Friday, 22 February 2013

palermitanos (part one)

There’s something special about arriving in a big city by ship, particularly if that city has a great setting.  Palermo sits in a large bay backed by big hills that are dusted in snow this morning.  The sunshine gives the old stone buildings in the centre a welcoming glow.  It’s Sunday morning and the streets are quiet.  A cloudburst washes the streets clear of pedestrians as we head over to the station.  We are planning to stay a week here in the city as the best ferry to Tunisia leaves weekly on a Monday night and in the meantime we are hoping to meet our American friend Jeff, and also collect a parcel at Poste Restante.  There‘re also plenty of sights to keep us occupied here as the city has a fine collection of buildings dating from its time as a wealthy medieval metropolis and we’re excited at the prospect of a city described as one that bridges the gap between Europe and Africa.  A couple of Italians (northerners) have warned us to be careful in Palermo – what better recommendation for a city than that?

Gayle has been in touch with several Couch Surfers here.  Mario and Eliana have offered to host us over the weekend whilst Marta and Fillipo have both said to keep in touch if we need help.  Normally we would not ask to stay with so many Surfers, but in fact Marta has visited Tunisia in the past year and Fillipo is thinking of visiting Central Asia where we’ve been and so we should have something to share.  Mario and Eliana live near the station and have written to say they’ll meet us there.   It seems that Mario is a shy man because he has a cartoon penguin for his profile photo.  As we stand around outside the station with all the usual station loiterers, departees and new arrivals I’m half-hoping that a cartoon penguin will appear around the corner.   Alas, Mario and Eliana seem quite normal, although after a few days we believe they may not be typical Palermitanos.  We have a quick cuppa at theirs before heading out to their local street market to pick up some fresh fruit (gorgeous oranges) and veg
(artichokes) and fresh cockles, amongst other items, all of which are served up later for us to enjoy.  We chat in English and some Spanish – Mario seems to understand a lot of English but speaks less than Eliana.  She works in the Post Office on the banking side and he keeps bees – he has a hundred hives just out of the city.  But Mario doesn’t look like a bee-keeper, he looks more like an artist with his grey cap sat askance on his head, his glasses sometimes perched on the end of his nose and a cigarette always on the go.
 We go for a stroll around the old town centre and down the back lanes.  The buildings are intermittently shabby and falling down and then you turn a corner and there’s a grand church or a restored house standing in front of you.   Piles of rubbish are sprawled in corners or down alleyways and there’s graffiti everywhere, which you’d expect for an ancient Italian art form.  In the centre are Bangladeshi men selling scarves and mobile phone accessories at stalls or walking around with handfuls of brollies for sale.  The city's golden era may have been some centuries ago, but it's got plenty to offer us right now.

We instantly feel at home with Eliana and Mario, a sensation which is a real luxury for travellers.  In the evening we are invited to join the family meal. Sonia, their daughter who lives downstairs, joins us with her boyfriend Alessandro, and Massimo, an old friend, turns up a couple of evenings.  Massimo is an animated Palermitano.  When he tells a story he acts it out.  Neither of us can follow the story properly but the mime is incredible.  One evening he arrives and we make small talk.  He looks weary, and he mops the sweat from his brow, saying “Work hard all day”.  He then turns his pockets out “and no money!” He then mimes someone taking and pocketing wads of cash “In Italy only the thieves get rich”, pause for breath, “and the workers get…” ending with a universal gesture.

The meals are traditional Italian – an appetiser, a pasta, some meat, then salad, then dessert, usually fruit.  It’s a far cry from our one-course carbo-high camping dinners.  Mario is a wonderful film obsessive – with a huge collection of films - and has just started blogging about the more obscure ones.  So we are given the rare treat of after-dinner cinema evenings.   It may seem churlish of me then to complain that the first film we watch together is Les Miserables.  Like a boy in a sweet shop who ends up with a liquorice stick, when all around him are jars and jars of much better offerings.  Whilst tiring of the libretto I get to wondering how the title could be translated into English and settle for The Blighted, for that is exactly how I selfishly feel. However, Mario thoughtfully picks out two other films for us to enjoy on other nights.   We stay four nights with them in the end and manage to cook a traditional English dinner of kofta curry, dhal, gobi aloo and rice as a nominal thank you.   It would be much better for us to host them in Hebden Bridge some day – a common desire when we are Couch Surfing – and perhaps this may happen as Eliana and Mario only visit islands when they travel.  Somehow I think they may prefer Polynesia to Britain, but we can always hope.....


  1. Hebden Bridge is posh, isn't it? (I've only driven through it a couple times).

    1. Well, it's all relative I suppose. If you're from Halifax, it's posh.