Friday, October 24, 2014

On an Airport at Rome



The flight from Palermo to Rome departed Sicily at 6:20 am. Julie and I left our hotel in Palermo’s city center at 3:45. The streets around the hotel were crowded with young people – apparently, downtown bars had just closed. Boys lounged around smoking cigarettes and posing nonchalantly on motorbikes that they didn’t own. Pairs of girls, each supporting the other, staggered down the sidewalk. Arched over the streets, frameworks of wire and lathe supported arrays of Christmas tree lights – the illuminated archways had been built for a religious festival and they crowned the narrow roadways like candles on a birthday cake. A girl and boy were kissing on the sidewalk, oblivious to the people going in both directions around them. The bar crowd looked like a defeated army, bruised and battered and in reluctant retreat.

Ten blocks away, the streets were empty and dark. The taxi-cab coursed swiftly through suburbs, gliding beneath huge apartment buildings and, then, hurrying toward the black sea. We passed through tunnels and under hill-towns perched on high buttes overlooking the Tyrhhenian Sea, a couple lights sparkling on the edge of the big, barren cliffs. The airport was empty. At the ticket counter, Julie, who was suffering from a very bad cold, proclaimed that she was sick and that she wanted to check a second bag. "Is not possible," the ticket clerk replied. "I’m sick and I don’t want to carry it," Julie said. The woman working for the airlines shook her head. "No, is not possible," she repeated. "I’ll pay," Julie said. "Is 75 Euros," the woman said sadly. Julie dug in her purse for her credit card. "Oh, no, no," the woman said. She looked drowsy, tired, irritated. Apparently, she didn’t want to process the credit card payment for the additional bag. "Is okay,’ she said, "I approve it. Is okay. No charge."

The plane took off at its appointed time and deposited us in Rome at Fiumocino Airport around dawn. We didn’t have seat assignments for the ten-hour flight from Rome to Chicago and so had to locate the Alitalia desk to obtain our tickets. This search was daunting. The airport in Rome is only incidentally a transportation hub. Indeed, from within the airport’s glittering corridors, there is no visible evidence that the place is even an airport. Rather, Fiumocino is a vast and maze-like shopping mall, a series of endless walkways conveying travelers between expensive shops and restaurants – there is MaxMara, Dolce and Gabbano, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, and a host of other shops, vacant, of course, at 7:30 in the morning, but, nonetheless, open,dark-eyed women enigmatic as sphinxes lurking among the precious items on sale. At intervals, the traveler, defined in these quarters primarily as a consumer, a shopper en route between shopping malls in the great bright world, encounters eateries: places with names like the Mercedes Benz cafĂ©, a sandwich shop despite its pretentious name. While the women max-out their credit cards, the men, stylish as well, are supposed to enjoy cocktails and a panini in restaurants named after Grand Prix races or Monaco or svelte sports cars. You walk and walk between luxury boutiques but there is no sign of any gates or airplanes, no vistas opening out onto runways or showing the horizon, whether stormy or clear, just an endless array of stores and dining rooms, here and there, a clubroom for premium frequent fliers discretely tucked among the merchandise emporiums.

It turns out that the gates and the airport infrastructure is located above or below the concourses lined with fashionable shops. At last, we limped to a promising escalator rode, the wave of metal and rubber to the business level of the airport, and located an Alitalia desk. There was a single female agent involved in an interminable and complicated dispute with a huge family of American hillbillies. The hillbillies were dressed in a curious combination of beach clothing and winter coats and several members of the family, despairing it seems of ever sorting out the problem with the clerk, were squatting glumly on the floor. We stood in line overhearing the controversy, but too tired to understand what it meant to us but another, apparently, endless delay. At last, a second young woman appeared as a reinforcement to her beleagured colleague. With feline insoucience, she gazed at her computer, gently stroked its keys, then, feeling herself slightly too warm, divested herself of her blue blazer, very carefully arranging the garment over the back of the chair on which she had been sitting. She rummaged in her purse for some trinket, studied the screen of her cell-phone with studied indifference, and, at last, stretching and rubbing her eyes, announced in a soft, remote-sounding voice that she was available to help us. Julie asked for the seat assignments for the flight to Chicago. "May I see your luggage claims and the receipt for your bags?" the young woman asked. This was, of course, a problem. Julie said that the gate agent in Palermo had waived the fee for the third bag. "But there is a third bag?" the young woman asked with a kind of strained remorse. "Yes," Julie said. "Then, I must charge you 80 Euros for the bag," the young woman said. "80 Euros?" Julie said with outrage. "It was only 75 Euros in Palermo." The young woman brightened: "But this is Rome," she said. "Is 80 Euros here." She grinned at us. Of course, this was Rome and she was from the north of Italy, perhaps even Piedmontese, and it was obvious that she thought her colleagues in Palermo were indolent, perhaps, even criminal and here, at this airport at the center of the civilized world, she was not about to accede to what someone had done in Sicily. "Must pay 80 Euros," the young woman said insistently. Julie clawed through her purse and found a credit card. At the station next to her, the dispute with the hillbillies continued and one of them burst into tears.

It turns out that the gate for our flight is hidden somewhere above the shopping mall, perched atop upscale souvenir shops and perfumeries. The waiting area is cramped and inadequate, the toilets ludicrously limited, but it doesn’t much matter because Italians are last-minute people, whistle-splitters as they are termed in industry, and the great majority of passengers scheduled for the flight arrive at the very last minute, breathless and damp with sweat. Boarding is according to prestige (First Class, Platinum and Gold Members), disability, maternity, and, then, by groups identified numerically. But every Italian older than 35 claims incapacity, a limp or a stagger, and most of the women younger than that age are toting bambini and so there is a general rush to exit the waiting area and descend to the gate as soon as boarding is announced. The staff are extraordinarily solicitous, continuously calling for wheelchairs on their walkie-talkies, half-carrying people hors de combat toward the gate. One stylish woman lugging huge cartons of duty-free cigarettes, points to what looks like stubbed toe, argues melodramatically that she can scarcely walk, and is waved forward to the gate as an early boarder on the basis of injury. In only a few moments, the waiting area is vacant; Julie and I dutifully waiting to board according to our group number are, more or less, left alone among the empty chairs and discarded water bottles. Through the window, it is uncertain as to where the plane is concealed. Wide-body buses are crawling around under the terminal, apparently hauling people to planes that remotely located. Below us, we can see small jets and panel trucks scooting about and crowds of men and women in florescent vests waving at one another, shaking hands, kissing on the cheeks. The scene is one of merry chaos.

At last, we are authorized to board and so we pass the gate agents who look at us quizzically, and, then, are directed across an oil-stained parking lot to stand in the crowd of travelers crammed into a waiting bus. Wheezing apologetically, the bus rolls through a maze of planes and fuel truck to find the jet that we are supposed to board. The entire protocol of boarding by sections and, according to rank, turns out to be meaningless. All of the passengers are reduced to a common mob, standing on the lurching bus like commuters on a subway train.

On the other side of the terminal, the planes are parked haphazardly, as if their pilots were drunk when they brought the big craft to a halt, located at all angles next to a roadway where various service vehicles are scuttling along, zigzagging to avoid one another, there being, apparently, no clearly delineated lanes on the roadways. The travelers disgorge from the buses and, then, shoving and pushing, crowd around wide portable staircases mounted on little wheels and set like nursing puppies against the teats of the plane. The hatch into the plane is smaller than the top of the portable steps creating a bottle-neck and as we stall on the steps, a vertical mob dragging luggage upward toward the sleek steel flank of the jet, I wonder whether the flimsy-looking metal structure can bear all of this static weight. Step by step, we proceed, packed elbow to elbow on the steps, any distinction between ranks or groups long since completely obliterated – the only difference between passengers now is whether you enter the plane at its head or rectum. (We come in through the rectum).

