01 September 2008

Palermo, WTF?

"Nun c'era beddu lu putrusinu, c'ii lu'attu e ci piscio."
("It was not such beautiful parsley, 
and then the cat went and peed on it.")
- Sicilian Proverb

We stepped off the train directly into the Twilight Zone. This was supposed to be Palermo, Sicily, but it felt as though we were no longer on our home planet. One of RJ's songs began to echo in my head, "Bad Vibe..." how appropriate. There seemed to be an actual feeling of animosity in the air. An undercurrent of unfriendliness that was just barely discernible. Not a downright, open hostility, but a definite hint of unwelcome, of mean-ness.

I came with the idea of Mediterranean paradise: blue skies, sun, palm trees and beautiful sandy beaches. The world we entered upon leaving the train station was dingy, colorless and lifeless. The skies were overcast and forbidding, draped in what seemed like smog. The streets were dirty and rundown. Trash, refuse, paper, bits of broken gadgets mixed in a sea of human discard to fill the avenues and line the alleys and sidewalks.

We walked. The streets eerily devoid of life. The air felt heavy and oppressive. We had the unpleasant feeling we were intruding. The few people we passed seemed to stop what they were doing and stare at us. We slouched by, trying to fade into the scenery, to become transparent. We came to the "beach." The land ended and the sea began. Instead of the beautiful sandy beaches of my dreams there were huge blocks of broken concrete, each the size of an industrial refrigerator tumbling down into the water. Oil tankers were docked across the bay. To our right factories coughed smoke and soot into the grey skies. The water was grimy. Trash washed up over the concrete blocks and an unpleasant oder wafted towards us from the bay.

We walked on. Over oily, broken sidewalks littered with debris and animal droppings. The town felt old and very poor, used up and forgotten, dirty and depressing. We passed a small park with some lush growth and palms. We felt hopeful. We came upon an open-air marketplace. Outdoor food stalls lined the narrow cobblestone streets, selling a host of diverse foods. Here there was life. The market was jammed with people. A cacophony of strange sounds floated above. People haggling in rapid-fire Italian, yelling at and to each other. Sellers screamed the appeal of their goods. Cleavers fell on huge chopping blocks, parting gristle and bone. The noise was chaotic and the scene a jarring sensory overload. A serious, matronly woman fed pieces of raw animal flesh from her bloodstained fingers to her sniveling, rodent-like offspring. The whelps gulped down the bloody offerings with their drooling maws and rolled their eyes back in pure animal ecstasy. A retarded boy rode his bicycle, careening through the crowd, making motorcycle noises with his mouth at full volume and ramming into people. Most appeared unconcerned. Just another day in the life for Palermo. We slowly realized that people were starring at us. They knew we were foreigners. They seemed to sense our differentness here more than any place we had visited yet. We passed stalls with fresh squid, octopus and fish of endless varieties. Men with bloodstained aprons constantly hacked a multitude of meats with their big, heavy cleavers. At one stall a small boy was pulling the skin from a rabbit that was hanging upside down, effectively turning it's coat inside-out. We tried to buy cheese from two hard-looking men with beady, shifty eyes set close together under furrowed brows. We asked prices, they simply took the money out of our hands with knowing smiles and sideways glances. We left with a small piece of questionable cheese, surely paid for with a king's ransom.

Staying even the night was out of the question. We knew we wouldn't survive to see the dawn. We carefully made our way back to the station and purchased tickets for the next possible train to Rome, 8:30 that night, some four hours distant. We dropped our packs out of the way against a wall and hunkered down on them to wait. The seconds ticked by with agonizing slowness, it seemed time had surely stopped. We decided to buy postcards and send them from the station, in hopes that they would make it home in the event we did not. The authorities would have some place to start their investigation at least. Everything was closed. Sicily was conspiring against us. I walked a four or five block circuit around the station looking for any shops that were still open while D guarded our packs. Everything was closed and it soon began to get dark, ghouls and wraiths seemed to materialize out of the dusk. I hurriedly returned to the station. There, I watched the packs while D roamed the inside of the building in search of postcards. She eventually found some being sold from a cart owned by a man of questionable intelligence and negligent hygiene. His main items of commerce appeared to be videos of extremely homely men and women engaging in a smorgasbord of sexual acts with horses, dogs, mules and snakes. A fine, upstanding citizen. A definite asset to his community. We purchased the postcards, declined the videos.

The minutes passed slowly. D remarked that she had never seen so many cross-eyed people in one place. "Inbred," I muttered under my breath. A filthy, pregnant dog limped through the station, one eye closed and her tongue lolling. She stopped in the middle of the concourse, squatted slightly and urinated on the floor. Again, I observed no one who was not indifferent to this repugnant sight. Finished with her business, the mutt dragged herself onwards, her swollen teats swaying as she limped out of view.

A retarded man repeatedly came up to us, holding his crotch and picking his nose, trying to shake our hands. His pants rode up above his ankles, exposing yellowing, grimy socks. He wore an ancient plaid sports jacket whose sleeves were much too short. The jacket was filthy, stained and stiff with who-knows-what. He finally gave up trying to shake our hands. With a crooked grin and a rivulet of saliva hanging from the corner of his mouth he stumbled off to hug an unsuspecting old lady. Her husband began shouting and cursing at him. He pushed the retarded man away from his wife and began swatting at him with a folded newspaper. Suddenly uncertain, the cretin shuffled off.

Two old, derelict-looking men sat shoulder to shoulder on a bench beneath a tree-like plant. They were lovingly rubbing each others knees and drooling on themselves. One of them coughed suddenly and hacked up a wad of greenish-brown phlegm onto the floor at his feet. They smiled at each other with wide, empty, toothless grins; looking all the world like they had been lobotomized.

A teenage boy stumbled over to us, demanding a cigarette (we think). We were unsure if he was heavily drugged or just mentally distant. We tried to express that we, being non-smokers, had no tobacco. He frowned at us from behind heavy-lidded, vacant eyes. Angry, he repeated his request as he swayed in front of us. I tried to make it clear that we were no longer amused by this little charade. I stood up and stepped closer to him to emphasize my point. Myself being a good two feet taller than he, he stepped back and looked up at me with a surly expression. Abruptly he turned on his heel and stumbled off to pester someone new. I slumped back down on the packs. Would this night never end? D and I leaned against each other and observed the hostile Italian world with our backs up against the Palermo train station wall. 

A commotion arose. A pack of wild boys were harassing an old retarded woman. Calling her names, laughing and running around her in circles. She screamed at them and shook a scolding finger. They laughed again, pulling at her clothing and pushing her between them. Then they turned and ran out of the station, yelling and hooting with ignorant bravado. She continued to scream at them, long after they were out of earshot.

8:30 arrived like a blessing. We boarded the train with palpable relief, locked our cabin door, and made fast our exit.
KJT - Palermo, Sicily (1996)

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