|Jul/Aug 2018 Travel|
Sicily began in the air. The plane was mostly empty, with a smattering of stout mamas and muscular men who, though they had made their homes in Brooklyn for generations, were Sicilian. After the plane was aloft, the women spread to the rows of empty seats in the middle of the cabin throughout the aircraft, sleeping horizontally, compactly, arms across their heaving breasts. They had done this before. When I finally allowed myself to sleep, I curled up into a ball in my row 36 two-fer, all the middle seats already claimed.
I awoke an hour later in the middle of a neighborhood brawl. The purple-red thin-haired woman who was originally seated in front of me, but who had slept prone to my right, was shouting with her hands and voice at a young, wide-eyed, tattooed man who had plunked down in her original seat, next to her matronly friend. I asked what had happened, in a mush of Spanish and Portuguese, increasing the confusion of the airline attendants. (I believed that Portuñol, accompanied by big hands and an Italian attitude, could pass as Italian. I was wrong.) Half the cabin was standing and worked up about something that wasn't really consequential, but was disturbing on some level, an invasion of turf. Drogato is one word I made out. An attendant conversed with the perpetrator, back in his own seat, drunk and disoriented.
Later, in the wee hours of Palermo's morning, we stood in a single line at border control. The young man looked tired and harmless, the incident interred by the sober light of day. A wiry older man accompanying a sturdy woman, speaking in old Brooklyn, stood short, straight and proud, giving advice to a young plump American tourist. Could he really be a descendant of the Godfather?
The familiar plane faces turned up at baggage claim, which took too long for the hour of day and emptiness of the airport, particularly since we had already invested ample time in immigration. Although I had packed lightly and carefully for my two weeks in Sicily, the Meridiana airline employee at JFK, whom I guessed correctly to be from Guyana to both of our astonishments, had insisted I check my small rolling bag. After quickly rejiggering contents to lighten the satchel I would now be carrying without the benefit of its wheeled supporter, I let the rolling bag disappear down the conveyor belt. In Palermo, my should-have-been-carry-on bag was one of the last to emerge through the carwash-like rubber strips on the conveyor belt, and as it did, I saw its top compartment was wide open. Arg. Two pairs of shoes and my toiletry bag, along with outlet adapters to power me through the following weeks, were missing.
After spending hours at the airport filing a police report, it was 8:00 AM. I tried, not very hard, to find the train that would whisk me into Palermo's center for a lot less than a cab. The signs indicated the train could be located on Floor -1 (Negative One). The elevator only went to 0 and the stairs seemed far away, so I felt justified going out to the curb to hail a taxi. I approached a young driver.
"Where you go?" he asked.
"The Grand Wagner Hotel."
"Okay," he turned away as if going to get his car.
"How much?" I called after him, knowing I should secure the price beforehand.
"Fifty euros," he said.
"Thirty," I offered, hoping to meet him halfway.
"Forty-five," he said, drawing a line in the air with his hand.
"Thirty-five," I said and started walking toward the official taxi stand with what confidence I could muster, wondering if the haggle and time were worth $15. I could hear him relay our exchange to his friend and they had a little chuckle about it.
"Forty!" he shouted after me.
I kept walking.
My natural impatience was dulled from the previous two hours, lack of sleep and the fact that I had lost hundreds of dollars' worth of things I would never see again. But then the distant gaggle of taxi drivers was shouting with the first one down the length of the terminal. Just as I was wondering whether I had lost my bargaining leverage, a tall, heavy-set man pointed to the official sign: 35 Euros Centro. He motioned a young man to go get his car.
When I drove by the first guy and waved, he looked the other direction.
We sped towards Palermo center away from the dramatic, hulking airport rock, unappreciated and marred by its surroundings. I sat in the car mildly, curiously amused at my desire to ride in silence. I had to work hard not to engage, as my inclination is to practice the language, learn about the driver, the area, the economy. The silence was awkward but calming, the driver likely oblivious. He probably assumed I didn't speak Italian, which is true, and that was reason enough not to struggle to be understood. Maybe it was the end of his nightshift and he was relieved to ride in silence along the coast and bay, sun breaking over the waves. I rolled down the window as we traveled through one mountain tunnel and then others, into morning commuter traffic, where we were close enough to other drivers that a woman smiled when she saw me take a picture of colorful laundry hanging out of a grungy building, and I spied a young driver applying eyeliner as her car rolled into the merging jam.
