At Agrigento under a hot sun beating down on the Greek ruins of “The Valley of the Temples” I came across a flock of goats. A breed indigenous to Sicily or brought here so long ago by the Greeks or Phoenicians that no one knows their origin. Like all migrating tribes who stay long enough (and two thousand years might be enough) they have laid claim to be local. The word for goat in Italian is capra and this breed went by the name Capra Falcone. Nicky had told me a story of her Italian grand mother and her teasing ways. She showed her love by giving her grandchildren unflattering nicknames.
Nicky had earned the soprannome of “little goat”. Not capre but cradule or a similar word in her Campanian dialect. Nicky knew the word but struggled to spell it. If you’ve read the Leopard you might remember that the family of nobles is referred to as “Falconeri”. My creative mind (and my lack of linguistic knowledge) had assumed this to be connected to the goat theme I was developing. So like any untruth told often enough it became a truth for me and was the link that helped make sense of the three of us. Nicky is stubborn, Don Fabrizio, the Prince, had a certain cunning in him and we, all three, had been sometime survivors in situations of adversity – all traits we shared with goats. In truth it is more likely that Falconeri is the bird than the goat. The bird of prey. The falcon. Still for all intents and purposes it had the effect of keeping something alive. A link. A way of feeling that the grand odyssey hadn’t simply vanished. I hadn’t completely fucked up. There were still goats. Perhaps I was the real kid (pun intended) in this story.
It turns out that the goat “Falcone” is named after an Englishman with the surname Falconer, who was instrumental in reintroducing them to Sicily – but why spoil a good story?
My last night in Marsala. For the second time I found my way to the family trattoria (Il Gallo e L’Innamorata – The Rooster and the Lover) which my host Titziana had recommended. I was seated at my favourite table – centre stage. This was to help the other guests understand that here was a man with no friends. I ordered the tuna. It came. If there is a food heaven I was in it. Cooked simply in olive oil, lightly seared on both sides and topped with grilled zucchini and a puree of Sicilian mint. Not just any mint I was informed by the waiter when I enquired (I had thought it might be pureed fava beans which I had been served in the north which were quite a revelation as well). My knife revealed deep red flesh which peeled away without resistance and melted in my mouth, a rich delicate flavor. Bellimisso. My sad solo dinner had been transformed. I slept well.
‘I’ve been sick as a dog. High fever. Haven’t been able to get out of bed since I got back’ said the email. I’ve come into a bit of money,’ it continued; ‘a debt repaid and some back-pay from MOON (the restaurant where Nicky works). I’m feeling flush with funds. If I recover I’m thinking of joining you in Palermo. What do you think?’
‘Blood of Madonna’ (there’s a bit of 19th Century cussing in The Leopard). What was she thinking? ‘It won’t happen’ I told myself. ‘Just a thought flying through her fevered head’ I thought. But in the back of my mind I held on to it. How good would that be if we managed to finish the adventure together? The odd couple reconciled.
I put Nicky out of my head and set my coordinates for Palermo. For the first time I decided to take the motorway. I needed to be in Palermo to meet my host at 2pm. I figured I couldn’t afford to dawdle. I made one stop. At Segesta there’s a Doric temple sitting alone in a field. It’s almost intact, though it was never completed. High above on a ridge sit further ruins and a fantastic Greek Theatre which perches on the edge of a precipice overlooking the dramatic landscape below. The climb was long and hot. The signage and explanations overwhelming. Why are tourists fascinated by piles of rubble and long winded explanations by experts making their best guess at what might have been? The best structures are worth retaining of course but a lot of it could be recycled and put to good use (I think the sun was beginning to affect me). After all it took a lot of effort to quarry it in the first place and now it just sits and bakes in the sun and gets stared at by uncomprehending Germans. Philistine you’re thinking? I’m not the first to think of this. Much of these old cities were built from former city walls and the like.
Dropping off the car in Palermo was more complicated than I’d hoped. My Tom Tom took me on a joy ride around the city and finally delivered me to the correct address. ‘You have reached your destination’ it told me. ‘Thanks’ I said as I double parked the Peugeot close by the “Budget Car Rental” sign. To cut a long story short I had arrived just as they were shutting up for the afternoon. I ducked under the half closed roller door and announced my arrival.
‘Come back at 3:30’ I was told. ‘We are shut. We have nowhere to put your car.’ A loud groan was all I could muster. ‘Sono Australiano’ I said as if this explained why they should vary their opening and closing hours.
‘Can I park somewhere close by?’
‘Not possible’ he said.
Blood of Madonna. What was I supposed to do? Drive around Palermo aimlessly for two hours and risk my life and my sanity? I seem to have the knack of arriving at places at this time of day. ‘Where are all the people?’ my friend Loani asked when viewing my Facebook photos. ‘All asleep or having a long lunch’ I said. Something I, too, would have preferred to be doing.
‘You can leave it there if you like,’ he said ‘and hope that the police don’t come.’
‘I could keep my eye on it for you,’ he offered.
‘Grazie grazie si si si grazie.’ I spluttered, jumped a cab and got to my accommodation with a few minutes to spare. Angela explained everything. I logged onto the internet and there was a message:
‘I’m feeling better. Expect to see me tomorrow night around six.’
Nicky wears thongs. She had a fit when I first called them that. “Flip-flops. Not underwear’ she said by way of clarification. Tomasi’s Don Fabrizio would never be seen in thongs (not that the rubber version had been invented in 1860). Peasants wear thongs. Australians wear thongs, it’s part of our national dress. In Queensland you can wear them all year round. Some people don’t own shoes!
