One didn’t need the Pied Piper’s flute to be surrounded by children. A camera would do, but a sketch book was even better. People were sometimes suspicious of a camera –not sure what was being photographed. And perhaps still felt that a photograph took part of their soul. But they loved to watch the hand at work, to recognize themselves and others, even if the resemblance was limited to a hairdo or a lace collar.
I went up to Monreale about the middle of the morning. Seats on the filobus were always few, but today those who were lucky enough to be sitting down were leaned over and smothered by the rest of the passengers, packed in so tight no one could move. After two hairpin turns, we rolled into the piazza in front of the cathedral. I began wandering the streets, walking up steps and taking a few pictures. Finally I found a clean wall to sit on and an interesting corner where women were continually coming and going fetching pails of water. I began to draw. At first they looked from a distance. Then the woman on whose doorstep I was sitting came out and smiled. She was careful to speak Italian and not Sicilian so that I could understand her. The Sicilian dialect heard all around – on the bus, in the street – had a much softer more guttural sound than the Italian. Perhaps it was due to Arabic influences. Bella became bedda. Sole changed to suli. Bedda, cu fici a tia fici lu suli. Pretty one, he who made you also made the sun.
Children came by. People, young and old. A girl of about 20 with a good strong build and dark brown hair took over the questioning. Her mother also tried, but it was mostly in Sicilian. Great sad eyes looked out of a worn face, beautiful somehow despite the gaps in her teeth. I made ready to leave and the woman asked if I wanted to come to her house. It was right there on the corner. A large low room divided in two by a curtain. Rather bare, rather dark, but clean and with a radio in one corner. She offered me a small glass of yellow green liquor, made for the engagement party of the brown-haired girl, Graziella. The room and the door filled with people. I drew a few of them, but the mother had something too subtle to catch. At least then. They put on records and Graziella and another girl waltzed around gaily. Their life seemed fairly simple and happy, with the pattern already set at birth and very little leeway. Graziella was following the pattern. In a month she would be married. In a year she would have a child. Now as she bent over her drawn-work she looked quite content.
It was way after one. They asked, rather hesitatingly, if I would like some bread and cheese. So with no further ceremony a loaf of bread was brought out and one of the children sent to the store for some cheese. For them it was just bread for their noon meal, yet they looked quite healthy. Finally I succeeded in gathering up my things and made a sort of escape. The little ones followed me halfway around town and after losing them I quickly picked up a new bunch. Girls mostly, about five to eight years old, clowning, chewing on bread, wanting me to take a photo of this or that. I sat down to draw but was almost suffocated. If I hadn’t been sitting on a wall I wouldn’t have seen a thing. A passing orange vendor shooed them away to a distance of three feet and sat next to me himself to see what I was doing. It was best to move on. Surrounded by my enormous family of children. They occupied the whole width of the narrow streets and it was only towards sunset that I gradually lost them to the sharp calls of the various grownups in the vicinity and made my way back down to Palermo.
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe, and she had so many children she didn’t know what to do….surely that had been written here.
Back at the hotel I often sat in the writing room to study. It was warmer and the occasional guests waiting for phone calls or appointments did not bother me. It was also a way of improving my Italian. Most of the guests were from other parts of Italy, so they were easier to understand, and gave me a chance to learn about the differences between north and south. I sometimes wondered what they thought of me, a woman traveling alone. I must say though that on the whole they were respectful and as one of them said, the Italians were all gentlemen. The problem was what your definition of gentleman was. If a boy was with a girl in the moonlight and he didn’t try to kiss her, he was not being a gentleman.
It all came to a head one evening when the conversation turned to America, American politics, and American males. While the Sicilians I had gotten to know in Monreale, all of the working class, wanted to go to America, the land of opportunity, for the middle class America was a land of immaturity and faults despite its technical excellence.
For them, the Americans were children. Over and over one heard this from the Italians – and the French, and to a lesser extent, the Germans. But mostly from the Italians. Opinions of this sort, along with the subject of love, entered a conversation five minutes after it had begun. In ways, it might be true. Although the Italians too had a childlike side to their nature – a strange combination of physical maturity, of male superiority and self-assuredness, and an ignoring of tomorrow and of material aspects such as business. For an Italian, he was first of all a male, but he centered his attention on the woman. He was in love with every woman he met, for she represented all of womankind. Since human beings were endowed with both intelligence and emotions, playing with ideas and emotions was part of their makeup. Love affairs were challenging and exciting, marriage meant serenity and was forever.
To be continued . . .