Showing posts with label Alitalia. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Alitalia. Show all posts

Monday, July 18, 2011

Four Days in Sicily

Ann has been visiting her best friend in Palermo, Sicily, for nearly 40 years now. Through her eyes, I felt as if I had experienced Sicily although I was there once, but only for a day in Messina while on a cruise of the Mediterranean. This year was different. She would be visiting as usual, for three weeks, but I would join her for the last four days to attend her best friend’s sons’ wedding. We’ve known David since he was born – in fact he was born in the US as his parents wanted him to have dual citizenship.

In my younger years, I thought little about a four day international trip, so in retrospect perhaps I should have gone on a more leisurely pace. I paid for my mistake by contracting a chest infection from flying so many hours, in such a short period of time, culminating in a flight from hell on my return. There are no direct flights between Palermo and Miami.

But before Ann left, while I was doing some preliminary packing for the trip, I had to debate with my wife about what I was to wear to the wedding. She wanted me to get a new suit, my best formal suit being some twenty-five years old, along with my wing tip shoes of the same vintage. I was admonished that the wedding guests would consist of many sartorially splendid young professionals, as well as an older crowd of men in beautifully crafted Italian suits and I would look like a relic from a pre-iPad stone age. But I am a relic I complained, and the suit is in great shape -- the one I now wear mostly to funerals but occasional weddings as well. And, from a vanity perspective, the suit still fits me perfectly in every way since I’ve gained no weight in all those succeeding years. I have it (and it looks good so I thought) so why not flaunt it?

I won that battle, packed the suit and the old wing tips and was set to go. But there is a strange coincidence regarding the suit, the occasion, my recovery from recent, very serious surgery, and being surrounded by the beauty of Sicily and the Mediterranean during this four day whirlwind trip.

Indeed I discovered that the last time I wore the suit was to a funeral of a friend who had died in October 2007. (Has it been that long since I needed the suit?) Surviving the dry cleaning was a card that was given to each of us at the funeral. I found it in my inside pocket as we were waiting at the reception for the festivities to begin. It was a passage from Marlena de Blasi's A Thousand Days in Tuscany. It gave me chills reading it once again, as if a bridge had been formed from the funeral in the US four years earlier, to this beautiful occasion in Palermo, Sicily: Maybe the only thing that matters is to make our lives last as long as we do. You know, to make life last until it ends, to make all the parts come out even, like when you rub the last piece of bread in the last drop of oil on your plate and eat it with the last sip of wine in your glass.

Day 1

I arrived in Palermo in the late morning after making the connection from Rome after an all night flight. Little sleep was to be had on the flight so I was sort of a somnambulist, collecting my luggage (which miraculously arrived without my intervention in Rome), and seeing the groom’s parents, Beny and Maria, standing peering over others’ heads at international arrivals. I was warmly greeted by our old friends and Ann of course who was relieved to see that I looked so well after 14 hours of travel. I was whisked off to their Swim Club in Mondello for lunch, just a 15 minute ride from their apartment in Palermo. This was the day before the wedding and I thought it was very considerate of them to squeeze me into what would be a day of some anxiety. The wedding was going to be large and elaborate and the parents of the bride (Marianna) and groom (David) participated in the careful planning of the event.

The Club CanottierReggere di Lauria is right on the Mediterranean, the seas and the beautiful day demanding careful attention. We sat outside of course and had, what else, fresh seafood, along with the obligatory pasta. It was to be the first of several extraordinary meals over the next several days.

Ann as always had been staying with our friends before my arrival, but now the time had come to check into our hotel, the Garibaldi in the heart of Palermo, highly recommended. By the late afternoon, my head had caught up with the time change and lack of sleep so Ann and I went for an early dinner at a local restaurant where we had, again, fish. I loved the fresh fish in Sicily, not to mention their bread.

Day 2

The next day was the wedding and with the help of an Ambien the evening before, I got a full night’s sleep and we prepared for the wedding in the afternoon. The hotel serves a delightful breakfast for its guests, a little like a cross between a hotel and a B&B.

Several vans were sent to collect us, including several other guests from the Hotel, and in one of those was Maria’s family from the States, her two brothers, Jerry and Peter, with Peter’s wife (also Maria) and their twin boys and two girls. We were to be with the family during the ensuing celebration, a place of honor, and where we wanted to be as we’ve known Maria’s brothers since they were youngsters, Ann having first met Maria when she was 17.

