The Watcher: Sicily continued IV

Goodbye Monreale


If Monreale were a village in the middle of the jungle, I should probably get along more easily. But here in such close proximity to culture, or signs of culture, it was too easy to expect of others the same careless acceptance of things learned long ago and now hidden as if behind the scaffolding of a skyscraper. I brought the photographs I had taken to my basket workers. (photos and sketches of basket workers) They were like children, finding each other, seeing faces I hadn’t even noticed in the background, passing the pictures around from house to house. When I said that they could keep them, Antonio, the man who wanted me to find him a wife in the States, was puzzled for a moment as to how I would have his photograph to take back if I gave him the one I had. When I told them that since I had the negative, I could make more copies. They accepted my explanation, although I doubted whether they really knew what this meant.

I had never had such a fine group of models. Their work was of itself stationary, as they sat and flicked their hands back and forth. From somewhere, they had an understanding of what I was after. But of course I did not want to draw a stiff posed figure, and they eagerly explained to any newcomer that he should lean against the wall or smoke a cigarette. Antonio went into the back room and brought in a pile of finished baskets – purely for its compositional value. Yet occasionally the crowd grew too large, girls came in and wanted to be drawn one after the other, and I was grateful to Giuseppe or Antonio for shooing everyone out.

This time they fixed thin spaghetti with tomato sauce and peas for me. They as usual ate only bread. Antonio brought in a gigantic apple. Raffaele in the red pullover brought in two oranges with the mother leaves still clinging to them. And they were all ready to feed me a second course of egg and bread. As it was, the fruit came home with me in my bag.

The woman from across the street took me by the hand and led me upstairs. It was where the handsome strong-featured mother of the tiny child I had photographed with its grandparents lived. The house was middle class. A sense of sufficiency pervaded the neat rooms. Coffee was served and I looked through the album of her wedding pictures.

By the time I returned to my basket makers, they were singing. One of the songs was aimed at me, adjuring me not to forget to write when I was far away. I would write, but hardly separately to the dozen names they gave me. It was good to sit and watch them work, in this room with its red tiled floor almost hidden under the cane and bits of broken sticks. The cane had a natural grace and swept up into the corners, curling slightly with the foreknowledge of its position in life. The walls of red and rose were faded, varied like a spotted water color and broken only in two places. The entrance, with opposite, the doorway with no door that led into the living quarters of the padrone. He was very old and had no teeth,  sat in his house, and glared out at the workers as he slowly split cane. Behind him, half against the light, was a table at which they set me for my meal, a bureau of some kind, and a picture hung crooked on the wall. The hidden half of the room was filled with finished baskets. In one corner the cat pushed her way under the curtain of another room.

I got to Graziella’s later than I should have. But I had much more interesting things to draw at the basket makers. As it was I had to leave my coat and bag with them as a sign I would return. Graziella and her family were all a bit subdued, although we kissed each other on the cheeks, once on each side, and I tried my best to be cheerful. The photographs helped. The woman from upstairs gave me a small loaf of warm heavy bread which was to be my supper. We talked a while and then I had to go. They knew the others had fed me, and said I also had to come and eat with them. But the situation was fast becoming impossible. I couldn’t go to Monreale and see just one family, but then I couldn’t possibly be with both at the same time either. These loyalties were beginning to tell on me. As I walked home from the bus stop in a sort of daze, I noticed all of a sudden that it was sunset. But somehow I just didn’t care.

Il Dottore had written “as one descends down along the Italian peninsula, the human climate which surrounds one becomes hotter. The participation in the personal sphere, more alive and direct. This participation often becomes a real invasion – of thoughts, of action, of attention and of intentions. There is no more ‘privacy’, a word which translates badly into Italian for the simple reason that it is a non-existent concept. Everything is exuberant, exterior, epidemics. Perhaps it is a way of feeling oneself alive, this penetration into the lives of others. Often this phenomenon assumes the aspect of the more common bad education. It is at this point that the fundamental qualities of spontaneity, sincerity, enthusiastic hospitality transform themselves into a single grave defect.”

This was one reason for leaving Palermo. But it was the people after all who made my departure quite unforgettable. Packing and saying goodbye to my Monreale friends had taken up most of the day. I sat in the lobby waiting for Riccardo to come by and for Nino, the math teacher, to return from school so I could say goodbye. A few rather charming young men came in, one of whom I knew slightly, and advised me on where to go and what to see. Riccardo called and said he would meet me at the station at 3:30. One of the young men, named Pino and also a lawyer of which Palermo seemed to have a surplus, offered to accompany me to the station. Nino arrived and wanted to come too but I said that one person was quite enough. They hailed a horse and buggy, loaded in my suitcases and we were off. When we arrived at the station Pino paid both the driver and the porter in typical Italian gallantry. We stood talking and waiting for the train and for Riccardo, whom I had mentioned only as a friend. I glanced along the platform looking for him when whom should I see but Nino. Since I was obviously occupied, he motioned for me to ignore his presence, and when I strolled down to see if Riccardo was waiting outside the gate, I discovered that Nino had a ticket for part of the way with me. Absolutely mad. Then fifteen minutes before departure – Pino already had my things on board – Riccardo appeared. And lo and behold he and Pino knew each other. Pino seemed a bit put out, Riccardo was quite obviously affectionate. It was a charming leave taking.  A kiss from Riccardo, a promise to see each other in Rome, and the train pulled out. I now had Nino on my hands. However, we managed and after half an hour he said the last goodbye and got off to take the next train back to Palermo.

To be continued . . .

One thought on “The Watcher: Sicily continued IV

  1. Erika—such vivid story telling… I love observation of privacy being a non existent concept I Southern Italy…of social intimacy growing as the ne heads South….seems true today! Great etchings as well!
    J

    Liked by 1 person

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