The room at the Grand Wagner Hotel was not grand. Was it Wagner who was grand, or had the hotel been at one point? The room had a long, tall window facing directly into a neighboring building, shaded by a graying white curtain. The room was dark even at nine in the morning, which would make my morning nap a little easier. The curtains would remain drawn, the windows closed. I would rely on climate control. My usual need to throw open the window, welcome in the natural light and air, was aborted by circumstance. The room was big enough to accommodate a twin bed and a few pieces of furniture. On the wall and ceiling, a gilded molding outlined the room, but its antiquity, its Old World elegance, was compromised by a crude attempt to be technologically advanced, with two small control centers for lighting and temperature, as well as the slot for the key by the door that activated everything electrical. Blue and red LED lights shone from walls and corners in the dark. In my inability to pin down sleep, my eye inadvertently focused on, was drawn to these small beacons I blamed for my awakeness.
The following three nights, I would sleep well in my little bed, my temporary home, exhausted by jetlag; the cobblestone sidewalks jam-packed with culture, cafes and gelato-seekers; a neighborhood mini American Idol for seven-year-old boys staged in a back alley; live streaming of Madame Butterfly outside Teatro di Massimo with my new friend the Ghanaian waiter at the cafe in the piazza. I would sleep well here after exploring Palermo, which my friend Stellario had discouraged me from visiting, his Sicilian pride taking the form of concerned paternalism. It's not safe. It's not that interesting. But I was going to a week-long writer's conference in Erice and Palermo was right there, I explained.
I would sleep well in this bed after discovering the Marionette Museum and its thousands of soldiers, kings and horses hanging together in a grim, teeth-grinding, inanimate peace, at rest and yet exposed in dark rooms with track lighting; after framing pictures of the city's ironic and fleeting beauty; after trying out my few words of Italian in the streets and restaurants; and after searching forever for and eventually finding the recommended places to eat in the New York Times "36 Hours in Palermo" article. This un-grand although well-meaning room threw me into the streets of Palermo, where I stopped one late afternoon for a Grillo in a little wine bar where I overheard the male part of a mid-western couple say to a Swedish couple, in astonishment, "Things are so old here!" I was more surprised by the size of the fresh fruits and vegetables in the streets, wanting to believe that Europe grows organic, non-GMO produce. The green cauliflower was bigger than it should be, bigger than a man's rolling head. Chalk it up to the volcanic water and soil.
How many churches and cathedrals does one need to see? I am not a believer, but I like stopping in on a hot day, stretching my neck to look heavenward.
In my little room, when it was day, I could tell because my iPhone told me so. I turned on my own lights, like those people in the black box studies on circadian rhythm done in the sixties. I lit up my narrow little world that held my twin bed tight for the night. I negotiated with the ill-placed door to get to the toilet and shower, in an almost sophisticated, all-marble bathroom. Where were all those designing Italians when it came to this bathroom? I would have liked to call on one or two.
After consuming a plate of pasta one evening, I happened upon a restaurant celebrating its first anniversary in the heart of old town Palermo. In line for a slice of birthday sheet cake, with a live band and energetic, dancing staff, I felt a tall presence beside me. Bearded and handsome, with a backpack, a 27-year-old Frenchman, traveling on his own, introduced himself. I could make conversation with him, but his observations were young and he shared them slowly. Nonetheless, he walked me back toward my hotel after an hour and we decided to meet in front of the Teatro the next morning at nine.
I escaped my room early and had a couple of strong coffees near the Teatro. The Frenchman arrived in shorts that revealed that, while he was tall and not heavy, he was not athletic. After exploring Palermo's market with him all morning, and assuming he could then see how old I was—old enough to be his mother—I told him that I was heading to the Museo of Arte Siciliano Moderno. He had already said he wanted to go back to the market for lunch at the stall where the enthusiastic and seemingly sincere man went on and on about how authentic his meals were. I was liberating the Frenchman, and I thought he would be relieved, but when I told him I am going to the museum, have a nice lunch, he seemed concerned that he didn't know when and how we would find each other again. As much as I would rather travel with a friend than alone, it felt odd to make concessions, to slow down, for someone whom I had just met and would not see again.
On the tall second floor, as per European counting, or the tall third floor in America, at the art museum, which didn't seem modern at all, I found myself among a half-dozen older sculptures with spotlights in a dark cove, all excellent in their craftsmanship and perhaps well known, but not to me. One brightly lit white stone carving demanded I pause to make sense of its curious pose: a small naked child, a toddler, stood beside his mother's floating head and shoulders, as if she were lying or squatting next to him, or he were standing on a table. As I deciphered the unlikely configuration, I was drawn in by how the curly-headed child, with both hands and delicious delicacy, cradled his mother's beatific face with exquisite tenderness. Any mother, if she stopped long enough to allow it, would recognize the unbridled, pure affection that the stone and its master rendered and feel a longing for such a pure and loving connection.
