The next morning we woke up relatively early because we wanted to walk around the city see the Duomo and a few other sites before lunch. Before leaving I read some more of the New York Times magical guide which told us that we had to stop by a certain pair of churches near the center of the city, one for its unique exterior red domes (very Muslim, I would say) and one for its 11th century interior mosaics and paintings. I used the ever useful iPhone to find that they were literally next to the hostel and on the way to the Duomo so we stopped in for a peak and my breath was taken away. Though the Church was dark (it was raining outside) the gold mosaics, still in pristine condition sparkled. Inside the golden backgrounds were colorful, and realistic, mosaics of religious figures, of course, that made me question if they were mosaics at all. The entire ceiling and most of the walls were covered with these mosaics and the entire altar was a giant mosaic of Jesus. It was incredible. From there we walked to the Duomo which has a gorgeous exterior harmonizing many of the great architectural movements of history into one building, but a disappointing interior that lacks any real flavor or feeling. After the Duomo we wandered to the Teatro Massimo, which is a giant opera house built in almost the same style as the Roman Pantheon. We thought we could get a free tour so we entered the house only to find that it was for ticket sales. There was an open door, however, so we treated ourselves to a private tour of the interior, which looked overall like any other opera house, unless we missed something as we tried not to be discovered. We did some more walking and a lot of talking. We wandered through a market on a narrow, windy side street that ended up being a food market. We bought some of the best, if not the best, green olives that I have ever eaten in my life and marveled at the beautiful fish on display by the many mongerers. It was close to lunch so went back to the hostel to figure out where we wanted to eat.
We went right back to the New York Times and it told us about a “restaurant” (it was actually unlicensed and protected by the mafia according to the review) that served incredibly fresh food at incredibly cheap prices. There was no written menu and you either ordered fish or pasta and the waiter would give you the options. It sounded like the perfect place to eat authentic Sicilian food while truthfully experiencing the mafia culture. We spent ten minutes wandering the market area in which we had been an hour before trying to find the place, but the map that my iPhone provided was failing us. Before giving up I asked one of the local fish mongeI rers who told me exactly where to find the place, through a section of dilapidated houses that were some of the most run down that I have ever seen. It would have been off-putting and if we had been forced to go far through a neighborhood like that I would have felt a bit uneasy, but we soon saw Zia Pina and entered.
Since we obviously had no clue what we were doing and were obviously not Sicilian there were a few nasty glances thrown our way, but then I spoke Italian and everything was better. Our nice, but blunt, waiter asked “pasta o pesce (fish)”. It was lunch, so pasta. “Vongole o misto (clams or mixed). I got clams and ordered mixed for Brian. He took us to our table with a loaf (an entire loaf!) of Italian bread with sesame seeds and I ordered white wine. There were two parts to the restaurant. On the left was the kitchen with a long table of ice filled with the freshest of fresh fishes (at which I would get a better look later in the meal) and on the right was the seating area; spacious with few tables, no real doors, no amenities on the plastic tables with plastic cups and a TV. Were we in someone’s home or at a family picnic? It certainly didn’t feel like a restaurant, but from the beginning both of us knew we were in for a wild ride.
More people sat down around us and I listened to how they, who seemed to know the place, ordered and how they figured out what to eat. They flat out told the waiter what they wanted and he would respond with what the kitchen had that day. They ordered a salad, so I ordered a salad, which that day was made of potatoes, tomatoes, anchovies, onions, green olives all cold in olive oil and white vinegar. The wine came out first and our hungry/thirsty/vacationing selves dug right into the bread (which was unbelievable) and the wine. We began to proclaim the glories of study abroad. We toasted to walking through questionable neighborhoods for great meals, for the New York Times, for having a friend willing to experience the world and most of all for having the fortune of spending a semester literally doing nothing of value to our “careers” [and it that sense I mean nothing to advance ourselves scholastically]. Before we could really launch into our chat, the pasta arrived. Beyond simple, the bowl had spaghetti and clams without the shells, while Brian’s had mixed white fish and shellfish. I smelled the sea and that special aroma of freshly cooked clams. I mixed up the past and twirled myself a bite; unbelievable. The taste was so clean. There was nothing but clams and unbelievably good pasta. I said nothing but “Oh my God, you have to try this,” without even looking up to see that Brian was having a similar reaction. We traded, took bites, had the same ‘heaven’ moments and traded back. These dishes were homey, they were motherly and they were comforting. Nothing fancy, nothing doctored up, no hidden tastes or masked spices. This was pasta and fish, basta. Perfetto. The salad followed soon after and I was surprised by how incredible cold potatoes could be when paired with tomatoes (by the way Sicilian tomatoes put all other tomatoes to shame), red onion, olives and anchovy. That dish, covered with oregano complemented our warm pastas perfectly. We took our time finishing and once again began the conversation.
