So here’s a travel tip: don’t fly Blue Express from Rome to Palermo (although I suspect it’s the same, regardless of destination) unless you’re escaping for a special moment, packing only a garter belt, one pair of stockings, spiked heels — and maybe a toothbrush. Anything more will cost you in excess baggage fees that will set your postmenopausal hormones ablaze.
Regardless, I was looking forward to my 15 days at a B&B in a small fishing village in Sicily, dubbing it “a vacation from my vacation.” I needed time to seriously relax somewhere where I didn’t know the people or the language.
Bond,James, didn’t believe me … “I bet you’ll make a friend 20 minutes after landing,” he wagered.
Wrong! I smiled at the two guys I was jammed between on the shuttle bus from my gate at the Rome airport to the airplane to Palermo and one of them was wearing a cashmere sweater and a solid gold watch. Three minutes of speaking in hand gestures later, Don Corleone made me offers I couldn’t refuse: a seat next to him on the “open seating” flight (ok), champagne shortly after takeoff (sure!) –and a ride to my B&B in Sferracavallo, 22 kilometers from the airport (uh oh).
Playing it politely, I went along for the drive and It… Was… Breathtaking — not only when I glanced at the speedometer in The Don’s fully equipped black Mercedes with tinted windows — but also from the mountains shadowed against a moonlit sky as we sped along the coast.
“Sposato?” (Married?) I asked, pointing to my fourth finger, left hand.
“Sposato?” he asked me…
He took my number.
Il Dammuso, the B&B I found on the Internet (with help from my “Italian brother”) is rustic, charming — and lovingly run by Ilaria (27) –and her parents, Josefina Francesco (Josefina air-drew the heart when we met). The village boasts wonderful hiking trails, a marine preserve and some of the best seafood an Island surrounded by fish has to offer. It’s the kind of small, tucked-out-of-the-way village that rarely hosts guests for more than a weekend… certainly not a single American woman, for 15 days…
“Why are you here?” Ilaria queried as we hauled my bags up the steps to my room.
Answer: Because I want to be alone.
And I was (alone). The Don notwithstanding, I didn’t even have a pretend relative nearby as I headed out the next morning, on to the narrow street that leads to the center of this scruffy, sunny 3-block town. I looked to my left at the mountain looming up at the end of our street… another breathtaking sight — and headed to the right, channeling Belle, the music from the opening number of that Disney classic doodling around in my brain, practically singing “Bonjourno!” with a smiling nod as I passed the guys selling fish and veggies from carts on opposite corners. I popped in the bakery, the grocery, the pharmacy and a dress shop winding my way to the BAR (“coffee shop”) in the center of town. Ordering tea (served with cookies), I set myself up at a window table, looked out at the Mediterranean, and started writing…
Palermo’s origins date back to the 7th century B.C. After several attacks by various barbaric populations, Sicily was ruled by the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Normans, the Swabians, the French, the Spanish and the Austrians in consecutive order, up until the early 19th century. There were people’s revolts in 1820 and 1848 — and finally in 1860, Palermo won its freedom, annexing itself to the Kingdom of Italy in 1870.
Sicilians are snarky, proud mutts.
Considered less sophisticated than their northern counterparts, Sicilians are a mixed brew of Middle Eastern and European booty, which you can see in the architecture and taste in their cuisine. I went to Palermo a few times… and with side trips to Trapani, Mondello and Monraele, I felt I saw enough sights: the colorful open markets and the sculpted monuments, the massive Cathedrals and the contemporary museums in ancient villas… I had a religious experience on a private tour of Teatro Massimo that surprised even me –and luxuriated in my first Turkish bath & massage. I ate pasta and more pasta, fish I knew and fish I’d never seen before. My Italian improved and after seven days, I could actually pronounce Sferracavallo effortlessly.
But apart from being way too nervous to rent a car and deal with Italian drivers, I didn’t do more because I really wanted to stay put. Plopping down in one town doesn’t feel like “vacation,” even when I live out of a suitcase (ok, two suitcases). It feels like I am simply living my life somewhere else. Other people come and go; I’m here — and I get to know the locals.
I chatted up a woman with blazing red hair sitting at the next table my first dinner out who spoke English, has a son like mine and loves theater… she’s become a new friend. I took a long walk with a younger, single, female guest at the B&B one Sunday — and she too was so interesting… Affluent and well educated, she sent me on a mission to explore the student-led political movement, which is hoping for a more socialist/less Mafia-run state. (Speaking of the Don, he stopped by one afternoon… Armed with pen and paper, he wrote down his birthday and handed me the pen to write down mine. He’s 62, has a big house, one married daughter and two grandchildren — Drawing our conversation was clever but, alas, there were construction sites in Rome needing his attention so our encounter was, happily, brief.) I was invited in to watch the baker bake bread (and pizza) — and shared more than a few family meals with the innkeepers; even got a cooking lesson from the Mama. They took me to the fish market — and up the mountain to see the home they’re building for their daughter and future grandchildren. They love each other honestly and deeply — and being around them was the kind of soul food you don’t get on bus tours.
What I wanted in Sicily (alone time), I didn’t get. Instead, I got what I needed: a little bit of belonging/acceptance. ‘Cause the truth is, sometimes, when I wake up in the middle of the night and realize it’s ‘just me,’ I miss everyone else. Just a little bit of “connecting” is comforting.
I shipped off 10 more kilos of well-worn clothes yesterday; I’m brushing my teeth with the last drop of toothpaste and chewing another piece of gum to lighten my load for yet another intra-European flight, this time on Ryanair. Father and daughter are driving me to the airport to catch my flight to Bologna, where I’m seeing my “Italian brother,” Lorenzo — and meeting his family.
Famiglia. Siete delle buone persone. (Family. S’wonderful)
NOTE TO SELF: SKYPE the kids.