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The Gospel according to Saramago & The Last Days in the baroquen ruin of Palermo

janky stairs

So in the linear narrative scheme of things, we've officially moved out .. we're done with Rome. Three Roman dudes, not unlike Larry, Curly & Mo, came & boxed up our shit, then passed the boxes & furniture out the window into an unmarked truck that was blocking the alley, via Titta Scarpetta, much to the dismay of our uptight & nosey neighbors, whom we won't miss one bit (that doesn't mean you, E! And B. And the ragazzi across the way that smoked pot all the time & had the funny cat that kept escaping .. you guys seemed cool).

puppet dicks

aristocratic puppets (Palermo puppet museum)

The movers' Romanesco was so thick it may as well have been another language, so there wasn't much communication going on. So whether we are ever reunited with our belongings again, chi può dire?.... regardless, it's out of our hands now & there's something liberating about that either way.

st luce

lighting store in Palermo

When we came back from Ethiopia & Tanzania a few weeks ago, our power was cut off (the drama of which i chronicled in the last post). So our last week in Rome was spent in darkness & the movers were having to do their business in il buio.. especially being as it was cloudy & rainy & our house is (was!) so dark to begin with .. especially in these short dark days of November). It actually wasn't that bad as we were able to sneak into our neighbors place (who had since moved to Naples but accidentaly left us a key (we'll miss you guys most, and Barnaby too!)) & snake an extension cord out their window & into ours to hook up our laptops & the internet .... what else do you need, right? Besides maybe some candles & a bottle of primo grappa left to us by you know who, grazie ancora. Our hot water heater ran off gas, but needed electricity to turn on, so to bathe we had to boil water in pots & fill the tub like they did in the wild, wild west. And the clothes i washed by hand in the bathtub, in true casalingo fashion.

night vegetables

Bollaro market (Palermo)



Sicily rocks the eggplant

So we sat in our dark house while the movers moved our stuff, trying not to get in their way. I feel weird having people pack & move our things—this is only the second time we've had others do it for us (the other time being the move here)—but the shipping is paid for by j's employer & part of the deal with these international moving companies is that you can't help them because otherwise it invalidates the insurance or some such thing. So all you can do is sit around & watch & answer questions about what goes & what doesn't go & bring them coffees every once in a while.


not in our personal affects (from Palermo puppet museum), but we do have some Indonesian puppets of our own being shipped (one's featured in this vid) & soon we will be in Indonesia for the winter ....

When they finally pulled away, we went to eat our last meal at our favorite neighborhood place, if not favorite place in all of Rome, da Teo. Puntarella is in season, something we will definitely miss about Rome as you can't get it anywhere else, not even other regions of Italy. Da Teo (formerly known as da Enzo) has it consistently & they do it right.

ti amo

street & wall, Palermo (getting ahead of myself)


door post

door & wall in Palermo

Went back & finished cleaning our empty house & then our landlady & broker came by for the key hand-off & what we thought would be a simple arrivederci, but ended up being a full-on bitch session .... our 80-something-year old bourgeois landlady (ex-landlady!) asking us for proof we paid our bills, etc. when we'd already provided scans of last bills & showed them again to her but this wasn't good enough or she was looking for something to nickle & dime us about (though she's filthy rich). And our power had only been turned back on that very morning (as i predicted, just as the movers were walking out the door) .. so wouldn't the fact that the power was turned back on prove we paid up?

cat alley

angry 3-eyed cat in the Albergheria quarter, Palermo

And then (after she argued with the broker on the side about how great Berlusconi was & how the world needs dictators) she asked for 150, no, er, 280 euros for some supposed water bill that she never mentioned in the 2+ years we'd been there until now .. and though she was demanding copies of our bills, etc., she didn't have a copy of this supposed bill she was demanding we pay .... it was just a number she pulled out of thin air. It was all so pointless being as our contract was illegal (she never registered it, so she wouldn't have to pay taxes) & we could've just walked out the door as we'd already left our deposit as last month rent & the concept of a credit report or debt collectors (outside of knee-breaking mafioso ways) doesn't exist in Italy. I won't miss this sort of shit about Italy one bit—it's a country run by fascist elitists still living in the dark ages. I hate being treated like a criminal when we always pay our bills & always pay our rent (which with her involved being proactive & tracking her down to pay (in cash, mind you, so there'd be no paper trail), otherwise she would've forgotten about our existence). It's a shame, as the house was nice & she was a nice woman (if not kooky & ultra-right wing), but petty greed has to make people so vile & unpleasant.


not sure who the artist is (same as above, also in Albergheria quarter)

