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Sicily : A Taste of Home

August 27, 1992|VIANA LA PLACE

I was 12. It was my first trip to almost anywhere. My family was Italian, but the only world I knew was the suburban town where I grew up. Early one morning in 1963, earlier than I'd ever been awake, we left for the train station, the many suitcases of clothes my mother had carefully assembled piled into the trunk of a taxi.

We arrived in New York, our first destination, where we stayed at the old Vanderbilt Hotel. We went to the top of the Empire State Building, had lamb chops at Longchamps, and, to the great excitement of my sisters and me, ate lunch in an automat. Then we left for Italy, but not as planned on the Saturnia--a strike in Italy kept all ocean-liners in the Italian fleet from setting sail. Instead, we boarded a Pan Am plane bound for Rome, then traveled by train down the long and winding coastal route to board a boat for Sicily.

I'd been raised on my mother's stories about her life in Italy--her grandmother, cousins and aunts; their beauty and gaiety and charm; their lives, which seemed to me to be textured and colored like rich damask. But I'd also been raised on war stories: the sound of Nazi boots stomping across the floorboards of the underground hiding place where my mother, then a teen-ager, cradled her cousins Maria Felice and even-younger Marisa, whispering to them, "Don't cry, you must be very quiet," all the while feeling the stark terror of death lurking close by. In the comfort of my suburban bedroom, I would dream of soldiers hiding behind our neatly trimmed bushes and see overhead the planes poised to strafe my sleepy Southern California neighborhood.

But mostly I held in my mind's eye an image, not clearly defined, of golden people, with shining eyes, laughing, gathered around a fragrant table laden with pasta and chilled insalata russa. My mother's early life was in the city of Palermo, a sophisticated city in those prewar years, where graceful Art Nouveau buildings lined elegant Via della Liberta. Where the Foro Italico, which comprised a curve of aquamarine sea along the city's edge, was considered one of the most beautiful marinas in all the world, lined with gelaterie, umbrella-ed cafes, and crowded with people taking an evening stroll.

H. Bartlett, in his 1853 book, "Pictures From Sicily," described the marina this way: "The bay is silvered over, the mountains stand around in shade like giant sentinels, freshness breathes from the water, perfume is in the air, everything around is steeped in beauty, and the heart and senses open to the most tender and most contagious emotions. Hour after hour is thus passed away, the spot is abandoned with regret, and it is often midnight before the throng reluctantly separate, and the Marina is deserted until the following evening."

Here my mother strolled arm in arm with her aunts, with her grandmother, enjoying an ice cream, enjoying the cool night air. This was my mother's life in the city of Palermo until the war brought an end to all that was civilized and sensuous, to all that had come before. Still, as we traveled to Italy, my mind contained only pictures of vibrant people, loved ones, and a life of pleasure known to Palermo's charmed citizens during those fleeting years.

We arrived at the train station in Palermo and were taken to the apartment of my mother's Aunt Gina. She had died recently, much to the sadness of my mother, who had loved her perhaps more than any of the others. Her apartment was to be ours during our stay and the furniture remained where it had been--the credenza filled with bottles of colored liqueurs, the large mahogany armoire still containing her clothes, her cane rocking chair (could I see it still rocking?) It felt a bit eerie to be staying in her house with her presence almost palpable in the air, but death in Italy is not something that is swept under the rug.

When we first arrived at the apartment, a small package was delivered to our door, a gift from relatives, bound in shiny paper and thin pink ribbon. It contained pastries filled with sweet cream and a deep-red watermelon gel. This was my first taste of the real Sicily and one I'll never forget. It was new and strange and, like the city, held itself out to me wrapped in deep and exotic mystery, to be slowly unwrapped and savored.

During the summer we spent there, the stillness of the apartment added a richness to our explorations, as we wandered from room to room, the heavy wooden shutters vainly struggling to keep out the blinding heat. From the long balcony we could smell coffee roasting in the shop on the corner and breathe in the heady smell of little bouquets of summer jasmine; echo-y voices would drift up at all hours of the day and night; the heat and humidity, like a heavy mantle, would keep us awake at night, until we would rise at dawn, to lean against the balcony railing and feel the first small breeze of the morning and listen to the cries of the street vendors.

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