Laura, who called home Homer, Alaska and whom I met in my writing workshop, was on her way to Cefalù after our week in Erice. Fun and insightful, she had a mission, visiting the home village of her former husband from many years earlier, a charismatic pervert. She was putting him behind her after all these years. We spent an hour in coastal Cefalù looking for her Airbnb room, driving in circles. I was embarrassed by the large car (free upgrade!) I had rented that could barely squeeze down the very narrow pedestrian streets, but the GPS indicated where to go, and there seemed no other way. I hoped I wouldn't scrape a stone wall, a tourist or a child. In my shame, I could not look anyone in the face, as close as they were to my windshield. Laura's Airbnb host had not indicated that the apartment was reachable only on foot. When we finally found it—on a street a block long—he was not there, but we enlisted the kindness of a waffle maker, who parked his cart ten feet away, to call the landlord on his local cell phone.
It was Laura who told me that Sicily was the stomping grounds of the Greek goddess Artemis, also known as Diana, or Cynthia for Cynthos, her birthplace. Artemis, the twin sister of Apollo, the daughter of Zeus and Leto, is the goddess of the woods and hunters and the protectress of youth. We lingered at the Temple of Diana, at the top of the hill in Cefalù. I wondered why I had been drawn here—for the woods? What was I hunting? Is this where I belong?
After a late lunch, Laura and I said what we thought were temporary good-byes. I was on my way inland, although not really wanting to leave the charming coastal town. We hoped to reconnect the following day in Cefalù or in the mountains, after I had scouted out the place I had booked before I left. We would share whoever's situation seemed more interesting. I had no idea how long my journey would be or whom I would meet at my next destination.
Shortly before I had left for Sicily, a New York Times travel writer had described with nostalgia a magical ancient abbey inn in the Mondonie mountains, owned by a James Beard award-winning chef, Giovanna Tornabene. The abbey was beyond the reaches of the recent, documented trip the writer took with her young family, so she was unable to update her account, believing her children would not be up for the lengthy, winding journey. Based on her description, without much additional research, I wrote Giovanna, the proprietor of the inn, to secure a room for three nights at Gangivecchio.
On my way out of Cefalù, the gas station attendant told me to take the road toward, and then beyond, Castelbuono, which committed me to what turned out to be the longer route. I wouldn't have minded the extra scenery or snaky roads, in general, but lamented that so late in the afternoon and having promised to arrive at Gangivecchio in time for dinner, I would forgo savoring the mushroom dishes of Castelbuono, also mentioned in the same article. As soon as I left the sunny coast, I hit clouds, and then rain.
Gangivecchio ("Old Gangi") was nestled in the fertile valley just beyond the mountaintop town of Gangi. As I wound my way through another little village after about an hour and half, and passing only a couple other cars, I pulled into a second gas station, and the attendant confirmed Gangi was that way, this road. The young, eager man began to draw with his hands curves and subtleties in my journey ahead, suggest choices, and then, realizing much of his discourse was lost on me, flattened his hand and sliced the air upwards, and said: "Sempre dritto! 30 kilometro!" (Always straight!) He thumbed his chest and said, "è la mia terra"! (It is my homeland) conveying credibility and pride. Thirty kilometers meant almost another hour, but I swallowed my impatience, thinking about how every day this humble yet proud man traveled that far to pump gas. As I drove that road, that hour, I came to believe I had maybe misunderstood him. Maybe Gangi was where he came from, where his family lived, where he went home for his mama's pasta on Sunday. Maybe he didn't make the trip every day.
After another hundred curves, and another downpour, I tried to call Giovanna to see whether there was a shortcut from my direction, since she had written that Gangivecchio was outside Gangi, and to inform her that I would likely be twenty minutes past six, rather than five or six o'clock as I had indicated in my email. I used deductive logic to ascertain how to put country codes on the front of her number, tried a couple of combinations, but twice reached only official recorded messages, in Italian and British, that informed me that the number was no longer in service.