The trip to the church was eventful, reminding me a little of traveling in Japan where even the locals have difficulty locating their destinations. Our van driver arrived at a church, and while it fit the bill of an old 16th century antique church, it was not ours! But we were in the vicinity of the right church, we were assured. After a few frantic cell phone calls, a couple of U turns and some conferencing between van drivers, we arrived at a small road adjacent to the first church and luckily arrived at the wedding only fifteen minutes before the ceremony.

The church was regal in its simplicity with catacombs under the floor, the crypts being marked by various images including the skull and crossbones at our very feet. While I did not understand one word of the priest or the participants, the wedding had the feel of other Catholic weddings we had attended, and the priest obviously knew Marianna and David and his warmth towards them shone through. It was touching and to see David married, knowing him since he was an infant, a special moment for us.
From there we returned to Beny and Maria’s home to relax along with the bride’s parents, Nancy and Vito, enjoying a cool drink and sitting out on the terrace while waiting for the wedding reception which was to begin around 7 in the evening, some 45 minutes outside of Palermo. The bride’s parents finally left to pick up their friends and we drove with Beny and Maria to Torre Ciachea, a private, castle-like Villa which is available only one day a month for special occasions. Its outer court yards with its fountains and landscaping are ideally suited for guest’s arrival and serving appetizers and drinks while the inner courtyard was set up with beautiful tables prepared for dinner.

The gardens surrounding this Villa high above the Mediterranean made a perfect setting, the presentation of the food a work of art and from appetizers to the main course, fish, fish, fish, all freshly caught. We sat with Maria’s family, and her sister-in-law, another Maria who is a professional singer, an interpreter of the Great American Songbook, happens to be one of the best I have ever heard and finally she was entreated to join the band, singing several songs. If it were not for the fact that the band was not totally familiar with much of her music, she would not have been allowed to leave the stage. Her voice and interpretation of those songs are as beautiful as she.

It would be a late night. Much later than my jet lagged body would be able to endure. Luckily at around midnight, our friends found us a ride back to our hotel with a woman she used to work with at the British Embassy when Maria went to Sicily some 40 years ago. The festivities went on well into the night.

Day 3

The next day we slept late but found a wonderful double-decker bus tour of Palermo right outside of our Hotel. The one in the morning took us through the old part of the city and in the afternoon, after another wonderful al fresco lunch, we were driven around the more modern part of Palermo. Ann said that in spite of having visited Palermo for so many years, she had never done this. What immediately must strike any visitor to this country are the outstanding influences of so many conquering civilizations throughout history. Everyone in fact seems to have invaded Sicily at one time or another, the Romans, the Byzantine, Greeks, Islamic, and the Catalan to name but a few. Riding through the streets of Palermo also reminded me of George Patton’s drive into those same streets in August of 1943 so wonderfully portrayed by George C. Scott in the movie, “Patton”, even though the shots of Sicily were recreated and filmed in southern Spain. Between tours we had a wonderful local lunch (fish). After the last tour we went back to the restaurant from our first night, a sidewalk cafĂ©, a perfect evening, pasta, the local bread and wine, and of course, more fish!

Day 4

Our last full day was to be a special one, a visit to the town of Maria’s birth, the fishing village of Castellammare del Golfo, “castle (on the) sea) of the Gulf” which indeed has a medieval fortress of castle proportions, and a harbor where fisherman practice their craft as they have done since time immemorial. As this was two days removed from the wedding, we were fortunate that Beny and Maria felt up to acting as tour guides. Ann has been there many times of course, but as it was my first visit, they wanted to make it something very special. One only has to be there, taking in the natural beauty to make it so. For me it was particularly moving as I love the sea, have heard about the town for so long, and after surviving my health issues, I was fortunate to just BE.

Naturally, a day by the sea would not be complete without lunch by the sea and for that we travelled to nearby Scopello overlooking the Mediterranean. If it were not for the fact that the narrow little streets hardly accommodated our car for parking, it would have been a perfect afternoon. Poor Beny had to maneuver his vehicle in tight spots on steep grades.

