Palermo’s Ballaro neighborhood once was home to Norman court officials in the 11th century. Now it’s home to Palermo’s growing number of African immigrants who are trying to add some spice and life to the darkest, dustiest streets in the city. It’s just across the major boulevard, Corso Turkory, from my B&B and I quickly went from a bustling street full of retail stores, small groceries and cafes to dark, narrow streets lit by lone lamp posts hanging next to dreary beat-up apartment houses.
I counted 50 people packed into a room no bigger than my 200-square-foot living room down the alley. I sat on an end table under a row of shot glasses from which the actresses kept grabbing. With my limited Italian comprehension, I believe it was about an Italian bordello from the ‘50s. A sleazy journalist is one of the customers (I deny ANY connection) and he seemed to try and convince the ladies that he should write an article about their dead hooker. I think. I don’t know. It may have been about a small Tuscan boy coming of age on an olive farm.
I arrived on a cool, cloudy day which means I saw the lake different than nearly every Roman who has visited it. It was practically empty. Normally, its sliver-narrow beach is lined with umbrellas from Romans escaping the heat. Yesterday, the 22-square-mile lake had only a couple of passersby. One middle-aged man in a heavy coat stood on the bank and held his head up to the sky with his eyes closed, trying to will some glimpse of sun onto his face. The lake isn’t massive but is so close to Rome it looks like the Pacific Ocean. It’s cobalt blue and surrounded by the rolling hills of the rugged northern Lazio countryside.
Rome’s criminal history goes back farther than any other civilization this side of Greece. The Ancient Romans had their own form of punishment. The Emperor Diocletian killed 17,000 in the Colosseum in one month. Caesar Augustus, considered one of the most popular emperors in Rome history, killed 10,000. They covered Christians with pitch, stick them on giant stakes high in the air in the middle of the Colosseum and set them on fire. They were considered the first “night games” in sport history. The Christians burned incense to erase the stench.
British and Irish pubs are big in Italy. One reason is the expat population here is nearing the numbers of the Mexican population in Arizona. Another is pubs serve good beer and Italy’s national brew is Peroni, which the Italians have labeled, “La birra della senza tetto” (The beer of the homeless.) That’s partially true. You see very few drunks in Rome but the ones that are passed out, an empty liter bottle of Peroni is usually within arm’s reach. (I have learned to emphasize the “O” in tetto. I more than once called it “La birra della senza tetta” (The beer of the titless.).
Yesterday I learned to be a better cook. I took my first cooking class in Rome. I emphasize first. When you’re retired, you’re shocked at how much time you have. I find myself revolving my days around one scheduled event. The rest of the time is spent with whimsical wanderings through the windy streets of Centro Storico or lounging on my couch reading about soccer. Or I’m in the kitchen making up recipes with whatever ingredients happen to look good in the market that day. Right now, my fettuccine with sausage and bell peppers would go for about $20 in any Italian restaurant in Denver.
The Hash House Harriers bills itself as “A Drinking Club with a Running Problem.” They meet every Sunday for what’s a combination run/scavenger hunt through parts of the city you’ll never find in “Lonely Planet.” Everyone has punted their Christian names long ago. They are given “hash names,” all based on embarrassing pratfalls, obvious physical abnormalities and just plain dumb luck. That’s why I wasn’t startled when a French woman in the group approached me, held out her hand and said, “Hello. Eatamypussy.”
Soccer as a religion is ancient news in Italy. There are archives of pictures of plump popes in full robes playfully booting a soccer ball over the cobblestones of St. Peter’s Square. But how an Italian Cup quarterfinal captivated this city of 3.5 million is another example of how soccer in Italy can’t be described. It must be experienced.
I took a bar stool and sipped a larcenously priced 6-euro pint of Nastro Azzuro the young American bartender seemed almost embarrassed to price for me. Watching football in foreign countries is foreign in more ways than one. You get the curious, not the fanatic. Rome is filled with American exchange students. One salivating male art student explained to a ditzy blonde in tight, TIGHT leather pants the rules of American football. She was not Italian. I think she was Californian.
Cell phones are as much a part of Italians’ lives as pasta. They’re connected to their ears like a growth. Land lines went out in Italy about the time of chariot races and cells, or cellulari as they’re called here, have become their lifeline. Italians have the fourth highest usage per capita in Europe (If you care, Lithuania is first), with 1,346 cell phones for every 1,000 people. Yes, that’s right. Italians even have backups.
I became addicted to public markets during my first stint in Rome from 2001-03. Mercato Trionfale was a sprawling open-air food bazaar not far from the Vatican. I got to know the Cheese Boys. I fell in lust with the Olive Goddess. I chatted up the Pasta Princess. It’s a great way to shop. You go to one stand for your cheese, another for your sausage, another for your bread. Then you stop at a tiny alimentari and get a bottle of decent Chianti for 2.50 euros.
It’s an odd sensation driving with all your present and future possessions to your next home for two months. That’s not a long time but for a traveler it’s a lifetime. You become friends with the cafe owner and the cheese vendor, the newspaper salesman and your neighbor. Moving into an apartment sight unseen is like parachuting into a different planet with no escape.
Fortunately, no escape necessary. In fact, throw away the key. I’m home.