So we left the house with a bad taste in our mouth & got on the tram & went further down into Trastevere, kind of getting up on the hill of Monteverde where we stayed with j's boss, or ex-boss .... a cool swede who fed us herring in mustard sauce (senapssill) & aquavit, with hearty cheers of «skål"!». Then early the next morning we flew to Palermo.

baroque galore

baroque galore

Packing for these next few months was a bit tricky, being as we are going to be away from our belongings for these upcoming months, in a variety of climates & circumstances. We need jackets & cold weather clothes for when we eventually land in NYC in January (that's the plan anyway), being as we might not get our stuff right away (if at all). And we need sort of dressy clothes for Spain in a few weeks, for reasons that will soon become apparent. And i need books & stuff to occupy my time for two months in Indonesia. For j it's even more complicated as she will be working the whole while, she needs dressy clothes to meet important people & accept awards & also field clothes for rural Timor. But we can stash things along the way, in Rome (while off in Sicily) & then in NYC so it's waiting for us when/if we land in NYC for good. For example, besides the jackets, there's our back-up drives with our virtual lives on them (there's another backup drive being shipped, for what that's worth).


somewhere along Viale della Libertà

Funny thing is i am also carrying a sampietrini (a tooth-shaped Roman cobblestone) with me. We had it mixed in with our bric-a-brac (as evidenced by the photo in the last post), but after Larry, Curly & Mo had finished packing everything up, they left just the sampietrini laying there in the middle of the barren floor. Kind of like when you try to slip a pill into a cat's food & they eat everything around it but leave the pill licked clean. Or it reminded me of the time we had that goiterous maid in Kenya for a week or two & she used to wash everything in our hamper .... except j's undies (cuz of some taboo they have about touching other woman's underwear (my briefs were fair game)). Not sure what the thinking was with Larry, Curly & Mo—perhaps they just thought we were pazzo, or maybe there's some taboo about removing Roman cobblestones from Rome. Either way, seemed only right that i myself have to hump this sampietrini back to NYC by hand if we really want it, otherwise it won't mean as much. Just like if i want my she-wolf SPQR tattoo, devo farlo qui.


shrine in the Kalsa quarter, Palermo

As for books, that's also tricky because i want to bring books that are good & relevant, but also that i can leave behind as i finish them. So here's what i packed (from my dwindling stack of unread books):

  • The Gospel According to Jesus ChristLast Days by José Saramago (which i already read & will talk about later in this post)
  • The Last DaysGospel by Raymond Queneau (read in Palermo & will talk about some below)
  • The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker
  • Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes (in Spanish)
  • The Divine Comedy by Dante (in Italian)
  • American Purgatorio by John Haskell
  • Infinite Thought by Alain Badiou
  • The People Who Watched Her Pass By by Scott Bradfield
  • The Golden Bough by J.G. Frazer
  • And guidebooks to Sicily (which we already left there) & Southeast Asia

old books

books in the puppet museum

Of course i can pick up more books along the way, in NYC or Madrid or Singapore. It's funny how people pack so much stuff when it's not like you can't get things like books or toothpaste or clothes or day-to-day living things in other countries. It's one thing if you have personal medication or something, but it boggles my mind what people carry in all those huge suitcases (cobblestones maybe?). I obviously didn't bring all this (in a backpack small enough to pass as carry on) to Palermo, only the first two books & a toothbrush & a change of clothes. Jess had to bring more since she was going straight to Ethiopia.

confessional glory hole

confessional, palermo-style (a.k.a. «glory hole» style—wherein the priest hides behind the safe anonymity of a wall, while the confessor is put on display)

I read most of The Gospel According to Jesus ChristThe Gospel According to Jesus Christ sitting on the windowsill while the movers did their thing. And then i finished it on the plane to Palermo. I don't have much to say about it .. not sure why i even picked it up except i remembered some people somewhere saying it was good. And it's Saramago. I guess i was expecting it to be different, like the true dirt on Jesus .. Jesus as a regular dude, flawed with urges. But besides Joseph having sex with mother Mary & Jesus having sex with Mary Magdalene (& shacking up with her the whole while), it pretty much follows the story we all know. Then again, i'm not sure where my idea of Jesus's life story comes from .. from some stupid Christmas special, or from the Last Temptation movie Martin Scorsese made (that preceded Saramago's book by a few years). I dunno .. i guess i was just expecting something more. It's Saramago writing, so i guess that's something, but still not enough. And after reading this & The Elephant's Journey (which i read recently in Slovenia) i'm not sure José is all that. Definitely hit or miss with Saramago. But there's some decent writing in The Gospel i suppose. Like this passage, regarding Mary, after she tells Joseph she's pregnant:

