Fiore

Fiore, Italian for flower, is also the name of the beloved local Ortigia artist, “a man of the streets” as he likes to refer to himself. When I asked him his real name, he told me: “It’s Roberto, but I don’t like to tell people that because I don’t want them to use it – reminds me of my mother when she was angry with me.” As I sat in his studio, brimming with old, new, still drying and works in progress, the smell of fresh oil paint, stale cigarettes and the acrid sweet of evaporating alcohol permeated the air. I was there to pay him 300€ for the 2 pieces I had bought a few days earlier, and as he impatiently counted it, reporting with shrugged shoulders and the satisfied smirk and impetuosity of a child opening a wrapped Christmas gift: “In Sicilia we count the money for the paintings we make, eh?, grazie!” Then he gave me the 2 ceremonial air kisses, one for each cheek, and proffered me a drink that he poured from an interesting green bottle he’d pulled from his ancient fridge. I declined, telling him I’m allergic, he mumbled: “gli americani sono tutti allergici”, but he insisted it was good luck for him to have a shot after every sale, so we sat and talked about what makes his work tick. He stated succinctly that his favorite subject to draw is the fish, “because it’s easy and drawing the shape reminds me of being a child, I need to feel as free as a fish, I’ve never liked fishermen though, I don’t trust them, because they trick the fish into loosing their freedom. I like birds for the same reason, fish are birds in the sea, and cats, because they are always watching and so are very wise. Watermelon is my favorite fruit and I use it a lot in my work, mostly because I love its color, I like it more than any other.” I had called the number painted on his studio door about 5 minutes prior to the slender, 5′ 2″, suntanned, agile 80-something-year-old’s arrival on his squeaky rattletrap bici, something out of a WWII period movie, wearing fitted black jeans covered in the drips of pastel colors, a tight black T-shirt, black Ray Ban Wayfarers, flip flops – black, showing black-painted toe nails, a wide closed-mouth smile – in all, a package painted in a certain vintage perfume of alcohol, cigarettes and a license to live.

Savvy Tour Bus Operator

A pensive middle aged tour bus operator, wearing the contented face of a proud new papa of newborn twins for having just safely deposited his charge of vacationing Japanese tourists at the foot of the looming, unassuming giant wrapped in a cascade of white mist, unsuspectingly busy at work creating eerie moon-like craters and spewing micro slivers of fertile volcanic ash over human heads and tree tops for unimaginable, expansive reaches, stood silently, alone in the near empty parking lot at the summit of Mt. Etna. I approached srategically, so as not to startle him, and proceeded to ask in a manner that I thought was an obvious attempt at lost-tourist humor: “Prego signore”, as I gestured over the dizzying precipice toward the Google-like satellite photo beneath, “do you happen to know which is the best way to get back down to Earth?” For a moment he looked at me, as though I had managed to ask the most inane, philosophical, or maybe even impertinent question that anyone had ever posed in all of Sicilian history. He pondered thoughtfully, then after taking a long, deep cleansing breath he opined nasally, almost patiently, with an enormous, toothy, tolerant smile: “But sir… we are on the Earth right here, right now… we’re just a little higher up than usual… as you can see, if you look below at the beautiful blue Ionian Sea… è tutto…just follow the snaking road downward, all the way until you see the signs for the Autostrada… I think you’ll find yourself more comfortable there… at sea level…”

I realized later that he was right.

Monica 

On the younger side of middle-aged, caffè keeper, barista, Monica, Igor’s much younger wife, with her stiff and stout, white doughboy chef’s hat, a self-designed, baby blue silk screened Cala Piada T-shirt and smiling, deep-set, grey Sicilian eyes, asked me if I’d be having the same thing once again this morning, all while comically, theatrically enumerating on her mediterranean-tanned Italian digits starting from right thumb, index to middle finger: “3 large slices of cantaloupe, 6 thin slices of prosciutto di parma and a doppio caffè macchiato with extra milk, va bene così?”. Her ironic expression of both amusement for the predictability of my order and delight to see a familiar face, because alla fine, we had developed an unspoken mutual affection having become one another’s respective  side-street English/Italian teacher, inspired my irresistible urge to respond. I squinted sheepishly but squarely into her gentle, mischievous, shining eyes and retorted with a snide, curled up Boston Irish smirk spread knowingly across my mug: “Eh, sì, the usual, per favore!”

A Memory Of My Mother On Her Birthday

Impervious to fugues of fantasy
in quasi famished states
I cut hungrily into crisp,
succulent leaves of palish green,
cold and sweating, iceberg lettuce-cups
snapping moist against my dry, silent lips
hard, sinewy, orange-pink, yellow-green, striated, unripened tomatoes
from northern, southern nurseries
imported express for inauspicious occasions, like an ordinary lunch
by luminescent lapping shores
extraordinary! ensalada verde
en Caña Gorda, al mar

Bobbing at the base
of its vinegary
saliferous, peppered stew
two small, raw
white concentric rings of onion
almost perfectly-sized
for graceful young women
to wear gently
around long, slender, flowing fingers
I bit in.
its steady-stinging, watery flesh
squirted
flooding my nostrils
with acrid sweet

In one fantastic
fleeting flash,
a firebolt of memory…

A time more hopeful
and innocent with fun,
a foreign concept, the pangs of loss
my mother and I lie
wriggling on our bellies
on fresh-cut, sweet-green-grass
crossed at the ankles, legs flailing in the air
chortling with laughter

My eyes squint to see.

Her loving,
exuberant young face
beaming…
eclipsing
the early afternoon sun,
one surviving, conspicuous
glowingly chirping-yellow buttercup
brushes boldly
against my cheek
in the park across the street
eating home-grown
Bazik spuckies with tuna,
soupy mayonnaise
dripping down my snickering
dolphin’s grin
and onions and pickles and potato chips, on our tickled breaths
she plucked the lone-surviving
persistent, cheery intruder
pressed it toward my chin
imploring playfully:
“make a wish”.

A tear fell
sluggishly,
splashing with aplomb,
onto my plain
white
porcelain
china plate
of a saltier, now
ensalada verde
en Caña Gorda, al mar

Plemmirio

Suspended
aloft and sailing…
on the current of a gust
delicious, warm and humid
indescribable ocean musk
a delicate jazz tune twinkles
and pours into my ear
sweet, familiar foreign vowels
stop and punctuate, a tossing briny air
spoken, sung… I soar deeper
into the azure, not here nor there
for a shimmer and crash, an Ionian undulation

I fly

I’m free
a fish in the sea

Epiphanies

extraordinary day for Epiphanies
when ideas clabber together
like jello ingredients
molding to a form
as if otherwise meant
to diffuse into eternity
as morning stars melt
into a dawning summer sun
random realizations about a past
present, about a future
pend passively, arrival
as casual as cartoon bubble captions
popping mischievously
from comic strip minds,
and I realize I’ve been right
and I realize I’ve been wrong
in almost perfectly
symmetrical contradiction
to the merry and not-so
moments,
all the way along