We returned to Palermo, Ann and I bidding our friends adieu for the evening, having dinner at a nearby restaurant – Sicilian pizza for our last night – then packing and getting to bed for a very early morning flight to Rome but with different flights back to Miami, mine arriving four hours earlier, waiting for her as I had left my car at the airport. Luckily I found a quiet place between terminals at the airport where I could close my eyes after a nightmare flight on Alitalia. Ann’s plane (from Barcelona after a connection from Rome) arrived a half hour early so I was grateful to see her sooner than expected at International arrivals. We found our car and returned home, she after weeks in Sicily with her dearest friend and me after four wonderful whirlwind days.

Friday, July 1, 2011

A Meaningful Life

We just returned from Sicily where we attended the wedding of the son of my wife's best friend, Maria. In fact, Ann had been visiting two weeks before my arrival and when I arrived for my brief four day stay, we took residence in an ideally situated downtown hotel in Palermo so I could squeeze some sightseeing of the city as well. The wedding was held in a Palermo church constructed in the 16th century and then we went to a reception at a private castle-like Villa on the Mediterranean outside of Palermo. I'll write more about this experience when I have a chance to work on the photographs, so consider this Part I which is mostly about the book I read on the plane, a flight from hell (Miami to Rome to Palermo) on Alitalia, perhaps the worse airline ever. It starts with their web site which has no record locator, no means of choosing seats, everything must be done by phone with harassed agents whose main job is to dismiss the call as quickly as possible.

During my working days, I regularly flew business or first class, so finding myself in today's economy class on an eleven hour flight with screaming babies, half dressed people, and four rest rooms for the entire economy class, came as a shock and gave new meaning to the word squalor. Diapers were being changed on nearby seats with all the attendant odors helping to create an excruciating environment. Towards the end of the flight some lavatories were unusable as whatever didn't fit into the toilet wound up on the floor. The food was indecipherable at times. I recognized my pasta "dinner," but the "snack" before landing was some sort of a gooey bread, with a kind of cheese and onions baked on top served without utensils. Who cares, wipe your hands on your seat, if you can find a spot as it must be the smallest seat and space of any airline's economy class . I've had flights on commuter airlines with more space. No seating etiquette as well, as the person in front of me took it upon himself to recline all the way, leaving the tray nearly in my chin.

Fortunately, I packed my noise cancelling headphones with my iTouch and listened to music the entire flight as I read a recently reissued novel, A Meaningful Life by L.J. Davis originally published in 1971. This is a forgotten classic, the kind I used to seek when I was in the reprint business, my major find having been Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road. Kudos to the New York Review of Books for discovering this one.

Two years ago I reviewed Sam Savage's The Cry of the Sloth and I have to wonder whether Savage had read Davis' A Meaningful Life. The two protagonists seem to be the same person confronting the dilemma of "a meaningless life." At the time, I said Savage portrays an inexorable path for our protagonist, a fascinating, tragicomic portrait of isolation and personal failure, in the tradition of Gogol and Kafka." Davis did the same for his protagonist, Lowell Lake, more than thirty years earlier. A Meaningful Life is written in the finest tradition of the black comedy and I think if Woody Allen and Franz Kafka teamed up, this could have been their collaboration.

The novel is set in my familiar 1960's, the same decade I married my first wife while we were still in college and lived in Brooklyn. Hopefully, that is the only similarity between Mr. Lake and myself. Lowell drifts into marriage in college, gives up his scholarship to graduate school, mostly to show his new wife that he is in charge of their lives and to prove it further, decides to move from California to New York City, where he will write a novel and she will work, over her objections (knowing Lowell to be unrealistic). His wife's mother also objects to Lowell right at the start (he's not Jewish; her daughter is). Her father simply entreats Lowell to call him Leo and that is about the extent of their relationship. Early in the novel Lowell fantasizes his future life as being a subject for the law and at the end this fear rears its head again. Davis' description of Lowell's wedding pretty much sets the timbre of the writing:

"The moment Lowell took his place at the altar, a fog of terror blew into his mind and few things sufficiently penetrate its veil to be remembered with any clarity afterward. He hadn't been nervous that his voice would break or that he would fart loudly -- but he was scared now, and scared he remained. He was changing his status in the community of man. He was in the hopper of a great machine and he could no more get them to turn it off than a confessed and proven murderer could change his mind about his trail...The law had him and there was no way out, or least not a nice or easy one: it was a matter for judges and courts, his wife testifying about the length of his prick and the dirty things he whispered in her ear when he was drunk ...the judge scolding him, alimony; he could see it all. The other way out was murder or moving secretly to another town, changing your name, losing all your friends, denying all your accomplishments, a kind of suicide....He was going to be a grown up now, and there was no stopping it."

