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Archive for the tag “Palermo”

piano, piano


A few months ago I realised I was running on empty, emotionally (having been thrust into the unlikely and ill-fitting role of carer through the winter and into the spring) and intellectually, being fresh out of words and ideas, since they had all been poured into the manuscript of my book. Time has passed, and now the patient is recovering well, and the manuscript is in the capable hands of my publishers, the alchemists who will transform a computer file into a living, breathing book.

So, with a slight sense that I was going all ‘Eat, Pray, Love’-ish, I decided that, in addition to food (which has ever and always been my salvation, so no change there); prayer (which does have its moments, even for those of us without faith, if viewed in George Herbert’s inimitable words as ‘something understood’); and love (oops, it will now become clear that I have not actually read Eat, Pray, Love and so I am not sure whether this is an American euphemism for sex, which would mean this post veering into unchartered waters) but fortunately this sentence is now so long that even the most careful reader will have lost the will to follow it to its logical conclusion, allowing me, in a rhetorical sleight of hand, to return to the main clause: I decided that I wanted to learn.

So it is that I am writing this in Otranto, an ancient city port poised on the easternmost point of the heel of Italy (next stop Albania), and feeling extremely anxious about tomorrow morning. I am starting un corso gruppo at a local language school, the first step, I hope, towards taking the Italian government’s CILS exam (level to be decided) towards the end of November. Domani, sono una studentessa! (Is that right? Please tell me it’s right! And I’ve not even started…this is not going well.)

I chose Otranto somewhat blindly, seduced by the thought of the Italian south (particularly once we get to November) and thinking it would somehow be more authentic, not to mention cheaper, than, say, the more obvious Rome, Florence or Venice. I didn’t take into account just how difficult it is to get here. For once, I took my beloved trains with good reason and for much of the journey it felt like the wise decision. I sped to Paris, passed a relatively uneventful night on the train to Milan, and snoozed and read my way through a smooth and inexpensive express ride to Lecce. At which point, it all went a bit wrong. Despite or because of the copious advice from most of the inhabitants of Lecce, I spent nearly three hours covering the 25 miles or so to Otranto, as night and my spirits fell. Welcome to the South.

Otranto, on almost two days’ acquaintance, is pleasant, but – so far – it is hardly the kind of dirty, beautiful city that makes this woman’s heart beat faster. (Then again, there is only one Palermo…). It is very small, with a highly-touristed centre, all cobbled streets and no cars. The sea truly is turquoise, the castle is imposing, the cathedral striking, the gift shops full of expensive tat. As ever, my priorities have been to find bread, coffee and wine. There will be time enough for sight-seeing. At the bakers this morning, the woman recognised me, and we are already chatting, bonding over my crap Italian. (For the record, she thought I was German.). The contrast with Palermo is stark. There I spent fourteen weeks descending into Hades each morning – aka La Vucciria market. I never wore sandals, always watched each footstep, because the range of detritus from the previous night presented various threats to health. I knew it was a lottery as to whether the bakers would be open at eight thirty in the morning, and that it was a certainty that the young man serving (and I use the term loosely) would thrust the bread at me, mutter something incomprehensible, refuse to make eye contact, take my money and – sometimes – give me change. But the bread – oh the bread – warm, yielding, sprinkled with sesame seeds. Bread of heaven.

But back to Otranto. Franco, at the wine shop, was just as friendly as the bakery woman. He was keen to help me learn English but in fact, unwittingly, introduced me to a wonderful Italian phrase: ‘piano, piano’ which, if I understood it correctly, means take it easy, slow down, it’s ok, there’s no hurry – and all without the patronising sneer of ‘calm down dear’. Franco repeated this about a dozen times during the ten minutes I was in his shop. I suspect (it being Day One in a Strange Place) I was looking and acting somewhat stressed.

Still on my list of crucial things to do is to hire a bike. I had severe bike envy this morning, en route back from the bakers, and seeing the local cyclists gathering outside a café. It made me miss my own Oxford bike café, Zappi’s, but even more it made me want to get on to the roads of the Salento. I have also not yet found a bar in which to have my aperitivo. These things take time, and in the mean time I’ll just have to make do with the roof terrace here. As I write this, I am surrounded on all sides (my apartment straddles a narrow building, looking out over one street on one side, another street on the other) by the sounds of families enjoying a Sunday in Otranto. I like the buzz of noise, I like the breeze which blows through the rooms, I like knowing that a few steps will take me to the sea. It all helps counter my nerves about tomorrow morning’s opening class, but perhaps a couple of months in the Salento will teach me not only Italian but to take life piano, piano.

