by Natalie Galli
It started as a simple tour of Palermo.
“I’m taking you to visit La Zisa, La Cuba, and La Cubula,” Maia, my elderly cousin informed me, folding her newspaper.
“Friends of yours?” I was teasing her; I’d seen them on my Palermo map. I’d had the great fortune of staying with her in her seventh floor apartment looking out on Monte Pellegrino for the last three weeks. She had escorted me to as many of Palermo’s architectural pearls as we could pluck. She wanted to give me Palermo on a platter, and wished that I would take it with me for a lifetime.
“You could say that. I haven’t seen them myself for years. All three require a certain effort to locate, because they are hidden away. You will find them quite fascinating. I have to say it again: I feel so young, rediscovering my own city with you here.”
The section of town we drove through was bleak and modern. “Believe me, these buildings are worth the search. They are remnants of a tremendous twelfth-century pleasure park between Palermo and the golden shell of Conca d’Oro.” Maia raised her voice, dodging traffic as if playing bumper cars. “These were the fantasy realms of the Arabo-Norman kings, where elaborate gardens and fountains, man-made lakes and pavilions covered the expanse, where exotic imported beasts roamed, where the
royals luxuriated.” We wound through harsh urban streets without a branch or blade of green anywhere. Maia turned into a sagging neighborhood of stone hovels and small vegetable plots guarded by a few retired dogs, roosters, and the top half of a crucified scarecrow.
“La Zisa. There it is,” she yanked up the brake smartly and threw her door open. “As lovely as I remember it.” The Moorish building rose lyrically from a palomino-colored field, its central arch soaring, its upper windows open to the morning air. Signs posted everywhere prohibited entrance.
“It’s always in a state of restoration,” she shrugged as we approached. “Scusa.” Maia used her commanding-yet-polite-I-am-a-Palermo-senior-citizen tone in addressing a workman. “We’d like to look for five minutes, if you would be so kind.”
“Sorry,” he yelled back, “we’re constructing a scaffold.”
“Typical,” Maia muttered to me. “We’ll just stand inside for a minute, on the opposite end away from all the work,” she called out. “All we want to do is see the light stream through the empty windows.” To me she added, “The walls are said to have a beautiful apricot glow when the sun strikes them.”
“Oooh, apricot,” I gushed.
“Something could fall,” he yelled.
“He’s right about that. An empire for example.” She proceeded gamely. “We have a visitor here from California. Surely you don’t want to turn her away.”
“Come back in ten years.”
“This is not a laughing matter, my good man. You’ve been restoring and restoring. Why can’t the public, who pays your wages, see the progress?”
He shrugged and walked away.
“Notice the line where the pond once was.”
I slid my sunglasses down and squinted. “Maybe I see something. I’m not certain though.”
The entire park was once filled with coursing waters and reflecting pools. Eh, poets sang its praises.” Maia half-closed her eyes at the faraway thought. “My husband and I used to picnic here, before we had our boys. Well, let’s push ahead. We have the two other buildings to find, so that you can get an idea of the immensity of the park.”
We drove through more gray slums stamped with impossibility. Everywhere, packs of young children mingled with older kids on the wasted streets.
“The poverty breaks my heart. Some who come here from the country regret the move, but then they cannot go back to a place they know full well is worse. What are we to do about our great problems, I ask you?”
I was seriously wishing I could formulate an answer when we merged into a thoroughfare cramped with vehicles. Maia circled to find parking in the chaos. She finally became so fed up—”Boh!”—that she pulled into a red zone. A bartender in the Caffe Nettuno leaned out his window.
“Signora, you might get towed,” he warned her.
Maia brushed aside the thought. “I don’t think anything will happen. We’ll only be here a few minutes.”
We trudged up the crazy-cacaphonous boulevard to a military compound, Caserma Tukory, where we sought permission to see La Cuba.The guard, a rifle-carrying boy of twenty or so, scowled with an exaggerated authority that I wanted to laugh aloud at, especially since he had powdered sugar all over his lips. An incriminating partly-eaten brioche huddled on a plate in his office. He confiscated my passport and Maia’s retirement card. Another grim soldier was summoned to lead us past barracks. He fixed his ramrod legs into the ground. “Here it is.” Modest stone walls faced us, and we faced them.
“This was the pleasure pavilion?”
Impatiently, the guard pushed a pebble around with his foot.
“We’re standing in it. Notice what remains of the cube-shaped hall. Notice its similarity to La Zisa, although clearly much smaller. Can you imagine the sultans dallying with their consorts here in the shade, can you imagine zebras and peacocks roaming the grounds?”
“Yes, yes I can, because you paint a vivid picture.” I couldn’t really, but she had worked so very hard to get me here. The guard kept a suspicious eye trained on us and a suspicious ear tuned in.
