Welcome to Palermo, an operatic city if ever there was one. Make your way from the docks into the grand, dilapidated theater that is Sicilian city’s old town. She must have been a devastating beauty once. Or, perhaps, to those like you with the gift of second sight, she is more glorious now: a beautiful disaster with crumbling walls, a veil of fresh lace and the complexion of a cemetery.
A seagull cries out and swoops down low. This is the signal. The show is about to start. Step lively. Mind the barnacles and broken bottles. The orchestra tunes: car horns blare, cats screech and ambulance sirens wail. No, no, don’t sit down. Put away your opera glasses. There are no spectators in this house. Make a toga from the tapestries. Clasp it with a razor clam. Take your place among the chorus. The curtain is rising.
Act I opens on Quattro Canti, the four-chambered heart of the old town. Four traffic arteries pump an exotic mix of locals and migrants into a crossroads while a high court of statues looks down on the mortals from balconies in the round. In this inverted museum, the art gawks at the people. Pedestrians, city buses, scooters and horse drawn carriages enter and exit the intersection with pulsing fluidity. Migrant Bangladeshis ride two to a bicycle. A Sub-Saharan woman wrapped in emerald fabric moves across the circle at her own tempo, an imaginary basket balanced on her head. In the nearby Fontana della Vergogna a mixed host and legion of marble angels and demons waits impatiently for nightfall. None of Palermo’s statues look like they have been standing still for long.
Act II is a wild open-air market that snakes through the most war-torn alleys and piazzas like an escaped boa constrictor. Tenors and baritones call out today’s prices for prosciutto and apricots. Slabs of swordfish are sawed off and sold, wrapped in newspapers reporting yesterday’s crimes. Cigarettes and tomatoes, life’s staples, are displayed side by side. Snails climb miniature trapeze polls as testaments of their vigor. Sicilian grandmothers run their thumbs along the business sides of second-hand knives and consider, their husbands of sixty years optimistically assume, the necks of stew chickens. Artichokes and eggplants are felt up. Wedges of Parmesan are severed from their wheels. The man with large hands on the corner holding the cleaver will fix a panini of chopped beef liver and lung if you sing him the magic word.
Act III takes place at sunset as the score reaches a crescendo. Street vendors fire up coal grills and send up smoke signals. African drums sound. A Bollywood soundtrack jangles out from an Indian snack shop. Pizzerias stoke their ovens. The laundry rainforest drying from the tangle of clotheslines overhead drips down, cloaking the day’s exhaust with the powder-sweet smell of detergent. In the next piazza, a Rossini overture collects and floods out of a second story window, cascades over a balcony and polishes a stone slab street below. Now it is dark. Now the beer is pouring and the wine is flowing at low tables with fruit crate stools. Now the statuary stretches and climbs down. Act IV is the act we’ve all been waiting for. Act IV is a monster’s ball.
Act IV is post-apocalyptic. The streets are black. The market is a ghost town. Only the smell of gutted fish lingers. Dogs and drunks sleep in doorways. The wind blows through the abandoned orchestra instruments. At this hour, if you listen closely, you can still hear air raid sirens from the war ricocheting through the city, rattling windows and loosening brick mortar. Don’t be surprised if you cross paths with a mummy, escaped from the catacombs nearby.
Act V sneaks up on Act four almost imperceptibly. The inky sky dilutes just enough to reveal a bank of heavy cloud. A lone gull cries out an aria. You walk the empty streets to the train station and pull out before the cloud lifts. Look back over your shoulder. Watch the market rising from last night’s ashes. Mark the new positions of the statues. Who, like you, has gone missing and who has just arrived? The curtain falls on Palermo, rises, and falls again.
Throwing roses from my train window,