Inside, the plane is also crammed with passengers, hot and uncomfortable, the aisles an obstacle course of people stretching, quarreling, slinging heavy bags here and there. The pilot has to drive the huge craft along a winding path to reach the runway. Then, we are aloft on the ten hour flight to Chicago.

At Chicago, passengers disembark and walk long corridors that turn at the corners of the big enigmatic terminal its interior hidden behind provisional-looking walls, a passageway that seems completely anonymous and sinister, and that emerges at Customs. Welcome to the home of the free and the land of the brave! U.S. Customs are like the entrance to a Maximum Security prison, long, plodding lines of people huddled together between steel stanchions linked by elastic tape, dense congregations of travelers forced into lines folded accordion-style into one another while great expanses of the people-maze are empty, entirely vacant, steppes and prairies of floor where no one is standing. Signs warn us not to take pictures or make recordings of any kind and there is an aura of menace that discourages conversation. No one moves. The stationary queues seem to lead nowhere at all. Then, suddenly, some kind of people-weir opens and the crowd lurches ahead, but this also is illusory – you simply move from one motionless crowd to another, hustled quickly forward only to wait some more. United States Customs has ostensibly expedited processing by establishing electronic kiosks that read the traveler’s passport and, then, pose a series of questions as to the contents of your luggage and any freight, or currency, that you are carrying with you. Of course, everyone answers those questions dishonestly. Indeed, dishonesty, it seems, is encouraged and your entry into America costs you a half-dozen lies and the kiosks are equipped with cameras that take hideous-looking pictures weirdly foreshortened by the angle at which the lens is pointed: images that show the exhausted, jet-lagged, and foul-smelling passengers looking down into the camera as if peering into a cistern or inspecting a dead body inexplicably dropped at your feet. These kiosks, supposedly designed to speed the process of entry, merely add an additional layer of bureaucracy to an ordeal that is already inscrutable and Kafkaesque. No one knows how to operate the kiosks and so irritated agents circulate, slapping the passports of travelers into the devices and urging people to cooperate, pay attention, press forward with these procedures intended to categorize and catalog persons seeking entry into the United States. Armed with the pictures taken by the kiosks, carrying them like badges of approval, the traveler joins yet another line, is nudged forward to wait some more, and, then, bleary-eyed, dragged before the high-bench of a sort of minimum-wage judge who must decide whether you are to be granted entrance or, instead, cast into outer darkness. The judge is a man or woman obviously disgruntled and ignorant, a civil servant who regards him- or herself, as grossly overworked, wearing latex gloves so as to avoid any kind of contact with the miserable crowds of travelers, most of them fellow countrymen, supplicant before their bench. A few insulting questions are hurled your way, most of them like quips, like the punchlines of jokes that you can’t quite understand, and, then, you are approved to enter our land of liberty. At the edges of the crowd, dark-skinned people are being hassled, stripped, detained, their luggage searched, their children howling in misery. Welcome to the United States!

Of course, Julie’s third bag, for which she paid an 80 Euro transportation fee, is lost.

Twelve days earlier, we landed in Palermo. Flying over the sea, I saw the surface of the water marked with strange passageways, a patchwork of different textures like an aquatic version of cultivated fields seen from the air. Sicily’s northern coast seemed to be a bank of volcanic dust and gravel, dropping forty feet into the Mediterranean. A huge mountain stood guard on the island’s cape, studded with lava dikes like the spine of a stegosaurus. At the aeroporto, we had to clear Italian customs. Dragging our bags, we walked down a short warm hall to a station where two young men, each of them cutting a bella figura in their uniforms, occupied an elevated cubicle. Ahead of us were two German girls wearing shorts and tank-tops, apparently, dressed for an afternoon at the beach. The customs officers were delighted to see the girls and exchanged some witticisms with them, happily gesturing that they should make themselves at home in beautiful Sicily. Both of the young men turned to appraise the girls from behind as they strolled toward the airport parking lot and, since their attention was distracted, they didn’t even bother to look at the passports that Julie and I presented to them – with an irritated gesture, they waved us through customs and into their country, all the time ogling the German girls who had gone before.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

On Sicily: Tears


What is the purpose of suffering?

If you are considering this question while on vacation, among pleasant people in a beautiful place, of course, something is seriously wrong. In Sicily, I didn’t attend to the news, didn’t follow the spread and progression of Ebola or the course of the various wars and rebellions and insurgencies raging in the world. Intelligence of a sex scandal back in my hometown reached me, but only remotely and as an abstraction. Traveling immerses you in immediacy: the taste of certain foods, weather, the relative hardness of mattresses, the efficacy of air conditioning, humidity, traffic, the logistics of passing from one place to another, the location of toilets. If you are fortunate, you are blissfully unaware of the larger significance of events or experiences. The world presents itself as a buffet wonderfully replete and close at hand. Later, if you reflect upon your travel, however, other questions arise and, although those questions may be unanswered – all truly important questions have no single answer – patterns, perhaps, are discernible.



For instance: once upon a time, in Siracusa, a husband and wife yearned for a child, but they were infertile. At last, the wife became pregnant. But, as her pregnancy progressed, she suffered from toxemia and convulsions. One of these convulsions left her totally blind. After many hours of blindness, the pregnant woman’s sight returned and she saw an image of the Madonna on the wall of her bedroom shedding tears. The Madonna was a cheap terra cotta plaque, bas relief, from Tuscany, a devotional image that had been mass-produced, painted in blue and white with a garish sacred heart clutched like a tumor under breast. The plaque had been a wedding gift to the couple, Antonin and Angelo Iannuso. The little statue protruding from the plaque wept for four days, although she withheld her tears when in the custody of the police summoned to investigate the phenomenon. The priest of the local parish in Siracusa collected a vial of tears, one of several samples taken. It was said that the tears accumulated in a hollow above the sacred heart displayed on the figure’s chest. Tests on the fluid in the vial supposedly demonstrated that the liquid was comprised of human tears. Pope Pius XII declared that the miracle was authentic and asked rhetorically: When will men come to understand the Madonna’s mysterious language of tears? The woman was cured of her convulsions and, apparently, delivered a healthy child.

One might imagine this story to be something told about the Age of Faith, a miracle from the Middle Ages. But, in fact, the plaster-cast Madonna shed her tears in late August, 1953 and the Pope confirmed the miracle in a radio address broadcast on September 9, 1953.

The miracle’s location was a humble street in Siracusa, the Via Deggli Orti II. In 1967, a great church was built at that site, a construction project that lasted many years. The church is called the Cathedral of the Lachrymosa and it towers over the skyline of the white city of Siracusa. The church was built next to the ruins of a Byzantine chapel, a broken facade and some stone walls squatting over a large and labyrinthine catacomb. The new cathedral is supposed to look like a teardrop falling from heaven to moisten the earth, but the architectural style is Brutalist and the structure, if conceived as a falling object, crashes earthward like a meteorite, seeming to obliterate the humble neighborhood in which it is located. Curiously, the church is impressive when viewed at close quarters – the interlocking piers of pre-stressed concrete rise like folded hands above an intricate pedestal of ramps and terraces – but its scale is all wrong and its silhouette risible: to me, the church looks like a Plains Indian teepee, a wigwam twenty stories tall, and incongruously plopped into the elegant old Mediterranean-style apartments encircling the building.

In the church, a vitrine holds the holy relic: a vial of tears. They have crystallized and glisten like a dust of silica and salt. When will men learn the mysterious language of tears?



