Tuesday, October 14, 2014

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.

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