The End of the Affair?

I’m ready to go home. I wrote some weeks ago, somewhere else (, that I was a little in love with Palermo. I suspect that this is the end of the affair. It was always one-sided, anyway. Did Palermo ever care for one more middle-aged Englishwoman enjoying its rough edges? No. It will continue on its filthy, courteous, way, refusing to conform to the tourist industry norms, defiant of tripadvisor to the last.


A long Palm Sunday helped speed the end. My daughter had come out to Sicily, on the spur of the moment. I thought it might be interesting to make the journey to the archaeological wonder that is Selinunte. Perhaps it was having my daughter here, but I slipped back into a northern European mentality. I checked timetables on websites: if it was on the web, it was true. I made a plan, it would all work out. Selinunte was ‘the most beautiful and evocative Greek archaeological site in Sicily’. Just look at this website:


We never got there. Instead we spent five hours in Castelvetrano. Despite the best efforts of the flower-seller (who sent us to the bus-stop by the cathedral in the lower town), and then the old man (who sent us back up to the bus-stop by the park in the upper town), and then the woman in the bakers who said we could phone a taxi from the police station, and, much later, the officer who let my daughter use the loo in the police station, I cannot say I warmed to Castelvetrano. There was no bus. There was, however, the taxi driver from hell.


It being Palm Sunday, the town was going about its own business, people carrying food to each others houses. It was hardly welcoming, but so be it.  We ended up sitting in the square outside the police station, waiting for the evening bus back to Palermo. The only people left on the streets showed an unhealthy interest in my daughter. It didn’t help that she cuts a rather striking figure in Sicily. She is six foot tall for a start, which despite the Norman input in the eleventh century, is not common here. A number of gentlemen thought it would be rather fine to sit in their cars and stare at her. Some even made suggestions as to what she might like to do with them. This got rather wearing after the first two or three hours. There were probably better ways to handle the day, but right then and there, I couldn’t think of them.



Not quite the end of the affair? Last night, my final evening in Palermo, the city revealed, yet again, why it has won my heart. It was partly sitting by the dock of the bay, drinking wine, a final aperitivo, the light on the water of the Kala harbour, the fishermen mending their nets, the encircling mountains sharply defined in the early evening light. And then, walking home, and witnessing the Good Friday procession as it moved, inched, from the waterfront up through the Piazza San Domenica, our piazza, turned in homage but did not enter the alleyway into the Vucciria market, our market, where in a few moments, I will go to buy my last loaf of sesame-seeded bread. There was none of the well-drilled pomp of English ceremony. Instead, there was sweat on the brows of the men carrying Christ’s body, those carrying the weeping Madonna. Instead, the band played, over and over and over, a relentless dirge. I cannot share their beliefs, but I can be touched, hugely, by the effort and integrity of their rituals. I felt the weight that they were carrying.

And then…

This morning, checking the news, I see an article, written yesterday, in the Guardian newspaper. About Castelvetrano, a town I had not heard of until this week. And I am reminded of the other Sicily, present in Castelvetrano, and no doubt in those Good Friday rituals last night, if only I had eyes to see it. I start wondering about those men in those cars. And I feel slightly ashamed, again, of my romanticism.

Maybe it is time to go.

The shadow of the cortigiana

I love a night at the opera. Opera houses reveal the particular quality of a city despite or because of their similarities (gold, staircases, red velvet, gold, over-priced sparkling wine, jewellery on display, gold). Palermo’s opera house is vertiginous, with the boxes, which dominate, rising sheer from the floor in tier upon tier. Up in the gods, and that means very, very high up – it’s not called Teatro Massimo for nothing – the audience were as interested in each other as in the performance. The acoustic was disorienting: one could only hear the clapping of the people immediately around one, but the singing – especially the excellent Julianna Di Giacomo – came across loud and clear.

I do not love opera, however. The Teatro Massimo’s Otello, in a somewhat self-conscious yet old-fashioned production, didn’t change my mind. Admittedly, the tale of a military hero turned wife-killer is not the ideal entertainment when one is writing a book about the stifling of women’s creativity. Desdemona is not actually stifled in Verdi’s version: she’s strangled. The shadow of the courtesan (or cortigiana…) looms large and proves deadly. One of the most painful moments in the opera comes when Otello appears, momentarily, to realise that he is wrong about his wife’s infidelity. Having publicly humiliated her, thrown her to the ground, he reaches out to Desdemona. She hopes, we hope, for a reprieve but it is a feint. With vicious sarcasm, Othello brands his wife a whore (‘Che? non sei forse una vil cortigiana?’) and justifies himself as her killer. (Shakespeare has: ‘I cry you mercy, then:/I took you for that cunning whore of Venice/That married with Othello.’)

