Sicily - Palermo

by Kimp 22. November 2012 04:13

Photo Blog

Palermo Sicily is a town of around 1,000,000 people, yet it has a small town feel to it. Many tight family ties and many extended family ties.

Sicily was the first melting pot in the world. Over the years it has been ruled by many different nationalities (Romans, Greeks, Spaniards, French, Arabs, Italians). But when a new ruler took over, they didn't try to cleanse Sicily of the other nationalities, instead, they learned to live with them in peace. As a result Sicily is now very diverse, in culture, history, architecture, food, and art. Sicily is also very geographically diverse with many different types of landscape. I found it to be one of the most interesting places that I have visited. Today, 98% of Sicilians are of Sicilian decent, but there decedent blood lines are all over the place.  There seems to always be something different and intriguing around the next corner. Sicily came very close to becoming the 49th state of the United States. After WWII, in 1946, Italy was changed from a Monarchy to a Republic. Sicily wanted to remain under the Monarchy and was very displeased with the new Italian government that was being set up. So they wanted to separate from the mainland. They were lobbying heavily for the US to take them in. In a stroke of genius the new Italian government allowed Sicily to have their own president and congress if they would remain a part of the new Italian Republic. After that happened, they got excited and accepted that proposal with open arms. Now it is technically a part of Italy, but it has its own president and governing body.

Sicily is a large island and it functions like an island. It is pretty much on island time and they practice siesta. In other words don't count on anything being on a schedule and do count on things being really slow from around noon till 5. Island time also means that the start of the day is always after sun-rise. In fact in ancient Sicily, time was always measure from sun-rise, midnight was always at sun-rise in the location where you were, so no two places in Sicily were ever on the same time.  Things don't change very fast,  the people are pretty laid back for the most part and they party pretty hard. The party starts about 8:00 P.M. and doesn't die until around 4:00 A.M. It looked like the influx of cash from the European Union is trying to change its appearance, as there are a lot of renovation projects currently underway in Palermo. In about 20 years, I think Palermo will be have a completely different atmosphere. For me, Palermo is perfect just the way that it is now. Dude, don't change a single thing.

Sicily is known for it's pastries which are deep in its tradition. In ancient times, each convent had its own pastry shop, where the nuns would make sweets, sell them and donate the proceeds to orphanages. The most popular are the Almond ones made of marzipan (an almond paste made with ground almonds, sugar and egg whites). Marzipan is freshest and best in early November. It also has lots of wine bars that usually have buffet style meals in the evening. Those seemed to be very popular with Sicilian females.

I love the traditional Sicilian male attire. The shirt is always long sleeved with the sleeves crumpled up above the elbows, opened to the second button above the navel displaying the perfect tan and the dark or grey hair on their chest. A nice double breasted business suit vest that is always completely unbuttoned, the dress pants that go with the suit are clean and pressed, but never the suit coat. Always topped off with a tascu hat. And for some reason, it always looks like they last shaved yesterday. I think they shave and their hair immediately jumps out an 1/8". In the winter they usually wear 3/4 length overcoats.

23% of Sicilian Adults are unemployed, but it is largely a cash society and I have a feeling there is a prevalent underground (under the table) economy here as well.

Palermo was founded by the Greeks around 800 B.C., but today it is the capital of Sicily and one of the most difficult and unforgiving places in the world to drive a car. Technically it is called uncontrolled traffic, but my term is "Drive and park by your own rules". In a town of over a million people, there are only about 10 traffic lights, zero traffic control (stop, yield or priority) signs and speed limit signs are just for decoration. If you are not comfortable being a very aggressive driver with only about 2 inches of clearance on all sides, and cars stopping and turning and weaving without any advance notice, then you need to find another mode of transportation. A car without multiple dents and at least one broken taillight looks out of place. I have a feeling, when someone hits you, they you don't even bother to stop and exchange insurance.

The scooter's here have big engines, so they can drive them aggressively. You will not see any of the wimpy 80cc scooters that are popular in many parts of the world here. Most scooters in Sicily are around 300 - 500cc's.