Residents of Palermo (Palermitans) call the intersection dividing their city into four quadrants, "the Theater of the Sun." This name identifies a characteristic of the monumental architecture at that intersection: as the day progresses, the sun illuminates, in turn, each of the four Baroque facades forming an amphitheater around the intersection between Via Roma and Via Vittorio Emmanuel. The crossroads is a busy place at the bottom of a sort of cistern or well made by the curved facades frowning down upon the intersection. Each facade forms an arc of about 90 degrees, towering over the meeting of the streets: a sculptural ensemble of columns and figures – at eye-level the feet of four patron saints, all of them women, stepping forth from deep, dirty-looking niches over a fountains that vomit water from the flayed faces of giants; above the impassive saints, there are more columns and pediments, architraves over pedestals where heroes in armor survey their city, and, then, yet higher, against the sky, four more women, allegorical figures representing the four seasons, swathed in swirling drapery and arms bearing baskets of flowers or fruit, staring at one another across space framed by the Sun-theater. Traffic and smoke has soiled this Baroque city-center and, at the street-level, it is gloomy within the amphitheater where lost trucks are making u-turns and Vespas spinning in tight, spiral pattens, and the architecture has been stained grey with grime, the color of an old, battered metal garbage-can.

One of the Palermo neighborhood, a quadrant to the northeast, is called Kalsa and this is where I walked, a day before the guided tour began, looking the Palazzo Abatellis. This renaissance palace houses an art collection and a notable work, a great and maleficent fresco called the The Triumph of Death. In Kalsa, some of the streets dead-end at the harbor where the claustrophobic maze of narrow alleyways and small, filthy piazzas opens to the sea entrapped in the harbor, under beetling cliffs across the bay. I passed some ancient churches, more like geological phenomena than buildings, tiers of gesturing martyrs and stone torches, palms cut into the stone and vases holding big pine-cones, grimy rock encrusted with battered-looking ornamentation that seemed to have grown in place like the formations in a limestone cavern. Some of the alleys were scarcely wide enough for a single car to pass and the buildings seem to nod together overhead to roof the passages so that they were like underground tunnels. Africans stood in small suspicious-looking groups on the corners of the rubbish-filled plazas – the men were either resplendently clean in white smocks and tunics or filthy, wearing stained soccer shirts and torn jeans. I passed a miserable-looking little obelisk in an piazza the size of a small bowling alley, an old church squatting in a corner like a mangy dog, some taverns with men standing in front of them operatically waving their hands at one another and crying out in tones of histrionic abuse and grievance. The high walls of the palazzos were windowless, festooned at their cornices with grotesque animal spouts and gutters. I came to a kind of college or high school and young men stood bickering on the street and, behind them, there was the sea, caught under a kind of mud-colored stone curb.

I found the building that I thought to be the Palazzo Abatellis but was afraid to approach too closely. Six or seven men in casual clothing were standing at the threshold, engaged in some kind of bellicose disputation. I couldn’t tell who was defending the door and who was just visiting for the purpose of the debate. The men embraced one another and, then, pushed apart and someone’s voice sang out like the tenor in an opera, a high crying sound with laughter fluttering around it. Although it looked to me like a fist-fight was about to erupt, in fact, the men were merely entertaining one another with arias of discontent and abuse and they were all friends. At last, I screwed-up my courage and pressed through them to the door – one of the men blocked me, said something in Italian, and, then, slapped a ticket into my hand. Inside, it was hot and sweltering as is the case with all public buildings in Palermo – there is no motion of air and the confined atmosphere is muggy and smells of plaster dust and effort of climbing the clammy marble stairs is enough to drench your hair and ribs in sweat. The place was completely inscrutable, empty rooms with fading frescos decorating the walls between 12 foot high windows, an interior courtyard filled with rubbish, a tower like the structure from which Jimmy Stewart fell in Vertigo, open colonnades looking down on the maze of tenements and alleyways. Some teenage girls were picking at the scabs on limestone figures lying recumbent on sarcophagi and fans were whirling, pushing hot air around in the room – it seemed to be some sort of high-school project involving the restoration of medieval tombs, dragged out of the crypts and lining the wall of the 18th century ballroom. Putti leered at me and big mirrors all foamy with dust cast distorted reflections. If this was the Palazzo Abatellis, there was no art inside, just fragments of sculptures, tombs with abscessed figures carved into eroded limestone, vaguely salacious gods and goddesses roving the tops of walls and the ceilings that were painted as if to open upon the faded blue of the sky. After ten minutes in the stifling building, entirely ignored by the teenage girls bent over the dead princes and princesses, I fled the place. I went to a church on the waterfront, a little mound of statuary and pillars under a crescent-shaped dome. I thought to sit down on the steps of the church and look across the water to the cliffs, big escarpments such as I imagine the Rock Gibralter to be. But there was a woman at a desk sitting in front of the church, well-dressed and with a friendly smile, and she beckoned me to approach her. She sold me a ticket to the church interior and I went inside.

Again, it was hot and the air was motionless and suffused with water – my face was soaking with sweat and my eyes stung with that moisture. The inside of the church was white with freshly cleansed marble walls, but plain. Some big sarcophagi mounted on porphyry clawed-feet stood along the sides of the nave. Putti incongruously slumbering on skulls like pillows sat atop the sarcophagi. After a couple minutes, I wanted to leave and so I went to the door and pushed on it, but it didn’t budge. It was like pushing against the marble wall. An complex sort of lock with various latches and levers and handles presented itself to my touch – it was dark by the door and the lock seemed to present an insoluble problem. I rattled the lock and pushed at the latches, shoved levers up and down and between, but the door didn’t open and the great wooden panels at the threshold were immobile. Panic overcame me briefly. I was trapped in the empty, suffocating church where innumerable marble skulls were grinning at me and there was no way out. I slumped in an uncomfortable pew and, at last, I saw a sort of armoire shoved against the back of the nave, a kind of closet with a small wooden door like the entrance to a confessional. I went to the dark cherry-wood box and pushed on the door and it creaked inward and, then, I saw that the woman at the desk was sitting outside, guarding the door and so I was freed from my confinement.

Later, with the tour, we were guided through some of these same airless alleyways, slot canyons in the ancient masses of buildings. Of course, with a guide leading us we saw more and better. In one small piazza, we stood on irregular, ankle-cracking cobble-stones in front of a Baroque church, a dowdy affair like decomposing wedding cake, studded with handless and noseless martyrs. The church was the color of concrete stained by road kill and a modest obelisk on a fat, grafitti-smeared pillar of stone thrust its thumb up to the sky. Storm clouds, blue and intense with watery shadow, were scudding over the domes and spires of the city. Ms. Accardi told us that more than 3,000 Frenchmen were buried in a mass grave under the unprepossessing monument. The French were the victims of an episode called the Sicilian Vespers, a massacre that occurred on Easter evening in 1282.

At that time, Sicily was ruled by the Normans and the king was Charles of Anjou. After evening mass, some French soldiers groped Sicilian women in front of a church on the outskirts of Palermo. One of women’s husband used his dagger to kill the Frenchman pawing his wife. This triggered a general slaughter – mobs churned through the narrow medieval streets hacking to death any French-speaking person that they encountered. A shibboleth was used to discern who should be killed – the Sicilian word ciciri means chickpea. French tongues and lips can’t pronounce that word; there is something about the repetition of the "c’s" and the "r" embedded in the word that thwarts proper pronunciation, at least when ciciri is voiced by a Norman. People who pronounced the word incorrectly were summarily butchered. In the end, as is always the case, the savagery proved contagious – not only men, but, also, Norman women and children were killed and, at last, Sicilian women, as well, known to have consorted with the French were slaughtered. One woman, it is said, had her womb ripped open by a knife-thrust so that the fetus protected within, claimed to be half-French, could be dashed against a wall.

