Monday, August 31, 2009

The Park, The Prostitute, Palermo and Prayer

My last two days in Palermo was both an entertaining and sobering experience. Despite the romanticism and affection I have for Italy and it's neglected sons and daughters of La Provincia, there are some real realities one has to take in and then balance it out with your experience and still come away from it happy and completely satisfied.

I am sure you have heard this all before, but the only way to really experience a country is to get with the locals. This has always been my practice and I certainly did this in Sicily. I was not a tourist of sort (although I did two tours - one in Palermo and one in Catania). I wanted to get to the nitty gritty, the heart; finding out what is really happening.

You remember earlier during my trip, I mentioned that I met on old man who gummed my arm? Well later that same day, I met another gentleman who was a real local who spoke no English - I got my chance to really get down to really knowing Palermo better. Over gelato, I shared with my experience about the old man and he laughed. Well, unbeknownst to me, he shared with his uncle about La Ragazza Americana who was nearly gummed to death by an old man in the park, and lo and behold his uncle whom he calls "Cici (Chi - short for Siciliano), knows this guy. When I was in Catania both of them went on a mission to talk with this man about how he approached me and wanted to know what this was all about.

The Old Man Gumming Incident took place in the English Gardens. The old man, proudly admitted he met me and tried to kiss me, but missed and went for my arm. He said he could not help himself because I was so beautiful and he had to do it. This man named Vincenzo (I later found out his name) is 76 years old and he sits in the park every day scouting out younger women he can spend time with on the park bench and if he is ever so lucky more.

Old man Vicenzo got a little scolding, but it was all for naught because I met Vincenzo again yesterday - yes in the park sitting on a bench donning a black and white striped derby hat with a matching shirt. He is really short; more shorter than I had originally remembered. With a big pancia (stomach) and little legs, Vincenzo was perched on the bench like a real Don Giovanni.

I asked him in Italian why he felt he could gomma me (gum me)? He just smiled and said, "I wanted to have a kiss so I thought I would try." The young man and his zio (uncle) made so much fun of him; it became a drama in the park Sunday morning. Other older men joined the group, one-by-one hearing and listening to the same story being told over and over again, but of course with some added information and fabrication added each time it was told. I no longer owned the experience or the story. It was now owned by the Gummer himself Vincenzo, Zio Franceso, Nipote (nephew)Caruso, Giovanni, Salvatore and anyone who came to join us.

I could not contain my own laughter and at one point, tears were flowing because I was laughing so hard. I am not sure if the men came because I was present or because these guys always attracted such a crowd. But while in the park, I received a free espresso (I drank it because I was being polite, but it was hard and what I did not finish - which was most of it - Zio and Caruso sucked it down for me), gelato, water, sweets and other little treats to make me happy. I had a camera so the men took over the shots and told me what ones they wanted me to take with them and of them. It was quite a spectacle. There was a lot of gossip about what is happening with various persons and of course continuous ranking on each other; particularly Vincenzo, the old Gummer.

I received many questions about my visit to Italy such as, "Why did I come to Sicily, How did I find Sicily, What is more beautiful Palermo or Catania, Do I have any friends here, Why did I come alone," etc. - you get the picture. The main question they really wanted to know is about my love life - Do I have a Sposare (Married), Marito (Husband), Findanzato (Fiance), Amante (Lover) or what. The second big question is, do you have kids? With the answer to these two most important and nosy questions being "No," they all speak at once in Italian; wondering why this is and perhaps they can help me with my situation in what ever way they could to first find me someone in Sicily and then work out the other situation; but perhaps not necessarily in that order.

Several of the men did a little walk and talk with each other; looking over to me periodically and then motioning and coming back. At the end of their walk and walk discussions, I would hear, "She's nice girl and really smart too." To keep repeating that I am Bella would sound arrogant and to self indulgent, so I will not write this any more.