Parking is at will. If you need to park, you just stop and get out of your car at whatever location it happens to be in. As long as it looks like one car might be able to get by in at least one direction, your good. If you are the unlucky person who is parked and blocked in on all sides when you return, you just find another way to get where you are going and come back for your car later.

Yet, amongst all of the driving chaos, it is a very friendly pedestrian place, where drivers are very cognizant of citizens on foot and always yield right of way to them.  

Of course, I arrive a the airport, completely unprepared for driving in Palermo. I pick up my rental car, and the agent say's to me in a thick accent, "Its a smart car!!!". At first I am completely confused. What was he trying to say??? Then it dawns on me, it's one of those super lightweight cars that is safe only if you are in an accident with another super lightweight car. I almost asked for another car, but I hadn't driven one yet, so I kept it. After all, I was only going to have it for a few days, so how bad could it possibly be? When I got in, saw the strange controls and couldn't figure out how to start it, that should have been the Omen that clued me in to the many issues that were ahead of me. I should have know to turn right back around, go back in and ask for another car. By that time, I just wanted to get on the road. The guy had just handed me the keys, without any instructions at all.

A smart car has an automatic fluid clutch, but you have to tell it to shift (at least up shift, the down shift is automatic or at will). So it kind of works like a golf cart. You floor the pedal and some time next week it starts rolling forward slowly at first. It has both Formula 1 (that's a laugh on this car) shift paddles on the steering wheel and a floor shifter. The left paddle shifts down and the right shifts up. That's great if you like to drive with both hands on the wheel at 3 and 9 o'clock all of the time and don't need to shift in a tight corner (in other words the shifter's on the wheel are really only good for looks). The floor shifter ratchets, bump it forward to up-shift and bump it backward to down-shift, then it returns to the middle. The middle position is not neutral, it is what ever gear you are currently in. The trick to starting it, it to push the floor shifter all of the way to the right (which is really neutral), then put your foot on the brake, then turn the key. After I got to the hotel, I then had another wonderful surprise, in that I cold not figure out how to get the key out of the ignition after shutting the car off. I ended up breaking the plastic head off of the metal key before I figured that one out. To pull the key out, you have to make sure that the shifter is in the middle (in neutral and not in gear?, which makes no sense to me at all). Same thing, shifter in the middle and all of the way to the right. The smart car also does not have a very tight turning radius and to make a U turn on a busy street in traffic takes about 3 days. Reverse is hard to fit on the first try and the clutch is really slow figuring out what you want it to do.

There were two more wonderful surprises in store for me as well. The driver before me had the front wipers on intermittent. In a hurry to get going I decided to work on that while going down the road in very difficult traffic. In all of the confusion on the road, all I could figure out was how to put the front wiper in intermittent, slow and high speed, I could not find off. That same switch also controls the back wipers (it is like the gear shift in that it goes all over the place,nothing turns on it, you have to move the lever for all actions. Somehow I managed to turn on the back window wiper and could not figure out how to shut that one off as well. Messing with the wipers looked like a robot out of control. Wiper speeds and combinations and windshield washers are rapidly changing as I was going down the street. I finally found the magic combination that had both front and back wipers on intermittent and decided I was happy with, even though it was completely dry out. When I got to the hotel I figure it out. For some stuipd reason, the old position is the second position from the bottom, instead of at the very bottom. To work the back wipers, you need to push the wiper lever to the back then up and down, again second from the bottom is off. There are two more magic pushes that work the washers, I am not sure what they are, because I found them on accident and didn't care after that. 