In the neighborhood of the monument to the dead French, bomb craters from World War Two were visible. Atrocity, it seems, is eternal. On some of the shops and taverns, there were orange-yellow stickers announcing that the proprietors did not pay pizzo – that is, protection money to the Mafia. The window decals said Addiopizzo. (Pizzo means "a beak-full.) Verdi composed an opera on the subject of the massacre of the French. In The Siclian Vespers, a princess of Austria, Helene, sings an aria Sorte fata! Oh, fier cimento ("Fatal destiny! Oh fierce conflict!). The French governor of Sicily, Monfort, announces that Helene may be married to her beloved, the Sicilian rebel, Procido. As bells toll, Sicilians storm into the garden of the Monfort’s and kill the French.



At Siracusa, the ancient Greeks chiseled their theater into living rock, limestone benches stepping down an arid sunbaked hill from low cliffs crowning a stony ridge over the harbor. Silt accumulates with time and the theater was erected above a stream flowing down to the water and so the sea is now remote from the theater, a quarter-mile away, beyond an ugly industrial development of small metal buildings and fuel tanks. The theater is large – crowded, it would have held 18,000 people and, from this capacity, a census can be established for ancient Syracuse: assuming a ratio of seven slaves for each free citizen, the city was probably inhabited by about 125,000 people, the second largest city-state in the Greek world.

Greek theaters are remarkably beautiful and elegant, although they must have been miserable places to attend: uncomfortable and exposed to the glare of the sun. A great semi-circular of elegantly sculpted benches forms a huge curved stairway leading up to the white cliffs. In the center of the cliffs, a round cave overlooks the theater, an empty socket like the Cyclops’ ruined eye glaring down at the pale tiers of seats and the stage and the blue sheet of sea beyond. The cave seems to be artificial, a grotto excavated into the cliff above the center of the last, and highest, row of seats. A spring is captured within the grotto, held within the deep, wet rocky niche, and water surges from stone, then, spills downhill beneath the theater. The top of the cliff is musical with flowing water and, indeed, the center of the theater also whispers with stream flowing through cool channels under the hot white benches. This theater sighs with mysterious rippling water, concealed in the rock, a sort of literal inspiration for the plays that were presented here, a sort of divine afflatus. Along the hilltop, the cliff has been hollowed into arched openings for Christian burials, and ten yards from the cave overflowing with water, a tiny cascade sluices down the escarpment, the stream embedded in a shaggy emerald growth of moss. The sun is hot and it glares against the white benches and the stage undercut with deep, rectangular pits – these were innovations of the Romans who later occupied the site and favored spectacular effects in their blood-and-thunder productions, animals and ghosts and monsters arising on elevators from underground. But despite the heat and the blinding light, the air in the theater is fresh with the scent of flowing water and its remote music tremulous under the chiseled benches.

Next to the theater, there is a quarry, now abandoned, with spikes and pillars of rock swathed in vine, cup-shaped hollows filled with water and flowers, luxuriant shade for the paths that wind over the irregular terrain, ground that seems toppled and tumbled as if from rockfalls and landslides from the sheer cliff backing the garden. Solemn, sacred-looking cats prowl the green corridors of the garden. There is a kind of monumental calm about the garden, great monoliths of stone rising from the dim, verdant shadows, pillars left half-carved in situ. A large cave, forty-five feet high and opening into a lofty L-shaped space within the rock, stands like a colossal, shadowy presence at the rear of the park. A rippling fold in the stone at the peaked vault of the cave seems vaguely anthropoid, human-shaped, the color of flesh, like the ear of Dr. Spock on Star Trek or a satyr. And, in fact, the cave is dubbed "the Ear of Dionysius," named after one of the tyrants of ancient Siracusa, a potentate said to have imprisoned political dissidents in the big, echoing cavity in the escarpment, poising his spies overhead to listen to the whispers below funneled up from the darkness under the cliff. In the Ear of Dionysius, tour groups are engaged in competitive singing: German and French and English voices all intermingled, the echoes reverberating endlessy against the stone-walls textured with innumerable chisel marks.

During the Peloponnesian War, Athenian forces attacked Siracusa. The background for the conflict in complicated: the city-state of Segesta, another Sicilian kingdom, was allied with Sparta and the Athenians threatened them. The inhabitants of Segesta successfully petitioned Siracusa for assistance. An Athenian armada was launched against Siracusa to punish that city for supporting Segesta, an ally of Sparta. Alcibiades led the expedition, a military adventure inaugarated under bad auspices – someone, it seems, had mutilated the phallic herms defending Athens and the Greek general was accused of that wrongdoing and, indeed, later sentenced to death in absentia for treachery. (Indeed, when Alcibiades was summoned back to Athens on charges of having desecrated the herms, he blithely switched sides and began to assist the Sicilians against his home-city.) The Athenian army fought the Syracusans for several years and there were several bloody battles. At least, the Athenians were routed and seven-thousand prisoners were taken. The prisoners were dragged in fetters to the quarry at Siracusa and forced to labor there in appalling conditions – they were granted one cup of water and one bowl of rice a day. Within a few months, almost all of the Athenians were dead, killed by starvation, thirst, and over-work. A dozen or so escaped to bring the news of the catastrophe to Athens.

The quarry is now a beautiful garden, lush with flowers and fruit trees and vine-entangled piers of unfinished columns. "This place," the guide says, "was a kind of concentration camp." On a pathway, a cat has maimed a small lizard. The lizard’s back is broken and, it seems, only one of the little creature’s legs is still sufficiently articulated to move. The cat is smooth, silky, inscrutable. The cat drops the lizard on the hot stones, lets it scuttle helplessly slinking sideways and spinning on its one intact leg. Then, the cat bats the lizard, lifts it gently in its teeth and carries it another twelve or so feet, before dropping the animal so that it can again attempt escape. Several German tourists film the cat torturing the lizard with their elaborate cameras, clever optical instruments that they brandish.

Each Spring, before it becomes too hot, Greek tragedies are presented in the ancient theater. The tragedies are about atrocities so remote and grotesque that they have become the occasion for art. The Greeks displayed no violence in their theater, although every horrific act was lovingly and graphically described by actors or the chorus. The tour guide at Siracusa notes that Greek plays arose in a matrix of civic responsibility and that they educated citizens in the values of their city. "When the chorus denounces Medea for butchering her children," the guide said in her sweetly accented and reasonable voice, "they are explaining that the heroine is a bad mother." This seemed a bit of an oversimplification to me.

Beyond the Greek theater, a Roman amphitheater is gouged into the stony soil. The amphitheater is a caldera and the site still seethes with implicit violence – at the center of the crater, there are pits where gladiators and wild animals were concealed before making their entrance in the sand-covered arena. The Romans, by contrast, showed every form of violence on stage as realistically as possible – it is said that they killed criminals in the course of plays by Seneca to mimic the murders enacted in his tragedies. The law-abiding, totalitarian, spectacle-seeking Romans, hypocrites all, are our forebears – the Greeks are too remote, too religious, too weirdly abstract and, even, oriental for us to claim as ancestors.

A glad was a short sword used in gladiatorial spectacles. When a gladiator was wounded, the victor turned to the audience and the imperial box for advice as to whether the disabled man should be killed. People held out their hands – if their thumbs were aligned with their forefingers, this meant that the losing gladiator was to die. If the thumb was curled back into the palm, this gesture signified sheathing a blade: in that case, the verdict was mercy.

In the evening, I wandered alone the hot streets of Siracusa. I became completely lost. The alleyways narrowed to tiny passageways, stifling and hundreds of feet long, wormholes between malodorous tenements, balconies almost touching overhead, wet laundry dripping onto my head, bleach-scented, like the limestone-infused water sliding from overhead stalactites in a cave. The passageways were strewn with trash and damaged-looking dogs trotted here and there and, sometimes, I encountered groups of women who glared at me as an outsider, an intruder in this subterranean labyrinth. A couple of men shoved past me. They had the bruised and sorrowful faces of gladiators. I felt the same panic that I experienced in the church – there seemed no way out of this stony and dark maze. But, then, the narrow passage opened on a street wide enough for cars to be parked along the curb and I saw a restaurant with tables set under an awning and the city’s fortified mole thrust out into the sea and, from these landmarks, I could navigate my way home.