I think Brian said it best:
“What have we been doing? Take a look at we’ve done over the past 3 ½ months and tell me something that we’ve done that is serious. How could anybody want this to end? We LIVE A VACATION. We do what we want, when we want without concern of school or work. Did this really happen? Is it really over?”
And we launched into memories of the semester, of all of the amazing sites we had seen, of all the experiences and all of the places we had been. When else in our lives would we be able to enjoy something like this? Was this the four greatest months of our lives? Our lives had been “jokes”, they had been ridiculous when one thinks about it. Dear James, what did you do abroad? “Well look at me, can’t you tell that all I did was eat?” This experience was not school, it was not an ‘education’ as one would think, but a cultural explosion. We traveled, we ate, we went to museums, we went to the opera, we met people, we went to countries where nobody could understand us and we couldn’t understand them let alone even read a street sign! We had taken thousands upon thousands of pictures and traveled thousands upon thousands of miles with no care in the world except to see the next thing. How goddamn, f’ing, incredible is that?
We were still hungry and I saw the waiter walk by with some sort of grilled fish that looked delicious, but I couldn’t exactly make out the plate because he was holding it far over my seated vantage point. I didn’t care, I hailed the waiter, asked what it was and found out ‘calamari’. I ordered one, expecting that Brian and I could split it, but the waiter advised us to get two; we ordered two. The calamari arrived soon after in its beautiful grilled glory. The flesh was red and Brian had one of the biggest squid that I have ever seen. It was served whole with a wedge of lemon, but really who needs anything else when eating fresh, grilled calamari? Unbelievable. I’ve never tasted calamari quite as fresh and intensely as that with the wonderful complement of burnt grill flavor. The food was finished and the wine was finished, but we didn’t want to leave. I saw a plate of fried little fish on the table next to us. They looked like anchovies, so I ordered “alici fritti”, but the waiter told me they didn’t have any alici that day. He brought me to the kitchen and showed me that which they did have. There were some yummy looking little fish. I ordered those and more wine.
The question of departure once again became the topic of conversation. We each explained our separate roller coasters of emotion and how both of us had been more than ready to go home after returning from London. We looked back at not enjoying Parma, of not enjoying abroad and of counting down the days until going home. We tried to figure out why and discussed the various reasons that come with the territory of studying abroad such as group dynamics and absence during holidays, but in the end both agreed that regardless of the reason for our dissatisfaction both of us had realized in early December that we did not want to leave at all, a date that was all too late because it left us only two weeks to enjoy Parma once more. And enjoy it we did, but the time flied and there we were; in some restaurant in Palermo, eating one of the most memorable meals of our lives and looking back at the last 4 months as if they had happened yesterday. Every memory was so vivid and every story so detailed. “Never have I had so many vivid memories of life from one semester,” Brian commented. And it is true. Our lives abroad were ever changing and ever moving. We were constantly doing and constantly experiencing, which could explain some of the desire to finish; we were tired.
But sitting there in Palermo, neither of us wanted this to ever come to an end. Why would we? We wanted Parma to continue. We wanted aperitivo never to go away and weeknights spent sitting around a table having a drink to never disappear. The culture of Italy, with its magnificent food, had settled within us and once it had, it was time to go. Thanks Time. Thanks. We couldn’t believe it. We didn’t want to believe it. It was ok. We still had two days before the end (and I had a few more). We would see Parma once more. But the memories would not stop and we spent the rest of the meal, munching on those fantastic fried fish and drinking too much wine (we were on vacation), expressing amazement at the fantasies which were our lives from September 7th to December 21st.
After lunch, and some clementines, we wanted to do nothing but relax at the hostel, which we did until 5, when we figured we would explore what was happening in the neighborhood. We found some hole in the wall bar near the market where a bunch of locals, especially fishermen, were pounding down glasses of wine poured either from jugs, taken out of water coolers or poured from sketchy bottles. Seemed fine to us. We got some water jug marsala (for a euro), which was terrible and then a cup of white (we were served in plastic cups while everyone else received glass). Then a government worker came in and began to check the receipts of this fine establishment. Apparently, the place had not been recording profits, as is the normal in the south of Italy. Another bar tender came to tend the bar while the main guy dealt with the government official, and he started washing dirty glasses with his hand in water without soap. Good thing we got plastic cups. We left and, after another reprise at the hostel, spent the rest of the day wandering around the city including to the docks where we quickly decided that we should not have gone.