Where is the Godfather ? - Terry Barr
At the Hertz counter in Palermo, our agent asks if we want insurance.
“We already have it,” my friend Ali says.
“Well, it doesn’t show here. Better get it, for here is fine, but when you go to Rome…”
He shrugs. Ali turns to me.
“Yeah, I’ll put it on my card,” I say, but before I can hand the agent my American Express, he’s already charged it to Ali’s. We walk to the outdoor kiosk, where our van awaits. It will barely fit the luggage of six travelers. Worse, it is covered in dents, scrapes, and mangled chrome. My wife calls the outdoor agent over, and she spends the next ten minutes marking the damage on her guide sheet.
“How would anyone know if we caused more scrapes,” my wife asks.
The agent shrugs, smiles, and leaves us with the keys: “Prego.”
As Ali negotiates the inner Palermo streets, we understand our condition. Cars come from all directions and pass wantonly. Each vehicle is as banged up as ours. We laugh.
“You think this is bad,” Ali says. “Try driving in Tehran. There, they don’t know what they’re doing, and they don’t care. No lanes, no stopping for lights. They just do whatever they want, and you have to go along.”
I won’t be driving in Tehran in this lifetime, and I’m not sure I want to in Palermo, though I am one of our licensed drivers. We’re using Ali’s i-Phone to navigate us to our hotel because the car’s GPS can’t manage to locate our van on its internal sensor. Still, we find our place without incurring damage or getting too lost. It is day one of our Italian adventure, and as soon as we check in, we head to the hotel restaurant to eat lunch during the normal siesta time. Our food is overpriced and not as good as Tito’s NY Pizza back home. Still, we eat, and then we retreat to our suites for naps, mindless of what sleeping now will mean for later.
Later comes. My wife, my daughter, Ali’s wife Fariba, their daughter, and I begin our walking tour. Ali wants more sleep and stays behind. Our wonderful concierge, Phillipe, instructs us about shopping, dining, village sights. The hotel shuttle drops us in the town center, and from there we spend the next hour watching our daughters shop in upscale “Italian” boutiques like Zara and H&M. I cannot believe I am standing, then shuffling, and then following as my daughter buys items that are made in China. Maybe they’re made in Italy, but they have that look that says, “You may buy me anywhere.”
“What am I doing here?”
My depression about leaving my dog back in South Carolina sweeps over me. As we wait for the girls to emerge from H&M, a police van screams to the curb. Two Guardia trot into the store, and though I know better, and though I have complete faith in my daughter, in my mind I see the cops returning with both girls, caught shoplifting.
But in another few minutes, the girls walk out, laughing and happy. And with packages.
We amble by cathedrals, outdoor market stalls, while bicycles nearly run us down. My wife loves negotiating with marketers, and before I know it, she’s bought sealed olives for her sister, packets of spices for our son-in-law, and a basket of figs.
“They were overpriced,” but bargaining was fun,” she says.
I am not having fun.
I wonder if the next nine days will be the same: wandering, shopping, falling prey to unscrupulous vendors, getting sideswiped by cars and bikes. I could assert my self, express my wishes, but what do I want?
I didn’t want to go on this trip, or at least part of me didn’t, so I didn’t plan. I didn’t consult any guidebook, though my therapist gave me a good one. The only thing I hoped to do, other than eat gluten-filled pasta, was to go on the Godfather Tour, something my therapist said I shouldn’t miss.
“You can see the church where Michael married his Italian wife,” my therapist said, “and the orchard where the old Don died.”
“Yes,” I thought, “I’d like that.”
In the meantime, we find an outdoor café.
“Time for a drink,” my daughter says.
The owner, or his son, or maybe just a guy who earns a living wage, helps us. We order large beers, wine spritzers, still water, and then he brings plates of olives, cheese, pancetta and prosciutto.
“He’ll charge us for the food, too,” Fariba says.
Later, another server brings us fried potatoes, more cheese. The cold beer, the perfectly spiced and salty food. I relax, not caring what this costs. Italian women lean from upper apartments. We think we see a drug deal off to the side, but this part of the village is cool, and we’re finally getting intoxicated. When the check appears, they’ve charged only for the drinks, $26 Euro.
Now this feels like some kind of home.
We walk in the wrong direction. Soon, we are hungry again, and consulting the map, we realize that we must turn around. Phillipe’s suggested café is behind us. It’s a family-owned place, Café Marisa, named for the owner. According to Phillipe, she’s been in business for decades. We have a reservation, which is good, because though it’s only eight o’clock, just barely Italian suppertime, the place is mostly full. We are shown to a round table in back, and we order large carafes of wine. I look over the menu, not knowing what I want, but then I see “Rolled Meat,” a listing that doesn’t say what kind of meat or what is rolled in it. I order nonetheless, and when it arrives, I think I’ve died. Back in Alabama, we had Italian neighbors, and this rolled meat is what I saw them serving regularly. The wine doesn’t faze me; it’s the food that gets me woozy.
After we eat, Fariba suggests we order Lemoncello. Our waiter agrees, but then lists other kinds of after dinner liqueur.
“Yes,” we say, still thinking we’re getting Lemoncello. What he brings and pours in shot glasses is something else. I down mine in one gulp, and the waiter looks at me with something new in his eyes. He pours another, and I down it again.