The Museo Mandralisco occupies a nondescript structure built into the stucco wall of a street in Cefalu. The place was originally the home of a 19th century nobleman, Enrico de Mandralisco, and it displays his collections. The walls are white and the galleries small and airless, opening into a tiny courtyard concealed within the closely-packed houses comprising the block.

Mandralisco was an indefatigable antiquarian and naturalist. There are cases crowded with small, embalmed songbirds. The bright feathers of the little creatures have faded into a uniform and dowdy drabness. Most of the birds look alike as do the ancient coins, no longer glittering but scuffed and abraded, the tyrants adorning the little irregular and twisted shields of metal disfigured, noses rubbed away and crowns (or, perhaps, laurel-wreaths) worn to indistinct filth on their brows and in their curly hair. In this museum, everything is fading and half-erased. The hot picture galleries are full of martyrdoms and tortures, but the pictures are so eroded and dark that the horrors displayed in them are close to illegible. A shadowy figure flays a howling satyr; his blood has darkened to a trail of grey-brown slime extruded from his faded yellow wounds. St. Lucy with dark craters where her eyes should be displays her eyeballs on a silver tray. In another faded picture, St. Agatha richly dressed presents her amputated breasts, presented like hors de ouevres on a platter that she holds in a slender white hand. (In Catania, under Aetna’s peak, Sicilians eat minne di virgine – Virgin’s breasts, a dense sugary cake armored in white frosting with a maraschino cherry nipple.) Antiquity has blurred the paintings and you see them as if from a great distance.

The museum’s greatest treasure is an enigmatic portrait of a man, apparently a seafarer. The picture is small, gemlike, and it has been lovingly restored – the flesh tones on the little canvas glow as if lit from within. The canvas is by Antonella de Messina. The man smirks very slightly. The smile on his lips is very faint, but his eyes, which seem cruel and remote, are merry. The martyrs, with their palms, were tortured and died so that pictures could be painted of their sufferings. The unknown sailors indecipherable smile is indistinguishable from a grimace.




Example: Herodotus recounts that the Persians punished the rebellion of the Ionian Greeks by dispatching an army to destroy the city of Miletus, a large and beautiful Greek city built where the River Maeander flows down from the mountains of Asia Minor to the sea. The inhabitants of Miletus defended their city courageously, but the Persian army was persistent, undermined the city’s defensive walls, and destroyed it. The men were killed, the strongest and handsome boys were castrated and sent to serve as eunuchs in the imperial courts of the Persians, and the women and girls were deported as slaves.

A Greek poet, Phrynicus composed a tragedy called The Sack of Miletus, presented in Athens only a couple of years after the city was destroyed. Miletus was a patron of Athens and the Athenians thought of the city as a colony. Phrynicus was an innovator – he is said to be the first writer of Greek tragedies to deploy female masks in this theater. Before Phrynicus, the choir commented and a single actor declaimed the play’s narrative. Phryinicus established a second character in the presentation, thereby, in effect, inventing dialogue. Greek tragedy was intended to achieve catharsis – that is, the purgation of powerful emotions of pity and fear by the representation of terrible events. Phryincus seems to have succeeded all to well with his productin of The Sack of Miletus. The Athenian audience was moved to tears to the extent that Phrynicus, who won the Olympiad competition for playwriting, was also fined 1000 drachmas for disturbing the peace. After Phrynicus, Athenian theater shifted largely to mythological themes, eschewing historical events from the recent past.

Suffering, it seems, is an occasion for art. Tragedy and grand opera are a kind of remote and abstract mourning. The meaning of suffering is that it provides the raw material for a certain kind of artistic endeavor important to human beings.

This answer is insufficient to the question.

Friday, October 17, 2014

On Sicily -- A Birthday and a Birthday Greeting from a Dead Friend



On the morning of my 60th birthday, I sat with my wife on a bus marked with the nickname "Tiny." A dignified Sicilian gentleman named Antonio with white hair and wearing a short dark tie was driving the bus. We were en route, as part of a Rick Steves’ tour, from Cefalu to Mount Aetna.

The highway was broad and well-maintained, passing across high barren plateaus. Sometimes, the road was borne over deep, stony valleys where water-courses, dry and choked with pale, white gravel, could be seen. Italian highway planners seem reluctant to damage the terrain of their ancient landscape by cutting roads across it – often, the freeway was carried on concrete viaducts traversing the valleys from hilltop to hilltop. These long viaducts had a noble aspect, monumental and severe, a kind of classical gravitas.

On one upgrade, Mount Aetna came into view, a high blue dome hovering like a distant zeppelin over the slopes of the mountains closer to the highway. Above the steepest slope on the plateau, lifted up toward the bright sun like an offering on a brown altar, was the city of Enna. Compact and pale, the town spiked a summit, a crown of cathedrals and fortifications.

It excited me to see Enna and I thought of Milton’s simile for the garden of Eden in Paradise Lost:

Not that fair field

Of Enna, where Proserpin gath’ring flowers,

Herself a fairer flower, by gloomy Dis

Was gather’d, which cost Ceres all that pain

To seek her through the world...

Mari Accardi, the tour-guide, remarked that the Greeks had built a shining temple to Demeter at Enna above the fertile uplands where grains were grown in great abundance. The high fields hanging over the highway were all plowed, the grass tucked under clods of brown earth, but seemed fallow.

The bus stopped near the exit to Enna at an Auto-Grill, a kind of resting place with a large and modern truck stop. On horizon, Enna on its lofty peak was visible; on the other horizon, we saw Aetna signaling its volcanic heart to the world with a diaphanous plume of smoke.

In the Auto-Grill, on a counter, books were displayed. These were hardbound volumes, marked for sale at 9 Euros apiece, classics of literature. I perused the titles: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Dickens’ David Copperfield and Oliver Twist, a volume of novels by D’Annunzio, and, most curiously, a bilingual edition of Edgar Lee Masters’ The Spoon River Anthology, sumptuously bound, each epitaph in English faced with its Italian translation.

Of course, I was thinking about death, my own and the deaths of those that I had known. The day was sunny and bright, not a cloud intervened between my face and cheeks and brow and the sun.



But, later, of course, it was foggy on the slopes of Mount Aetna. Clouds concealed the summit and dampened the lava fields congealed on the mountain’s flanks.

On the grim outskirts of Catania, an industrial city on the Ionian Sea,"Tiny" had turned toward the mountain, wrapped in stormy-looking blue and green clouds. Aetna is vast and covers many miles, less a mountain that an enormous landscape sloping inexorably toward the calderas 11,000 feet above the sea. At first, the bus passed between jagged ridges of charcoal-black lava – the lava fields were intricate badlands cleft with deep fissures and bulging pinnacled domes, places that seemed literally impassable, serrated teeth of stone poised to shred your feet and disembowel you if you slipped and fell. Among this moonscape, on stark promontories, there were small factories, aluminum foundries, plastic injection molding plants, warehouses and machine shops. These industrial facilities stood atop spiny ridges or in pits hollowed out of the lava fields.

The road wound upward, twisting and turning through small villages. The ancient houses were built from stacked and rough-hewn blocks of lava. As the narrow highway climbed the peak, we passed zigzagging retaining walls of lava stone and sometimes the road ascended through narrow grooves with stacked basalt sides, a kind of canal that led up toward the heights. The landscape was a slanting checkerboard of small fields, some of them vineyards or olive groves, walled off from one another by chest-high mounds of volcanic rock.