The other surprise is that there is something called Eco mode. Eco mode is where the engine shuts off when you are at a complete stop. Then to start going, it has to start the car, put it in gear, then go. This takes two weeks to get going. If you are going slow, like in stop and go traffic, this Eco mode doesn't know what to do, the car stops when you want to go and goes when you want to stop. It feels really sluggish and drives you nuts as the cars are closing in around you. This is the absolute worst car to drive in a country where aggressive driving it a must and it is pure hell when you are also learning about the idiosyncrasies of the car at the same time. I only have a split second to fill a two inch gap, or someone is going to fill it and I will go nowhere. There was a switch to shut that off the Eco mode as well, but I needed to figure out what it was first and then where it was to solve that problem. That was like 20 minutes of real hell, but luckily the windshield wipers were keeping my dry windows clear every 4 seconds while I was messing with that.

With Eco finally off, I could concentrate on actually moving in a somewhat forward direction. At first I was trying to anticipate, when the traffic in front of me was going to open up, so I could floor the gas pedal and get the car to think about moving before the traffic did. I got pretty good at that, but the concentration I had to use was wearing me out. I was going to try power braking (holding the brake and gas on at the same time while stopped, but didn't know if the clutch could handle that for extended periods. So then I decided just to try to keep my smart car always rolling and leave it in first gear for as long as possible. When traffic opened up, it was screaming down the street, seeming to say, "Please shift me.", but I was content to just listen to the scream. That worked really well, because I was able to power hard into the roundabout's, which get really aggressive and I was also able to be agressive when going slow because I wanted to keep it rolling. By the second day, I had that technique mastered and was getting around pretty quick. I felt like a Sicilian native, completely comfortable in all of the Kaos and just going about my own business impervious of all that was around me.

Palermo has four ancient sections. I absolutely fell in love with one named La Vucciria (locals say that it translates to the word mayhem or confusion). It was almost love at first sight. It happened about two hours into the first night I was there, and I was back every day and night after that. There are no words in any language that accurately describe it. About all I can say, is that it is the only place I have been, where heaven and hell coexist in the same place at the same time. It was damaged in WWII and some of that damage was never repaired. In the 1970's the maffia waged war on pretty much everyone, each other, the courts, the politicians, the policemen, and anyone else who looked like they might possibly get in the way. Some of that happened here.  In the 1990's it started getting Razed by the Maffia and corrupt politician's who wanted to reclaim this land for new builds and apartment's, because it is very close to the Marina. The place is ancient, very weathered, missing pieces of buildings that were never replaced after WWII bombings. It is a clean market place by day, but by the end of the night, the liter is ankle deep and broken glass is a common sight. Then, as soon as the sun breaks the horizon, the city workers thoroughly clean it, the markets open and it is transform into a fresh start on a new life. It's so symbolic of the many changes my life has been through, that I felt completely at home. To me, and many other musicians and artists, it was pretty comfortable.

I first arrived in La Vucciria around 8:00 P.M. I was just looking for a place to start winding down from a full first day of exhaustive driving experience and many other activities as I wandered around and got my bearings.  Businesses were in full swing for the night time activities. Vendors were preparing food, workers were setting up the tables and chairs out into the streets, wiping them all down, sweeping and cleaning everything, and beer deliveries were in rush hour mode.  I went to the main square, stopped at the first vendor who looked like he could get me a cold beer the fastest. I pointed to one in a brown bottle (didn't even look at the label), the dude opened up the cold fridge, popped the top, and thrust it into my handed, all in one motion, with a big smile. I saw a burst of moisture condensing immediately as its coolness escaped into the night air, and had a 1/4 of it down before I even paid for it. I affirmatively stuck the coins in the vendors hand, let out a noise coming from the rapid relaxation of my chest muscles, my lips burst into a smile and my thumb extended upwards in the universal seal of approval.  

My dogs were worn out, so I made my way to the nearest table and plopped down in the nearest seat to take the weight off of them. Immediately a young and eager worker (Italian's and Sicilian's who feel the need to serve, are the most subservient people in the world), comes flying over with the cleaning supplies to spruce up my table and unfilled chairs. All of the hustle and bustle, was just too much for me take while I was in wind down mode, so I slowly turned my chair, and faced by back to the table. I quickly decompressed, looked up, and what I saw, immediately filled my heart to the brim with love.