On their drive to New York, he makes a wrong turn and winds up in Brooklyn, foreshadowing Lowell's eventual involvement in the borough. But before that denouement they endure nine years of "marriage," Lowell at first "working" on his novel, which turns mostly to gibberish and both Lowell and his wife retreat to drinking when his wife daily returns from work. Their days are filled with the details of living, more like surviving, watching sitcoms, drinking, while Lowell slides down the vortex of a meaningless life, without any purpose. Why even dress?

"At the end of six months his wife systematically began to throw away his clothes. True, his clothes were showing a few signs of wear; Lowell had never been particularly interested in clothing, bought it as seldom as possible, and wore it as long as he could, often developing a stubborn affection for certain items. It was also true that his underwear was a disgrace, his Jockey shorts hanging in soft tatters and his undershirts so full of holes that wearing them was nothing but a formality; on the other hand, it was kind of startling to go to the suitcase that served him in lieu of a bureau and find that his possessions had been weeded again, the supply growing shorter and shorter as the days wore on, the time fast approaching when he would go to his suitcase and it would be empty. Worse than that, it was kind of sinister to have laid out your shirt and pants before going to bed and then wake up to find one or the other of them gone, the contents of its pockets heaped up on the table beside the typewriter. He always intended to buy replacements, but he never got around to it, and meanwhile no amount of grumbling would make his wife stop. She had a case and he didn't, and that was that; his clothes were really wearing out-perhaps not quite as fast as they were being thrown out, but that was purely conjectural and largely in the eye of the beholder, especially when it came to arguing about it-and he really did forget to buy new ones, so when you came right down to it, he had no one to blame for his impending nudity but himself. If a kinder fate had not intervened, it was altogether possible that Lowell would soon have been totally naked, hovering thin and birdlike and obsessed above the typewriter like some kind of crackpot anchorite. Although this state of affairs would have precluded ever leaving the apartment again, at least alive, that would have been all right too."

Reaching the bottom, he symbolically fears he does not even exist. His wife was to blame once again in his mind, a mind now totally disheveled and lack of purpose:

"One day, in going over his papers, he discovered that his wife had thrown out his birth certificate. There was no proof that she had done so, but the damn thing was gone, and he knew instinctively what had happened to it. It was a blue piece of crackly paper with all of Lowell's statistics arranged in graceful script above a gold medallion and the signatures of the delivering physician, the resident, and the director of the hospital, just like a diploma. It not only proved that he had been born, but the fact that he possessed it proved that he was a grown-up....He rifled the shoebox where these things were kept, he scoured the room, searched the wastebasket and then the garbage cans outside, but it was nowhere to be found. His wife had thrown it away, just as she occasionally threw away scraps of paper on which he'd scribbled some important thought. It was gone."

Finally, Lowell admits to himself that his "novel" is nothing but a means of passing time with booze. Through the shadowy connection of an "Uncle Lester" -- his wife's uncle -- he gets a job as a copywriter for a plumbing trade journal, neither knowing anything about plumbing, nor having any interest in the subject. He took the job with the understanding (his, not his employer's) that it would only be temporary (sort of like his life itself). As soon as he got the job, "his wife settled down almost as if a wand had been waved over her, bought a black garter belt, and never chewed gum again."

But after nine years of marriage (Davis describes their marriage as a cross between Long Day's Journey Into the Night and Father Knows Best), his life amounted to "an endless chain of days, a rosary of months, each as smooth and round as the one before, flowing evenly through his mind. You could count on the fingers of one hand the events and pauses of all that time: two promotions; two changes of apartment (each time nearer the river); a trip to Maine, where he realized that his wife's legs had gotten kind of fat-five memories in nine years, each no more than a shallow design scratched on a featureless bead. It was life turned inside out; somewhere the world's work was being done and men were laboring in the vineyards of the Lord, Khrushchev was being faced down on the high seas, and Negroes were being blown up and going to jail, but all Lowell did was change his apartment twice, tell his wife to put on some pants, and get promoted faster than anybody else on the paper -- a tiny, dim meteor in an empty matchbox."