It was gloomy with fog and the roadway was wet. Once, the clouds opened for an instant and we could see a towering ridge overhead, livid with tongues of reddish and brown lava poured down from above in huge avalanches of tumbled rock. Different flows of lava were superimposed on one another and in the ash next to the road a kind of broom-shaped plant, something like sage brush, was slowly devouring the boulders and turning them into black soil. Some parts of the mighty rampart had eroded into dust and pebbles and there were even a few forlorn-looking grooves of trees, folded into hollows on the hillside. An abandoned monastery stood in a pit surrounded by low cliffs of lava – apparently, prayer had stopped the lava flow at the very threshold of the structure, although, I supposed that if anyone had been in the building the heat of the magma would have roasted them alive. Next to a bend in the road, a house’s tile roof protruded from field of black, fissured stone. The texture of the hillsides varied: here slick with eroded, particulate pebbles and ashen dust, sometimes rigid with long, slanting dikes of unbroken rock. In places, the lava seemed very fresh, excremental, the shit of the volcano smeared in huge landslide-shaped flows across the slope.

The fog closed around the bus and the windows were damp with dewy sweat. Some tourist buildings swam into view, a chalet-like exterior riding a knuckle of barren volcanic rock. Many buses were parked around a crater and a chairlift ascended toward the hidden peak, only a few of its iron pillars visible on the sheer hill.

It was chilly here, 6000 feet above the sea. A big dining hall, mostly open to the elements extended across a terrace. On some video monitors, a DVD showed recent eruptions of the mountain, red spires and plumes of dancing lava with dramatic music, narrators on different monitors speaking a babel of tongues. Girls set out Dixie cups of liqueur, a 160 proof cognac called Lava of Aetna, Limoncello, and some kind of cream drink infused with brandy. The toilets were crowded and people were buying bottles of booze, postcards, necklaces made from polished obsidian, and other souvenirs.

I wandered uphill toward the Silvestry Crater. The ground underfoot was glassy and made a crinkling sound as I walked. It seemed familiar to me. Where I had encountered this kind of earth before? It came to me as I stood on the edge of the crater: it was cinder, the surface of the athletic tracks on which I had run when I was a young man in High School.

The crater yawned below, a foggy abyss lined with black and yellow pebbles. A German guide was squatting at the edge of the caldera, speaking to some fellow Germans who seemed to be kneeling in homage to the vast crater. The German was using very dramatic language and I could hear many picturesque verbs, words like "bursting forth" and "falling inward," all separable verbs signifying both violence and motion. The clouds ruptured for just an instant and, in an nearby pit, I saw a sort of spiral labyrinth made from loaf-sized stones, projectiles with rounded edges that had been ejected from the volcanic and, then, arrayed in this decorative pattern.

The fog was alternately very close and dense, and, then, diffuse but it was impossible to see anything above us. Sometimes, pebble-like rain pelted the side of the volcano.

My wife had told people that it was my birthday to my discomfort and embarrassment. Several women came from our group came to me as I stood overlooking the huge crater foaming with mist where the stentorian German was discoursing on the science of eruptions. The women were very sweet and congratulated me on my birthday. They assured me that life was good and a gift and that we should be grateful for remaining alive to see such wonders as the volcano hidden in the clouds swirling around us.

Conversations of this kind make me uncomfortable. I said something to the effect that I had come to Aetna to hurl myself into the caldera like Empedocles, but, based on their kind words, had changed my mind. The ladies looked at me, a little aghast, and with incomprehension. I said that I had never thought that I would live to the age that now afflicted me.

One of the women said that two of her brothers had died before they were sixty. I nodded my head. "I’m glad to be alive," I said. "There are many who didn’t make it." The woman shook her head and sighed to agree with me.

The road coiled down the side of the mountain, passing folds in the lava fields where there were wet groves of trees dripping with moisture. We emerged from the pale, wraith-like clouds into a glittering landscape of vineyards and small villages clinging to the precipitous slopes. Below, the sea shone with light, marked with strange patterns, like causeways in the blue-green water.


Plato says that men were taught to write so that they could forget. Before written language, human memory was stronger and more resilient.

I tried to bring to memory the faces of those that I had known who were now dead: my father, grandmothers, my college friend, Jim LeClaire, who died suddenly at 38 when his heart burst, my father-in-law, Dick Hart and my Aunt Rose, who taught English in St. Peter, as well as Professor Terry Dilley, who was my closest friend and who perished at the end of this icy Spring. I thought of the many lawsuits on which I had worked involving deaths on lonely highways, during blizzards, people slaughtered by drunk drivers, vehicles upended in frozen drainage ditches and filling with water, slips and falls that had been fatal for elderly people, children killed by cancers and blood diseases, a young mother smitten with cerebral hemorrhage and dying as she gave birth to her daughter.

Once, when I was about forty, a man bearing my name (although spelled "Beckman" without the double ‘n’), was killed when he lost control of his pickup truck after a night spent drinking in a tavern in Blooming Prairie. The accident occurred in March on a gravel road and the man’s vehicle was not discovered until the next day, tipped over on its cab in a half-frozen drainage ditch. I didn’t know about the accident until someone called me from a law firm that was my adversary in a case that I was litigating. The lawyer on the other end of the phone connection asked me if I "was still alive." "As far as I know," I said. "Well, there was a report that you were killed last night near Blooming Prairie," the man said. ‘It must be a mistake," I told him. The lawyer opposing me was a woman named Becky. She had been afraid to place the call because she knew that I had children and a wife and did not want to face the possibility that I had been killed in the crash. "I will tell Becky that you are okay," the lawyer said to me.

It was strange to see obituaries and a death notice bearing my name. The dead man was my age, although born in a different month of the year.



The Greek philosopher, Empedocles, lived in Akragas, now called Agrigento, around 450 BC. He practiced medicine and wrote two books, On Nature and Purifications. On the basis of fragments surviving from these works, we know that Empedocles thought that all things were rooted in earth, air, fire, and water. He proclaimed the conservation of matter: according to his doctrine, elemental matter could be neither created nor destroyed. The four fundamental elements were unchanging because divine, manifestations of "shining Zeus, life-giving Hera, Aidoneus, and Nestis, who with her tears fills the springs from which mortals draw the water of life." The power of Eros, or Aphrodite, mingles "water, earth, air, and sun together...(thus creating) the forms and colors of all mortal things..." Aphrodite’s love is opposed by a cosmic antagonist, strife, a power that tears the elements apart. Nature is the spectacle of these deities combining as a result of love and, then, separating under the influence of strife.

Empedocles described his philosophical method as "stepping from summit to summit, not plodding along a single track to the end." He said: "What is right may properly be uttered even twice."

Vain and, probably, quarrelsome, like all Greek philosophers, Empedocles warranted his theories by performing miracles. He prophesied his own death – or, perhaps, transfiguration – since he seems to have asserted that he would simply vanish from the earth, specifying the date when this would happen. At the appointed hour, he is said to have climbed to the crater of Mount Aetna and hurled himself into the chthonian fires. Other sources claim that when Empedocles’ prophecy as to his doom failed, he fled Sicily for parts unknown and was never seen again. A legend arose that a search party on Aetna found one of his boots, turned to bronze by the volcano’s magma and, then, spit from the caldera.



The Benanti vineyard lies on the gentle slope of Mount Aetna, a couple kilometers inland from the shining sea. The winery occupies a 17th century palazzo in a garden with spacious, ancient outbuildings, large open sheds roofed with slumping orange tiles, a damp cellar lined with concrete where portly wine barrels repose, and a swimming pool-shaped vat where grapes are crushed. Four or five acres of grape vines staked in rows in the black volcanic soil occupy the hill that slants upward behind the buildings in the direction of the sheltering volcano. In this part of Sicily, Mount Aetna is simply called "our mountain" and is regarded as kind and infinitely generous.

