Palermo on a Monday

Before my trip to Palermo this past June, I saw this School of Life video right before I left. It resonated with me as the animated bird in the video holding the last piece of a puzzle to an already answered question felt like myself. On the only Monday I had in the city, I started the day at the Orto Botanico di Palermo. A part of it was open and no one at the front desk told me the Manifesta section was closed. So I walked to the farthest open area of the garden only to find a man working in a tiny toolshed wondering where was all the art and the thicket I needed to go through to get there. Then, it started raining. After a short while, it started coming down in cascades, so I had to change my place of refuge from standing against a wall of a building with a little bit of roofing above me to a nearby bamboo hut. In the hut, I saw it had a hole overhead.


Once it stopped raining, I headed towards another venue I had missed seeing in the previous days – Chiesa S. Maria dello Spasimo, which also lacked a roof. On the map, it looked deceptively close, just across the street and a little bit in from the main road but this was Palermo, meaning the entrance was rarely easy to find. The buildings want to be walls. Now the sun was out, it was blisteringly hot. I zig zagged through alleys in the shape of a difficult game of Tetris only to find the church closed. Somehow in a haze of hunger, irritation, and sweat slumped on a small stoop, I concluded that the Bridge Installation at Costa Sud could be seen at Quattro Canti, which seemed vaguely absurd but thought who knows. My notes and I weren’t entirely wrong as a representation of the Bridge Installation could be seen at Palazzo Constantino located on the northeastern corner of Quattro Canti. It was here, standing in front of a shut Palazzo Constantino that I saw on a poster that Manifesta was closed on Mondays. I immediately got a granita from Pasticceria Costa and sat on a hot slab of stone. Now was the time to whine to my Italian host that Manifesta was closed over WhatsApp.

She suggested I go to Palazzo Conte Federico or the beach resort of Mondello which was only a 20/30 minute bus ride away from Politeama Theatre, and she knew for sure that the buses went there regularly. I agreed to Conte Federico but then she realized it closed at 4pm and it was already 4:30. I said I wasn’t a beach person, but mainly, I was thinking of food. Then I remembered this Italian guy from Turin had told us (me and another girl from Berlin in Palermo) we had to try a pane con la milza (which looked disgusting but was delicious) before we left the city as he pointed to the words on his smartphone and repeated the name slowly twice. Having left the city twice before without having tried it, I decided I should try it this time before I left for a third time.

I asked her about that place in a beautiful square we walked through our second evening which had the street food sandwich although she thought it was a bit touristy. San Fernando? She didn’t know it and then remembered Franco in Piazza Marina, which I didn’t know and then I realized oh its San Francesco. Then she agreed, yes San Francesco sells those pane con la milza.


Not knowing the full name of Antica Focacceria San Francesco, I typed in San Francesco in Google maps and it located San Francesco Bar off to the side from Theatre Massimo Vittorio Emanuele. I should have known this was the wrong location as I knew we hadn’t walked anywhere near Theatre Massimo in the last few days, but my brain had shut down after the Tetris maze. I started my way down Via Maqueda, a stretch of Palermo I didn’t like much. Along the way, I found that Palazzo Mazzarino was open and was able to see Per Barclay’s oil room installation of the Cavallerizza.


San Francesco Bar turned out to be nothing but surprisingly it was right across from Enoteca Buttice, another place recommended by the same Italian from Turin. He had particularly liked their paper placemats which had the articles of the establishment written on them. The placemats had a sky blue background framed by a brilliant red and ornate at the corners. By this point, it was half-past 5pm and no sign of food as it was too early for both aperitivo and dinner. With my bowl of potato chips and a glass of Sicilian grillo, I was getting delirious and started to imagine doves flying from the place mat. I moved the bowl of potato chips off and then the place mat immediately took flight and whirled in the wind before the waitress came and caught it, crumbled it, and threw it in the trash. She then came back much later with a new one to place under my glass. 0-1

I eventually did make it to Antica Focacceria San Francesco on the day before I left while trying to locate a gallery I couldn’t find the entrance to. The pane con la milza was indeed tasty although the meat did leave a strange aftertaste.

Italian Days

Palermo Capo Market

My beige suede ankle boots were thrown out the door, in a rather gentle act of aggression, landing softly not far from the doorway. A long time ago, in another country, this was practiced to wish someone good luck before a journey. My psyche pretended this was the case, whereas the shoe thrower was plunged into a momentary blackness as an epitaph to the encounter. My brief presence had taken his psyche to social modernist buildings found in Belgrade. Vacated buildings blackened in a fire complete with torn curtains billowing like rags and shattered glass windows. About as nourishing as a carbohydrate on carbohydrate snack.

When your shoes are traveling in mid-air and crossing a threshold through no volition of your own, you wonder maybe it’s not time to leave the apartment but rather the whole damn country.  What was this journey I had already received well wishes for? The signal came in the form of Christo’s Floating Piers, an invitation to walk on water to an island on a lake, its pathway covered in a bright orange cloth. I went from two boots out the door to the country as boot. I had been thrown out into the world (Heideggerian thrownness).

Drunk on Campari, every month I went to the land of Campari, slowly making my way further and further south to where the lemon trees grew. The land had supplanted man. I went back and back, again and again. Without ever having written a book, I was living somewhere between Henry James’s Italian Hours and Goethe’s Italian Years –  a form of Juni’s Italian Days. The train ticket prices found on Trenitalia were like a gift from God.

Southern Italy was an unknown of which I had formed a picture with my ears and the things I heard whispered were not safe. When I googled Sicily thinking of lemons, I found instead the African migrant crisis on the island of Lampedusa. I saw refugee eyes peering at me through the branches.

