I have only a week left here. I'm planning to go back to America for Christmas before flying to India, not only because I can't stand the thought of spending Christmas without my family but also because the next eight months of my journey--India and Indonesia-- require a complete repacking of gear. Very little of the stuff you need when you are living in Rome is the same stuff you need when you are wandering around India.
And maybe it's in preparation for my trip to India that I decide to spend this last week traveling through Sicily--the most third-world section of Italy, and therefore not a bad place to go if you need to prepare yourself to experience extreme poverty. Or maybe I only want to go to Sicily because of what Goethe said: "Without seeing Sicily one cannot get a clear idea of what Italy is."
But it's not easy getting to or around Sicily. I have to use all my finding-out skills to find a train that runs on Sunday all the way down the coast and then to find the correct ferryboat to Messina (a scary and suspicious Sicilian port town that seems to howl from behind barricaded doors, "It's not my fault I'm ugly! I've been earthquaked and carpet- bombed and raped by the Mafia, too!") Once I've arrived in Messina, I have to find a bus station (grimy as a smoker's lung) and find the man whose job it is to sit there in the ticket booth, mourning his life, and see if he will please sell me a ticket to the coastal town of Taormina. Then I rattle along the cliffs and beaches of Sicily's stupendous and hard-edged east coast until I get to Taormina, and then I have to find a taxi and then I have to find a hotel. Then I have to find the right person of whom to ask my favorite question in Italian: "Where is the best food in this town?" In Taormina, that person turns out to be a sleepy policeman. He gives me one of the greatest things anyone can ever give me in life-- a tiny piece of paper with the name of an obscure restaurant written on it, a hand-drawn map of how to find the place.
Which turns out to be a little trattoria where the friendly elderly proprietress is getting ready for her evening's customers by standing on a table in her stocking feet, trying not to knock over the Christmas creche as she polishes the restaurant windows. I tell her that I don't need to see the menu but could she just bring me the best food possible because this is my first night in Sicily. She rubs her hands together in pleasure and yells something in Sicilian dialect to her even-more-elderly mother in the kitchen, and within the space of twenty minutes I am busily eating the hands-down most amazing meal I've eaten yet in all of Italy. It's pasta, but a shape of pasta I've never before seen--big, fresh, sheets of pasta folded ravioli-like into the shape (if not exactly the size) of the pope's hat, stuffed with a hot, aromatic puree of crustaceans and octopus and squid, served tossed like a hot salad with fresh cockles and strips of julienned vegetables, all swimming in an olivey, oceany broth. Followed by the rabbit, stewed in thyme.
But Syracuse, the next day, is even better. The bus coughs me up on a street corner here in the cold rain, late in the day. I love this town immediately. There are three thousand years of history under my feet in Syracuse. It's a place of such ancient civilization that it makes Rome look like Dallas. Myth says that Daedalus flew here from Crete and that Hercules once slept here. Syracuse was a Greek colony that Thucydides called "a city not in the least inferior to Athens itself." Syracuse is the link between ancient Greece and ancient Rome. Many great playwrights and scientists of antiquity lived here. Plato thought it would be the ideal location for a utopian experiment where perhaps "by some divine fate" rulers might become philosophers, and philosophers might become rulers. Historians say that rhetoric was invented in Syracuse, and also (and this is just a minor thing) plot.
I walk through the markets of this crumbly town and my heart tumbles with a love I can't answer or explain as I watch an old guy in a black wool hat gut a fish for a customer (he has stuck his cigarette in his lips for safekeeping the way a seamstress keeps her pins in her mouth as she sews; his knife works with devotional perfection on the fillets). Shyly, I ask this fisherman where I should eat tonight, and I leave our conversation clutching yet another little piece of paper, directing me to a little restaurant with no name, where--as soon as I sit down that night--the waiter brings me airy clouds of ricotta sprinkled with pistachio, bread chunks floating in aromatic oils, tiny plates of sliced meats and olives, a salad of chilled oranges tossed in a dressing of raw onion and parsley. This is before I even hear about the calamari house specialty.
"No town can live peacefully, whatever its laws," Plato wrote, "when its citizens . . . do nothing but feast and drink and tire themselves out in the cares of love."
But is it such a bad thing to live like this for just a little while? Just for a few months of one's life, is it so awful to travel through time with no greater ambition than to find the next lovely meal? Or to learn how to speak a language for no higher purpose than that it pleases your ear to hear it? Or to nap in a garden, in a patch of sunlight, in the middle of the day, right next to your favorite fountain? And then to do it again the next day?