An attractive young woman led us up the slope behind the buildings to the vineyards. We sampled a few of the purple and green grapes – they were sweet but very acidic. A blight had ruptured some of the grapes in the bunches, shrinking and withering the skin about the empty core. The young woman said that this was the result of excessive rain. The higher ground above the vineyards was haunted by pale mists that seemed to ooze from the earth and the groves of olives and old ilex. Our guide probed the cinders underfoot and I picked up one of them, a pumice bomb about the size of my thumb that was remarkably light, a combination of fire and earth and the moist air.

The owner of the vineyard, Caballero Benanti, had an intelligent face, bespectacled eyes above a noble nose and a neatly trimmed grey beard. He spoke with great passion about the process of making his wines. When Italians speak English, their prosody is very musical – they articulate with great clarity, singing each syllable, and, almost always, accenting the "ed" in words like "formed" or "embraced." Sicilian gentry are concerned to tell you their genealogy, emphasizing their ancestral homes, usually on the mainland of Italy, the venerable nature of their family, their nobility and impressive history of dynastic marriages and Signor Benanti was no exception – he spoke, at length, of palaces, tracts of land and the villages indentured to those acreages, princesses, counts and countesses. He said that his vineyard produced grapes at various elevations on the slopes of Mount Aetna and that the flavor of the wine made from those grapes was determined by the altitude at which the vines were grown, their exposure to the sun, and the different constituencies of the soil. When someone asked him if he irrigated his fields, Signor Benanti responded with horror: "Oh, no," he said, "that would destroy the proper chemistry of the wine." Signor Benanti had been educated as a pharmacist and he told us that the manufacture of wine required the most acute scientific observation and attentiveness.

At the conclusion of his discourse, Signor Benanti made a melodramatic gesture of groping within his own entrails to draw forth his beating heart. He cupped his imaginary heart in both hands and, then, offered it to us: "my wine is made from the sun and from this heart." Of course, it was a sales pitch, but emotionally effective, nonetheless.

We sat at large tables in a side-building open, on its sides, to the landscape, a dignified presence of great beauty and immemorial age. Lackeys poured wine for us and we ate hors d’ouevres: various cheeses, olives, caponata and bruschetta. People became drunk and hilarious. Women posed for pictures with the stylish and handsome Signor Benanti. He told the ladies that the word "Minnesota" meant "stiff tits" in Italian. There was much giggling and the wealthier members of our group ordered cases of his wine, a great extravagance since the bottles sold for 35 to 40 Euros each with a shipping charge of 12 dollars per bottle. Mari Accardi told us that the young woman who had led the tour over the porous black cinders of the vineyard had been a professional basketball player – "she is from the North," Ms. Accardi said, "but she became fascinated by this place and is now an apprentice here, learning the business."

Signor Benanti insisted that the group visit his family chapel. We entered through a door inside the estate, behind the big ivy-covered walls surrounding the palazzo and its property. The chapel was shaped something like a kiln or an old oven, a sort of dome rising over a marble altar in the center of the structure. A painting of an effeminate-looking Jesus, made in the 18th century, was mounted at one end of the building. Others sacred objets d’art hung overhead – a grisly 16th century crucifix of lime-wood and a life-size terra-cotta Madonna with child whose age and provenance Signor Benanti also explained. He said that the altar was consecrated and that a priest came to celebrate Mass in the chapel, sometimes as often as twice a month. The Mass was sung in Latin and Mr. Benanti demonstrated, chanting some phrases in a remarkably pure, and beautiful, tenor. Like most Sicilian gentlemen, there is something priestly about him – his religious education is impeccable, of course, and once he aspired to holy orders. He voice resounded in the vault overhead. "Listen to the acoustics," he said. "It is magnificent." He told us that there was a relic authenticated by Catholic authorities concealed in the altar. "If you have such a place," he said, "if this is your heritage, then, you must make use of it, even if it costs you more than a hundred-thousand dollars to renovate the chapel." Signor Benanti said that he opened the double doors behind us, an entry to the chapel on the public street, so that wayfarers and villagers could come into the little church and celebrate Mass with him.

Mike S– suggested that we say the Lord’s Prayer together in the chapel. Mike S– has a vibrant and commanding personality and his suggestions, of course, are persuasive. We spoke the Lord’s Prayer, a blessing upon our travels. I found myself moved. Perhaps, it was the great quantity of wine that I had consumed.



From the slopes of Aetna, we rode the bus to Taormina. The road was serpentine, twisting through little villages that seemed to blend into one another. Sun erupted through the clouds and on the volcano’s vast incline, I could see small domed churches, orderly orchards of lemon and citron and orange, grape arbors, ancient farmhouses with white stucco walls and brightly tiled roofs, the entire landscape glittering as if with dew. Raindrops decorating green plants and orange-tiled roofs coruscated in the flood of sunshine now breaking through the clouds. The sea, mysterious and bright, edged the land, rising up to meet the shores of black sand.

The mountain’s slope seemed to display the landscape, holding the villages and farms up to the sun’s inspection. The whole world was suddenly visible, disclosed in all its abundance and fertility. This was an ancient place, sacred for five-thousand years to many tribes and peoples. Under the volcano with its head garlanded with clouds, everything sparkled and each thing insisted upon its own particular revelation.

My wife saw a rainbow over the sea. The rainbow was bright, only a radiant arc, that launched itself from the zenith and plowed down into the turquoise water. "Terry Dilley is greeting you on your birthday," my wife said. I thought of Professor Dilley’s intelligent eyes and his kind smile. He died at home at the end of Spring and I had pronounced his eulogy at his funeral. "Do you recall," my wife said, "that Terry came to see you just two days before Angelica was born?" Angelica is my youngest daughter. I wasn’t sure that I remembered the encounter. "He pointed to the sky and said that there was a double rainbow and there it was!" my wife remembered. "You talked to him for a long time." In the recesses of my memory, I recalled seeing a double rainbow but the image was confused with paintings and photographs of such phenomena. I wondered what Terry and I had discussed – probably, a book that Terry had just finished or something that I was reading, local gossip, theology, perhaps (for a time, Terry had been a monk). But, try as I might to recall, nothing remained for me from that day.

"It’s Terry Dilley’s greeting," my wife repeated. I agreed with her. "It’s Terry Dilley’s greeting," I said. Empedocles reminds us that what is right may be uttered even twice.

The rainbow vanished. Near Taormina, the sea beat the shore with such fury that men and boys were surfing in its wild grey waves.



At the hotel in Taormina, a few people were kind enough to gather on the terrace for my birthday. They were other travelers from Minnesota. A watery sunset had painted the sky with colors like those in a late painting by Turner, whorls of mist tinted with oozing reds and yellows. The volcano was hidden in dark clouds. Another hill-town, even more impossibly lofty, crowned a huge column of bare stone overlooking Taormina and the hotel terrace. We opened a bottle of wine, a process that was difficult because of the way the flask was sealed. Constellations of little lights twinkled on the sloping landscape that the volcano had made.

"Would you have ever thought you would celebrate your 60th birthday in a place like this?" someone asked me. "No, never," I said.

Mike S– offered a toast. He dared me to write it in this essay, so here it is:

Here’s to the heat

But not the heat that burns shanties,

Rather the heat that drops panties.

H said his father had offered this toast, Irish in origin, at his own wedding.



Two days after I returned to Minnesota, the postman brought me a stiff brown envelope from Terry Dilley’s sister in Pierre, South Dakota. Several times, she had called me and indicated that she was going to send a photograph, but the picture had never arrived. I was afraid to open the envelope. Obviously, it contained the promised photograph. I hoped it wasn’t an image showing Terry and I engaged in discussion, laughing and happy on some long-forgotten evening – for some reason, the idea of a picture like that was upsetting to me.

