buildings seem haphazard, stone or brick or concrete-block plastered over with stucco, with tin or terra-cotta roofs. This is true of the other three quarters of the old city, which remind me of the old town in Nice, or Seville. Some streets are barely wide enough to walk in; I measured one at two feet wide yesterday.

    Cars avoid those streets, of course; even the motorbikes seem leery. But there's plenty of traffic in our quarter on the wider streets, which may even allow room for parking as well as the single lane of traffic. There are no sidewalks, needless to say, and you're grateful for the noise these cars and motorbikes make when you're walking with the traffic rather than against it; you quickly learn to hug the wall when you hear an engine.

    In the newer part of town of course there are sidewalks, but they're rarely wide enough for a couple to stroll comfortably, and there are often knots of people, usually young and inconsiderate, standing outside café doorways, so you're continually stepping off into the street, hoping a bus isn't silently bearing down from behind. Cars park where they can, often across the few zebra crossings whose stripes in any case have generally faded almost completely from view.

    (Though it's true that when you cross a busy street in one of these zebra crossings all vehicular traffic respects you, even stopping if they can't somehow slip around in front of you or behind.)

    The traffic is complicated by a number of horse-drawn carriages for hire. I rarely see any paying customers riding them, but there are plenty of them on the streets, perhaps practicing for better times to come. One tried hard to inveigle us into a ride: forty euros it would have cost; I didn't ask for how long. We'll continue walking, as long as we can.

    Notes on our meals during this trip can be found, as always, at Eating Every Day; photos of Campania can be seen at this webpage; photos of Palermo can be seen here.
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