Eventually I did get to Gangi, and followed the yellow and brown signs to Gangivecchio beyond, as Giovanna had indicated, arriving at dusk in rain to a vacant cobblestone parking lot. I parked my car and walked through the drizzle and a narrow opening in the stone wall, down an ancient driveway, with an ATTENTI AL CANI (Beware of Dog) sign, reinforced with a drawing of the head of a German Shepherd. I came to a T. To the right, two rows of immense cypresses led to a tall, closed, wrought-iron gate with a courtyard and formidable structure behind, and to the left, to a modest, low slung newer building. I called out, not knowing which way to continue, but hoped to go right.
"Hello? ... Hello?"
"Hello!" A female voice answered. I looked over to the newer building to the left. An Asian woman opened the door.
"We just arrived, too," she said in clipped, precise speech, a foreign accent.
"So you are not the owner?" I asked, as I shook off in the door way.
"No. She is downstairs, I think."
"Primavera," she said. Spring, in Spanish. Could she be Philippian?
"Where are you from?" I asked.
"Thailand... but live in Paris. I am from France. You?"
The wide hall took me through a simple boarding house, peppered with old posters and photographs. I headed downstairs at the end of the hall to see about my accommodations. Giovanna emerged, welcoming, from the kitchen, wiping her hands on a white apron, with big gold earrings, fairer and frecklier than I had imagined a Sicilian matriarch. Giovanna was able bodied for someone in her, I supposed, seventies. She took me back upstairs with a key.
"This is your room. Dinner is at eight." She smiled and handed me the key. She had to get back to the kitchen.
I returned to the parking lot to squeeze my fortunately fully-insured (free upgrade!) oversized car between the stone-columned entry and down the narrow-walled driveway. A dozen adjustments, significant anxiety and perseverance turned the car into the inner courtyard. In the end, I wasn't sure why I had bothered; it would have been easier and faster to carry my bags from the outer lot.
After settling into my room, I poked around looking for a comfortable place to read my crumpled, year-old New Yorkers, my regular traveling companions, which my parents saved for me. I pulled out the one that was underlined in green, annotated by my mother on the front, Cindy, see p. 64. The informal living area with stiff wooden chairs and a cold fireplace was uninviting, so I headed back downstairs to the dining room, where there was a modicum of activity and humid warmth. I would catch up on my reading until dinner was served. I tried not to allow myself to be disappointed, after the long drive and build up, to find that the inn was not an ancient villa of flowering elegance and history-laden aesthetics, charming, as I had assumed it would be. The building had scant history, was not cozy or tasteful, but dank and functional. No fire roared in the common area, nor was there anywhere to sit and read other than the dining tables. I regretted having left sunny Cefalù and Laura.
Primavera came down with her husband, Golf, and before long we were engaged in a wide-ranging conversation over a pitcher of house wine and slices of salami, fresh olives, and hard cheese, pots and plates banging in the sonic background.
"Do you consider yourselves Thai or French?"
"Thai, but home is everywhere," Primavera said. I had been having a recurring conversation about this notion of home with people, mostly writers. Where does one belong? Where is home? I started to wonder whether nations matter so much anymore given global diaspora. How so many people belong to more than one place.
"Really? Is Paris home after 17 years? Or Thailand?"
"Paris is home now, but I could live anywhere," Golf said, looking at Primavera for agreement.
"I grew up all over the world. My father was a diplomat," Primavera said.
"He was an ambassador?" I asked.
"Yes. He was ambassador to Switzerland and China, and other countries..." He wasn't just a diplomat; he was the Thai diplomat.
Although I had been to Thailand twice, including recently with my daughter Tess on a bicycle trip, I realized how little I knew about the country. My new friends gave me a crash course in Thai politics and corruption: how Wongsawat had accumulated unseemly wealth through his business dealings while in office, primarily in technology; the people's relationship to the monarchy and how the current elderly king was beloved and trusted, but how his son was a self-absorbed wild card; the value of military coups and how they serve a purpose to try corrupt politicians in between Prime Ministers. In Golf and Primavera's opinion, the US should stay out, stop pushing for democracy, when the military is doing its job.
When it was time for dinner, one table was set for three. I was happy to have company, and it seemed they were too. Golf grabbed the pitcher and poured more wine all around.
Both of their children lived in the United States. Their daughter, a talented installation artist, was studying in New York City and would be graduating in the spring. Their son was on the west coast.
"Do your children speak Thai?"
They looked at one another and laughed. "Yes, but they speak old-fashioned Thai, from the sixties. They learned Thai from us," Golf said.
"So, they say things like, 'gee whiz' and 'holy cow!' in Thai?" I asked.
"They don't know the new words for things. Slang. Either do we!"
