Saturday, February 12, 2011

Sicily Day Six: Palermo Finale

The southwest corner, representing one of the four seasons, at I Quattro Canti or Piazza Vigilena.  There is a similar intersection in Rome.

There was no agenda for the morning of our final day in Sicily.  I hung around till a nice group of my friends were up—Marissa, Kevin, Kara, and Caroline—and we took off for a great walk around the city, hitting up some souvenir shops, a giant street market, and countless pasticcerias along the way.  Again, I found that walking around in the fresh air felt great, and we got to see some parts of the city that we hadn't had the opportunity to walk around in during our free evenings.  At one of these pasticcerias I got a really fantastic stromboli-calzone-like thing.  Sicily produces a lot of wheat, and the flour coating the top of the dough had a real wholesome flavor to it and tasted so fresh.  It was topped with tomato and mozzarella and stuffed with prosciutto—a nice surprise I hadn't been expecting when I bought it.

La Chiesa Di Santa Maria di Gesu

Eel and shark in the market

Uncooked escargot

We returned to the hotel a little before 1, and I got a short nap before our class reconvened at 2.  This time we were staying in Palermo, and we went to visit a mission helping immigrants, particularly from West Africa, make the transition to life in Italy.  Most of these immigrants were not in Europe to stay, but they were trying to improve themselves before returning home to help their home countries.

We got a tour of the facilities, a few of which were newly (in the last decade) renovated, thanks to help from different charities and the military, and they were so happy to have these new structures.  There was still so much farther for them to go though.  It looked a bit like a third-world country, with dirt roads and cement shards strewn everywhere.  There were many other buildings that clearly had not undergone renovation and some which didn't even have working lights.

After the tour, we got to hear from the man who more or less started the mission.  He'd been a successful young professional back in the 1970s before he had an epiphany and felt a need to give back to the less fortunate.  He made a radical change in his life, started dressing in meager robes, and stopped shaving.  He would go to the train station and try to help those in need with food and water.  His friends didn't understand what he was doing and neither did his parents.  His mother has apparently come to an understanding with it, but his relationship with his father is still a bit strained.  He has hope that will change in time as well.

As he explained, he had everything, and he felt it wrong that so many had nothing.  He gave up all modern human accoutrements.   For him, it was the Catholic god that helped him find meaning in life, but he was accepting of all religions and backgrounds.  He was also explicitly not against modern technology—though he may not use any—but hoped that it would be used for the betterment of society.

Still on site, as we left the mission, I was a bit disturbed to hear my friends and peers discussing plans for the evening, participating in what I thought to be relatively trivial conversation.  We'd just heard this powerful speech from a man who hoped to above all else, have our thoughts and prayers sent out in his direction, and we could muster no longer than the time we were listening to him, if that, to give him and the mission that respect.  It bothered me how quickly they were able to turn on his message of hard work and peace for all the world.  I know my classmates are caring and were moved by his words, but I found it incredible that they could not refrain from the material concerns of our modern lives for only a few minutes.  The mood changed as quickly as the turning of a switch.

The men of the mission offered us fresh bread they'd made and olive oil.  It was a figurative extending of the olive branch and yet many refrained from partaking in the food, saying they were not hungry or in the mood.  I know some even thought that it was odd that they were giving us food at all, but I'm sure it was much more important to them to sacrifice a loaf of bread to gain our respect and prayers.  We ended up leaving plenty of the food behind on the table, and I speculated as to whether that looked disrespectful by not fully receiving their offering.

Later on the bus, I even heard one girl say, "I was disappointed we didn't get to go shopping." This came after we were given the entire morning to do as we pleased.  From what I could tell, I was the only one to be pondering this, and it made me wonder whether I was taking it too much to heart.  Was it too much to ask for people to think a little about what we just heard from these struggling people? Maybe the greater message sunk in with everyone and would stay with them later, regardless of their discussions immediately following the visit.

For me, it was like watching a powerful documentary, except I was actually there, experiencing it.  The "music" was still echoing in my head from the credits sequence, the interviews were replaying over and over, and the message was bouncing around in my heart.   I felt compelled to give back and help these beautiful people and their message.  I could think only of them.  The day to day goings on of the world were lost in my mind.  I hadn't considered it a possibility to engage in such trivial conversation until I heard it all around me.

Of course, it was a little interesting to then attend a "conference" with a few of the other representatives of the mission at a nearby four star hotel.  There, I again heard this refrain that had been present across Sicily, with the people of the mission telling us they were so happy we were there.  One man, named Souleyman (not the Egyptian VP,) was from Burkina Faso, and spoke about how us coming to Sicily and seeing the mission was "big."  It seems that simply with our presence, we've shown the people of Sicily an interest that they've felt lacking and given them hope for a better future.  If we American students are interested in them, than surely others are as well: people who can help and preserve their beautiful culture.  There are many problems here, but we represent a future with solutions.  This more than anything has been the biggest difference I've seen in northern and southern Italy.  The northerners are confident in where they stand and don't yearn for our support in the same way because they have been highly patronized by tourists for so long.

Souleyman spoke about returning to Africa, saying, "In our country they need us if we learn something here."  He also spoke of the importance of world peace, saying, "What we need is not 'where are you from, where am I from?' We need peace."

Later that night, I went out with Marissa, Kevin, Pizeme, Kara, and Caroline back to that pizzeria where we'd eaten twice before.  Of course, they were booked this time. However, this was partially because we'd recommended it to our professor and chaperones, who were taking up a table of six.  Caroline knew some people who'd spent time in Sicily and had some recommendations for other places to eat, at least one of which we'd been unable to track down a few nights earlier, but we gave it another shot and found ourselves at a nice little restaurant.  I ended up getting a creamy cauliflower pasta that was quite delectable.

After dinner, we all retired back to Kara and Caroline's room where we did some end of trip bonding before lack of sleep finally caught up with us all, and we retired for a final night in Sicily.

Teatro Massimo, site of the final sequence in The Godfather: Part III.

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