“Oh, he says and pours another, and then begins the chant, “Ohhhhhhhhhhhh,” which is taken up by the rest of our table. I down the third drink, and he disappears, bringing back a bottle of grappa. “Ohhhhhhhhh.” I drink, and my daughter suggests that the waiter have a shot with me. He brings another glass. We ‘Ohhhhhhhh” together and drink.
In the meantime, Marisa, who has been watching us with apparent pleasure, comes over and speaks, in Italian, asking where we’re from. She hugs us all and then brings a plate of fresh Italian cookies. We take pictures. She hugs us again, and somehow, everyone manages to get me back to the hotel.
The next morning I ask about the Godfather tour. Fariba discovers that it’s a couple of hours away, doable the next day when we head to Messina. I am patient because it’s Sicily, and I know that whatever else might happen, we will eat and drink again tonight, though maybe not grappa. We stroll the alleyways trying to find a path to the beach. We ask mechanics for the way; my wife speaks French to them because in her multi-lingual mind, everyone knows everything. They try English on us and direct us to the beach. We walk single file as Vespas blow by. And there it is: blue, clear.
None of us wants to swim or even get sandy. We just watch the lapping waves and wonder. Soon, we want cappuccino. My wife keeps pointing us to houses that have half-opened doors, believing that someone will take us in, or to foggy closed doors that perhaps were open once, a long long time ago. We find “Cappucino,” only Ali orders latte and receives a glass of steamed milk. We laugh; we are laughing often now, and watch the women across the way drawing laundry in from the lines outside their windows.
Phillippe has told us of a pizzeria within blocks of our hotel, where we plan to have supper.
“It is walking distance,” he says, “but I advise you not to walk.” We are Americans, some of us transplanted, and we live by our own minds. The walk takes fifteen minutes, straight up on a narrow sidewalk beside which cars scream by.
“Whose idea was it to walk?” everyone asks.
“Mine,” I say.
The pizzeria is named Chalet du Costanza, and we laugh again, hoping it’s the inspiration for the “Seinfeld” episode where George’s father Frank travels to Sicily to find his cousin Carlo, and then once they meet, Frank says “goodbye’ and heads home again.
Chalet du Costanza is a very modern bistro, serving organic pizza. And it’s good…as good as Sidewalk Pizza in Traveler’s Rest, SC.
After, Fariba and Ali retire, their daughter, my wife, my daughter, and I venture out in the van, seeking nightlife. We drive winding mountain roads for twenty minutes, through a more posh Palermo, and find ourselves at another square near the beach, where boys are playing soccer, dogs are sitting upright on benches, and American rap music beats us to a pulp. We sit for a spell, and the doggie on my left makes me pine for my Maxie. The breeze helps me breathe. As we drive back to our hotel, getting lost only once, I think of the Mountain Brook area of Birmingham where my grandmother lived, and of tomorrow when the Godfather tour looms.
On toward Messina, but we get a late start, and stopping too often for more food and cappuccino, we decide to find our next hotel before we find the Godfather. This hotel is even better than the last, as our back door opens onto a veranda overlooking the sea. Everyone gets calm and quiet, and no one wants to return to the car for any tour of any kind. Later, we walk to the beach and skip stones into the Mediterranean. Whatever else I do in life, I will be able to say I touched the stone that landed in this ancient sea. I will also know that my stones skipped only twice, because I’ve never been proficient at skipping stones.
My wife’s stone skips four times.
Our friends retire for the night after an early supper, but my wife, daughter, and I find a rooftop café and order more food: fried eggplant, cheese, and salami, with plenty of red wine. We talk about our lives. Our daughter explains why she decided to break up with her boyfriend of ages past, and why she’s happy now with her new one. Here eyes shine and so do ours, for we’re the kind of parents whose mid-twenty-year old daughter wants to leave everyone else and go on a vacation to Italy with us.
On the next morning, we see the Godfather. Only we don’t. Life has a funny way of directing travelers to places and people that only life understands. Everyone but Ali and I hit the beach, and by checkout time, they are tired and happy, and it’s time to move, as our next destination on the mainland is a good-metered distance away.
We look for cappuccino, and our phones say towns are coming, but as we navigate them, everything is either closed for siesta, or, in one remote village by the sea, under new construction. We drift up the mountains and soon stop in the quaintest Italian village of them all. I would tell you the name, but I don’t want you spoiling it. At the café, by the mountain’s edge, we see the sea and the miles we’ve just traversed. Our waiter brings our cappuccinos and biscuits, and it’s as if everything was meant for us to be here. Now. A car stops by our van; an older woman emerges carrying bags of groceries. Only they’re not groceries, but recyclables. She walks out of our sight with two bags, and leaves the third by our left front fender. She returns and walks over to us. She speaks entirely in Italian, and we respond in what little Italian, French, Farsi, and English we know. She smiles and keeps talking. Smiles again, and then heads off somewhere, perhaps even her home.
She leaves the bag of recyclables by the left fender of our van.
We are ready to go, and so I pick the bag up, place it on the sidewalk, and we push on, hoping against retribution.
As we drive the narrow cobblestoned streets of our favorite new village, my daughter says,
“Oh, you know what we forgot?”
“It’s Ok,” I say. I’ve seen the movie five times.” Then I tease, “The one thing I asked to do…”
Fariba says that this means we’ll come back one day, especially for the Godfather tour.
Yes, I think, but we have seven days left on this trip. And it took me sixty-three years to get here. Still, I am happy. I have learned new words like “Braciole,” and toured the Mediterranean. I’ve even driven the van. And at least one waiter has toasted me and brought me home.