Of course, one can't live like this forever. Real life and wars and traumas and mortality will interfere eventually. Here in Sicily with its dreadful poverty, real life is never far from anyone's mind. The Mafia has been the only successful business in Sicily for centuries (running the business of protecting citizens from itself), and it still keeps its hand down everybody's pants. Palermo--a city Goethe once claimed was possessed of an impossible-to-describe beauty--may now be the only city in Western Europe where you can still find yourself picking your steps through World War II rubble, just to give a sense of development here. The town has been systematically uglified beyond description by the hideous and unsafe apartment blocks the Mafia constructed in the 1980s as money- laundering operations. I asked one Sicilian if those buildings were made from cheap concrete and he said, "Oh, no--this is very expensive concrete. In each batch, there are a few bodies of people who were killed by the Mafia, and that costs money. But it does make the concrete stronger to be reinforced with all those bones and teeth."
In such an environment, is it maybe a little shallow to be thinking only about your next wonderful meal? Or is it perhaps the best you can do, given the harder realities? Luigi Barzini, in his 1964 masterwork The Italians (written when he'd finally grown tired of foreigners writing about Italy and either loving it or hating it too much) tried to set the record straight on his own culture. He tried to answer the question of why the Italians have produced the greatest artistic, political and scientific minds of the ages, but have still never become a major world power. Why are they the planet's masters of verbal diplomacy, but still so inept at home government? Why are they so individually valiant, yet so collectively unsuccessful as an army? How can they be such shrewd merchants on the personal level, yet such inefficient capitalists as a nation?
His answers to these questions are more complex than I can fairly encapsulate here, but have much to do with a sad Italian history of corruption by local leaders and exploitation by foreign dominators, all of which has generally led Italians to draw the seemingly accurate conclusion that nobody and nothing in this world can be trusted. Because the world is so corrupted, misspoken, unstable, exaggerated and unfair, one should trust only what one can experience with one's own senses, and this makes the senses stronger in Italy than anywhere in Europe. This is why, Barzini says, Italians will tolerate hideously incompetent generals, presidents, tyrants, professors, bureaucrats, journalists and captains of industry, but will never tolerate incompetent "opera singers, conductors, ballerinas, courtesans, actors, film directors, cooks, tailors . . ." In a world of disorder and disaster and fraud, sometimes only beauty can be trusted. Only artistic excellence is incorruptible. Pleasure cannot be bargained down. And sometimes the meal is the only currency that is real.
To devote yourself to the creation and enjoyment of beauty, then, can be a serious business--not always necessarily a means of escaping reality, but sometimes a means of holding on to the real when everything else is flaking away into . . . rhetoric and plot. Not too long ago, authorities arrested a brotherhood of Catholic monks in Sicily who were in tight conspiracy with the Mafia, so who can you trust? What can you believe? The world is unkind and unfair. Speak up against this unfairness and in Sicily, at least, you'll end up as the foundation of an ugly new building. What can you do in such an environment to hold a sense of your individual human dignity? Maybe nothing. Maybe nothing except, perhaps, to pride yourself on the fact that you always fillet your fish with perfection, or that you make the lightest ricotta in the whole town?
I don't want to insult anyone by drawing too much of a comparison between myself and the long-suffering Sicilian people. The tragedies in my life have been of a personal and largely self-created nature, not epically oppressive. I went through a divorce and a depression, not a few centuries of murderous tyranny. I had a crisis of identity, but I also had the resources (financial, artistic and emotional) with which to try to work it out. Still, I will say that the same thing which has helped generations of Sicilians hold their dignity has helped me begin to recover mine--namely, the idea that the appreciation of pleasure can be an anchor of one's humanity. I believe this is what Goethe meant by saying that you have to come here, to Sicily, in order to understand Italy. And I suppose this is what I instinctively felt when I decided that I needed to come here, to Italy, in order to understand myself.
It was in a bathtub back in New York, reading Italian words aloud from a dictionary, that I first started mending my soul. My life had gone to bits and I was so unrecognizable to myself that I probably couldn't have picked me out of a police lineup. But I felt a glimmer of happiness when I started studying Italian, and when you sense a faint potentiality for happiness after such dark times you must grab onto the ankles of that happiness and not let go until it drags you face-first out of the dirt--this is not selfishness, but obligation.
You were given life; it is your duty (and also your entitlement as a human being) to find something beautiful within life, no matter how slight.
I came to Italy pinched and thin. I did not know yet what I deserved. I still maybe don't fully know what I deserve. But I do know that I have collected myself of late--through the enjoyment of harmless pleasures--into somebody much more intact. The easiest, most fundamentally human way to say it is that I have put on weight. I exist more now than I
did four months ago. I will leave Italy noticeably bigger than when I arrived here. And I will leave with the hope that the expansion of one person--the magnification of one life-- is indeed an act of worth in this world. Even if that life, just this one time, happens to be nobody's but my own.