When Italian men in the South greet each other it is with a kiss; there is a real affection that is shown to friends. Similar to Arab men, this is what they do. I am curious if they got this practice from the Arabs when they dominated the area. The body language by the men is most amusing. The hand gestures, the emphasis when they talk and walk and the decibels they speak in are so similar to that of African American men who hang out on a Sunday morning.

In other countries, hanging out does not seem to be a problem. It is nothing to see groups of three, six or more men sitting on a bench drinking cappuccino or eating a light sweet shooting the breeze about everything from soccer (calcio), politics, the mafia (this is a subject that comes up often) or their favorite topic women.

Families come to the park on Sunday morning as well. Children are playing, little babies are struggling to walk teetering at a rapid pace with both hands in the air trying to balance themselves - their papas are nearby to catch them before they fall.

Women come to the park too in small groups walking and also talking about whatever is on their minds, making it a point to sit away from the men, but in an area that they can see them.

Everything is in slow motion in the park. People walk slow, drink their coffee slow and eat their gelato in a cup leisurely as well. The parks of Palermo are meant for what Caruso says, "Tranquila and Non Stressato." I think this is something Americans really do miss in their lives. Europeans have something special here when it comes to allowing life to just happen when it is time to relax and chill out.

Now back to Vincenzo, the Old Gummer. Vincenzo has a philosophy about women and perhaps this is something you are familiar with or can relate too. He feels if he goes after every woman he meets and sees who are decent looking enough for him, his odds of landing a shared bench with them of course a visit to his casa later are good. He says everyone woman needs love and he is available to give it.

With his philosophy in tact, Vincenzo went into action twice during my visit at the park. I think he wanted me to know that no love was lost because he was dissed by me earlier in the week, but he also wanted me to see he is true to his own game. With Caruso and Zio as Vincenzo's cheering squad they pointed out a younger woman sitting on a bench alone encouraging Vincenzo to share his bottle of water with her. They told him she looked like she is thirsty.

Vincenzo, takes his little pea sized head with hat, leans over and peers over to the left viewing her like a predator. He then leans back mumbles something in Italian, looks to his fans and asks if they think he should try. Caruso is overjoyed with glee because he sees Vincenzo the old Gummer is about to go in for at least attempted kill.

After more pumping up, the old man stands up and belts out a line or two from O Sole Mio at the top of his lungs and I lost it with more laughter. But the old man has a beautiful voice! I mean a real bel canto!!! His sound captured the attention of the entire area in the park including his prey and after he finishes singing, he stands up straight (more than when he met me), and scoots over to the young lady. He takes out his warm bottle of water. By this time, I am in tears again because I can't stop laughing and imagining how hot that water must be as he is offering her a drink from his used bottle of aqua naturale. His rap did not last too long however and Vincenzo, the old Gummer was back with us.

I told him that I wish I had a video tape because I would put this on YouTube for sure. All of us continue talking about various things from here in Sicily to the United States. All wanted to say they really like Obama and how good it is for the world to have a black President. Of course I thanked them on behalf of Obama and black people in America.

When the sun begins to take over an area, the leader of the park group tells everyone to move to another area of the park that has more shade and fresca (fresh air). Motioning us (by the way, the hand motion away means to come or follow in Sicily. I got that confused a few times while I was there). The leader was Zio and he chose a nice spot of rock like benches under one of those big spider trees. As we sat there, another woman came and sat there too eating some gelato. She sat off to herself quietly watching and listening. She was from Brazil and living in Palermo.

One of the men who works on a ship spoke to her for a little while, but then joined us and later left. She continued to stay and listen. I spoke to her because she asked me if I was from Brazil. Not shy of course, I spoke to her and told her the basics. After about forty five minutes she left and began to take a walk. As she is walking away, we see Vincenzo eyeing her something fierce. Not deterred by the last rejection, he was at it again, but this time he knew he would score.

His park buddies again playing as the popcorn crew encouraged him and off he was again. Scooting at a seemingly more rapid pace to catch up to Ms. Brazil, he met up with her and they began to talk and walk and talk and walk. I was shocked. She must be at least half of his age, but Vincenzo had her attention. They walked around the circumference of another tree area at least twice and then took a detour off to the right of us. For about 5 minutes or so it seemed, they sat on a bench far away from us so we could not hear what they were talking about. Moments later, Vincenzo and she began to walk arm-in-arm, out of the park and I guess to sua casa (his house).

