There are moments, like that on the train from Agrigento, that Italy overwhelms me, that I feel that it is too much for me, and I am too foreign for it. And then Italy creeps up on me - it surprises me, unbidden, not in its ruins (the Valley of Temples at Agrigento, the Ampitheatre at Taormina), but in its living things - its color and vibrancy. And then Italy is part of me, and I belong to it, and it will never leave me, and I can never leave it.
The day after my last entry, I took the train to Palermo, and there I walked through the narrow alleyways, the marketplaces. The shouting and the freshness of the fruit – ripe, big, bright things that belonged to a buzzing world of ripeness and brightness: not the withered broccoli and stony pears of England. The aubergines were purple and bulbous and phallic; the tomatoes were like red stones – the oranges dripped and all around me the cries of “novanta-cinqo” (for it was all in Sicilian dialect). The spices in bags and the smell all around me of things that not only lived but thrived, grew up to the sun, burst themselves open with juices and seeds and skins, proud to live, wanting to grow large!
But what struck me most was the fishmonger who grasped in his bare hands a collection of squids – soft and embryonic and venal – and let his grip linger as he flung them down upon the table. He was not disgusted, and I was not disgusted. It was life – pure life! - venal and squelching and dirty and wonderful. Handfuls of squid – the feeling of something slippery and wet and slimy! Or the half-flayed goats and sheep – how could I feel revulsion, when the corpses really meant life!
It meant real things – handfuls of squid and halves of goats and bright, hard tomatoes – it meant life. It meant knowing the shape of food which would soon become me (c.f. Cabasilas, I believe, who sees food as becoming the eater, except for the Eucharist, where we become the food), and entering into an honest communion with it – the life of the plucked fruit and the life of the slaughtered goat. (And, of course, the squid!)
And I felt alive! And for all my anger at Italy I know that I can never really leave it, really stop loving it, not when I am part of that buzzing, fly-covered life, part of the stray dogs and the burst tomatoes and the truck full of squacking chickens off Via Turkory, the Hebrew and Arabic lettering on Via Mesquite, part of a life so alien to my normal self-narrating neurosis. So alien, too, to my walk at Agrigento, where I stood at the feet of dead things and thought about my novel.
|Valley of the Temples|
So I am the thought-self, the thinking-self, the doing-self, the wanting-self, and the living-self! Not a bad conclusion, inconclusive thought it may be, for my terrible gaze into the sea.
Cefalu was hard, I think - Taormina harder still, for I lost my panama hat in the rain among the orange trees. But I think my voyage to Sicily did provide me with what I was looking for, somewhere between my endless hours of reading (highlights: Romola especially, but also, The Deptford Trilogy, The Princess Casamassima, A Time of Gifts, Cities of the Plain, Zorba the Greek, and Monsieur, plus many Agatha Christies) and my journaling and my sunburn. It made me more of a person. I became Romola and Marcel, and in Palermo, I felt more alive, more in tune with my own selfhood, than I've felt in a while.
Not quite an alma mater, Italy, but a primordial earth-mother of some kind.