I have a thing for 19th Century grand hotels. They are time machines like few places in the world. Richard Wagner finished Parsifal here at the Grand Hotel et Des Palmes in 1881/82. The original building had been built as a palace for the Whitaker/Ingham family, growers and exporters of Marsala wine, and greatly expanded in the late 1800s. They also built the Anglican church that sits cater-corner, looking lovely and ridiculous.
The vast, pale yellow lobby features two groupings of marble statuary, one of moony nymphs and the other, a family of fleeing Trojans. In addition to the eponymous palms, the room contains red carpeting, great gilt mirrors, swell staircases, and northern Europeans in shorts and sandals with socks. Beyond the lobby, elegant public rooms and restaurants stretch in seeming endless extravagance. Breakfast happens in a mirrored salon with pink silk walls and crystal sconces. Abundance begs for indulgence, as typified by the choice of fill-you-own canolis. An aggressive sound system attempts to entertain with the Eric Carmen version of ‘All By Myself’, forcing us tourists to deal with existential dread far from home. Sicily is melancholy, lush, and stoic, and the song’s stupefying superficiality underscores my fabulous good fortune at being here.
Alice is dragging ass. I hereby relinquish my authority on sleeplessness. The day’s plan is to walk for a couple hours, return for afternoon slumber, rally for dinner, and then slumber some more. We catch our bearings by heading to the Teatro Massimo, one of the grandest of grand opera houses in Europe, built before Palermo undertook construction of a municipal hospital. Its great front stairs was where Michael Corleone met his end. I discard the impulse to recreate the drama for selfie purposes. Ali would not have participated.
Further walking leads us to the city’s High Baroque epicenter, the Quattro Canti intersection. The four corners are concave and covered with four stories of pilasters, green shuttered windows, and niches with Spanish grandees. It is oppressive and exuberant. Tourists are the only ones who linger. A few steps away is the Fontana Pretoria or the Fountain of Shame in a courtyard flanked by Palermo’s civic buildings. The shame of the fountain is just centuries of publicity: the statues were supposedly too risqué because of all the nakedness. Who knows, but let me say the women have some very peculiar attributes. And the some of the male statues were given genitals that looked exactly those fur units that Scots wear in front of their kilts.
We continue down toward the sea on Corso Vittorio Emanuele. Our ultimate destination is the fountain at the center of Piazza Marina. Gary, from Bread Loaf, is spending a couple days in Palermo and suggested lunch. Along the way, Alice and I run into Frances, also from our workshop and give her the lunch plans. Jennifer, from Albequerque, will also be part of this group – four of us nonfictioneers and tolerant (sleepy) Alice.
Piazza Marina hosts a huge Sunday flea market. The wares are dazzling in their variety and seeming randomness. The morning feels warm in the sun and cool out of it. The park’s great ficus trees cast epic shade. Alice and I circumnavigate, then, exhausted, step into Santa Maria della Catena, a lovely 16th Century church. Its stained glass casts dapples of color on the floor and the columns. Afterwards, we search for the Marionette Museum, unsure of the appeal of its contents. It’s closed. Relief is sighed.
I continue to be tailed by that sewage-y smell. I can conjure up two possible reasons, (1) there hasn’t been a real cleansing downpour in Palermo in months or (2) the sewers date from the Romans, and, as such, are a fiesta of deferred maintenance.
Back at the flea market, serendipity bumps us into Gary and Jennifer. We search for a bench by the fountain and wait for Frances. Fifteen minutes of wiggle-room is allowed and then lunch must be obtained. We get turned away at a couple places; Sunday noon meal is a big deal, of course. But down a secondary street we are in luck. Sitting outside at a table for four, we haven’t even ordered when Frances turns to us. She had been sitting but six feet away. We commandeer a large table and have a grand old time. Alice seems happy to meet some of my workshop people, for so long veiled in mystery.
We part in great sweetness and Alice and I head back to snooze. On Via Roma, we pass the Main Post Office, a reminder of the Italian fascist past and its not negligible design achievements. It’s a blazing white marble rectangle that holds its space with authority. Still, its elements are balanced and refined, so its bulk evokes awe more than fear. Yet, it is a fascist post office, home to ruthless bureaucrats and bloodless proles. Weird.
Tonight is both the Super Blood Moon Eclipse and the Bennington Writers / Cornelia Street reading that Oona Patrick is guest-hosting for me. The center had better fucking hold. I covered all the details before I left, except I forgot ice. But I remembered I forgot and all is well. The reading should be about to commence as I drop off to sleep. With ease.