«If truth be told, her thoughts are not that clear, for thought, when all is said and done, as others and we ourselves have observed before, is like a great ball of thread coiled around itself, loose in places, taut in others, inside our head. It is impossible to know its full extent, one would have to unwind and then measure it, but however hard one tries or pretends to try, this cannot be done without assistance. One day, someone will come and tell us where to cut the cord that ties man to his navel and thought to its origin.»

spasimo christ

JC stencil in Kalsa quarter

So Palermo. Our thinking was to save the best for last. We've sort of been to Palermo (on our trip to Sicily last year), but all we really saw of Palermo on that trip were the catacombs (cuz we had a car & didn't want to deal with traffic & parking going downtown). A lot of people we know here, both ex-pats & Italians, cite Palermo as their favorite Italian city & keep telling us that, knowing our sensibilities, we'd dig Palermo, so we've been meaning to go for a proper visit. But i'm not sure Palermo is all that i expected it to be. Both j & i found it to be kind of sad. I mean everyone says that, that there's all these beautiful monuments & buildings & they are all in ruins, like how cool (& sad) is that. And i felt that way about Naples, that there was all this beauty in the breakdown & chaos. But unlike Naples, that is still thriving with new life, Palermo just seemed dead to me, like a has-been city. And impoverished, almost like being in Africa at times. Which some people say that's what's cool about Palermo, but there seems something strange & back-handed about that to me—bourgeois or cultured Europeans slumming it in Palermo & talking about how vibrant & full of life it is. When in fact, almost every corner you turn there's rubble & garbage & scaffolding barely keeping what buildings are left standing cobbled together. It's been 70+ years since it was bombed in WWII & no one has bothered to clean up the mess.

rubbish ruins

typical Palermo scene

One thing for sure, is there's more diversity, in food & people. There's lots of Africans & unlike Rome where the only Africans you see are hawking knock-off handbags, the Africans in Palermo seem more integrated, with regular jobs, working at the market side-by-side with Italians & Arabs, which there is also a lot of. In some areas, the street signs are written in Arabic & Hebrew. So there's something cool about that & there does seem to be a thriving entrepreneurial spirit, people working hard (or at least wanting to) to eke out an existence, at least more then you see in Rome, where most people seem content to do as little as possible (though i'm sure they'll say Sicilians are the lazy ones).

patchwork wall

typical «rustic» wall in Palermo

Or maybe i'm just burnt out on ghetto/slum tourism, where you gawk at other's misfortunes. In places where governments don't even bother to clean up the garbage or fix streets or take care of public monuments & parks or provide people with an infrastructure in which to live & work. People might think it's provincial or charming, to see how they are still living like they did in the goold old days, but for some reason i just felt mostly sad & conflicted walking around Palermo. It's like the hurricane-tourists now in NYC, taking photos with their iPhones to post on Instagram. What's the point?

fiat corner

ok, the old cinquecentos look cooler parked on abandoned, weed-strewn alleys

I've had mixed feelings about the mafia, thinking maybe its not such a bad thing in places where the government doesn't take of the people. But after seeing Palermo, it's apparent the mafia isn't doing shit for most people, in making their day to day lives better & neither is the government. What a shame. We've been to a lot of places recently where things are in a janky state of ruin, but it's usually for some sort of reason .... a war or past atrocities (Bosnia, Cambodia), or the shoulder-shrugging reason of «T.I.A.» (this is Africa), but there's no excuse for this, such neglect in a european (G8 even!) country.

broken baroque

We took the train from the airport, which took forever & then checked into our hotel on via Roma. Then we went to the Ballaro market to find something to eat. Happened upon this salumiere da Carlo, which although looks like a dive, had incredible food. It was like eating in someone's house, the kitchen was right there on the street & the cook would just come out & describe some things & how he liked to eat them & how people in other parts of Palermo ate them & we just said bring it on & he brought all sorts of things out for us to feast on. Being that it was attached to a salumiere (locals were all eating the sandwiches), they brought us all sorts of cheeses & cold cuts. And these eggplant & olive appetizers. Then we had two types of pasta .. gemelli a la sarde, which is a popular dish in Palermo (though usually with bucatini instead of gemelli), but this version he added broccoli (since it was in season) & raviolis with some sort of prosciutto in a pumpkin sauce (also in season). I'll leave it to j to post photos of all that we ate, i'm sure she eventually will.


in Capo market


hindu puppet

Indian shadow puppet

While we ate we watched the hustle & bustle in the streets near Bollaro market. One thing for sure is it seems Sicilians want to be busy, they want to do things. I'm just not sure how productive they can be given their circumstances (living between the ineptitude of the government & the mafia).


