Week 7: My 48 Hours in Palermo/ A Public Love Letter to Italy

Riccardo went to Italy on July 11. While he was on the 12 hour plane ride from Los Angeles to Rome, I bought a ticket. I was at work. I didn’t think about anything. I just did it. Because it felt right, and I knew it was what I should do. Six days later, I was on a plane. I have worked several late nights and weekends this summer, and so my gracious bosses let me take two days off to travel. I left directly from the Embassy after work on Wednesday the 17th. I flew overnight 9 hours from Kigali to Entebbe, Uganda to Amsterdam. Then from Amsterdam to Rome. And then to Sicily. 19 hours after leaving Africa, I landed in Palermo on Thursday afternoon.

The first thing I noticed was the air. It was humid. It felt like Pittsburgh summer air. It smelled like salt water and I imagined I was with my family in Ocean City, Maryland like when I was a kid. It felt familiar and comforting. And then I saw Riccardo.

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Don’t worry. He was not making that face.

I thought that this trip would be 48 hours of relearning each other after the harsh adjustment of nine weeks apart. However, that didn’t happen, because we never forgot how to be together in the first place.

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So here is the view of Palermo from the kitchen window of Riccardo’s dad’s apartment. A day in the life.

The first night, we had dinner with his brother, Vittorio (who is actually my best friend because he made me almond pesto pasta one night when he visited LA), Vittorio’s girlfriend, and their cousin Cecilia and her boyfriend. I also met his grandma, who said that I was very nice, very tall and, very blonde. She said I looked like a Northerner. If by Northern, she meant Poland or Germany north, then yes, all of those statements are correct.

They made amazing pasta with peppers, sausage, and cream sauce. The original plan was to have sushi, but then they found out that I don’t like sushi and made me this feast instead. I also sampled traditional Sicilian pastries and baked goods. I would list them all for you now but I’m a dumb American who can’t remember foreign names so I will have to post a list from Riccardo later. I know that they involved ham, cheese, spleen, and fried chickpeas. It was much more delicious than it is written in list form.

After, we met up with his best friend, Carolina (who is also my bff because we tell secrets to each other in broken Spanglish), and a whole group of his friends from elementary school, high school, and university. In this way, Palermo felt like Pittsburgh. It is small, everyone knows each other, and everyone knows how your mom is doing and where your brother went to college.

A thing that you can do in Palermo is casually drink on the beach. You know, like buy alcohol at a kiosk and drink it while staring at the Mediterranean Sea. We talked briefly about Pittsburgh because it is actually a known place for two reasons: several people have either tried to study abroad there, or knew people who did, and UPMC has a cancer institute in Palermo. Because of course UPMC has an institute in Sicily. You’re not actually surprised, are you?

The next day, we took an abbreviated tour of Palermo. And by abbreviated, I mean, it was from the back of a Vespa. OBVIOUSLY. As if this story could get any more unreal/European/ridiculous. We rode around on Vittorio’s Vespa and I got to see the amazingly clear sea, the ancient city walls and architecture, the docks and yachts. Then, we bought arancine to go, and went to the beach. Arancine are this magical creation that they have in Sicily where meat and/or cheese is stuffed into a rice ball and then deep-fried. So if you’re wondering if heaven exists, I can tell you that it does, and it is called Arancina.

And by beach, I actually meant casual rocks. Like, if you’ve seen a movie where the rocky cliffs of Italy fall softly into the Mediterranean, I was there and I laid in the sun while eating rice balls. We also went swimming and it was like in The Notebook where they’re in the ocean and Rachael McAdams flaps around and says, “I’m a bird,” and Ryan Gosling throws her in the water and says, “If you’re a bird, I’m a bird.” So that specific scene didn’t actually happen, but basically, we were birds and we were flying in the sky somewhere while our bodies were swimming in the sea. If you can understand, relate to, or feel what I’m trying to say, then you should take a second and fall back in love with that moment. At the very least, this post is going to be positive therapy for everyone. And I apologize for the European bathing suits ruining/distracting from/starring in this beautiful shot. Image

That night, we had dinner with Riccardo’s dad, his dad’s girlfriend, and his aunt and uncle. No one spoke English, so there was a lot of smiling and not talking and confusion on my part. And it was very hard. One of the reasons I came all the way to Italy was in a desperate search for something familiar, due to the fact that everyday in Rwanda, I feel so foreign. Well, Italy proved to me that I am still very foreign, even when surrounded by people with a more similar culture to my own. Dinner involved a ton more seafood, and I tried it all, because Riccardo makes me, and I liked it, but thought about my dad the whole time.

That night we also went to a happy hour in legit old town, mafia-style Palermo. The house we were in was built for the Queen of Italy’s handmaiden, back in the day, when she fell in love with a Sicilian. During WWII, the house was the headquarters for the CIA. So that happened.  I met some lovely people and pretended I was a fancy diplomat/socialite. I was wearing wedges because I’m classy like that so I was at least a foot taller than everyone. This is normally not a problem because Riccardo is 6’3” but we were the only two people over 6 feet in the room, so I definitely made an impression of some sort. Sarah problems.

After, we went out with his friends again to some bars. There were open bars on this street and you just sat in tables along the road. It reminded me of my time in Cyprus, and I was very nostalgic for those adventures. After, because bars don’t close until dawn or something, we went to this park where there was food and drinks and a ton of people milling about and way too much Italian going on. I was very lost and tall and tired, but I was pretending to be European, so it was all part of the experience.

The next morning I am keeping to myself. Partly because we didn’t actually do anything except just be in each other’s presence, and partly because the most exciting part of romance is a little mystery. I will tell you that before he took me to the airport, we went to Bar Alba again and got more arancine AND the best pasta I have ever had ever in my life (see picture below). Which will remain nameless pasta because I’m being mysterious but mostly because I don’t remember the name. I promise I will provide a food list, because that’s what the most important part of this trip was anyway.

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I will also say that THREE separate Italians told me that they were extremely impressed by the romanticism of my gesture. So I would like to put on record that I out-romanced the country of romance.

At 3pm on Saturday, I went back to the airport, 48 hours after arriving at 3pm on Thursday. I then had a 12 hour layover in Rome. Yes, I did, in fact, say 12 hours. Which was, to say the least, really not fun. Then back to Amsterdam and then Kigali. I arrived home Sunday night at 8pm. It was too short, and completely and totally worth it. I would have spent just as much money for 12 hours in Palermo for the honor of romance, grand gestures, and the poetry of life.

I was trying to figure out how to end this post. I was tossing around several lovely quotes. One is the Latin phrase amantes sunt amentes 
which loosely translates to ‘lovers are lunatics.’ I don’t think you need anymore proof than this blog post/short novel/life memoir you’ve just survived.

Another is repeating the quote posted below, from before my trip, by Harvey Milk that is basically the story of my life: Flying 3000 miles on four days notice because you can’t just sit there and do nothing and breathe into telephones is not everyone’s idea of love but it is the way I can recognize it because that is what I do.”

However, I think I will end with a piece that I keep going back to while in Rwanda. I reread the essay before I came to try and remind myself why I signed up for this. I have reread it while here to remind myself to appreciate the moments, to learn every day, and to be thankful for the opportunity. And I reread it tonight to remind myself how lucky I am to have lived and loved as freely, as beautifully, and as strongly as I do. It’s from the essay “Why We Travel,” by Pico Iyer. Enjoy.

“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate…And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again — to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more…

And if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.”

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