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Italy

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SICILY

(A vicarious revisit after 40 years)

We did not expect the Coast Guard to give Karl
a new assignment so soon. We were just beginning
to feel at home at Michigan's Upper Penninsula and
accepting Sault Ste. Marie's below zero winters.

Married for two years and without children
we were one of seven couples sent
to experience "isolated duty"
at the NATO LORAN (Long Range Navigation, that is)
station in southern Italy: a study of sorts to learn
if American families can live in a totally "local" environment.

Catanzaro Lido, on the Gulf of Squillace,
had been home to us for one year
and its white sandy beach, much like Hawaii's, made us feel at home.
"Isolated duty" was more a mental than a physical state
because we traveled often to visit neighboring small towns
nestled high on lofty mountain shelves,
and we traveled 234 miles by train to Naples the past December,
and spent two days in Rome six months later.

When the island of Sicily beckoned us to visit
we planned a five-day trip around the island in early October.
We drove along the Ionian Sea coast,
south to the toe of the Italian boot,
feeling confident that our Volkswagen Fastback,
not much larger than a Fiat,
belonged on the Italian highways and byways,
and being a non-American model,
it did not arouse Italian curiosity.

We missed the noon ferry to Messina by five minutes
and the wait for the one o'clock ferry
gave us the opportunity to watch the hydrofoils as they sped
from the harbor at 50 mph to
cross the Straits of Messina in only 10 minutes.

After our 45-minute cruise into Messina,
we started off for Cefalu, and the narrow winding roads
tested Karl's driving stamina, which he passed with unqualified success.
Averaging 30 miles an hour, we arrived at Cefalu
at 8 PM and checked in at Hotel Santa Lucia.
In the morning, the balcony of Room 20 offered us
a magnificent view of Cefalu with its 12th century cathedral
dominating the scene. What more could we ask for $5.20 (L.3250)
for the night? And the cathedral, built during the rule of the Normans,
kept us in awe with its mosaic.

Getting lost in the big city of Palermo was a blessing!
The hour we spent searching for Via Maqueda forced us to talk to Sicilians
we would not have met had we gone straight to the cathedral
and to the Palatine Chapel which are a block from each other.

The cathedral, which was built from 1170 to 1185 by the Arabs and
Normans, was where the kings and queens of Sicily worshipped.
Four sarcophagi topped with canopies
cradle in eternal preservation the remains of three kings and a queen.

Siesta time from 1 o'clock to 4 kept us in sync with the Sicilians
and we rested under the trees when we felt the need to rest our eyes.
The cathedral at Monreale two miles outside of Palermo,
believed to be Italy's greatest Medieval cathedral,
was closed when we got there at 2 PM because it was siesta time.

We sat near the fountain in front of the cathedral
and pondered whether to take a siesta for an hour.
We decided to proceed to Segesta without delay.

Segesta, a few miles off the main highway,
was one stop high on our list.
The Greek Temple for which Segesta is known sits on top of a hill
with nothing around it but mountains and the sky above.
Built in 5 B. C., the Doric temple is still intact.

The shadows were beginning to fall,
so Karl hurried to take a picture of two men pressing grapes
not too far from the temple,
and we were on our way to Marsala,
the wine-producing center of Sicily.

We reached Marsala after sunset on the second day.
We practiced our Italian on friendly Sicilians at the shops,
which were open in the evening to compensate for siesta time.
We supped on Italian pizza -- square slices with tomato sauce
topped with fresh basil and a bit of mozzerella.
We sipped a sampling of Marsalan red wine
before checking in at the AGIP Motel for the night.
We basked in the bouquet of spirits that filled the Marsalan night.

At eight the following morning we stopped at Figuccia Winery
and sampled sincere Sicilian hospitality.
Our welcome could have been for Garibaldi.

Selinunte was another Greek stronghold,
but an earthquake might have toppled the temples into mountains of rubble.
Or, did Hannibal's army destroy the town and its temples?

Sciacca, known for its thermal waters for 3,000-plus years,
was a shady and restful stop from our wanderings at Selinunte.
We tarried at the town and fed the pigeons at Piazza Scandaliato.
We visited an open market and bargained with friendly merchants
and happily left with a unique two-piece ceramic ashtray.

We spent the afternoon at the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento.
The symbol of the town, the Temple of Concord, is in a magnificent state
of preservation, its 34 columns still intact.
It seemed apropos that a bride and her groom were standing
on a rock near the Temple of Concord for picture-taking.
In our hearts, we wished them peace as they begin a life together.
We walked amidst Agrigento's silvery olive trees
that stood like sentinels guarding the Valley of the Temples.

We fed the pigeons at Gela, where we shared a park bench
with a Sicilian gentleman who graciously allowed us
to exercise our Italian tongues before locating the AGIP Motel.

Ragusa, on the southeastern tip of Sicily, has a mountain
with a plant that produced waste matter that drained down
the side of the mountain and created a color that's beyond description.
Alas, we had no time to ask questions to satisfy our curiosity.
What chemical plant? We wanted to know.