“At ease, young man, we’re leaving now. Onward to La Cubula.” Maia wanted me to have nothing less than the full twelfth-century experience. We hit the street again. I struggled to keep up with her determined pace. Her walking shoes clicked briskly along the pavement.
The caffe`proprietor ran towards us on bowed legs, waving his arms, leaning sideways at a dangerous angle. His eyes were frantic. “Signora, I warned you, I told you that this might happen!” He actually wept and moaned, “I told you so, but you wouldn’t listen to me, and now this.”
My cousin, the color drained from her face, mutely stared at the empty red zone, but this man was undone. Customers in the bar poured out onto the sidewalk like an opera chorus, crowding around to hear his riveting reenactment. He described the police, the gruesome rattle of the chain, the hooks being applied, the terrible scraping of the bumper along the street, the sparks flying. He danced around the sidewalk like a jerky Sicilian marionette, lunging, pacing, halting, miming, weeping, arguing, not with Maia, but at the air. I pinched my lips together hard and commanded myself, do not laugh, I’m telling you. Someone handed him a handkerchief. He dried his face, then began again, holding his head in his hands, wailing, “Oh me!” He pointed to the space where the car had been. The crowd wordlessly studied the void left behind.
I wanted to say something helpful other than I’m sorry, but I couldn’t think of what it was. If it weren’t for my presence in Palermo my cousin wouldn’t be chaperoning me all over the city to show me this disintegrating ruin and that obscure sight. She wouldn’t be parking in forbidden zones. The fault rested with me. Mea maxissima culpa.
The man was still at it. This would never happen back home. Americans don’t run out of cafes to witness the aftermath of a towing. My eyes stayed fixed on the red paint. How the poor man must have carried on during the actual confiscation. Now he sat on the scarlet curb, fanning himself while the murmuring crowd slowly dispersed.
I tagged after Maia into the caffe. “Let’s go get your car wherever they’ve taken it.”
She waved away that idea with her hand, disappearing into a wooden phone booth. I paced up and down the length of the counter past gleaming brass fixtures, past rows of gelati in their trays—cocco, caramella, zabaglione, pistacchio, kiwi, cassata—past pastries fashioned into pianos, drums, violins, and harps, treble clefs and sixteenth notes. I was a distracting and expensive influence on my aged cousin, who was wearing herself out watching over me. Her taut voice threaded from the booth. She emerged insisting that we take a cab home.
“What a pity that you cannot now see La Cubula. It is truly lovely. To pick up the car, we must first go to a magistrate, pay the fine, and procure permission to retrieve the vehicle from a separate office before they issue us the right papers to present at the car-storage facility. Too close to lunchtime now. At any rate, all the offices will close for three hours. There’s nothing to do but go home. Three different places all over the city I have to go.” She held up three fingers. “It would take all day.”
“Aye-yi-yi,” I slapped my forehead, “what bureaucracy. It could unravel a person.”
“It does, all the time. My son will handle this,” she stated firmly. “Sons are good at this kind of thing. Would you like an espresso?”
That was it. I was weighing on her, even though she had daily insisted I could stay with her as long as I wanted. I had to leave. The taxi pulled up. I looked back one last time at Mr. Caffe`Thespian, crumpled on a tall stool, a cigarette dangling lifelessly between his lips, a vacant gaze on his face. He felt so much. So much!
Our cab did its best to advance in the midday jam. I glanced at Maia, who looked out the window but whose mind was clearly on the recent loss. Our driver decided to maneuver crosswise over to the first intersection, and we were treated to yells, honks, and gestures I had not yet seen. He sang throughout, cheerful as a cherub, eyeing me in the rear-view. I eyed him back.
“There’s my car,” Maia shrieked. Ahead by half a block the nose of her white Fiat bobbed in the metal sea.
“Permesso, Signora, I shall chase it down for you,” the cab driver announced and up on the sidewalk we went. He caught sight of me in his mirror and winked.
After half an hour of much deft maneuvering, we actually came abreast of the tow truck.
“Permesso. I will ask him to give you your car. For a small fee.”
I looked at Maia, astounded. Go ahead, she gestured, if you can. But he couldn’t. The towman was devoted to the rules of the city. No bribes today. And off we were driven to her apartment building, Maia and I fought over who would pay. I won.
As Maia headed towards the lobby our driver said, “Signorina, it has been an incomparable pleasure transporting cargo such as yourself.” He kissed my hand and took off.
Natalie Galli‘s articles have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and The Berkeley Monthly. Her work of creative non-fiction, Three-Cornered Island, details her search for Franca Viola, the first woman in Sicilian history to publicly refuse the tradition of coercive marriage. Ciao Meow, her children’s book about a free-wheeling cat, boasts illustrations by her sister. Look for her contributions in Travelers’ Tales Italy and Italy: a Love Story. She lives in San Rafael, California.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.