The streets of Palermo are deserted. The food markets that, yesterday, were filled with tanned noisy locals, vegetables from Sicilian farms and fresh fish from the Tyrrhenian Sea are now silent littered alleys. No shops are open. No people walk the shady streets. It is Sunday in Catholic Italy.
This is problematic for my friend Eva and me, as we search for a gift to give to Guisipina (my father’s cousin whom I have never met). We return empty handed to our hotel to wait for Fabio, Guisipina’s husband, to pick us up and bring us to his condo in central Palermo. I arranged this meeting by asking our hotel receptionist to call Guisipina – I speak no Italian, she speaks no English.
An old white two-door car screeches around the corner and pulls up in front of Eva and me; Fabio has arrived. Luckily, he has brought Ernesto, his son-in-law who speaks some English. Fabio gives us both strong hugs, we climb into the back of his seatbelt-less car and zoom through the empty streets.
Guisipina’s apartment building is one of many bordering a piazza, a giant rotary of sorts. Each building has a narrow parking lot in front with many beat-up-looking cars squeezed in side by side. In Guisipina’s condo we are greeted by her, three of her four children, and their spouses and children, one of whom is seven days old. “We all eat Sunday dinner together every week,” Ernesto says. “Rain, snow, we are here.”
Guisipina’s building is shaped like a square with an overgrown courtyard in the middle. Looking out at the courtyard from the kitchen window, I see that each balcony has bright clothing and linen hanging on simple clotheslines. Guisipina, like most of her neighbors, does not have a clothes dryer. That is not to say she goes without; her condo has clean white tile floors, two plush new green couches and a large brown polished dining room set. There are many photographs of her family on the walls, interspersed with pictures of Jesus and Catholic saints.
Ernesto chooses an English channel from their satellite television service – Sex in the City is on, the channel is soon changed to CNN. Eva and I freely share our observations of my cousins and their condo with each other – no one can understand us unless we speak very slowly. Guisipina calls me to sit near her. She has an Italian-English dictionary. She points to the word “degree.” I flip to the Js and point to journalism, “giornalismo.” “Buon, good,” she says. “Thanks, grazie,” I say.
Guisipina ushers everyone to the long dinner table as she and one of her daughters bring out the food. First a heaping portion of lasagna, then sausages and artichokes, and all washed down with mineral water and Coke. Eva and I have to force ourselves to clean our plates, for fear of looking rude, while everyone else chows down with ease. We wonder aloud how such thin people can eat so much food so easily. Next comes oranges, pears, canollis, cookies and other pastries along with espresso. “American coffee is like water,” Ernesto tells us. He has Guisipina put extra sugar in our cups.
After a short post-dinner rest, Ernesto and his wife Sabrina take us on a tour of the city. Although Palermo is not one of Italy’s main tourist attractions, it does have many unique places to visit if you know where to look, and Ernesto and Sabrina do. Ernesto drives past large brown stone churches that the Arabs built circa 900 A.D. when they conquered the island; they are not a novelty to him. Instead, he steers the car along steep guardrail-less roads up Mount Pelegrino.
At the top of the mountain many cars are parked along the road and there are vendors selling religious relics. It seems like the people missing from the city below have all trekked up to this spot. We are at Santuario di Santa Rosalia, the Sanctuary of Saint Rosalie, who is the patroness of Palermo. It is said that she had miraculous healing powers and lived a hermit-like life on this mountain, from which you can see panoramic views of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the sleepy city beneath.
As we climb the many stone steps to the church we notice a homeless man begging for money. The tourists and churchgoers pass by him as if they do not notice. The man asks us for money as we pass, but instead of ignoring him Ernesto says, “I don’t speak Italian,” in his thick accent. He then turns and winks at me and Eva.
We finally reach the top of the stairs and the surreal-looking church comes into view. It is literally built into the mountain; the entire right wall and part of the ceiling of the church is the side of a stone cliff. Our eyes have to adjust to the darkness as we enter since the church is lit by a hundred flickering candles. There is a moist-looking statue of Jesus to the right. Almost everyone who walks in caresses or kisses the sculpture and then crosses himself. Ernesto explains that water collected at the top of the cliff is drained down to this statue. “The water has miracles,” he says.
As we walk further into the church we see that shiny metal drains run along the ceiling of the church to collect the miracle water. Now there is some natural light flowing in through the roof and a palm tree is growing from the ground. In the chapel, the priest is saying Sunday mass. He is standing in front of a large Virgin Mary sculpture carved in the mountain wall. The parishioners do not seem to notice the whispering tourists who are taking flash photographs.
My ears pop as we drive back down the mountain to the town of Mondello, “Italy’s little Beverly Hills,” Ernesto tells us. It is dusk as we reach the boardwalk along the town’s sandy bay. We can see Mount Pelegrino’s large dark outline against the darkening sky. On the boardwalk, merchants are selling clothing, jewelry and food from little tables and shops and children are playing on small carnival rides. Eva and I laugh at the children who are running past us; they are dressed as fairies, princesses and superheroes – even Winnie the Pooh. “It’s Carnivale,” Ernesto explains. “Sort of like Halloween, but longer.”
Ernesto buys a cup of roasted chestnuts at a street vender. They are too mushy and starchy for mine and Eva’s tastes, but he and Sabrina love them. Eva and I walk down the boardwalk silently observing. Ernesto and Sabrina lead the way, arm in arm, as they crack chestnuts and laugh.
The desolate marketplace Eva and I witnessed earlier that day was nothing like what lies before us now, as the sun sinks below the sea. Chatty merchants are haggling and making deals with customers. Shrieking and giggling children seem to be bouncing all around us. And every so often, battered-looking stray dogs stroll by searching for scraps and pats from children. It is still Sunday in Catholic Italy but, here, the city is alive.