There’s more of course – the moment when Desdemona forces out her last words, when we all think she is dead. She must, she will, she does, perform perfect, compliant femininity, to the extent that she claims to have killed herself, so as to cover for Otello. And don’t get me started on the kiss motif, the way in which violence to women becomes eroticised. (Which reminds me of a stupendous example of academic pettiness. Suzanne Cusick, the wonderful biographer of Francesca Caccini, had to put up with a colleague playing the kiss motif over and over again while she was trying to prepare her university’s first ever course on women and music.)

Yes, it’s all there in Shakespeare, but somehow the potential ambiguities in theatre are ironed out in opera, and we are left with a simple plot, lavish spectacle, and luscious music. (What’s not to like, I hear someone say….)

I do realise that if one removes beautifully sung violence, or erotically charged death, from opera then there’s not much left. And, for the record, Nero and Poppea’s ‘Pur ti miro’ at the end of L’Incoronazione di Poppea is stunning. So good, that I happily forget that they are both psychopaths, and that their expressions of ‘love’ are utterly implausible.

And maybe that’s the point: Poppea is not structured to be naturalistic. Opera and theatre performances in the seventeenth century, and beyond, had women playing men (breeches roles), boys playing women (on the English stage), and in the case of Poppea, a castrato playing Nero. This kind of thing at least makes one think about the gender categories we use to label, and to hurt, people.

But, as I said above, I don’t like opera. My night at the opera was, however, wonderful: walking out of the gloriously over the top Teatro Massimo, strolling through the alleyways of Palermo, grabbing something really good to eat, and all within five minutes walk of home. It would be nice to go again.

And just to show how mellow I am about it all, here’s a picture of Desdemona and her loving husband. She’s not dead yet.

desdemona not dead

389 years and one day later…

The three best ways to travel – if one can – are by train, by bike, or (especially in cities) on foot. Going by plane is simply not travelling. It is annihilating distance and, for me at least, identity. And I’m writing this having experienced one of the slowest train journeys imaginable (the night train from Palermo to Roma) – having experienced some imaginative but definitely decline-able propositions from said night train’s conductor (the only one that tempted was accompanying him up to the deck as the boat, with train in its bowels, made its way across the Messina Strait, but I regretfully decided that maintaining my virtue and/or not punching the gentleman should be my priority) – and having experienced severe delays out of Roma Termini because of the sadly international phenomenon of a body on the line. And yet, all these, and the fast, cheap, trains from Rome to Florence and back again, were journeys.

Similarly, the February rains in Florence did not for one moment detract from the pleasures of wandering the city’s streets. I can, at least, justify this in terms of ‘research’. Only when one moves to older rhythms, walking rhythms, can one understand time, distance, and indeed power in the past. Walking up the hill to Villa Poggio Imperiale,

Poggio Imperiale

past the city walls, through the Porta Romana, up an immense tree-lined avenue, to a place away from, and just as important high above, the Pitti and the Uffizi made me realise just how interesting a choice of venue Poggio Imperiale was for Maria Magdalena d’Austria when she sought to display her power – as a regent, as a woman, as the ruler of Tuscany. She had the power to bring anyone who was anyone out of Florence, up to her palace, through her avenue of trees, into her domain, to see her entertainment, with music composed by her composer, Francesca Caccini.

view from Poggio Imperiale down into Florence

My visit occurred precisely 389 years and one day after La Liberazione di Ruggerio was performed on 3 February 1625. If it gets into the music history books, La Liberazione is described as the first opera to be written by a woman. As Suzanne Cusick, the superb biographer of Caccini points out, the work is not in fact an opera – although on the other hand it’s hard to say what it is. It certainly ended with an extraordinary balletto a cavallo (a dance on horseback, imagine dressage set to music), watched by the rich and powerful from the balconies and terraces of the Villa. I can’t help wondering if it rained that day as well…

Cycling in Sicily

view from Caccamo towards sea       Five things I have learned…

almond biscuits yum  1. It is possible, but perhaps not desirable, to cycle for 30 miles (including 600m of climbing) fuelled only by half a small almond pastry. I now declare la mandorla the original and best energy food.

train leaving Roccapalumba-Alia station   2. It is not just possible, but easy and cheap (3.50), to take one’s bike on the train from the centre of Palermo into the Sicilian hills, enabling the intrepid – but somewhat plump (too many mandorle?) – cyclist to avoid a 400 metre hill climb at the start of the day.

