Hey. You want to help me research my family near Palermo? It’s a casual request from my American friend Maryann via Facebook, and I say yes without thinking twice. It sounds like it should be fun, but it’s not going to be happening for a while yet, so I put it to the back of my mind and forget about it.
So I booked my flights. I’m coming late March. I’m wrapped up with work and don’t have much time to spend thinking about about the ins and outs of the trip, so it’s just as well that Maryann’s organised. She arrives on a Friday and we head out for dinner to discuss battle plans for the weekend of research. I take her to a great little trattoria that I know. It’s cheap and cheerful, with plastic glasses and tables, and paper napkins and tablecloths. The service is patchy – interestingly, when I first went there in the summer, tanned and dressed in flirty summer clothes, accompanied by two other likewise-attired girls, one of whom was a 6’ blonde Swede, it was fine. But now the sun’s gone behind the clouds and she’s gone back to Sweden and the service has gone downhill. The important thing, though, is that the food is unfailingly great. The mixed meat platter defeats me pretty much every time I have it, and I’m a girl with a big appetite. The burgers are some of the best I’ve ever eaten; succulent with cheese mixed into the meat, and the thin slices of horsemeat are always juicy and chargrilled to perfection. Then there’s pork in various different forms, and by the time you’ve worked your way through that and a half litre of red wine you’re thanking god for the 20-minute walk home which always seems like such a chore on the way there.
Tonight I go for the mixed antipasti and grilled prawns, too tired to contemplate digesting pounds of meat. Maryann and I sit and lazily work our way through the wine, while getting to know each other. Our friendship was started online and we’ve only met in the flesh once previously. We talk about her family – logical, given the reason that she’s here is to find out about her Sicilian-born grandparents – and mine, swapping anecdotes and stories and enjoying the company. The four-piece busking band that always come into the restaurant to play in the evenings arrive and work their way through their repertoire. I hear the same songs every time I come here, but they’re slick and cheery and really good, so I always chuck money into the pot when they come round collecting. Tonight the people on the table next to us sing along, and I hum the tune with them. I’ve managed to work out a few of the lyrics by now, and can sing the chorus. I join in and the guy singing at the next table grins at me in complicity.
A cake appears from the kitchen, festooned with sparklers and glittering silver tinsel. I assume it’s going to be for the table of girls two tables across from us, but it goes to the three guys behind them, who look like two middle-aged brothers and one of their sons. The cake is for one of the two older guys, and his son (nephew?) points and grins as the table of girls shriek ‘auguri’. Dad (uncle?)is laughing but embarrassed at the attention and the ridiculously over-the-top cake, and pulls his hat down over his eyes while he waits for the sparklers to finish spitting sparks everywhere and the tables around him to stop singing happy birthday.
Conversation slows as the food and wine begin to take effect. Maryann asks for the rest of her pizza to be boxed up. I tell her the story from the summer, when I came here for the first time with the Swedish girl and an Irish girl. Niamh couldn’t finish her pizza either, and asked for it to be boxed up so she could take it away. Giggling from the wine, she decided to name it after our Italian teacher, who was the one who had recommended the trattoria to us. When we then decided to go, not back to our hotel as planned, but out dancing, the guilt she felt at dropping ‘Daniele’ in a dumpster was comical in the extreme.
Coffee arrives, and I knock it back, enjoying the jolt of energy that it gives me. I stretch and pull my padded jacket on, belting it around me against what to me still feels like hideous cold. Maryann laughs at my acquired soft southern-Italian blood. We stroll home in companiable silence, through crowds of families out for their late night passeggiata.
Photo credit: Steve Kay (Creative Commons)