By then, the men were dying with laughter. They bellowed that Brasiliana was a prostitute. I was shocked because she did not look like one; at least not the typical ones you see on the streets. She worked the parks in a discreet and conservative manner wearing everyday normal clothes - not even showing any parts of her body to attract attention. If you saw her, you would think she is a mom wearing an oversized shirt over shot 3/4 length pants.

I surely learned a lesson about the different styles of Prostitutes. I am sure I will get a phone call in America reporting to me about Vincenzo since they are going to ask him how much he paid and other details I really don't want or need to know. Prostitution, like other countries is a major problem in Sicily. Most of the women who sell sex are Africans, Polish and Romanians. Since the Mafia is there as well as other forms of low life criminal behavior accompanied with sex trafficking, there are men running things. The African women mostly come from Ghana and Senegal.

Vincenzo, got what he wanted, even if he had to pay for it.

A part of my last two days in Palermo involved going to beaches. I went to Mondello and Sferracavallo. Both places house a lovely view of the sea, but due to the gross neglect of the leadership of the Province and its country, it is in serious need of an upgrade. Poles need to be painted, new boardwalks need to be added; the whole area, just needs to be cleaned period.

Despite how "sporco," (dirty) the beaches were, people were still proud and walked around in bathing suits and shorts; many too small for their larger sized body frames that hung over the panty or man boobs that hung like a bra was desperately needed. Beautifully bronze skinned youth stroll the area taking photos of each other pretending to model for Dolce & Gabanna.

In all of Italy, it would be really stupid to talk to Italians about low carb diets. They will laugh in your face and make that face and sound when they don't agree - "Eh," followed by Sei Pazzo or scemo (You are crazy). If you are going to lose weight in Italy, it would be to control portions and walk more than you eat. I ended up walking 45 miles in total during my trip and I am most sure I lost a few pounds - it was not done on purpose. I am very curious if Sicily is one of the fattest places on the planet and how close it might be (particularly Palermo) competes with U.S. obesity.

My last activity of the evening Sunday happened upon a little church (Chiesa) just outside of the walk way of beach Sferracavallo. My last two photos were taken in front of that church. I was ushered inside the church and sat in the back. The parishioners were singing a song praising God and various persons (mostly women) got up and read scripture from the Bible; there was a call and response by the priest. I felt this was the last and best place I needed to be for a visit; a house of prayer. I got a bit emotional thinking how things come full circle - even on a vacation like the one I just had. I was thankful for everything and all that happened to me while I was on the trip.

It was a really spiritual moment for me personally, and I was very thankful for the company I was keeping at the moment.

The bus ride back to the hotel was long and late. I was so glad I decided to do most all of my packing Saturday night. It seemed one of the buses I needed to take stopped running; so I had a long walk back. For the one bus I did take there was man on the bus who talked so loud to himself and anyone who would listen, the whole bus was laughing because he was literally yelling. When all of us got off the bus and changed for the bus that never showed, he was still talking. One person next to me remarked to him that our bus is not coming because he scared the bus driver from the previous bus and he told the new driver forget about picking us up.

The guy was yelling about a drink and panino (sandwich) he purchased and felt he was taken advantage of. Someone with me asked him in a loud voice if he thought it was Mafiaoso? The guy responded that he did think this was the reason why since the Mafia is involved in everything including the drink and the sandwich. People really cracked up.

My evening ended around 10 p.m. Walking back to my hotel for one last time, I thought to myself how fun and splendid it truly was to be in Sicily at this time. My usual visit is the Amalfi Coast, but this time, I chose to go to a place people don't always say the nicest things about. Sicily is special. Its golden people are unique and I am glad to have been a guest of a place with so much history, complexity and passion.

I think I will come back again.

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