f a c c i e

[ 08:58 monday 28 september – bus from central palermo to punta raisi airport, sicilia ]

it’s touch and go whether i’ll make my flight back to london. i got to the station quarter of an hour early for my 8:09 train. after twenty minutes it struck me as odd that the station was swarming with people, predominantly school children, but i hadn’t seen a single train. this seemed ominous for peak time on a monday morning. arrivals were being announced and passengers advised to stand back from the edge of the platform but no trains were materialising.

i asked an old man on the platform who said “if the train doesn’t come, maybe the next one will” which was admirably philosophical but not exactly reassuring. 8:09 came and went. then the indicator board mysteriously went blank and details for the 8:39 appeared on the next platform. i searched out an official who apologised that there was a strike and all trains were cancelled.

once i would have felt irritated that no signs had been put out, no announcements made, to warn travelers of the situation. but my relationship with sicily has reached a point where i accept her foibles, perhaps even feel affection for them. so i simply rushed outside and got a seat in the half-hourly bus which runs from the station to the airport.

that was half an hour ago. this is the peak of the morning rush hour and we’re still battling through the palermo streets towards the autostrada. my chances of reaching the airport before check-in closes are evenly balanced.

i flew into trapani last saturday with sergio and spent several days there with his family. then on tuesday i journeyed to milazzo and took wednesday morning’s first hydrofoil to stromboli. the crew told me a scirocco was rising from the south-east and they were uncertain if they’d be able to dock. indeed there was a large sea running by the time we reached the island three hours later. but they managed to come alongside just long enough for me to leap off.

that was the last boat to dock until saturday. within an hour the waves were crashing down on the quay. there’s a special atmosphere on the island when it’s cut off like this. nobody arrives, nobody leaves. then after two days the wind and sea shifted ninety degrees and a maestrale came up from the north-east. now the waves pounded spiaggia lunga whilst scari and the quay fell into the lea of the island. stromboli was re-connected to the outside world.

yesterday afternoon as i was packing my bags the wind shifted back to the south-east and waves began to lick the sides of the quay again. one of the two companies running hydrofoils to stromboli cancelled their services. but my boat managed to come alongside. the hydrofoil was pitching and lurching alarmingly as we ran up the gangplank. it was the roughest i’ve seen anyone dock there.

the journey back to milazzo was quite an adventure. every few minutes the forward foils would catch a wave and the bow would slam down sending torrents of water over the cabin. i have the greatest admiration for the siremar crews. they continue to operate these machines masterfully under conditions in which most would stay in port. we reached milazzo right on time and i caught the last train to palermo.

it was eleven in the evening when i arrived in palermo. after my time on stromboli and with sergio in trapani i was expecting palermo to be the anti-climax of the trip. but sicily blessed me with one last surprise and i found myself in the chaos of a religious festival in the quarter where i was staying. a huge statue of the madonna was being carried through the streets by young men with priests and white-robed women carrying candles in front and two fifty-piece brass bands following behind. every twenty metres a handbell would ring, the statue would be set down and one of the bearers would shout invocations at the statue at the top of his voice to be affirmed by the rest of the bearers with an impassioned cry of “viva maria!”. all the while the bands kept playing, one alternating with the other to save the musicians from complete exhaustion. it was incredibly moving, there were moments when i had tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat.

dangling my camera, video camera and audio recorder from various limbs i threw myself into the thick of the procession. it took an hour passing down via roma before pausing and turning into piazza sant’anna. the piazza was blazing with ornate festal arches studded with coloured lights. as the procession entered a welter of fireworks commenced which rose to a deafening crescendo. fragments of burning carboard began to rain down and people started retreating nervously before a series of huge explosions marked its finale. the statue passed into the small plain church of maria of the mercede. there was an awkward moment when it came off the ramp to its resting place at the alter, triggering a thrill of terror that some harbinger of bad fortune was about to transpire, then a final heave restored her to her resting place and everyone relaxed.

i ate a carton of panelli on the street, drank a few glasses of rum at the tiny bar “monkey” on the piazza where i met some friendly musicians, then it was time for me to retire and get a few hours’ sleep.

thus sicily continually tests me and shows me her different faces. it is a place, a people, where i find a vividness and intensity of life that raises me above myself.

we are on the autostrada now. i think i will reach the airport in time.

: c :

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