“What do you recommend?”
“An Averna, Sir.”
My eyes are almost closed, and I’m feeling irked as well as blessed by the sunlight of this land, as the placid colors of the post-lunch Sicilian afterglow manage to penetrate my lashes. The waiter who’s just collected my order will take his time.
Then again, what does it even mean to wait on an island whose wealth has only piled up over time? From the time of the invading peoples, who built more than they destroyed, to the time of oranges, pomegranates and herbal infusions. The time here expands, in this contemporary Sicilian age, while I wait for my ‘amaro.’ It takes its time.
They immediately realized I am a foreigner, and did their best to nourish my body and my spirit with all the vivacity of their land. I am on an island, and yet I feel less isolated than in any of the countries I’ve ever visited.
“Here you are.”
Now on the table there’s only a glass of Averna, rich in different aromas: I pick it up, hold it in front of my eyes, and observe the people around me through its amber color. Now everything looks warmer, familiar, cozy.
A heavy wooden oar destroys the perfect shape of a wave which—as it reflects the sunshine—adds to the exuberant flashes on the water. The perfume of the sea mixes with citrus fruits and liquorice.
With a distrustful sudden snap, I move the glass away from my lips, and observe it: you and me, small things, have just gone somewhere else.
I hear the sound of a heavy bag of spices being unloaded from a boat. The herbs rub onto the jute, releasing vibrantly colored dust and a fragrant oriental symphony which I cannot decipher.
Only the merchants’ words interrupt: they are discussing with the monks from the Santo Spirito Abbey in Caltanissetta where to put the bags laden with herbs and spices.
In the background, one of the merchants unfurls a roll of blue velvet fabric, but a monk shakes his head and smiles, handing him another roll of something which looks much more modest. And it’s precisely that raw paper roll, with its secret recipe, that makes the merchant smell the perfume of the spices in the monastery in a completely different way.
I set the glass down on the inlaid wooden table and I feel myself enwrapped by the vivacity of the colors around me: the vivid yellow, light blue, and white of this city intertwine and unite, surrounding me and making me part of an endless combination of colorful majolica tiles.
I take a closer look: those colored tiles are actually moving, part of large artwork transported by equally bulky men. They are mounting a contemporary art exhibition on the other side of the piazza.
Only a few sips and my trip will be over. I surround the glass with my finger, we hold tightly onto each other in a dance of discovery.
“Anything else, sir?”
I am still sitting in this café with my eyes half-closed. Now, with my last sip, the gold of Byzantine mosaics spills over, only disturbed by the figure of a young waiter observing me with an inquiring look.
So many experiences have gone through me, in this Palermo piazza. I let them gather onto the bottom of the glass, thawed like ice, reflected in the shiny forehead of the water who is still calmly waiting for my answer. In this land, I decide to let a little part of me remain, so as to balance the exchange. Just a little.
Through its bitter-sweet flavor, this island has just showed me its soul.
The waiter is still waiting.