Monday, July 25, 2005

Those Creepy Capuchins

This summer I finally made it to the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo. Postcards from it are seen all over Sicily--old dried-up corpses of real people hanging up for viewing. I didn't really want to see it, but I felt I had to see it as everyone who visited wanted to! So, I managed to avoid it for eleven months before giving in and going with four friends from Atlanta. So, instead of "The World of Coke" we had "The World of Corpses."

I won't go into the history or details, because a nice American sailor right here in Sigonella has put together a definitive website with illegal photos and everything! Let me just tell you that OUR group obeyed the signs that were posted every ten feet and did NOT take any photos! And who would want to? There are about a thousand corpses to see, from priests to virgins to babies, in various poses, dress, and degrees of preservation.

A Capuchin monk who must have done something very bad sits upstairs at a card table with a cardboard box of coins and collects just one Euro for entry to the basement catacombs. He also sells postcards, brochures, and directs people to the rest rooms in the monastery. The Capuchins are the ones who started all of this drying out and preserving to begin with . . . were they just bored, or what? Or maybe they didn't feel like burying one of the brothers and they just left him down the basement for a few weeks . . . only to find out he'd dried out rather nicely and didn't even smell? If you want to join these guys today, you still can. Here's the link to their website: Peace and All Good.

Besides the monks themselves being weird to do such a thing, what about the citizens of Palermo who wanted to be preserved? How weird is that? It was supposedly a very trendy thing to do! Keeping up with the neighbors meant keeping up with them for centuries to come, I guess. If they only knew what they looked like now, they might have thought twice about it. And the monks were all too happy to accept payment for it.

Well, this is the third really creepy thing I've witnessed witnessed in Europe. The other two are the charnel house of St. Michael's in Hallstatt, Austria (recommended by Rick Steves) and the Bodyworks traveling exhibit of "plastified" real people (developed and headquarters in Heidelberg, Germany). Yuck, yuck, and yuck. I was going to say you'd never see this in America, but I see that Bodyworks is there right now, so don't miss it!

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Who is Norman Palermo?

There is a town near Catania called Misterbianco (sounds like Mister Bianco), and newly arrived Americans often ask, "Who IS this Mister Bianco?" They are mildly surprised to find out there IS NO Mister Bianco, but it is a place (a most confusing place to drive--the Black Hole of Sicily--but with the best shopping around).

The same can be said of Norman Palermo. It is not a person, either, but also a place, a most wonderful place/time period to visit. It is ranked #1 in Top Ten Sicily. Even without knowing a lot of history (like me), you can appreciate Norman Palermo for its charm, diversity, beauty, and age, though in Sicilian terms, one thousand years is not old!

So, to put it in simple terms for the non-historians among us, way back in 1061, Count Roger de Hautville, a Norman (from Normandy, aka France), took advantage of an internal Arab conflict (sound familiar?), invaded Sicily with his band of crusaders and took over the place. He then proclaimed himself King Roger of Sicily, the first of five Norman kings to rule Sicily over the next century. Heck, I didn'teven know they had the name Roger back then! Anyway, withouut any kingly experience, Roger did a bang-up job and Sicily, especially Palermo, benefited hugely in terms of culture, architecture, government, tolerance, harmony, and wealth. This is another example of of "It's good to be the king, especially a good king!" Arab and Western influences blended smoothly and the enlightened attitudes in the arts and other areas actually led to the beginning of the Italian Renaissance. End of history lesson.

So, if you go and look for Norman Palermo, you'll find wonderful and wonderous architecture that mixes Arab, Byzantine, French, Roman, Greek, and a few other civilizations. The best examples are the cathedral exterior, the Capella Palatina (chapel) of the Palazzo Normanni (Norman Palace) with its fabulous Christian mosaics done by Arab workmen, San Giovanni degli Eremiti (St. John of the Hermits) church and cloister, and La Matorana and San Cataldo side-by-side churchs with the red domes. All of these are within walking distance, by the way, although parking is a major challenge. There are more, of course, but these are the ones I saw and fell for.

South a little from Palermo you'll find the crowning Norman achievement--the Cathedral of Monreale, considered one of the most spectacular and beautiful churches in the world. I wrote a previous entry about Monreale called "Mosaics and More in Monreale" in March 2005.