It was a very old four story, scared building, that appeared to have been re-purposed many times. It was vacant, very disheveled in appearance, and probably should have been torn down years ago. Yet it was still there, standing proud, like it had even more worth then the grandeur it had when it was a brand new piece of prime real estate in the 1600's. After that it was probably a high end hotel. Now there is a sign near the top that identifies it as a member of the national bank chain (probably many years ago). At this time, there aren't any banks at all in La Vucciria. But a meteor must have hit that sign and bent it down slightly off center, into a broken V shape. It is kind of broke, but kind of still functional at the same time. Under that was a PVC roof drain pipe (obviously a newer addition) sticking through the middle of the front of the building about 5 feet from the top. Looked like the worker realized that was an eye soar after punching the hole, but instead of removing it and filling the hole, he just rerouted it past one window left of center, then ran the down tube straight down to the street, way left of center. It was really out of place, but since it broke up the symmetry, it added yet another layer of character to this un-destructible piece of Sicilian architecture. It had been white washed at one time, but the white wash must have been cheap, because now it only clung to parts of the stone near the center and was completely removed from all edges. It kind of had a stone washed jeans look to it. There were two windows on the left side that had been boarded up with 2"x6" boards about 40 years ago. Those boards must have gotten loose, so somebody else sloppily nailed a couple 1"x2" boards across them at different angles to try to hold them in place, but those are sort of falling off now as well. This is accented by a few 2"x6" boards that are missing and several others that are crooked or in the process of falling off. Two of the other windows had been boarded up with corrugated roofing metal and one was actually boarded up with stone blocks that someone tastefully whitewashed to match the building. The other windows remained un-boarded, but none of the windows had all of their glass, some had no glass and some hand no glass nor window frame. On one side was some rickety makeshift scaffolding. As if the person creating it ran out of materials, so just kind of made due with what they had and added some non-scaffolding parts as well. Looks like putting up the scaffolding must have worn them out, because there wasn't any evidence of any work having ever been done on the top of that scaffolding.

On the ground floor were a few sole proprietor shops and one of them was very nicely constructed and very clean. Another really nice feature was a bright red cross that someone had painted recently with its center directly where the out of place PVC drain pipe stuck through the buildings facial crown. To the left of it were the letters UWE and to the right of it it TI AMA (translates to loves you) in the same color red as the cross. 

What I fell in love with was, that all of that dead mass still had purpose. It supported a pretty good life for a few people, the hopes and dreams of an entire community, and the passion of an unknown artist. The whole building had a very artistic appeal to it, but only because of the placement of the cross and the few simple yet every effective words. I sat there for the longest time (another 2 beers) trying to figure out what the letters UWE stood for. Was it some kind of acronym for a worker's union, a symbol of Jesus, an acronym for a symbol of Jesus, God in another language, a symbol of God, somebody's initials? Do I even know any human first names that start with U ??????

As I am sitting there basking in all of its beauty and mystery, I notice that there are quite a few people outside now, and the place is starting to come alive with the night crowd. There is a man near me who is extremely stressed out, the kind of stress that only comes from a tumultuous love relationship. I have seen and had those same symptoms a few times in my days. I felt really bad for that guy, but was slightly more interested in the full liter bottle of water that he was about heave with all of his might. He had just filled it up from the fountain that was in front of me and didn't realize it was leaking until it leaked all over him. That water leak, was the trigger that set of the general explosion, which sent the full liter of bottle hurling at high rate of speed in my general direction. He clearly didn't throw it as me nor anyone else and I didn't get hit with the bottle, but as the bottle busted open when it hit the side of the fountain in front of me,  the water was released from its confines and started searching for a new place to go, with a great deal of anxiety. It found a new home on my pants. That guy, then jumped in his car and was about to take of rapidly, when another bystander walked over and kindly extended a hand in helping his guy calm down from his troubles. Some strangers are so nice, it makes my heart feel good.