‘Bring some shoes’ I texted her. There’s a lot of walking to do in Palermo.’
NIcky arrived in thongs. Pink thongs, worn into the shape of her feet with lines of beading tracing the straps towards her big toes. In Italy flip-flops can be a fashion accessory but never “pluggers”. Nicky’s were “pluggers”.
There’s a difference between being in someone’s company and sharing a sense of purpose with someone. In Palermo we didn’t have a car. She didn’t need to navigate. I didn’t need to drive. This deprived us of the opportunity to relax into each other’s company over the solving of our navigation problems. We walked together, decided what to see together, but something had shifted. She was a little removed. I was less inclined to speak of things that might smack of intimacy or affection. I wasn’t sure. Maybe it was just sensing that something might have changed, had become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I shared my second (more mawkish) set of lyrics with her – all about mirrors not telling the real truth and the urge to smash them to become independent. She sang me a song she was writing which was inspired by our shared odyssey. It was very good.
We wandered. We ate. I was the navigator this time - she confessing to getting lost in the aisles of supermarkets and on roundabouts. She spluttered and coughed. I apologized for being three times her age in a city full of young people partying till dawn. We found all the good places. She exchanged phone numbers with boys she met as we went. We were back to being a twenty-one year old and a sixty-five year old. ‘Who cares,’ she said. ‘Friendship can be between any two people.’ And I was right there with her on that. ‘Who cares?’ I thought. Who was judging? Certainly not the locals.
She was only in Palermo for one day. She said it was worth it. It was great to have someone to share this mad city with. And conversation over meals – what a treat. On the last night we dined with a Dutch/English family (husband, wife, son and his Sicilian girlfriend) who we’d only met that morning. They took us to a restaurant neither Nicky nor I would have dared to enter. The seafood was sumptuous (and our host paid).
Then we walked the old city till 1.00am. The streets were a heaving mass of people of all ages. La Kalsa, the old Arab quarter which has remnant buildings and squares which have never been touched since they were bombed in WWII was alive with bars and street food and music.
In the morning we drank coffee and ate almond croissants. We packed. Nicky sang me a farewell song from the top of the steps to her loft bedroom. I know it all sounds very sweet and it was. We knew it was coming to an end but neither spoke about it. Angela, our host, arrived with the cleaner in tow to farewell us and we left. Me to catch the bus to the airport, Nicky to walk the old city one last time to the station to catch the 2.00pm bus back to Syracuse.
We shared the Italian double kiss and off she went. This time she looked back. The last I saw of her was those thongs flipping their way across the square dragging her bag in their wake.
I’m writing this as I sit in front of the Opera House in Vienna where I have a 10 hour layover on my way home. There is a simulcast of a ballet being broadcast to a giant screen for the locals in the square. Classical music ebbs and flows around me. Vienna is beautiful but way too clean and neat after Palermo.
I begin to write a farewell line. I write: ‘Thanks Nicky. Grow old slowly. Enjoy the ride.’ And suddenly I choke up. Tears well.
I am taken by surprise. I wonder if I should delete this ending to the story. I feel pretty exposed. I also wonder if this is too “sentimental”. I am trying to avoid that sin but I think that if the emotion is real how can it be sentimental. I‘m not looking for sympathy. I’m more interested in understanding what I am learning from this experience. I am simply writing an account of the journey, of our relationship. My interest is in ‘How am I changed by this two weeks?’
‘Time to go home.’ I say to myself. You can never be twenty five again or even forty five. You have a wife and family.’ Accept the passing of whatever you might be afraid of losing.
On the plane home I try to understand what it was that triggered such a strong response. I think of my mother lying on her death bed. The sense of loss and regret that I felt at the time. Loss at the imminent end of her life and regret at never having had the intimate connection with her that I had with my father. At never having succeeded in crossing that boundary. It feels a little the same. Loss and regret.
I think of Tomasi’s story. It seems eternal. His writing is one of someone who is embedded in Sicilian life, not an observer. In his novel, the setting is mostly in the 1860s when life and relationships and power are changing rapidly. He sees his nephew fall in love with Angelica, an exquisite beauty from an uneducated family; her rough father destined to become a wealthy and influential member of the “new” community. Don Fabrizio, the Prince, also muses on loss and regret. Loss of his power and influence, loss of the old values, the old ways and, in some of the most honest and beautiful passages on the loss of his youth; a regret that his nephew Tancredi “had tasted that flavor of peaches and cream which would always be unknown to him” At the end of the novel, some twenty years later, we are witness to the final days of Don Fabrizio’s life as it ebbs away. Tomasi writes about death as a poet. A penultimate chapter devoted to the final days and hours of Fabrizio’s life: “life flowing from him in great pressing waves”.
Nicky says that Sicilians are obsessed with death (and loss); always in fear for their mortality, full of hypochondria and the impossible dream of eternal life. Having a relationship with death from the moment of birth. Maybe I share that with them My Italian genes playing out. No! I am confident the dream is universal. I’m kidding myself.I think about how different it is when you’re emotionally connected to an experience rather than merely an observer – family, love, death, pain. Sicily has been much more than a series of beautiful towns and tantalizing meals. With Nicky’s assistance I have crossed the cultural line. In my own strange way I, too, am now emotionally connected to Sicily. I have become more than a tourist.