After my trip to Naples, I was ashamed of myself for having put one bank card in my jacket, some cash in my shoe, another credit card in my bag, and my passport in another pocket so that I wouldn’t lose everything at once if a scooter riding mugger snatched my bag off my shoulder. Now having to be mindful of my shoe, bag, and jacket, I found myself in a lively residential neighborhood in the center of town where people brought home 5 pizza boxes for dinner on their scooters. They actually had no free hands to make a getaway with my bag. Nowhere in Italy did I feel more taken care of by the community even as a tourist. One cappuccino later, and my order was remembered the next day.

Having my shoes thrown out the door intentionally, was unintentionally a blessing for my Italian days.



A Love Affair with Myself

A Palermo lady upgraded my room to one with a view of Teatro Massimo. Teenage kids party, socialize, dance, drink wine, and make out all around it. I fed a homeless cat a hot dog in front of a cafe on one of its side streets.

Inside the theater, there is a room originally only for nobles called Pompeian Hall or the Echo Room with frescos from Pompeii circling it. If you stand in the center of the room and speak, your voice echoes and everyone can here you. But if you stand anywhere else, your conversations will be drowned out by other conversations, keeping all conversations private.

When this lady found out I would be spending two nights in Messina, she grimaced and said, “Messina is not worth the trouble. Just sleep there.”

I told another Milanese lady I’d be going to Messina and her eyes went wide and asked, “Why?”

Then in a long-winded fashion I tried to explain, “I saw these paintings in the Risorgimento museum in Turin and…” and before I could finish she said, “You’re going because of Garibaldi ?!” and then she laughed for a good 2 minutes.

I blame the tempera paintings of Carlo Bossoli found in the National Museum of the Italian Risorgimento Turin. I saw Messina and decided to go. His little room of paintings showed the Piedmontese conquering and yet also admiring the view.

Attack on Messina by Carlo Bossoli


I blame Filippo Juvarra for being born there and Caravaggio for being on the run. But it wasn’t as ugly as everyone said it would be. Although everything was destroyed in an earthquake, the so-called ugliest city in Sicily still had its charms. I saw the Strait of Messina and its like the width of the Rhine in Cologne. In the distance, you can see the white buildings of Reggio Calabria. I had a Bronte pistachio gelato twice. I saw a boat called “Tourist & Carton” and found my little poseur dog from the Boudin painting I loved so much. He is a little bigger in real life.

The Beach at Trouville, 1865. E. Boudin
“Tourist & Carton” ship off in the distance and the Boudin dog

So I asked this Palermo lady the places she liked the best in Sicily and she said, “Agrigento in the south. It has 5 Greek temples and Erice with over 100 churches. And the most beautiful in the sunset, the salt dunes in Marsala.”

“Marsala, like the wine?”

“Yes, they also make salt.”

I thought damn, my love story did not take me there.

Noto In the Cold November Rain


In Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s “The Leopard,” the nephew Trancredi arrives unexpectedly one cold November evening to the Salina family home in Donnafugata soaking wet from a thunderstorm. Trancredi exclaims, “Careful, Nuncle; don’t touch me, I’m a sponge!”

It happens quickly, becoming a sponge. When I walked out of the train station in Noto, the pavement was dry but within 10 minutes, about halfway up to the city center, which gradually climbed uphill, small streams of water were diverging at the tip of my shoes with each step I took and I had to leap over larger puddles created in-between worn tracks in the road. The raindrops came down holding hands, hitting my glasses together in a splash. I cursed myself and got stares of curious pity from the drivers.


After the rainstorm drenched everything, within another ten minutes, I was climbing up the stairs of this church soaking wet. I’ve never seen one placed so high. Then, walking down the main street in front of Noto Cathedral, an image familiar and strange appeared, Andy Warhol in a black turtleneck against a yellow background in a show entitled “Warhol è Noto.” The poster hung like a banner down every lamppost and he was dressed in style even though that image must have been taken at least 30 years ago. But the exhibition had closed, I was too late. Walking back in the other direction, I saw the moon, not above the cathedral but below.


And then, as I was walking back toward the train station, this gigantic, perfectly in bloom red rose with tiny raindrops all over it peered down at me from above a fence.



Mafia: Bold, Brave, and Beautiful

Palazzo Branciforte

While reading Helena Attlee’s “The Land Where Lemons Grow,” she wrote the most interesting thing that in Palermo dialect the word “mafia” originally meant bold or beautiful completely different from its meaning during the same time in Piedmontese or the Florentine dialect which meant poor, petty, and miserable. The meaning of bold, brave, and arrogant first appeared in the 1650s and then about 250 years later the added meanings of beautiful, perfect also took hold. As time went on, it continued to evolve in Palermo dialect to also mean something closer to a union or fraternity of brothers.

The area outside of Palermo known as the Golden Bowl or Conca d’Oro was where for centuries lemon trees had been cultivated and lovingly cared for amid palaces and later Art Nouveau buildings (I wish I could have seen it) which were all then demolished by the money the Cosa Nostra made from exploiting the lemon trees or the wooden slaves they had once protected- all to be replaced with high-rise buildings. But even after blind capitalist corruption, earthquakes, bombings, and volcano eruptions, Sicily is still bellezza, baldanza, perfezione, eccellenza or mafia from 1880. One can only imagine how beautiful it must have been when Palermo was one of the most dazzling, cosmopolitan cities in Europe. There are still a few street signs in Italian, Hebrew, and Arabic.

Detail from the Church of Gesù
Heaven as Palermo