Again it was siesta time, so we rested at the amphitheater at Siracusa,
the bulwark of Greek civilization in Sicily, with our light lunch.
Theater folks still use the Greek theater to stage classical drama
during the month of May.

Leaving Siracusa, we made our way to Catania
to visit Mount Etna at close range. We went as close to the volcano
as the dirt road allowed us before we started searching
for the U. S. Navy Base at Sigonella. We circled the area
for two hours and when we finally found the base it was 5:30.
We made a brief stop at the Navy Exchange and Commissary
before availing ourselves with the privilege
of having a steak dinner at the Chief's Club.

Driving through Catania's long and wide boulevard that evening
was a delightful experience. The traffic was heavy
but we found the AGIP Motel as we left Catania.

Thus, on the fifth day we filled our lungs with Taormina's morning air;
we took in the beauty of the coastal city
as we stopped at the antique shops on Main Street.

Taormina is a lovely town: a favorite of the famous.
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton visited the town that summer.
Ceramics, well-made and abundant, were hard to resist,
and we acquired a 10-inch hand-painted plate
with a two-line inscription: G. FRANCICA , and TAORMINA.
The mint, lavender, rose, mustard, and blue fleur-de-lis designs
that decorate the beige background are pleasing to the eyes:
a perfect reminder of a beautiful town. The coffee cups
and saucers tempted us, but Karl did not like
the handles, and I did not like the price.

A short drive from Taormina took us to Messina to catch the ferry.
And we saw once more the carriages and heard once more
the sound of horses' hoofs and carriage wheels
on the cobblestones. Those ubiquitous Sicilian carts
and carriages, some intricately painted, some done more simply,
and those well-dressed horses sporting red, white
and green tassels are indelibly etched in our memory.

Sicily's rolling hills and endless acres 
of grape fields remain in our memory.
Our olfactory glands remember well the smell
of ripening grapes, fermenting grape juice, and aging wine.
(October 1967/March 2007)



SICILY'S TEMPLES

I.
A Doric temple on Segesta's highest hill
With pillars that reach the hem of the sky
Has stood in lonely vigil for ages.
Across the valley awaits the empty theater
Whole players the centuries have silenced.

II.
But Selinunte's temples are now mountains
Of rubble. Whose heavy hands dis-
Jointed the massive columns and
Destroyed the legacy of an age?
Were the people and the priests
At prayer at the Temple of Apollo
When the final hour suddenly arrived?
What cries scaled the walls of the Acropolis?

III.
The Greeks left more marvels at Agrigento
At the Valley of the Temples: Marvelous ruins:
Concrete testament to a constructive past.
The Temple of Concord stands tall and erect
Amidst the almond trees,
Surrounded by olive trees with their silvery leaves:
A silent but a solid reminder of a splendid age.

IV.
Men and women on Sicily's faithful hills
Bend over grapevines that cover unending acres.
Simple and sturdy like the Doric temples,
Pensive in the lingering racy odor of fermentation.

V.
Only the carts and carriages drawn by horses
Sporting red, white and green tassels,
And the trotting hoofs and the rolling wheels on the cobblestones
That ramble like drums at the head of a parade
Shear the solemn stillness.

10.67 | 3.74 | 3.97 | 3.07



"BUON APPETITO"

'Tis early summer in Naples,
And the weather is wonderful for sightseeing,
An ideal time to tour this metropolis by the bay,
On the eve of our trip to Pompeii,
And to view Vesuvius looming over the city.

And we lunch at a sidewalk cafe,
The aroma of garlic and oregano inviting us to stop,
For the precise prelude to an afternoon nap,
In keeping with the Italians' siesta ritual.

The dish set before us is hot from the oven.
The mozzarella cheese is melded
With the tomato sauce into the desired
Gastronomic alloy of perfect proportions.
And fresh basil adds zing to the dish,

Which the waiter offers with "Buon appetito."
Today the aroma and the sight are as fresh in my mind
As on that Friday in June a number of years ago.
And when the mind begs the heart for comfort
No food can offer the bliss that pizza brings.
(April 21, 2003)

SUNNY SUNDAY IN CATANZARO

Let's go to the park again --
The park that overlooks the cliff.
We will watch the ducks at play in the little lake.
Let's talk with the handsome swans --
The orange-billed white swans that lord
Over the Lovers' Lake, and ask them
Questions of the heart.
 
Let's visit the island of pinecones,
And see what day and date today is.
The year is there also,
In case a visitor forgets, I suppose.
The white sand cradles the pinecones
Sunning openly in the winter wind
Defying the bundled up Italians
Struggling to keep warm in the confines
Of their cold cement-floored dwellings.
 
Let's walk along the flowerbeds
And visit with the waiting grass.
Perhaps they have answers
To questions of the heart.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Will not mind our presence.
And we will ignore the dignified patrons
Who populate the park with watchful eyes
Staring uncaringly in their marble coldness.
 (1972)
 

* * * * *

COMFORT FOOD

Comfort to the mind,
Comfort to a hungry soul:
Pizza, anyone?
(April 21, 2003)

* * * * *

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