The Watcher: Sicily

Sicily February 1956

The boat for Sicily left in the evening. After watching the lights of Naples fade in the distance, I ate a good dinner and then slept till dawn. Sunrise and rocks on the horizon turned into the mountains of Sicily. Steep and stony, except for a beach and a plain that was Palermo. Taxis were of the horse and buggy type. Happy as a child, I took one to the hotel through streets like Naples, but not as deep, not as dark.


This time my room was without a view. But I had sounds – footsteps passing by on the sidewalk, snatches of song (always men singing), the distant shouts of vendors, the clop of horses’ hoofs, and the occasional purr of an automobile, which changed to a clatter just by my window. There was of course a window. Just about on sidewalk level. A window that let in the sun – when it was out – and which when open let in the glances of the passers-by. After walking around all of my first morning in the rain, there was a sudden brightness in the room and the shadows of the bars showed through the smoked glass of the window. The sun had finally come out.

A confusion of sound and activity hugged the low houses and the streets outside. Swept up in continuous whirlpool of living, of existing, of birth and decay that made one feel helpless. The streets of Palermo were slippery with life, ever changing and rolling up and under like the bubbles in a pot of boiling water. Now in winter the air moved with comparative freedom. In summer it must be terrifying with a sun paralyzing all movement and the smell of each person and each dung heap, of each bit of cast-off garment and each bit of cold fried food hanging heavy in an aura around its source.

Every little detail appeared as part of a greater picture. Crumbling bricks, plaster lamenting its former whiteness. Cracks in the wall were rents of sadness. A faded pink glowed with fever brightness where the sun managed to inveigle its way in. The porous texture of a concrete wall emerged from behind the slick new poster of the Congress of Workers. Black cloths against a gray wall. (foto) Faded white slogans brushed on the rough surfaces. A thousand doors and windows, no two alike. Dark clad women, mostly young, and children, small and quick and bright, in torn velvet dresses or black school smocks, were the only common denominator. That and the laundry, with its sense of futility. Wherever you looked it was there, hanging over the streets, sweaters and limp skirts still clinging to the shape of their former body. Patched and torn laundry, irregular shapes blocking each other out, culminating in a complexity and density of surface-distance such as painters strive for. At every hour, in every street, a broom was sweeping out a room, in an attempt to put the dirt outside, separated from inside only by a curtain or a hint of a doorsill. Fish. Oranges. They sat in boxes in the wall-less shops or stood in baskets on the cobbles – bright curled silver streaks, sharp salmon squiggles, languid tentacles of octopus and squid. Pyramids of oranges and lemons topped by a branch of shiny green leaves. Piles of feathery fennel. Tightly braided ropes of garlic.

Palermo black laundry

I found Palermo a chameleon city. Not much might be left of some of its earlier lords, Phoenician, Punic, Roman, but there was certainly much that was Arab and Norman and echoed the brilliant times under Frederick II. What a man Frederick must have been! The Aragonites, Spanish and Bourbons all left their mark. The bombings of 1943 had destroyed the quarters adjacent to the port and I had no way of distinguishing between what had always been, and what was the result of the war.

There was also a new Palermo, that part of the city into which time had entered. A building clearly stated its age. Compared to the baroque statues and curved walls, the 18th century bulbous street lamps of the Quattro Canti looked old-fashioned, indicating that time had passed since they were set there. But for the old city was there ever a difference between eras? Where the bombs did their work well, new smooth buildings had gone up. The post office sat back on its haunches and raised a row of columns proudly in the air. There were five and ten cent stores and escalators, electric buses and modern movie houses. The new apartment houses presented the bland impersonal faces of movie stars, their maquillage concealing what their real life was. But perhaps the same could be said of the old palazzi and what had gone on behind their walls. Life had once been brilliant and sparkling as reflected in “Il Gattopardo”, a Palermo that no longer existed. These new buildings and streets left one to one’s own devices, left the soul intact – and dormant.

It was but a step from one world to the other, the turning into another street. The old city was almost forgotten as one put the pieces of one’s soul back together. But no matter how carefully one fitted them together, signs of the fracture always remained.

Former ruins had been brought back to life. A sense of pride prevailed and gave people a chance to live and find a purpose in their being. There was an old, an almost empty church in the center of the old city. The plain wooden doors opened from the piazza onto a sort of anteroom dominated by a life-sized figure of Saint Onofrio. He was in a glass case, surrounded by faded paper flowers and a few small votive candles, looking much like the shrine of a pagan idol. Thin arms and legs protruded from under the cloak of his own hair. He was holding a large brown beaded rosary and this was his church. A woman entered from the main part of the building, a black kerchief giving her fine old face great dignity as she told me of this, her church, with immense love. It had been abandoned and the people of the neighborhood refitted it and brought it back to life. The cover on the altar underneath the one with hand-painted roses was pure linen. The big carved table at the other end was 300 years old. She turned on all the lights for me and then led me by the hand to see the painting of the hermit’s death and another smaller miraculous statue. I wanted a photograph of her church and of her, but had to wait while she went to change into her more dignified, more impersonal self in a black coat and minus the scarf. She stood by the altar with a solemn, rather stiff, face as I took the picture. (picture of her) But it was not at all what I had wanted. They were a proud people, but they never could understand why I would rather have a picture of them in their working clothes, or of a crumbling ruin, a why that was never to be bridged.

Sant onofrio

To be continued . . .

One thought on “The Watcher: Sicily

  1. I am celebrating the first day of the new year by reading your book and this latest posting where you masterfully bring to life the “slippery streets of Palermo,” where the sun sometimes managed to “inveigle itself in.” This is one of your best!

    Liked by 1 person

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