The bowl was streaked with red bolognese sauce and the wine glass only held the dark dregs of the syrah. Both exceeded every expectation I had of Italian cuisine and yet I was unfulfilled.
Palermo had it all – the food demanded it be savored, the wine had me heady the moment it touched my lips and the architecture stopped me in my tracks.
Why then was I so unmoved?
When my thirteen hour ferry from Tunis docked in Palermo I was light with the knowledge that I was finally free of police escorts.
In Italy I was just another tourist. I could blend in. People didn’t gawk at Savannah like they did in Tunisia and Algeria. And even my massive baby carriage, slapped with Philadelphia Sign stickers, wasn’t particularly interesting in a country where mothers ran around with thousand euro Bobs and Bugaboos.
For two days the combination of renewed freedom and Sicily’s old-world beauty had me wishing I could buy a bike, book Italian lessons and stay in Palermo forever.
But that had since worn off.
I lifted the wine glass and tilted the last bit of flavor into my mouth.
The chair empty across from me was surprisingly noticeable. I put my foot on its footrest and momentarily thought of pushing it over so I wouldn’t see it anymore.
Instead, I pushed my own chair back then paid at the counter.
From the restaurant I walked one block and was at Quattro Canti – an astounding intersection which stood as the center of Palermo’s historic district. On one corner a man played La Vie en Rose on accordion. He was always there and always playing La Vie en Rose but that took none of the magic out of it. The music fit the scene perfectly. All the tourists milling about Palermo were there for history, wine-infused romance and to listen to their feet on the cobblestone.
The accordion player had a overturned hat at his toes. When I dropped some change into it the accordion player smiled close-lipped and nodded.
A few blocks further on and I reached the imposing Palermo Castle. I bought a fifteen dollar ticket then wandered inside just before a group of high schoolers.
I walked across the square inside the castle then took the marble steps to the chapel.
The security guard in front of the chapel had me take off my Eagles hat before entering.
Once inside, as happened a multiple times a day in Palermo, I was floored by the beauty of the place. The chapel was gold from floor to ceiling, and in a twist of influences, rather than the typical twelve foot paintings and frescoes, the chapel was tiled top to bottom.
I moved in front of the alter and stood beside a five person Korean tour group. Their guide highlighted details on the ceiling with a green laser pointer. She was likely going into the idiosyncrasies of the illustrations but I understood none of it – I did enjoy where she directed my attention though.
After ten minutes the tour group left and I stood in the chapel alone. I tried to feel something, but after the initial moment of wonder the chapel didn’t do anything for me.
Since the chapel wasn’t giving me any feelings I tried to be intellectual about the room. I moved so close to a column that the hairs on the tip of my nose were brushing it. I examined the delicate cracks in the tile and occasionally glanced down to read from the pamphlet I picked up in the lobby. But after rereading the same fact-laden paragraph five times and retaining none of it, I turned to just gazing at the gold tile like an old hermit.
When the wooden door creaked at the entrance of two women I snapped out of my boredom and shuffled outside.
From the chapel I went to the royal gardens. Classical music played from the speakers hidden in the bushes but it was an otherwise mundane work of landscape design – granted, it was winter and most everything was dead.
On my way out I was funneled through the cramped and maze-like gift shop, then I was back outside, standing on the steps of the palace and wondering what I was going to do with my day.
The effect of my lunch-time wine was wearing off and the caffeine from my morning coffee had worn off hours ago.
I needed a buzz. The art and architecture weren’t doing it.
I collected Savannah from my apartment and we wandered around the southeast portion of Palermo’s historic district until finding a suitable back alley café.
I took a table on the street and ordered a merlot. Savannah sat at my feet. A pink and white bed sheet was draped from a balcony two stories overhead.
As I sipped my wine I watched the laundry flutter. Savannah rested her chin on my foot and I thought it was a great thing to travel with a dog. In many ways a dog was the perfect companion; always on your schedule, never complaining and always happy to see you.
But I needed conversation. The empty seat next to me seemed to be throbbing in my temple.
Down the alley I spotted two Russian girls I’d been on a food tour with. They were both tall and remarkably quiet. Neither of them spoke to anyone during the three hour tour.
When the taller of the two girls saw me, and particularly when she saw Savannah, she grinned and waved enthusiastically – the most emotion I’d seen from her. The other girl, who was shorter, but still very tall, glanced at me then scurried around the corner with embarrassment.
I waved to the girl still there, hoping that something would spring her out of her timidness and over to me.
But she went after her friend and was gone.
I decided then that Palermo was not a place to travel alone. It was a city for couples. The people were too well dressed and too attractive and too in love.
Everywhere I looked there were teenagers snogging on benches and tall Italian women in tall Italian boots.
And I was there in torn red sneakers and dorky synthetic desert pants which made me feel like a sixty-year old woman.
In-between sips of wine I browsed online for solutions to my lack of style and quickly found a pair of travel-friendly chinos which would do just fine on the Italian cobblestone and probably moderately well after I washed them in a river when I was back to walking.
Of course I would not be ordering those travel-friendly chinos. And of course I would have no snogging sessions on an Italian bench with a tall Italian woman in tall Italian boots. I was a tourist. I looked like a tourist and I felt like a tourist. I just hated being one.
Yet more than my dislike in feeling like a tourist was how much empty time I had. It gave me anxiety. Idle days were fine with a companion but touring restaurants and cathedrals alone in a place as beautiful as Palermo wasn’t healthy.
I decided I needed to move and so Savannah and I walked to a park where I could let her off leash. I stood with my hands behind my back while Savannah sprinted in circles to shed her excess energy.
A bit later I brought her back to the apartment and with the wine and the empty hours I laid on my stomach on the bed and moments later woke with a puddle of drool beside my mouth and a sense that I needed to see more of Palermo while I had the opportunity.
On the far north side of Palermo were catacombs. It took me a half hour to walk to them.
The catacombs were behind an unassuming entrance at a bend on a noisy and busy road.
I paid for a ticket then descended to a long white tunnel where speakers played white noise and cool air radiated off the stone walls.
I tilted my head to pass through a short archway then descended into the catacombs.
Ahead of me were walls lined with four foot tall corpses. Bodies were laid in open caskets along the wall to about waist height and above the caskets were two rows of bodies hung on the wall as though macabre dolls on display. The bodies were all clothed. The mens’ suits had become muted in color. The women were in dusty and moth-eaten dresses. Some corpses had skulls while others, horrifyingly, still had skin taught over their skulls and turned to a waxy, sallow leather with slits for eyes.
Being in the catacombs was like being underwater.
Each step seemed to require tremendous effort. And each footfall, no matter how gentle, seemed to kick up a rolling plume of dust into the silence.
I held my hands behind my back as I walked.
With every skull, suit and gnarled hand I was relearning the lesson I learned at seventeen – that I was going to die.
In a matter of moments I would be the same as the bodies in front of me. The farmers and pastors and intellectuals were just the same as the boy walking around the world. Soon I would join them and soon I would be forgotten and soon everyone who remembered me would be forgotten as well. I would be a decomposing body for an instant, then dust, then something else entirely.
So how was it that I had been bored earlier? How had I been dissatisfied?
I walked slower.
With each step the dull colors of the catacombs grew in vibrancy. The white noise playing from the speakers drifted through the air like whispers.
Off to the side was a small chapel built into the stone. Beside the chapel was a room of pastors. The pastors stood in their robes and their skulls gazed toward the alter where Christ back to them.
I sat on a stone bench there. I sat there for a long time, rubbing my fingertips together to feel them and listening to the breath escape my mouth.