3. Sicilian drivers are considerate of cyclists. I’m taking the honking of horns as a sign of consideration, rather than harassment. After all, it’s good to know when someone is overtaking.

view of madonie mountains  4. My goodness, the landscape is beautiful: views across miles, and miles, of undulating country to the snow-capped Madonie mountains in one direction, or towards the sea, so blue it defines the colour, in the other. Fennel growing wild on the roadside throws out a pungent aroma; sheep bells tinkle. It all helps as one walks up another hill.

5. You’re not supposed to cycle in the bus/taxi lanes in Palermo. But everyone does. It’s Palermo.


I’m starting to think about my trip to Florence, where I’m heading on the night train from Palermo, a week on Monday. A sceptic might ask, in fact, I ask myself, what will I actually learn from standing in the Baptistery in Florence, along with countless other tourists, about the first day of Francesca Caccini’s life that I won’t learn from reading books about baptism? What will I learn from gazing at the walls of the convent where Caccini spent her final years, that I won’t learn from reading books about nuns’ lives in seventeenth-century Florence? Why do I think it will be helpful to go to a concert of music for soprano in the church of Santo Stefano al Ponte?

My only answer is that it’s been invaluable in the past. Walking through the streets of London, east and north of St Paul’s, tracking down the streets where John Milton was born, where he was educated, loved, hated, persecuted, and sheltered, where he wrote, and where he died, brought home to me as nothing else could exactly how important these few square miles of city were to him. At Sherborne Castle in Dorset, being taken down dusty corridors by the wonderful librarian, far from the immaculate public areas, to a small, hexagonal turret room that was Sir Walter Ralegh’s study, allowed me to sense, fully, the conundrum that was Sir Walter – intellectual swashbuckler, screwed-up action man, practical aesthete – and started me wondering…would Bess, his wife, have used the other turret room (for Sherborne was originally designed on symmetrical principles – it was only the usurping Wingfield Digby family who added the monstrous, and unbalancing, wings), and if so, for what?

PS: The same sceptical reader who might have questioned the purpose of field trips, might also question my choice of location when the cities I need to visit are all hundreds of miles away, if not more. The answer lies clearly in my first sentence above: see for a rose-tinted view of an endangered species.

on not writing in Palermo


The basic idea is sound – and has worked before. Get myself out of familiar surroundings, put some distance between myself and Oxford’s academic world, draw a line under the research, pack up my laptop and my notes and head somewhere new. And simply start writing.

What I always forget is that it takes time and energy to settle in somewhere new. Here I am in Palermo, and there’s no writing desk, no coffee in the flat (and no shops open on a Sunday), and, right now, absolutely no desire to start work on my book.

All the energy that should be going into writing is, instead, going into making lists of questions for the people who own the apartment, and lists of things that I need to buy before I can start writing. Have I mentioned coffee? All seasoned with a nagging sense that there’s a city and an island out there waiting to be explored, and it would be madness to sit inside each day and grind out the requisite chapter chunks.

Palermo is already making itself felt. Seagulls and police sirens were the Sunday morning alarm, closely followed by church bells. Baroque splendour and shabbiness in equal measure dominated the square where we took our morning coffee and pastry, at a café where row upon row of canoli were being lovingly set out. The drive from the airport yesterday evening was a reminder of the utter anarchy of the Palermo roads: the same roads I imagined myself cycling along, a vision that seemed more and more foolish with every passing minute in the taxi (and downright dumb when carrying my bike up five flights of stone stairs to the top floor of a fifteenth century palazzo). Last night there was the usual buzz of la passeggiata, ramped up to Sicilian levels. And then the challenge of eating out (without menus) – a process of making intelligent guesses about what one is told about, then meekly and, so far, delightedly accepting what is brought to the table. Plagiarising the order of the people on the next table was my opening night strategy, resulting in a delicious aubergine starter and a beautifully grilled orata, which turned out to be a fish. Food names, including the Sicilian rather than Italian versions, are now going up on the chalkboard in the kitchen, in the hope that dinner tonight will be slightly less of a lottery. Then again, it makes it all the more exciting…

And even less likely that I’ll get any writing done.

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