But at this time Lowell discovers the biography of Darius Collingwood, a tycoon and ruthless raconteur of the 19th century, a person as opposite of the passive Lowell as one can be. He becomes mesmerized by his life, especially by the discovery that Collingwood had built a mansion in Brooklyn, one that was for sale in the Fort Green/Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, which in the 1960's looked more like Berlin at the end of WWII. Vagrants, bums, and all sorts of unsavory figures occupied empty disintegrating buildings. Lowell becomes fixated on buying the old Colingwood mansion and renovating it, not knowing anything about real estate, carpentry, plumbing, electrical repairs and with some savings he had secretly put aside from his "work" he plunges into a nightmarish version of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.

The real estate closing with a "Mr. Grossman," the seller, reveals his ignorance:
"[He never did]... get to see Mr. Grossman, who was represented at the closing by a lawyer of such intimidating respectability that he made Lowell feel like some kind of meek crook whenever he spoke to him. Sometimes Lowell wondered if Mr. Grossman existed at all, if he wasn't the creation of real-estate interests, doing voice imitations over the phone in order to collect rents and fight off city agencies and sell houses to people like Lowell. Anything seemed possible, even probable. Sitting there in the lawyer's office above Court Street with sleet rattling on the windows, money changing hands, and a great deal of incomprehensible but threatening nonsense going on all around him, he felt like a mental defective on trial for rape and witchcraft: he couldn't understand a word of it, but he had the distinct feeling that it would not end well. Papers were produced and signed; Lowell wrote checks, and they were taken from him; men conferred in glum, hushed voices with their heads close together, continually referring to Lowell as 'him.'"

So, with the first found enthusiasm of his life, Lowell begins work on his crumbling edifice.. He evicts the squatters in the home. He buys tools. He has them stolen. He buys books about renovation and understands little. He seeks out a neighbor who had renovated a similar property (unsuccessfully) for suggestions. He is demonically watched by the so called residents in those slums. His wife helps for a while, but then goes to her mother's, but returns to their apartment where she lives a chaotic life. He finally gets to the point that he has to hire a contractor but only two show up to quote, the first of whom just walks out and the second, a Trinidadian by the name of Cyril P. Busterboy who agrees to take on the job with his crew. Lowell calls him Mr. Busterboy. Mr. Busterboy calls him Mr. Lake. Gradually Lake hangs around Busterboy and his crew, buying them beers and most of the work stops as they all get drunk during the day. Lowell is so drunk one night he sleeps in the remains of the building's master bedroom, on a tarp on the floor, hears a noise downstairs and confronts a shadowy figure. Lowell, with a crowbar in hand, and still in a drunken stupor, successfully bashes the intruder's head in like a crushed watermelon. He deposits the body in the dumpster and throws other trash over the body, leaving blood all over the room. The dumpster is picked up in the morning, Lowell convinced the police will come, but no one misses the intruder whose life was obviously as meaningful as Lowell's. Mr. Busterboy tells him not to worry, that his men will clean up the blood. This is covered over with sterile new plaster. He loses the house, but does not care, "contemplating a future much like his past, he realized that it was finally too late for him."

Although a literary work, it is more a profoundly disturbing philosophical piece. How does one define a "meaningful life?" Lowell is a caricature in the extreme, simply being swept along by forces over which he has little control and when he does participate in the decision making, he inevitably makes the wrong ones, not realizing consequences. He simply has no interests, and therefore no real friends. Time erases all, but Davis' novel is a reminder to find one's passion -- and for most people that means meaningful work, or an avocation, something Lowell miserably fails at. Depressing? Yes, but Davis sees it as the modern dilemma.

More on Sicily later. But, as a preview, a panoramic view of Castellammare del Golfo, outside of Palermo, the birthplace of our friend, Maria. There fishermen gather to pursue their livelihoods as they have done for centuries, work and camaraderie providing a meaningful life.