Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Road to Sicily - Part 2

Here we are in Palermo, Sicily, home of the vendetta, where real men settle their differences with shotguns. Today we drive to the beautiful seaside town of Cefalu on the Mediterranean Sea. The view from above the town looks like a postcard, with the red tile roofs shining in the sun surrounded by coral blue water. The streets of Cefalu, like many towns in Sicily, are hilly and paved with cobblestones. Colorful shops aimed mostly at tourists display an array of beautiful ceramics, crafts and other locally made goods. Restaurants abound...we had lunch at Al Porticciolo, with a view of the water that takes your breath away. Local wines are usually served with meals and are wonderful to drink. The Cathedral in Cefalu is the main architectural focal point in the central square. It's hard to imagine that people live here, surrounded by all this beauty.

In the evening we drive up Monte Pelligrino to the Shrine of Santa Rosalia, built in 1625. Rosalia was born to a wealthy Norman family in 1130, but soon renounced her privileged position in society, preferring, instead, a solitary hermit’s life in a cave on top of the mountain. In 1624, as the plague devastated Palermo’s population, Rosalia appeared in a dream to a feverish citizen, instructing him to find her remains and to take them around the city. This he duly did and the miracles followed immediately: as Rosalia’s bones passed through the streets, those afflicted by the plague were cured and the city saved. Her shrine was built soon thereafter, and as you enter it, you can feel the holiness of the place and sense the presence of Santa Rosalia, now the patron saint of Palermo.

We drive down Monte Pelligrino on a winding road in the dark; not a trip for the feint-hearted. At the foot of the mountain, we arrive at Mondello, another of what seems like an endless supply of picturesque seaside towns in Sicily. Mondello is kind of the Hamptons of Sicily, with mansions and villas lining the waterfront. Strolling along the beach, we search for what every Italian looks for on arriving in a new place: a good restaurant. The evening is pleasantly warm and there are many places to choose from. We decide on da Peppino, a homey little place with friendly service and a diverse menu. We sample everything from pizza (to die for) pasta, and octopus. Back on the bus, Oliverio, our tour director, gives us instructions to properly clean and cook octopus.

Thursday is spent visiting wineries thanks to a side trip arranged by my son Matt. A van picks us up at the hotel, and with Salvatore, our driver, and Germana, our guide, we are off to Marsala to visit the Pelligrino and Donnafugata vineyards. The day is bright sunshine, like virtually all the days we spent in Sicily: thank you Lord. At the Donnafugata Winery, we meet Zane, a woman who proved to be a walking encyclopedia on wine making. She charmed and enlightened us with her stories on the history of the winery, and then put out a lovely spread of salamis, cheeses, breads and olive oil, which we washed down with eight of the wines produced there. Caught up in the excitement, we bought bottles of wine to bring home. Since we had no room in our luggage, we drank about half of them on our hotel balclony that night!

On the way back we stopped at yet another beautiful mountain town on the shores of the Mediterranean, Erice. The town is a mixture of centuries-old and modern houses, with shops and restaurants thrown in. The views from Erice are breathtaking as can be seen in the photo at left. I never believed there was so much to see in Sicily, yet every day finds us in another beautiful setting. We work up an appetite walking the hills and sightseeing. It's almost as if the Italian lying dormant in you is somehow brought to life as you soak up the language and culture that is your heritage. That evening my adventurous son, who has done extensive Googling for this trip, takes us to a local restaurant called Caprici di Sicilio where we are the only tourists present. We somehow make our orders understood and enjoy yet another great meal on this fabulous island.

Don't miss Part 3 for the final installment of our excursion where we visit the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, shop in Taormina, and see amazing Greco-Roman ruins in Siracusa. Ciao pisanos.


Children's Craniofacial Association

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Road to Sicily - Part 1

I love those Hope-Crosby-Dorothy Lamour road films where they joked and sang their way through all those exotic places. We recently got back from a week in Sicily, and I wanted to share my impressions of this beautiful island in the Mediterranean, so situated as to look like it is being kicked by the toe of Italy's boot. We had studied a little Italian before leaving, but it didn't help because in Sicily, Italian is spoken sideways. Cultural influences embedded there from all the peoples who have occupied the island have left it with a language all its own. We managed to communicate, mainly because my son is the most ardent fan of things Italian that I know, and his unique combination of speech, gestures and charm got us through.

We arrived on October 17, 2011 in the modern city of Palermo to begin our son Matt and his wife Alicia, and Jasmine and me. Our first stop was the Grand Hotel Wagner, smack in the middle of town. It is a formidable old palace that looks like Versailles on the inside. The rooms were comfortable, but in the European style which usually means no bath tub. They also have a sensible energy conservation policy where the room lights go off unless you leave a coded card in a slot in the wall. If you forget to leave the card in the slot, it usually means a toe-bruising stumble to the bathroom at night in pitch blackness. The breakfasts were very good though, something you can't take for granted in Europe. As for other meals, Palermo is full of restaurants, one of which, Antica Focacceria San Francesco, serves a spleen sandwich that my son insisted on trying. It tasted like you might imagine.

