This automobile is about as responsive as my last boyfriend. The fact that it’s fresh off the showroom floor compounds my exasperation. The dashboard is bright and incomprehensible. It doesn’t have a ‘park’ gear. Its accelerator is a meaningless appendage. Al and I will head out from Palermo this morning, ultimate destination Marsala, a couple hours drive with stops in Monreale and Segesta. This will test the fucking Fiat’s umph. In Texas, Alice drives a Honda Fit. The addition of a vowel in Italy is obviously useless filigree.
I wish we had another day in Palermo, but we’ll be coming back later in the week, due to circuitous planning on my part. Alice is a mighty navigatore, unflappable, but these days a navigatore must be a GPS virtuoso. She brilliantly and independently bought an overseas data plan for a hundred bucks. Her phone now has a direct line to an omniscient deity, so it seems. The convolutions of Palermo’s streets and the populace’s universal resistance to traffic laws or common sense make for one wacky patience-taxing ride, a real test of our potential as a team. Once we have spun out of the gravitational pull of the city, the journey becomes less hectic. “We follow this for the 28 kilometers.” Urbanity gives way to steep green hillsides and precarious cottages. We climb. It rains intermittently. I find the wipers. They are right where wipers customarily are.
Alice says the cattedrale approaches, but I ignore the occasional ‘Park Here’ sign and climb some more. As Monreale’s byways narrow, the inevitability of having to back up increases. Finally, we pull in to a place for the leaving of the auto. It has an elevator, which presupposes proximity. Yeah, it works. A glimpse of Norman stonework is caught. Confidence returns to our gait. Entrance to the cattedrale is free. This is how the Lord rolls. It is reported to be one of the most spectacular churches in Christendom. It is.
Stories from the Book of Genesis and the life of Christ and every saint and angel in heaven surround the nave and apse in glittering gold mosaic. Splendor and majesty are appropriate. It’s how the pageant was told in the 12th century. The cattedrale is an illuminated manuscript that everyone could read. Nine hundred years later, standing below, Alice and I can watch Adam and Eve confront the Snake at the Tree of Life and then suffer expulsion in their miserable fur shifts. The mosaic patterns of the floor are as dazzling as the ones that arc above. The church was built by the Norman king of Sicily, William II. Known as William the Good, his father had been William the Bad. In order to stick it to the bishop of Palermo, a difficult guy named Walter of the Mill, William created a new bishopric in Monreale and built this glory. From Monreale, the sprawl of Palermo stretches away to the sea.
Next to the church is an exquisite cloister. Long rows of arches are supported by twin columns of perilous thinness with repeating variations of mosaic tracery, each then supporting a capital of intricate detail: people, animals, fantastical creatures. The beauty and hush of this place is in way it separates shadow from light. We wak through a metaphor of the spirit.
By this time, the two of us are getting a little peaked. No place seems available to eat at. And it’s still sprinkling, frizzante in Italian. We duck into a bakery and buy what are basically pigs-in-blankets, delicious hotdogs in perfect crusty rolls. Emboldened, we hit a café for a kilo of cookies and then hit the road.
We are on our way at Segesta. Alice should see this temple. The rain is intermittent. We scoff at umbrelli. The bus to transport the visitor from the ticket booth to the theater atop the hill seems to have shut down. I’m not hiking this. So up the smaller incline to the temple we go. It doesn’t fail to impress, even twice in a week’s time. I recount the stories I remember from guidebooks and from Elena, the guide. I am unable to convince Ali that the inhabitants of Segesta were called the Segestions.
On to Marsala. By now, we’re old hands at Sicilian highways and byways. Alice suffers/entertains the same directional dyslexia that I do, casually pointing right and saying left. “Go that way,” with an impatient hand gesture doesn’t always bring the desired result. We are finding our way with a few missed turns. ‘Recalibrating’ will be the word of the week. At the city’s outskirts, suddenly all is chaos. I head down one-way streets. I back out of impossible alleys. I perspire. We loop back on ourselves. Frustration builds. “But back there I saw signs for the hotel,” only raises the silent shriek of “Fuck you!”
Then, in the road in front of us, a man on a mobility scooter. We slow. Somehow, he guides us through the warren to our destination.