I was observing this random act of kindness, when a gorgeous Italian women, stopped right in front of me, and immediately caught my gaze. She was trying to get the attention of someone a few floors up. She appeared to be shouting something like, "Maria!!! Are you there? Come to the window!!!" in Italian. I look up just in time to see a floor length curtain, outside of an open window, part, revealing another attractive young women, dressed in her flannel night clothes, and wiping the sleep out of her eyes. I don't know much Italian, but I am confident the conversation was something like this. "Awe gezz Aria. Did you have to wake me up? I told you I was beat from work today and I wasn't going out tonight!!!". "Maria! Just throw a little something on, get your face on, and get down here.  I want to go meet Antonio down at the piazza, and I don't want to walk down there myself.". Maria shaking her head, "Aria, shake that nonsense out of your head. Girlfriend, you really need to forget that Antonio, you know he's just playing you. I heard he hooked up with Adriana last night and they disappeared kind of early. Besides, the last time I went down there with you, you took off with Nicolo and I had to walk all of the way home by myself.". "What? Adriana? She's such a skank! What would he want with her?"

Out of my peripheral vision I see a plastic bucket come flying out of a fourth story window down the alley a ways. Wow, whats that all about? It quickly drops down two stories then abruptly stops to reveal the rope that was restraining its free fall. I can just barely make out see two arms flailing frantically out of a window, as they lower the bucket, via the rope, down to the street. The bucket stops about chest high to some guy who is standing in the street. The arms disappear back into the window and are replaced by a women's head. The man puts something that looks like a loaf of bread in the basket, looks up, and smiles and waves. The head goes back in the window and is replaced by two arms, flailing frantically out of the window as they are now raising the bucket, via the rope, back up to the window. Then everything disappears inside of the window. This all happened within 30 seconds and with the speed and precision of a well run military operation. After that I noticed this exact same delivery system being used all over La Vucciria. I have just discovered a new term to start using.  "La Vucciria delivery", referring to "Any delivery of a manic nature, that miraculous achieves success.".

I got up and walked around , thoroughly enjoying all of the life that was out in the streets of La Vucciria. I meet a woman who asked me my name. I said Craig, but she Sicilianized it a little when she repeated it. It came out like, "Ah Cr-ahhhhh-g, let me tell you..." with a very soft g sound at the end. I calmly and slowly said, "That's perfect.", and hid how much my ears were smiling at that sound. That was pretty hot.  I was really enjoying myself for about 45 minutes, when I realized, it was 15 minutes past a dinner reservation I had made, at a beautiful restaurant named "Gagini, Social Restaurant (Vucciria)" not far from the port in La Vucciria. 

On my way to the restaurant I passed by Maria and Aria once again. By this time, they had made up, and were just talking normally with Aria still alone in the street and Maria still in her bed clothes a story higher in the window.

Gagini, Social Restaurant (Vucciria) was the perect place for me. Kind of high priced for the area, but moderate priced to me. About a block from the Marina, in kind of an old area, but really nice inside. Of course I ate outside on the patio at always. They played some moderate jazz music and later a jazz pianist that reminded me a lot of me, several years ago, came later. He played fairly complex flowing harmonies and just kind of loosely chanted a melody over the top. I was only about 3 feet from him, but on the other side of the wall, so he could see me digging it, but I was. Another dude (who was sitting behind me) noticed me getting into it discreetly and as he was leaving, he and I exchanged a common secret and non-verbal seal of approval.  The chef there was world class in my opinion. He knew how to pick the freshest items given the time of year, how to cook it for full flavor and texture, and how to keep the portions small so you wanted to come back for more. Which I did, three days in a row (and I never eat at the same place twice when I travel). The owner came out to meet me with a free glass of sweet wine when I sat down the first day and I think his daughter did the same on the other two nights I was there. Service was second to none (which it always is, in Italy and Sicily).

After I left Palermo I was doing some research and it turns out that UWE is the first name of Austrian artist Uwe Jäntsch who spent 8 years in Palermo creating outdoor art like this. Much of it was later dismantled by police citing that it was unsafe (I had heard that claim was justified), but some of it is still around to enjoy.




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