Golf, whose real name was much longer and more complicated, liked to play tennis and sail. He had given up dermatology, not interested in the skin problems of the rich, and had moved to Paris to work for the Pasteur Institute on genome research. Over an exceptional eggplant caponata, and the subsequent 24 hours, we discussed Golf's desire to make the research more applied. He felt he had an easy solution using hormones to attract and kill mosquitoes, to reduce populations that carried malaria—and Zika—without harmful environmental side effects. I easily slipped into consultant mode, and Golf seemed to like that. Every time we sat down to eat, it was clear he had digested our conversation from the previous meal, and wanted to clarify or test further thinking. We circled back to his vision and how he might make it real. I urged him to find others with whom he could collaborate, since, to my mind, that would be the first question for any grant proposal or business plan he developed. The Gates Foundation. Skoll. Peace Corps. Local non-profits. Maybe introduce it through the local school system as a project, so there would be oversight and follow-through, maintenance, rather than a one-time distribution, and since the younger generation often brings their parents into their learning. Redeploy plastic bottles—waste—as the vessel hosting the hormone. Test the hormones to confirm no other fauna are ensnared and harmed.
After dinner, I headed back to my room on that cool, rainy evening. I resisted opening the screen-less windows, rather closed the shutters tight. It was the darkest room I had slept in for a long time, with no stray alarm clock lights or white lines bleeding through door seams.
When I opened the shutters and windows in the morning, I was surprised to find a cat right there sitting on my windowsill. Before I could decide whether to let him in or not, he dropped off the ledge and out of sight into the Sicilian sumac.
The day was gray and damp. I took a quick hot shower and dried off with a towel whose stiffness signaled that it had been hung to dry, rather than tossed around in a drier. I wondered who among Giovanna's crew was tasked with doing the laundry, who could lift their arms to reach the line. I used and rehung that towel and stowed the other three, as I usually do, to conserve resources, but found it replaced the next day nonetheless.
While I waited for my morning coffee in the dining room with my New Yorkers, I considered Giovanna's deaf and blind dog lying across two chairs in the dining room. Was this the threatening canine on the sign? Just then, Pepe, one of Giovanna's elderly helpers, shuffled in wearing rubber boots and carrying a bag of fresh figs on one go-round, and, on the next, cactus pear fruit. He awakened in me the need to get out, to stretch my legs, clear my lungs, which I would honor after breakfast.
Golf and Primavera came down shortly, and over espresso, I asked Golf, "Do you have brothers and sisters?"
"Yes, I have one sister. She studied and practiced as a dentist, but now teaches mathematics at the university in Bangkok. She left her profession. Like me." Golf looked at Primavera again. "It's a little complicated."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
He paused, and then launched in. "She married a politician, who became prime minister of Thailand in 2008, after Wongsawat." Golf and Primavera had omitted the part about their brother in-law, Abhisit Veijajiva, in our earlier conversation, clearly reticent about divulging their aristocracy. Abhisit, born and educated in England, was instrumental in ousting Wongsawat, and served as Prime Minister for three years. Abhisit became leader of the Democratic Party and was dealing with his own (minor) accusations of misconduct, at this writing, as well as an autistic son.
When I stepped into the yard outside after breakfast, I was bowled over by an oppressive buzz. I had never minded bees and wasps, could generally explain a sting as an accident on my part or self-defense on theirs, but the past summer I had been attacked twice without provocation by wasps and suffered dearly. As I leaned into the flowering ivy, I was relieved to see that the dense swarms of flies and bees were busy enough and would not be interested in me. I looked at what lay ahead: An orchard of sorts, dozens of overgrown bushes that stood twelve to fifteen feet high in rows implying a past order. Unkempt, strewn with old hoses and pots, I wondered what kind of orchard it could be, took a picture of a branch, but was not eager to dawdle.
Later, I showed Giovanna the picture of the orchard. "What are these bushes?" I asked.
"Wow! You have so many! Do you harvest them?" I asked.
"Of course!" Seemed hard to believe, given the state of the orchard and her helpers. Maybe my disbelief was evident, because she then clarified. "We collect a few nuts, but harvesting is manually intensive, and who will do that?"
As I began to pick my way through the stand, a furry, white, possibly feral dog, with a coyote demeanor, considered me then skulked away before I could ascertain whether he was best friend or foe. On a path beyond the orchard, the dog was there again, twenty feet out. He looked over his shoulder at me to see where I was going next. A fence narrowed my options. I didn't wish to trespass on a neighbor's property, possibly under the canine's purview, so I turned back towards our building.
