Friday, February 6, 2015

The Dogs of Palermo

I went blonde for a while, a rash act spurred on by both desperation and the desire to reinvent myself. I am at an age where a woman might be forgiven for wanting to try on another personality, another life even, and at the same time, do something about her hair. The gray at my sensibly just off-center part has started to come in coarse and plentiful. Given my height, the top of my head is highly visible real estate.  Going blonde I thought might make for easier upkeep.   

Blonde was a mistake. We’ll just be frank about it. It was, in a word, disturbing. Since then, over the span of a year, I’ve experimented with various shades of light brown:  gold, natural, warm, ash, honey.  Always hoping to find a miracle in a box, I’m as gullible as beauty product consumers come.

In a similar attempt at reinvention, or perhaps reinterpretation, I attended a writers’ conference in Sicily last September.  I am, conveniently, an actual writer, with actual books and many articles to my name.  But ‘owning’ that designation as some might say requires a self-confidence that doesn’t come naturally to me. And conferences of any sort are most apt for participants who work well and play nicely with others.  Also not my strong suits.  I am nervous in crowds and ill at ease with strangers – your garden-variety recluse.

But I’ve wanted to change. I’ve wanted to become a better, more genial, outgoing human being.  I make the effort.  An example: So it’s the middle of the week at the conference, a leisurely morning amidst a fairly leisurely week, as conferences go.  I’m seated at a long table with a few others, chatting as we sip coffee and rip into pastries (me) or spoon out the contents of tiny plastic tubs of yogurt (others).   And I’m making conversation. So far, so good.

A member of the faculty takes the empty seat to my right. I recognize the face and know it belongs to someone of literary stature, and wish I had read more than the titles of the writer’s works before finding myself at the person’s elbow. 

Buoyed by the minor conversational victories at the table, I think to myself, “Self, this would be a fine time to practice your pathetic interpersonal skills.”  I say, “Good morning!” Others do as well.  I introduce myself.  And I blunder straight ahead.  I ask about the writer’s work.

The writer contemplates the items on the breakfast tray.  No eye contact is made. There is a grimace, and a short pause. And then the writer says, “I haven’t had my coffee yet.”

A true statement. The writer had not. I consider this. The saw about old dogs and new tricks crosses my mind.

This exchange wasn’t characteristic of the conference as a whole, though it summed up in hindsight a series of my own missteps, missed opportunities, mistakes, much like my hair color experiments. Why didn’t I participate in the group reading? Why did I falter, refrain, hold back?  Regardless, I did that week meet some inspiring folks and make a few new friends, and I received invaluable encouragement and instruction concerning my work.  It was meant to be.

For this reason:  if I hadn’t attended the conference, I never would have gone the extra mile  -- making arrangements to spend time with my daughters in Palermo, the birthplace of my mother’s parents.  And in the end, Palermo was the real classroom.

I loved Palermo, though of course I was hard-wired to love it. I was enthralled by the mix of ancient and modern, the music of languages from all over the world, and by the fascinating parade of people in all sorts of costumes: men in Muslim attire, women in bright saris, the beautiful Sicilian girls and handsome young men in the late summer garb of youth, and older couples walking together hand in hand, dressed as if for a first date. 

Palermo is not entirely tourist friendly.  Sicilian is not Italian, and French is more widely spoken than English, as the guidebooks warn. However, if you travel with your beautiful daughters, language barriers often disappear. Rick Steves probably doesn't mention that. 

I took the bus tour twice just to drink in the sights, and we walked miles every day.  Palermo is a feast for but also something of an assault on the senses. It's noisy and congested, and not a clean city; the sidewalks are littered and graffiti adorns many buildings, occasionally even the most sacred structures.  I marveled at it all.

We took a cooking class with the Duchess of Palma, and made an excursion to Mondello Beach one afternoon that turned rainy. Another day, while the girls trekked up Mt Pellegrino, I hopped on an open-air tour bus to Monreale.  Waiting for the cathedral to unlock its doors for the afternoon, I ate a plate of ravioli and enjoyed a glass of local white wine served in a goblet the size of a goldfish bowl.  As I stepped into the towering nave, the majesty of the space, the overwhelming splendor of the golden mosaics brought tears to my eyes. 

People watching enlivened every step of the itinerary. Sightseeing on foot, we passed a group of laborers gathered around a table at midday for some game of chance in front of the Norman Palace, and I wondered how many years these friends had met for that entertainment. And there was the elegant gentleman in his fine suit and bow tie, holding court at a table beside the entrance to a posh eatery.  “What’s his story?” I asked the girls as younger men stopped to bid him hello and pay their respects.

Street crime is a concern in Palermo; we were always, smartly, on our guard, though one evening we were followed back to our bed and breakfast. We sought shelter in a gelato shop until our unwelcome hanger-on grew impatient and took off.  And at many a corner, even in the cafes, beggars confronted us, some selling flowers, some simply holding open their palms. I confess that only now and then I capitulated. One solicitor, hopping from table to table while pushing a baby in a stroller and leading another child by the hand, did not win my sympathy. Or Euros.  

Most days, the girls and I scheduled our expedition around food and wine, consumed in outdoor cafes while breathing in the bustling, gorgeous atmosphere of Palermo.  We didn't get through even the short list of "must sees" I'd drawn up before hand, but the time away -- to see my grandparents’ homeland, to simply enjoy the city without a “to do” list -- provided not only vivid memories I’ll carry the rest of my life, but a glimpse of possibilities.  It was, as such journeys often are, transformative.

As I write this, I’m thinking of those foodstuffs and local wine we sampled:  the octopus and anchovies that took center stage; the blood orange in salads; the almonds and jasmine that graced several plates. And the astonishing beauty to be found in that blend of the historic and the “au courant,” the strange nonchalance of drinking a cappuccino in the shadow of a 16th Century church.

I’m also thinking that perhaps even a travelogue as brief as this one ought to mention the dogs of Palermo. Stray dogs are part of the scenery.  They slept in alcoves and sprawled out comatose on sidewalks; stood guard on street corners; or traipsed about in motley pairs.  Some were used as props for panhandlers. One homeless man sat on a doorstep, surrounded by his few belongings and his napping pack of four.

Pampered pets, too, swelled the scene: Puppies and old mutts with their attentive best friends; dogs the size of kittens out for a stroll, tugging at the ends of jeweled leashes. And one memorable pair of dogs, and their memorable owner, a woman roughly my age, wearing a finely tailored jacket and expensive boots, shoulders back and head held high as she strode down a wide avenue, with two large, handsome dogs strutting ahead. Not a matched set, not litter mates, but close enough to make a lasting, intimidating impression. 

She was a honey blonde, that woman. It suited her. As did her confident, “don’t even think about it” attitude, offset just the tiniest bit by her slight smile.

Some mornings, when it’s below zero here in Vermont, I check the temperature in Palermo, where, the Duchess proclaimed, it never snows, and I think about how lucky I was to have visited with my daughters, how much I’d like to go again. In that captivating city, I saw the faces of my cousins in the crowded streets. I saw my mother carved in marble.

I returned home with a handful of authentic Sicilian recipes and a deep respect for pesto, chickpea fritters, and gelato: an enlivened love for the past; and a renewed sense of what life – wherever lived – can be.  And one of the first things I did, even before I got over the jet lag and resumed the daily routine, was dye my hair back to its rich brown roots.


This column appears in the February 2015 issue of the award wining publication, The North Star Monthly.  Check out their site: