A Hobbit Slings Hashish
“You’ll never see that money again,” said the friend to the traveler who was not me because I never do drugs. Other things I never do: hand nine Euros in change to a bookish Health Management student from Agrigento whom I’d just met in order that she might return with a tiny bit of hashish that we could smoke in celebration of a final night in Sicily.
Again, that wasn’t me. Because I never do drugs.
But if it HAD been me, I would have been vindicated a mere thirty nervous minutes later (okay, not that nervous because we were all drinking a bit too heavily for nervous). From out of the crowd of all those scores of Sicilians drinking and smoking and kiss-kissing in the alleys of Vucciria Market came the Health Management student, as promised, accompanied by… a Halfling.
Yes, he was small, but I’m not saying he was one of the Shire People simply because of that. The Hobbits of the books were said to average 3′ 6″, and this person was a bit more than five feet tall. It’s just that he had a shire affect, and a perfect shire accent. This was all the more confusing because Sicilians do not generally have lilting Gloucestershire accents, and people who appear after midnight with the drugs you paid for are not generally friendly and twinkly-eyed and ready for long conversations while your doubting friend crumbles the hash into a cigarette.
But this enigma of a Took showed up just like this, and he had a long and fine conversation with the person who wasn’t me because I never do drugs. He told his Hobbit’s Tale, his own personal There and Back Again, about having traveled to the far-away land of Britain because of the sheit economy in Sicily. There, in Britain, he spent years among them as one of their own. He moved from city to city, he waited tables, he learned to talk as they did, so much so that even now, in the middle of a Palermo night, he pronounces Sicily as Sissehleh, with a built question-mark on the last syllable.
But all Shire People are home-loving, and he had returned to his cozy island, to smoke a pipe and dream of the faraway adventures he once had.
Oh, and yes, to become a drug dealer.
The Anxieties of the Expat
Germans abhor a headcold. They are the world leaders in persistent self-medication, champion tinkerers with combinations of coughdrops, menthol rubs, herbal teas. And so, in the evening after a day that had reached nearly 100 degrees Fahrenheit in Palermo, the German turned toward me in the backseat, and said: You have a cold! You need a scarf! You really must keep your throat covered!
The German has lived in Italy for most of his adult life, for decades now. He returns to Germany, it seems, mostly for medical visits—he’s not the youngest anymore. He is driving me around Palermo because he is, in a way that also seems distinctly German, an anti-racism activist, and he has deep ties in the African community I’m reporting on (though he finds Africans’ lack of punctuality quite vexing at times).
I am marveling at the Germanness of this expat. He owns a car and drives in Palermo every day, but at each intersection he seems to be seeing Italian drivers for the first time in his life. He winces as a Fiat passes him on the right. A car turns in front of him without signaling, and he shakes his head. “Unbelievable!” he cries as he sees a father on a moped with a helmetless child sitting up front.
At this rate, the German’s thirty years in Italy must have been one outrage after the other.
This is not to criticize him. He is a lovely man with a kind heart who does good work for Palermo’s poorest. And it’s not to criticize Germans, who at least have the self-awareness to take ownership of their national OCD.
It’s not just German, it’s human: nationality doesn’t wash off any more than skin color does. No heat wave can sweat it out of you. A German in Sicily is still a German, and in the backseat I, red-eyed and coughing like a seal and yet passing judgement on all these Europeans, am more American than ever.
A Boy Named Fiona
The first night in Sicily featured dinner at La Brace in Cefalú, where a mother and son ran an entire restaurant on their own, and tore into each other as they did, because restaurants are stress and mothers and sons are stress and the whole thing was at times a spectacle.
So it is only fitting that the last night should feature more of that family drama laid bare in a restaurant setting. There is a convivial little piazza, more of a wide intersection actually, on the inland end of La Butera in Palermo, and this piazza is home to three or four trattorias with outdoor seating and grills filled with seafood.
One of those, Avana Café, might be named after Havana, but has no Cuban dishes. Instead, it is a pure Sicilian menu. I had come for the Ricci di Mare pasta, a rich wonder of sea urchin and handrolled noodles.
It was not an unqualified success. The pasta was tremendous, but the grill with fresh seafood seemed mostly for show: the fire was too cold, leaving my dish of octopus tough and sinewy.
But who can be upset about mouthfeel when the waitstaff provides such a show? This was not Caffe Taci in New York, with its opera singing. Rather, it was a more intimate performance, more like a tense one-act off-off-Broadway. There was stern father, fuming at a sidetable while he added up receipts. All around him were his sons—where there three of them? ten? twenty? All the men seemed to be related.
The sons were terrible waiters. Young and healthy, they nonetheless wanted very badly to sit, no matter what they were doing at the moment. Many a time they seemed to take an order, and then on the way back to the kitchen, they just sat down in an empty seat. Order, not delivered, at least not yet. Invariably another brother would already be sitting there as well, and they would start to converse, and joke and forget themselves in the warm night air.
It was soon clear that the object of many of these jokes was the one brother who at least seemed to be putting an effort in. Tall, with spiky black hair and thin-framed glasses and a goofy smile, the brother was being yelled at constantly by the father for his little mistakes. The wrong plate always to the wrong table, forgetting to bring the water, leaving a check uncollected. But the brothers, sitting and laughing at their tables, were more pointed. “Fiona!” they catcalled as he slinked by, “Angelina!”
Trenchant social commentary, no doubt. Probably provoked by his hair. Or his glasses. But I imagine the last laugh was on the bullying brothers, the brutes. Because regardless of how femme this Fiona might be, these manlier brothers who criticized him could not keep their grill hot enough for calamari, and therefore cannot be men at all.
The day has its phases in Vucciria market. Fruit, produce and meat stands line the alleys north of Via Roma during the day. For lunch and then later mealtimes, carts emerge in front of storefronts, grilling fish in great billows of smoke and steam, keeping fried arancini warm under heat lamps. Then the vendors clear out entirely and the bars take over, pouring shots of Jaegermeister and cold pints of Moretti for the throngs who come to celebrate being young and alive on warm nights in Sicily.
It is during this phase that a foosball table emerges from somewhere and a few players take to thwacking and spinning and shouting around the table. But these are not adults indulging in a drunken round of child-games. The players are children, and they are playing against their parents. Try not to be surprised, as the hour stretches toward midnight, that kindergarten-aged children are playing foosball vigorously without a bedtime story in sight.
Sicily in the summer is an island of night-children, who stay up until they collapse, because they have no school in the morning, no summer camp. They stay with grandparents if they can, but even with parents, summer nights are deeply unregulated.
At 11:30pm in Testa Dell’Acqua, little Salvatore is watching an Italian station called Cartoonito that is not programmed for stoners, as it would be in the States, but for actual little children who want to watch cartoons at 11:30pm.
In Ribera, Sabrina’s niece and nephew finally beg for sleep. They are not forced to it.
And in Palermo, the foosball tourney, age 7 and under in the midnight division, continues on. And what you notice, and admire, about all these night-children, is that they are neither fretted over nor fretting themselves. They are night-children because their parents want to be out at night, and therein lies a simple alignment of interests. It is summer for us all, we all hate sleep, what else is there?