As I rounded the building on the dining room side, a white and green molded plastic outdoor set with stackable chairs—the kind you find all over the world, never special—had lost whatever luster it may have had and further saddened the overgrown landscape. The chipping, royal blue of an empty pool, darker than a pool in the US, stood out in the gray and dark green backdrop. I asked Giovanna later if the pool was filled in summer, and she said, yes. Which summer might that have been? I thought. It couldn't have been last month, this past summer. Cracks and leaves murmured a dozen summers ago.
Beyond, a bright-green, wrinkled Astroturf carpet lay askew on a raised platform, I imagined, to keep chair legs from slipping into the cracked concrete's fissures. A meditative, shallow pool, backed by a tall, ancient rust-colored plaster wall collected water, with swirling scarves of green algae emanating from its pale, shallow bottom. The sound of rushing water came from a generous spout, gushing into a smaller stone pool, which I ascertained was not overflowing because it emptied beneath through a drain and, judging from the pipes hoisted, hovering above the overgrown pasture below, irrigated fields and animals. This abounding water must have been one, or perhaps all, of the four productive springs mentioned on the Gangivecchio website.
A barely visible hundred-foot arched pathway, covered by dense ivy, some twenty pair of ancient brick and stone pillars, beckoned. I felt that if I entered that ivy tunnel, I might disappear, swallowed into the sound of swarming flies and the ivy's menacing stampede, its encroachment, strangling everything in its wake. I was both discouraged from entering and simultaneously propelled to reach the opening at the other end, and so I made my way, hunched, stealing like a thief, not wanting to touch anything.
Under a particularly dense growth in one of the archways, someone must have found shelter from a recent rain, I thought, as I worked my way around a pile of hay-clumped droppings. Later, I heard the yanking, creaking donkey call, unmistakable as it is. At the end of the arched pathway, relief came in the form of an opening and a twenty-foot semi-circular, gracious stone bench. I would not rest here, pausing among the flies, but I tried to imagine it as a contemplative, quiescent spot a few decades earlier.
Giovanna asked me later when I told her I had explored, "Did you make it to the bench where my mother took tea?"
From there it wasn't clear where to go. Overgrown trails fanned out in all directions. I chose one that headed back towards the abbey, but did not get far before thistles, burrs and giant angling dill plants made passage difficult. I doubled back and retreated through the buzzing archway. I pulled my jacket close so flies would not get in and trapped.
I was filled with a sense of anxiety—the infinite, incessant flies and bees buzzing, the vines consuming all the walls and pillars and arches to the point I wondered whether the structures below would still stand if the vines were removed. Where were my clippers? I was bowled over by the sheer monotony of its invasion, its everywhereness.
The round sound of bells, I thought in the distance, belonged to a couple of nearby sheep behind a fence made of leaning poles and wire, a fence that didn't seem like it would contain anything, certainly not anything that wanted to get out. I saw those two sheep later through the window with a third, and two small lambs, shepherded by Pepe, with his short, bow-legged gait and bent back. In a moment that Pepe probably thought he was alone with his sheep, he conjured up a little jump to scare and nudge them down a path. That night we had lamb for dinner, but I felt sure the little herd was still intact. The knuckle on my plate was too big, and Giovanna had explained that she could not serve her own chicken because regulations dictated an approved slaughter house; I assumed it was the same for the lamb.
Before our cooking lesson, Giovanna gave us a tour of the elusive ancient structure behind the tall black iron gate. We followed her into a large courtyard empty other than a fig tree backed up against a wall. A basket hung from the second-floor window inviting questions about what might be pulled up or lowered down. The bell to the right of the door said 1724, but Giovanna told us that the Benedictine abbey was built in 1363. From the enormous wooden doors flew two barking dachshunds, a furry dog, and all their doggy smell. We stepped over towels and dog beds in the outdoor vestibule archway, a canine encampment. Swallows had piled brittle gray twigs into the dozens of nooks of the white arched ceiling and on top of the hanging lamp.
The inner courtyard beyond was the size of a gym, burnt sienna walls three stories high of living quarters on one side and the abbey along another. Giovanna's apartment was on the near end, the one with the patio of potted geraniums. I doubted anyone had ventured to the other parts of the structure in years. A bulky stairwell, generous and comfortable like a giant sofa, invited ascent. I badly wanted to go inside, particularly the abbey, but feared the floors were unstable, the request would be denied, even though this old structure had been the main motivation for my pilgrimage.
