“Before I have my coffee, I want a glass of lemon juice,” I say to the barman. He is out of lemons, which apparently can happen even in Sicily. “Oranges?” Out of oranges, but I suppose this, too, can happen. “What can I get then?” He offers me a lemon granita, made with crushed ice and sugar, out of his freezer. “Too sweet?” He swears it isn’t, setting before me a small champagne glass that exudes the freshest and most definitive flavor of locally grown lemons I have ever experienced. Yet the fact remains that the concoction in question is meant to be a kind of dessert. It is much too sweet to put in your mouth first thing in the morning.
But, killingly sweet though it is, this one is undeniably the best of the genre, two Michelin stars and worth a special detour. So what is there to say, in the circumstances? Anyway, I eat the whole lot in an hypnotic silence, whereupon, mistaking my qualified admiration for unconditional surrender, the righteous barman begins the morning lesson: “I don’t make it too sweet. Other people make it too sweet, when they shouldn’t. I never do, because I’m careful. You have to be careful with granita. Never too sweet. You want to know something? It’s all a matter of how much sugar you put in. If you put in too much, it becomes too sweet. But if you don’t put in enough, it may be too sour.” Humbly, I ask for a big glass of water.
What I sometimes miss, living here, is Aristotelian logic. In the Anglo-American system of cultural values, at least some small portion of the stuff seems to filter through, down to the commonest man, along such admittedly inefficient capillaries as high-school education and white-collar employment, with the result that, when you ask a Manchester banker for a debt-consolidation loan and his bank doesn’t give them, he won’t offer you chocolate kisses, or a gaily decorated wastepaper basket, instead of the money. Nor, still more obviously, will a Philadelphia baker, sold out of the bread rolls you wanted, ply you with perfectly ripe figs from his garden. If it is churlish not to give credit where credit’s due, all those gruesome multiple-choice, intelligence-quotient, standard-aptitude riddles the Americans are brought up on, and trained to solve from kindergarten to grave, may well appear in a somewhat less sinister light.
By contrast, in Italy—and Sicily, mind you, is practically in North Africa—categorical ratiocination is like a faint echo of something that has rushed past without leaving a deep trace, all but muffled by the daily intercourse of life, tradition, and custom. Noisy, colorful, and centered on improvisation—rather like a Moroccan souk—Italian thought is based on the principle that so long as you start with an abundance of honest ingredients—good pistachios, sound grammar, local building materials, marital fidelity, ripe aubergines—it cannot possibly matter all that much where exactly you end up, because the result will be pleasing lo stesso, anyway. There is never a plan, a project, a concept, a recipe, because that ubiquitous “anyway” is nothing less than the fundamental, collective” upheld law of existence, and stronger than any individual act of intellection. If Italy as a nation has a way, it is anyway.
And, as I say, nowhere more than here in the scorching hot south, where you can easily feel oppressed by the often mindless rhyming doggerel of marzipan sweetmeats and oozing figs that you end up with, rime and again, in place of the hard-edged prose of life you may actually have had in mind. Which is all very well, even if you have to mutter to yourself all the while that it is your own nitpicking brain that is actually at fault, that you must change, that you would do well to adapt and to forget, that none of it really matters, because soon enough you observe that the result is pleasing lo stesso, whereupon you relax and the whole cycle repeats itself from the beginning. Which is all very well, I repeat, except when you are actually—actually, yes, really and truly, absolutely seriously, cross my heart and hope to die, thank you very much and I don’t want any chocolate covered almonds!—trying to get something done. Like building a house, for example.
Or at least rebuilding one, which is what I’m trying to do at present. Partly cerebral, with a modicum of planning, designing, and reasoning, this task is producing the curious cinematic split-screen effect of persuading me that I’m surrounded by small children while convincing the children—who are being paid perfectly adult, or at least adolescent, sums of money for their participation in the charade—that I’m a child, prone to tantrums, yet easily mollified with sweets or a new rattle. The case on the left of the screen is not hard to make, because people who all talk at once, don’t listen to anybody, love every kind of noise so long as it’s really loud, never take notes or write anything down, prefer pocket knives to slide rules, cannot remember to switch on their telephones, and are always snacking and talking about their mothers would be regarded as children anywhere except Italy. Thus, if you ask an architect whether or not the antique bath he had stolen to order from an abandoned villa in Catania will fit in the guest bathroom, given that the bath is 170 cm. long, he will tell you how ingeniously the bath was stolen, what perils he had faced, how he intends to recondition it, and what his mother said when he told her he would be storing it in her dining room. The one thing the man will never do is measure the distance between the walls and subtract 170.
Unfortunately, the case on the right is just as compelling. The client who bargained for an ordinary bath is presented instead with a bath to end all baths, rampant on lion’s feet and fit for an English marquess. Yet he seems unhappy. All right, so maybe it won’t go into the guest bathroom, maybe it can be used in the master bathroom, or as a drinks cabinet, or as an end table. Or maybe it can be cut in a certain way, turned upside down and affixed to the ceiling with Murano chandeliers inside it (there is a really nice pair, as it happens, in an abandoned town house not far from the police station), sarebbe bellissimo, sai, but anyhow, why is the client unhappy, whimpering like a baby? It’s a beautiful thing, and it will all work out in the end, because no matter how we go about the job, the final result will be pleasing anyway.
Today is the feast day of S. Rosalia, the patron saint of Palermo. I walk with the crowd, 20 or 30 thousand people following the eight-foot-high reliquary of delicately worked solid silver carried through the city, as it has been on this Sunday in July for the last 400 years. Come nightfall, there are fireworks, and octopus-shaped balloons, and stands selling melon slices, nuts, and candy. The crowd grows still more numerous, swelling with village folk, vet the ensuing merriment without drugs, without drink, without loose women, without Disneyland, without anything, in short, that any adult outside of Italy would regard as fun, because only small children can appreciate pointless noise, and just milling about, and watermelon that smells like the sea—is as decorous as the Royal Enclosure at Ascot on Ladies’ Day.
I am the client, and at this juncture I feel that I have to ask myself; Are they not right? Have these people not built enough cathedrals, painted enough frescos, designed enough gardens, carved enough marble, cast enough bronze, chased enough gold and silver, and reconditioned enough stupid baths on lion’s feet to know something the client doesn’t? Why must he insist on vinegar when they bring him precious wines, and on stones when they give him soft white bread, and on plain lemon juice in place of that historic granita? Why doesn’t he have enough faith—or perhaps credulity, which is vet another childly commodity they seem to have in such great abundance—in their civilization, founded though it is on what he perceives as afterthought, happenstance, and caprice? “Besides, you are a writer. Is not literature based on these very things? Yon are also a gambler. Can’t you entertain the thought of playing roulette with water taps and door hinges? And is love, for instance, so much a matter of knowing how everything will turn out in the end? Shame on you!”
And so, yet again, the client resolves to be good. The whole thing will get done, somehow, and the ingeniously stolen bath will fit somewhere, I suppose, and the architect won’t come down with chicken pox or get the colic, or end up in jail, or get run over by a car while chasing a ball in the middle of the street, and the accounts will reconcile, and a planning permission won’t really be necessary after all, and the apartment will be beautiful, and we will all sit down like a bunch of Moroccan street urchins in the cozy kitchen, munching on canned fruit and drinking raisin-sweet wine from Pantelleria, and we will look back and say, dear God, that was a close one, that almost didn’t work out, though in the end I guess it has anyway, lo stesso. What price Aristotelian logic, then?
Leave a Reply