So, you see, Norman and Roger and William and all those guys really added a lot to Sicily and especially to Palermo, which might be quite bleak without these additions. It certainly counteracts the dried up corpses of the Capuchins. Stay tuned for that story.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Marcello and Sant' Agata

Last week in Catania, I took my daughter who was visiting to the Church of St. Francis to show her the mobile shrines called "candelore" that the locals carry in the Sant' Agata (St. Agatha) procession. They are housed here on Via Crociferi across from the Bellini museum and the Cardinal Dusmet monument. The church itself is a wonderful example of Italian Baroque interior, but it's really the candelore that are the attraction.

I believe there are six of them displayed in the church, and each tries to out-do the others in resplendent gold and lavish statuary depicting the life and martyrdom of St. Agatha. (Sant' Agata is the patron saint of Catania whose festival draws over a million people--the largest in Italy--in February, no less! She was an early Christian saint who was killed by having her breasts cut off; this is depicted on the shrines, tactfully, of course.) The shrines are about 10-12 feet tall and perhaps four feet wide and deep. They are on wheels but extremely heavy, up to 1200 kilos. It takes quite a number of men to push them through the streets of Catania for 24 hours straight!

I was admiring the first candelora when an ancient Sicilian man approached us and took it upon himself to explain all about the candelore and the procession to us (in Italian/Sicilian, of course). In my usual way, I picked out words and got the gist of it, repeated certain phrases, nodded my head, and said, "Si, si" many times. This encouraged him. He got the poles and a burlap sack from a back room and demonstrated to us how the sack was put on his head and shoulder and how he used this as a cushion to push the huge candelore through the streets. He told us he had been doing it for 69 years!

We must have seemed duly interested and impressed, because he then gave up a personal tour of the church, turning on lights; describing all the paintings, statues, and altars; and directing us where to take photos. As much as I could understand, it was quite interesting! In the end, he asked our names and told us he was Marcello. We shook hands all around and took his photo by "his" candelore. I guess this February I'll have to brave the weather and crowds to see the actual procession and, hopefully, Marcello, too.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Raining Mud

My friend Michael warned me that it sometimes rains mud here on Etna. I wasn't sure I believed it, but on Sunday I became a believer. It's been dry, dry, dry for weeks . . . not a speck of rain. Grass fires are starting on the roadsides. On Sunday, the sky darkened and the wind blew and . . . drip, drip, drip . . . a few sprinkles of rain fell, not even enough to wet the ground. However, it apparently was enough to take the dust and lava out of the air and deposit it on my usually clean and lovely black and white Mini and make a total, awful, horrible, no-good mess on it. I have never seen it look this ugly. During the day, it happened twice more, adding insult to injury. When I got gas, the attendant took one look and washed all my windows without my asking. Even he couldn't stand it. Even though everyone else's car looks just as bad, I freaked out. In Germany, I washed my car several times a week. Here this is impossible. There are no do-it-yourself car washes. Besides, I know if I do wash it, it will happen again immediately.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

$1000 Worth of Nouns and Adjectives

During summer recess, my foreign language skills increase dramatically due to (a) more contact with locals, and (b) reduced contact with Americans. This summer, my first Italian summer, is proving to be no different. Every day I'm out and about in the community or traveling with visitors.

As it turns out, I can understand WAY more Italian in one year than I ever did German after eighteen years in Germany. I don't know why, but it's really true. Is it because it's "more intuitive," as Shana said? Or is it the Latin based words which somehow sound so familiar?

Unfortunately, however, every verb and tense that I learned in six semester hours with the University of Maryland has flown completely out of my head. I speak only in nouns and adjectives with a few random prepositions and adverbs occasionally thrown in. And it isn't just me. My friend Amy, who took the courses with me, is in exactly the same situation. We discuss this phenomena frequently and have decided we were given too much too soon with no time to process it. We also didn't study a whole lot.

In the meanwhile, though, we thoroughly impressed our recent American visitors with our language skills! Ha! Little did they know that we used NO verbs! And the Italians are very forgiving . . . they always reply in Italian and pretend I am speaking like a real person, not a verbless wonder. (Two large bottles of water, please. One fizzy and one natural. For me, the antipasto rustico, mixed salad, and lemon scallopini. For my friends, a cheese pizza and pasta Norma. And a half liter of red wine, please.)

I have learned, like German, if you know just the few "right" words and phrases, you sound like you know something. In German, those were things like "So!" and "Genau!" In Italian, they are "Alora!" and "Certo!" with an occasional "Perfetto!" thrown in. "Grazie" and "prego" will also take you a long, long way in Italy.

The verbs will come . . . eventually, somehow, someday.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Etna from Nicolosi, July 4 2005
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