Sten & Lex at night in Kalsa quarter

I don't remember the linear order of things so much after that. We walked around a lot & i ate spaghetti ai ricci (sea urchin) a lot (four times). I think this first night we went to some wine bar called Cana Enoteca that was very good & innovative. Then we walked around the Kalsa quarter amidst drunken clubbers out in costume for halloween, ending up in some loungey but brightly lit bar that felt like it could've been Miami.

church dog

dog lazing outside the main cathedral

Next day we flâneured all over. The streets were quiet & everything was closed (we found out later it was All Saint's Day). Tried to go to the Chiesa Spasimo, but it was closed (& some guys outside told us it was shut down for good because of the danger (è pericolante). Tried to go to the international puppet museum but it was also chiuso. So for the most part we just walked around the empty streets.

dog meme

dog sleeping next to a dog meme near the opera house (the steps featured in the finale of the famously bad Godfather III)

The best spaghetti ai ricci i had was in the restaurant on the roof of our hotel (Ambasciatori—which also had a great view of Palermo). The only other place (outside Palermo) i've seen sea urchin pasta on the menu is at La Gensola, near our (now old) place in Trastevere, so i was excited to try other takes on this Sicilian dish that is one of my all-time favorite ways to make pasta. Nothing gets closer to eating the smeared guts of the bottom of the sea. Also had bottarga a few times, though i didn't like it nearly as much as Sardinian bottarga—both times the eggs were all clumpy & salty.

boas & soldiers

boas & soldiers in Palermo's puppet museum

Another day wandered through some old sketchy neighborhood (borgo vecchio) down by the notorious prison (Ucciardone). Went back to the international puppet museum a few times until we finally found it open. Quite a collection of puppets from all over the world. Strange to see all these puppets in such a context. Felt like dead puppet storage—a puppet catacomb or prison. Rooms full of puppets from all over the world.

dead puppet society

And speaking of catacombs, we revisited them again. We saw them on our trip last year to Sicily & liked them so much we felt they were worthy of an encore .. this time we hoofed it all the way out to the suburb where they are housed. And again they don't want you taking photos so we honored that request (the Billy Idol look-alike below i stole off the net) .... suffice to say, it's quite an experience strolling amidst all the centuries-old corpses all dressed in their decaying sunday best.

palermo catacomb

We ate at Cascinari while we were out in the neighborhood of the catacombs. I had spaghetti Sarde & also some fried sardines. It was good, but i'm not sure it's worthy of being the top-rated Palermo restaurant on tripadvisor.


calamari in Capo market

We ended up in Capo market a few times, but didn't think that market was as good as Ballaro. But still, abundant produce & fresh seafood galore in Palermo. And more innovation in the restaurants then you find in Rome. Another day we ate at L'Ottava Nota, which had some great modern takes on classic Sicilian dishes.

wine barred

wine at Cana Enoteca

We tried a few more times to go to the chiesa Spasimo, but no such luck. One time the door was open & a woman was cleaning in the entryway (& we might have been able to sneak into the church itself in retrospect). There was a ticket office that said it opened at 9:30 but when we left & came back (reassured by the cleaning woman), the door was locked. And we passed by a few more times, but it was always locked up, so i suspect the guys on the street were right in saying it was closed for good (because of danger from falling walls or rocks). So in lieu of photos, google it yourself .... it's supposedly some unfinished church with no roof & trees & stuff growing inside of it (we could see the absence of the roof from the street).

window tree

street art in Kalsa quarter


banyan roots

one of my favorite things in Palermo were the two massive banyan trees in villa Garibaldi—great fun to climb around in

The original return plan was that j had to fly back to Rome so she could catch her flight to Ethiopia (ironically, back over Sicily), but i only got a one-way ticket thinking i would slowly make my way back by land. I had my heart set on taking the train, form Sicily to the mainland, just for the idea of it—a train that drives onto a ferry to cross the Messina straits—imagine that. Supposedly you could get off the train onto the ferry & get a drink in the bar looking out over the water. But when i went to get my train ticket they were completely sold out for the next few days. Who would've thunk people would still take the 12-hour train when they could fly in an hour for the same price?

merman clutching abs

dude (merman?) with killer abs in piazza Pretoria

So i booked a ticket back on the same flight as j & we checked out & got a bus to the airport. Waiting for the flight & on the plane, i finished reading The Last Days by Raymond Queneau—a semi-autobiographical account of student life in Paris in the 1920s. For the most part i found it to be pretty dull .... students hanging out in cafes drinking pernods & talking pretentiously about philosophy & their haircuts. Got to Fiumicino terminal 1 & accompanied j to terminal 3 to catch her flight to Addis. Then took the train to Trastevere & here i am, in an apartment with orange walls & cable TV. As i'm writing this, Roma kicked Palermo's butt 4-1. Tomorrow's the election ....

palermo pelligrino

Palermo looking out towards Mt. Pellegrino


 >> next up: Nurturing the language instinct, further west back to where you once belonged

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