Palermo, Day 3

We’re back in Palermo. We’re back at the Villa Igeia Hotel, which is beautiful. I’ve just come back from a walk in the gardens, because dad wants a nap before dinner, and I’m totally buzzed.

We went for a walk in downtown Palermo this afternoon. It turns out that Palermo was getting a lot of money from trans-Mediterranean shipping around 1900, and so the city is loaded with gems of architecture in the Art Nouveau style, which is one of Dad’s and mine favorite styles of art (Dad’s and my?) We walked up the Vialle della Libertad, which was where the city sponsored an exposition of what is called Liberty style here, around 1903. (Art Nouveau is called Liberty style here because it’s associated with the textile prints of Liberty of London, the famous clothing and decorative arts firm.)

There weren’t any examples of Art Nouveau on this main street. Nearly all the buildings are Neo-Classical, or very modernist, simply because it was the center of the bombed area destroyed by the Allies before the invasion of Sicily in 1943. Even so, it’s a beautiful street today.

Three things on this street captured Sicily for me. The first was a wedding party coming out of a narrow Neo Classical building. It was the bride, about forty women of all ages with her, and one man, who might have been a father or uncle but was not the groom. This group, in theory all one family, contained black faces, white faces, olive faces… blondes, brunettes, raven-haired beauties. Wow.

The second thing was a white Ford four-door sedan of some sort, with pristine bumpers and cleaned sides — totally burned out inside. Burned seats, burned dashboard, charred ceiling… totally gutted. A burned-out car in the Bronx is a burned out car. In Palermo it somehow seems more sinister, especially after reading Peter Robb’s book. Was it an accident? Was it mob violence? It’s no easier trying to figure out the story from the newspaper in the hotel lobby…. there’s a photo of a bombed-out bus, and the caption in Italian references today’s date, and the years 1943, 1999, and 2006. The guy at the hotel desk won’t translate for me, and doesn’t know anything about the car downtown. Did a bus get blown up today? Or in 1943? Or in 1999? Did a man or a woman die in that car I saw today? Leonard Sciascia, who is one of Italy’s more famous writers, and a Sicilian himself, writes mysteries in which the detective does not solve the crime, but goes missing after uncovering multiple layers of inconvenient evidence. The car seems something like that.

The third thing I saw that emphasizes Sicily to me was a young man, late teens or twenties, sitting with his girlfriend, in Piazza Castelnuevo, across from the Theatro Garibaldi. He had a dyed red mohawk, a studded denim vest over a leather biker jacket, leather pants, and numerous earrings and facial piercings. His girlfriend wore black tights, a miniskirt, a couple of low-slung studded belts, a leather jacket, and a funky hairdo with red stripes in it.
They were the only obvious rebels I saw the whole trip. In four large towns, encountering numerous school groups and people from all walks of life, he and she were the only people who defied the obvious norm. A group of rollerbladers on the other side of the Piazza, while clearly outside the normal jacket-and-tie world of adult Sicilians, were not outrageously dressed or outrageously pierced or tattooed. They were strictly jeans-and-sweatshirt kinds of fellows, and at 7:30 or so they were packing up and heading for home.

Peter Robb, in his book Midnight in Sicily, comments on the story of one Mafioso who was famous for his efforts on behalf of family values. Whenever he was walking about, he saw which boys were walking hand in hand with which girls, and he regularly sent money to the boys “for wedding expenses.” The guys who didn’t take the hint usually vanished mysteriously, or were offered jobs in other parts of Sicily where their girls couldn’t follow easily or quickly. Wedding money, it seems, can always be used for funeral money if the occasion arises.

This rebellious couple, it seemed to me, emphasized the danger in sticking out too much in a society like Sicily. You want to seem as normal as possible, whenever you can. Maybe it’s a false comparison, and maybe I’m reading too much into it, but this pair of punks in downtown Palermo seemed to be making a serious statement in a potentially dangerous world.

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