The abbey had been built around the Church of Saint Mary of the Annunciation, along with sleeping and eating quarters and reading rooms. From the website: " ...following Benedictine code, the church was in the north wing to ensure the sun's shadow never fell upon the holy place.” Olive oil and wine were pressed from the fertile land. In the refectory's dining room, allegedly, fading frescoes signed by Pietro Billio, dated 1577, graced the walls. The monks occupied the abbey for some two hundred years, a single monk at the end, and then the abbey stood empty for a century. Rediscovered in a state of decay, a squire from Gangi asked the Church to lease, rebuild and eventually to purchase the structure. The Tornabene family of Palermo purchased the property in 1856 and made Gangivecchio into a working farm and summer residence. "After more than 100 years of relative prosperity, a financial crisis prompted Wanda Tornabene to open a restaurant in the abbey in 1978. Three highly-acclaimed cookbooks with her daughter Giovanna and the opening of a cooking school followed."
In the outdoor vestibule, below the swallow nests and dog smell, Giovanna said, "I dedicated my last cookbook to my mother. She died four years ago."
When I asked about the future of Gangivecchio, Giovanna said, "My brother and I were left as caretakers for the property. Neither of us married or had children." She shrugged. They, like me, were married to the land, I mused. Giovanna told us that over the summer her brother had been diagnosed with cancer but had thankfully recovered.
"Is Pepe your brother?" I asked. He was the only man we had seen.
She shook her head. "No! Pepe is like a... a servant. We grew up together." Giovanna didn't say servant pejoratively, although she was, without question, distinguishing between her own origins and his. They had likely known each other for 60 years and a profound devotion was palpable on both sides. But I couldn't imagine using servant to describe anyone other than someone who lived in the deep past.
Giovanna mentioned that a group from the University of Iowa came in the summer to do archaeological research, and had uncovered Roman and Greek, Byzantine and Medieval, artifacts dating from the first to fifth centuries AD and eighth to seventh century BC, respectively, in the courtyard.
I wondered whether all guests felt like they missed Gangivecchio's greatness, its heyday. When did they begin to feel this way? All the pictures showed a decrepit courtyard, just a little less crumbling than today. But even the older pictures, the ones we saw in the museum in Gangi, or hanging in the wall in the dining room, the photographs themselves seemed fifty years old. Not one showed the abbey pulled together. It is as if Gangivecchio had always been overgrown, always ancient.
Giovanna brought us into her story, her woes and visions for the future. My instinct, my impulse, was to save her and her abbey. How could I help? Find a young couple? Host her in the Hudson Valley when she visited the US to raise money? I could not fault Giovanna for just surviving; I knew how hard it was to manage a country property, to find competent, passionate people who would throw themselves into personal projects like this one. My heart went out to her and her predicament, drowning in her sea of vines.
On the way back to the inn, I noted a line of white squares under the roof of a stone lean-to, drying in the rain. The laundry.
During our cooking class in the cramped, no-nonsense kitchen, the whole "family" was in attendance, milling about as if on autopilot. Giovanna's tall, big-boned woman friend must have been very strong at one time and still bothered to put on eye shadow, despite her age and station. During our cooking class, Giovanna asked her friend for something in a familiar, unvarnished way. The big-boned woman, who was sorting and putting the flatware away, didn't hear her at all, which Giovanna pointed out to us, smiling, waving her hand and knife. Giovanna again made her point. Later, they sat at the dinner table together in silence.
I was surprised by how much sugar and salt was tossed into the tomato sauce for the eggplant Parmesan—a handful of sugar to cut the acid. The speck and fig pasta was a highlight, but expensive to reproduce given the precious standing fresh figs have in the US, without fig trees in the yard. Chicken in cinnamon, and soaked prunes and raisins, was an Arab-influenced tagine. The watermelon jam tart, lemon-infused and sugar-powdered, was original. Many ingredients came out of Styrofoam and plastic packages, that is, from a grocery store, not from a fresh-air market—the bacon, the chicken, pasta, lady's fingers, butter. Things are not what they seem, or what you want them to be. I relished the taste of things we hadn't seen being made more than those I had.
Giovanna did not answer directly when I asked her whether her food was typical Sicilian. "It is authentic to me," she said. "It is what we cooked."