Like the rest of Italy, Sicily is full of churches. Every town of any size has its duomo, basilica or cathedral that dominates the main square. With our local guide Virginia, whose voice could be used to break down prisoners of war, we toured St. Mary of the Assumption and the Palatine Chapel of Sts. Peter and Paul (left) whose architecture was clearly influenced by the Byzantines. These are serious churches folks, that dwarf the tiny, modern churches we are building in America these days. The labor and craftsmanship required to build them means we will never see their like again. The altars, statuary, ceilings and columns of these houses of worship are awe-inspiring, and one can't help feel the presence of the Almighty while inside. It's a little off putting to see cheesy souvenirs being hawked outside, but I guess everybody has to make a living.

We had lunch outside Palermo at a magnificent estate called Casale Del Principe (which was billed in the brochure as a "working farm"). It may have started out as a farm, but this place is now an architectural gem with impressive rooms and breathtaking views in every direction. The staff there served us a lunch that would kill most men, but Italians take it in their stride. The meal was accompanied by pitchers of local wine that tasted wonderful, and they brought as much as you can drink. The stop was a good one in that once the folks in our tour group had their fill of vino, the shyness evaporated and people were table hopping and taking pictures of one another like they were old pals.

That night we made the first of what turned out to be regular visits to a combination wine-coffee-dessert shop called Spinnato around the corner from our hotel. They don't really have places like this in the U.S. which is unfortunate because you couldn't think of a nicer way to end your day. One of the treats tourists to Italy always talk about is the gelato, and Spinnato had a dazzling array of flavors. One could sit outside as most people do, or at one of the booths in the rear of the shop. One thing I can't understand is that Italians eat lots of pasta and gelato, and drink lots of wine, so how come they all look so slim and fashionable? You could pick the tourists out of the crowd in a heartbeat, the tip-off being the brand-new (and ugly) sneakers they all wear when they travel.

In Part 2 of this journey, we will visit the stunning city of Cefalu, the wineries at Marsala, and the picturesque seaside town of Mondello, home to the mountaintop shrine of St. Rosalia. On the bus everyone! Andiamo.


Children's Craniofacial Association

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Depersonalization of America

I like to people-watch, and living in New York City is a people-watcher's dream. There are so many different races, ethnic groups, tourists, natives, and borderline wackos to look at. One thing I've noticed is that people seem more detached from one another and attached to whatever electronic interface connects them to the world. The art and joy of face-to-face communication is in serious decline. We tweet, surf, e-mail, and telephone, but we don't talk. People wander around like zombies, a $4 cup of coffee in one hand, and an i-phone in the other, fearful of putting the phone down lest they miss some trivial bit of gossip. I have actually seen friends sitting at a table together over breakfast, each talking to other people on the phone. Walkers pass me in the park staring straight ahead, unwilling to make eye contact or nod good morning. What is happening to us?   

Back in the 1970s when e-mail first appeared on my work scene, company executives hated it. They would have their secretaries (now an extinct species in the business world) read all their e-mails for them and type out written responses. People went for weeks without looking at their e-mail. Now, so attuned to this electronic medium, we read it from home at night or while on vacation. Nobody is ever unavailable for work associates any more. Cowards use e-mail to tell you what they haven't got the guts to say to your face. Schemers with personal agendas send blind copies of e-mails to people with no business getting them as a way of circumventing the chain of command. Outside consultants, professional hatchets, are brought in to handle layoffs. As a kid I worked in a fruit and vegetable store making deliveries. When business dropped off due to competition from supermarkets, the old man had to let me go. He sat down with tears in his eyes to give me the news, and sent me home with enough produce and cold cuts for a couple of weeks. That's how you do it.

Personal relationships are now handled like job interviews. We used to go to clubs and dances looking for dates and companionship. There were rules and rituals and we pretty much followed them. I've spoken before about how guys would show up in the lobby of The Grace Downs Academy in Manhattan, a school that boarded young ladies who were training to become stewardesses, just like the ones on the new ABC show, Pan Am. The girls would come down to look over the male talent seated in the lobby, strike up a conversation if a guy looked promising, and off they would go on a date. Today people meet on Facebook or through It seems safer somehow than the old Grace Downs approach, but it is not. Predators lurk online,  seeking to hide behind the electronic curtain until they are ready to pounce.

The compulsion to deal with the world electronically is a little frightening. For example, driving a car in New York City is really a task that requires one's undivided attention, especially now that people drive vehicles the size of small office buildings. Every day I see tailgaters, speeders, stop sign and red light runners, no-signal lane changers, clueless pedestrians, and innumerable school buses. It takes focus and defensive driving skills to survive in this "Road Warrior" environment, yet I see people texting, talking on cell phones and looking at laptops while the car is in motion! It's as if the fate of the world depended on them answering every inane text and tweet immediately, regardless of the risks.

Generally speaking, depersonalizing human relations is not a good thing. We tend to behave less kindly when we don't have to look the recipient of the unkindness in the eye. It is probably too late to go back...more people are around who grew up in this electronic age than those of us who remember what was like before. I feel sorry for them.


Children's Craniofacial Association