At last, I opened the envelope. The photograph was a picture that Terry had taken forty years ago, before I knew him, an image of trees and snow at the Nature Center. I recalled that the framed picture had been displayed at Terry’s funeral.

The picture is very serene. It shows deciduous trees reduced to graceful, tapering columns by the winter’s cold. An unbroken mantle of snow covers the ground between the trees, perfectly white and pristine – not even a tiny arboreal animal has passed over these fields of snow. The bare trees and the snow and the wan winter light almost too weak to imprint the white with shadows are almost abstract: it is Winter’s silent temple.



This quote comes from a short story by Lydia Davis:

That fall, after the summer when they both died, she and my father, there was a point when I wanted to say to them, All right, you have died. I know that and you’ve been dead for a while, we have all absorbed this and we’ve explored the feelings we had at first, in reaction to it, surprising feelings, some of them, and the feelings we’re having now that a few months have gone by – but now it’s time for you to come back. You’ve been away long enough.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

On Sicily -- Proverbs

On Sicily – Proverbs




I read several books by Sicilian writers when I was on that island. The authors cited these proverbs, among others:

"A woman is more dangerous than a shotgun."

"Arguing with a woman is like trying to wash the face of a donkey."

On crime and the mafia: "The soil of Sicily is so rich that no sooner do you uproot one weed, than two weeds take its place." (The name "Sicily" means "the fertile place.")

"Water is the best of all."

The latter phrase is something that the old Prince brings to mind as he is dying in Lampedusa’s great novel, The Leopard.

Our tour guide, Mari Accardi, had recently published a book, a series of linked short stories probably autobiographical in nature. The name of the book is Il Posto piu strano dove me sono inamorata – she translated this title as "Strange Places where I fell in Love." The book is shortlisted for a prize and has been well-reviewed in the Italian press. Ms. Accardi showed us a hand gesture used by Sicilians: she slid the side of her thumbnail down her cheek, pressing hard enough to pull her lower eyelid down a little. Acura – she spoke a Sicilian word that I am undoubtedly misspelling. She said: "Means ‘beware,’ or I cut your face." The tourists gasped at little at her audacity. "We use it mostly as a joke," she said. "Mostly."

Sicilian is the only European language that lacks a future tense. Ms. Accardi said that this feature of the language was, perhaps, related to the Arabic influence on the island. "Instead of saying: ‘I will do this,’ Sicilians say ‘Tommorrow I have to do this..." She speculated that this feature of her native language was diagnostic of a certain existential condition: "The Sicilians have never been their own masters," she told us. "They have always been slaves to someone else: the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the Norman French, the Spaniards, and, now, the Italians from the north. They have never possessed a future of their own."

On Sicily -- Rain, Africa, and a Fountain



After returning from Sicily, on the second night sleeping in my own bed, I heard the rain outside the open window. It was an October rain – brisk, soaking the earth and the fallen leaves covering the lawn. The breeze intruding into the bedroom was wet and cold and the sound of the raindrops splashing on the shingled roof was soothing. The falling rain underlined every one of my thoughts and made them vivid. It is a fine thing to feel the shivery cold and, yet, be warm under blankets, listening to the rain tickling the trees and the rooftops and the familiar streets and sidewalks.

One evening, I saw blue clouds rolling over the mountains in their parched golden semi-circle around Palermo. The clouds trailed veils and streamers of falling rain. On the street, the rain caught us outside, between the sultry hotel lobby and a similarly humid and warm restaurant. The falling raindrops were large and warm, processed through some nightmarish sieve of tropical clouds. It was not refreshing, but, rather, like standing under a hot shower. The rain smelled of the sea, rotting fruit, Africa and Ebola, anchovies and shell-fish and mud like mucous and rancid sweat. Palermo’s ancient stones were slippery. Vespas hissed by in the brief and violent downpour. A rain like this one doesn’t revive; rather, it exhausts and weakens. Before we could open our umbrella, the gale had passed.

The restaurant had been chosen for convenience, as a shelter from the storm, and it seemed to be a franchise, something called a Polpeterrio. We had no idea what the word meant. A hostess rushed toward us as we crossed the slick, marble threshold. She held a canister like a wastepaper basket, a place in which to repose our umbrella, although, initially, we had no idea what her gesture or words meant. The menu of the Polpetarrio was gibberish, Italian sentences translated literally into an English that was garishly flamboyant, garbled, and impossible to decipher. Apparently, the place sold only meatballs, although in vast and eccentric variety. There were pork and beef and lamb and horsemeat Polpe, meatballs made from fish and tirimisu, gelato meatballs, even, improbably, enough "vegetarian meatballs." We ordered and, unlike every other Sicilian restaurant into which we had ventured, the food arrived almost immediately – platters with fist-sized meatballs over which a white, creamy and aromatic sauce had been ladled. Sicilians eat late, after 8:00 pm in most cases, and, as we ate our meatballs, the restaurant gradually filled with people, mostly young couples on dates. The menu extolled meatballs as the most venerable of all foods, the most nourishing, and the greatest gift to mankind:

A new way to talk about "Polpetta" (meat balls), a traditional and angent dish.  It's an example of domestic pargmony, artistic manufact of rycicling art, always in the home conversation...Our unique and original recipe in Sicily, use to get just the best meat and ingredients.  These are simple dishes with the best quality.  La Polpeterria's staff is looking forward to let your find our new and traditional flovour from Sicily.

The restaurant's operating principle was stated on the menu in these terms:

The passion for the things you do, you can only grow when the results obtained correspond only in part to those who were your primary objectives.

 Outside, the rain came and went and the traffic churned through puddles. The air was steamy with humidity. Autumnal Sicilian rain is nothing like the rain that falls in October in southern Minnesota.

A week or so, later, in the white marble city of Siracusa, Julie and I walked to the waterfront. Below the piazza, with the metal tables and their umbrellas opened against the hot sunshine, a perfectly round pool, enclosed by a wall bulged outward from the land into the harbor. The pool was a freshwater spring, famous in the ancient world, the Fonte Aretusa. Although Arethusa (Aretusa) was the most beautiful of the nymphs, for some reason, her name has always made me think of gorgons, snake-headed monsters, the Medusa – perhaps, this association is simply based on the rhyme: "Medusa" - "Arethusa." A white duck was paddling languidly through the shimmering fresh water pool and big, torpedo-shaped fish were drowsing just below the surface; a single koi, orange like a jungle flower, loitered in the calm water. The poets say that Arethusa was bathing in the Alpheus River in Greece when the river-god attempted her rape. The virgin nymph fled the god’s embraces, praying to Artemis for deliverance. She crossed the Mediterranean Sea, swimming through its blue caverns, to reach Siracusa. At that place, Alpheus seized her, consummating his passion as the nymph metamorphosed into this lovely, sunken pond, the river-gods waters mingling with hers and the greater flood of the sea also joining the orgy. In the center of the fresh-water pond, there is a bouquet of papyrus growing eight or nine feet tall. The papyrus fronds are golden something like a fern crossed with a sheaf of wheat. It is said that one of the Egyptian pharaohs, possibly of the Ptolemaic dynasties, gave the papyrus plants to the Greek tyrant that ruled Siracusa. The stalks and feathery green leaves of the papyrus and their moist fronds writhed in the hot breeze stirring from the sea, a serpentine floral mass like the snakes wreathing the Medusa’s monstrous brow.

Sicily is close to Africa. Berbers patrol its streets in white smocks like the butchers wear in a meatpacking plant. Old men with forked beards lead little boys through narrow alleyways. It is hot and the air, even in October, is smothering.