Golf and Primavera were celebrating their 29th anniversary. I happened to be with them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We even went into the town of Gangi together to explore and got lost in pouring rain, sharing a day we promised to never forget. After an hour, Primavera, in dainty, soaked flat shoes, very much wanted to find the elusive car soon which had been parked outside of the sleeping town. We were so disoriented by the non-grid, slippery, cobblestoned roads trying to find our parked car, we ended up again in front of the museum of art and history which we thought we had left behind us. Having been delivered there a second time, we felt destined to go in to shake off and take a look. Inside we found artifacts that the University of Iowa had dug up from the Gangivecchio archaeological site Giovanna had mentioned. The vases and bowls were so small, as if distanced by time.
Every once in a while, I tried to move the conversation to Primavera, but she seemed more content with her life than Golf. She didn't have a career, but was involved, busy, heading a group for Thai women's assimilation into France, and wrote a newsletter in that capacity. She considered herself a writer and was thinking about writing a book.
The conversation diverted to Golf again, who now confessed that he was struggling with who he was and what he would do, how he felt he had not found his calling. He seemed frustrated that he could not build his life around things he loved to do, like movies, tennis and water. He revealed he held no passion for his work at the Pasteur Institute, or anything, he said. I tried to get him back to being motivated to help the people of developing countries. And we concluded with him admitting that his gift was understanding genomes, and he hoped to do something great saving the world from malaria and Zika through his mosquito genome research.
"I have thought about writing a book about my life. I have had a lot of interesting experiences. I think people would be interested," Golf said at dinner, prompted by my having said I was writing.
I looked at him in a way that showed I wanted to hear one.
"When I came to Paris the second time, I was nineteen and arrived at my great uncle's apartment. He was writing at his desk. When I went up to him, I saw him curl over his pen and die."
It was then that I learned that Golf's great uncle was Pridi Banomyong, who had studied law and political science at the Sorbonne fifty years earlier. Pridi returned to Thailand (still the Kingdom of Siam) in 1927 and took a job at the Ministry of Justice. While there, he assembled dozens of civil servants to overthrow the Kingdom, to install a constitutional monarchy. According to Wikipedia, he "carried out a lightning coup that abruptly ended 150 years of absolute monarchy under the Chakri Dynasty." Pridi became Thailand's first Prime Minister, but in 1933 "went into voluntary exile when his radical economic plans, which called for the nationalization of all land and labor, were violently rejected by many.” In 2000, UNESCO named Pridi "one of the world's great personalities of the 20th century."
"People don't realize I made it in Paris on my own. I won a scholarship to study medicine when I was a university student," Golf said. He told me repeatedly that he had made his own life. Sometimes families are their own burden. Like vines, they keep us tethered, can be smothering. Born into privilege and the expectations that come with privilege, I could understand Golf's need to claim his own accomplishments, his own life. Striving to have impact, but also to find and follow one's own passion, one's purpose, here was a man who hadn't yet figured it out, even as a Buddhist. Living in the shadow of one's family can be hard. I knew the feeling, the hollowness. How do we shape our own narrative arc? Where do we belong? Where is home? I still struggled with that myself, who I am separate from my parents, how I still need their approval. And I was watching my daughter separate from me, as she became more and more like me.
Ninety-year-old, rusty, wire-haired, shaky Pepe, brought out soup in low, flat bowls, one at a time, building suspense into our dining experience. Would the soup make it to the table? I resisted jumping up to help him. He had pride, after all, and a life with purpose.
When home, I wrote another email to Meridiana in a half-hearted attempt to recover my lost shoes. I exchanged emails and stories with Laura, back in Alaska. And on a clear fall day, I grabbed my clippers and headed to the edge of the field to cut and yank out the rope-like bittersweet, the grapevines, the poison ivy. Wrangling nature can be good exercise, a way to be outside, necessary. I was losing important trees, ones that blocked the view of a couple of neighboring houses and the road. I could sense things getting away from me, getting out of control. My visit to the overgrown abbey in Gangivecchio served as a warning—of what life unattended could become.
As I snipped and pulled vines from the trees, I found myself thinking about Golf and Primavera and Giovanna. I trust Golf will discover meaning and passion in the mosquito's genome and that he and Primavera will find happiness on the island they had bought for their retirement. I hope Giovanna will encounter a young couple to harvest and share the hazelnuts and grapes and figs.
A few weeks later, I read that the elderly, beloved king of Thailand died. I sent an email to Golf and Primavera with my condolences, with an inkling now of what his death could mean for the people of Thailand.
While the island of Sicily holds history back to the beginning of time, folds it into its foothills, is the stomping ground of deities of all persuasions, for me Sicily had condensed time and space. It was in Sicily I learned about the monarchies and monks of Thailand. I saw my future, and others grappling with theirs, and who they were, where they belonged, where they called home. I knew where I needed to be.