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I don’t know when humanity built the first wall; what I’m certain of, however, is that it mustn’t have been long before somebody drew on it. Street art has been found everywhere, from Aya Sofia in Istanbul to Pompeii: it’s only natural for it to be here, in Palermo.
Caravaggio’s Bacchus? Some rendition of Saint Sebastian? Rummaging through my brains yielded a big, fat blank.
These two, though, I recognise. They stood side by side on the same building and why not? Jesus, today, would be an environmentalist I think.
Perhaps not as much as in Naples, but Palermitan art has a certain fling with the after life, with death. The writing on the building on the right reads suos devorat alienos nutrit. “It devours its (sons) and feeds foreigners”. These are words inscribed at the feet of a statue of the Genius Loci, or personification, of the city. Palermo eats its own and feeds others. Apt.
… e tutti quanti Gattopardi, sciacalli e pecore continueremo a crederci il sale della terra. The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s masterpiece, is a heavy tome, but not for its length. A dispirited look into the mummified Sicilian society at the time of Italy’s reunification, it’s packed with phrases that have elbowed their way into the nation’s psyche. Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga com’è bisogna che tutto cambi. “If we want everything to stay as it is, everything must change” is perhaps the most famous. But here on this wall is another one: “We were leopards, lions. Jackals, hyenas will come after us, and then sheep will follow them. And all of us – leopards, jackals and sheep – will believe to be the salt of the earth”. Somebody had changed “leopards” with sanguisughe: “leeches”. Mr Hippo, instead, is asking people to raise their voices against racism.
“I do things”. “I see people”. The sole redeeming aspect of the intolerable 1978 film Ecce Bombo (a surefire way to get heartburn, like every other film from Nanni Moretti) is, in four words, the job description of today’s Instagram influencers.
Two Italians, two Palermitans of our not-so-distant past and a Palermitan, an Italian of today. The two men are Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino: judges, adversaries of Cosa Nostra, both blown up by the Corleonesi. The unnamed lady adorns the side of a council estate near La Kalsa and is the product of artists Rosk&Loste. In her I see the dynamism of this city that left me cautiously optimist about its future.
Turn Left at Lenin’s Statue is my first travel book. It’s the story of a journey through Central Asia, past frontiers and across seasons; a journey whose aim was to understand this region, to go beyond the (scarce) headlines and, well, Borat. It is the culmination of a number of years of travel and it’s both a happy and sombre read, uplifting and concerning often at the same time.
Turn Left is available on Amazon (you can click here for the .co.uk version; for the .com side see the button on the right banner) as both a Kindle eBook and a paperback; the Kindle will be on a discounted offer for a week starting today. But if you’d like to know what you’re getting into, if you’d like a little sample – a test drive, if you will – before you commit, well you can download the PDF of Chapter 1 simply by clicking the link below:
In it you’ll read about two cities in Kazakhstan, as well as the story of the man who put them on the map. More – including football in Uzbekistan, the World Nomad Games in Kyrgyzstan, the death and rebirth of the Aral Sea and the dystopian reality of Xinjiang – is in the remaining chapters of Turn Left.
Warm air rushes in to fill the plane. We disembark by row, adhering scrupulously to the new socially-distant orthodoxy, ditching jumpers and jackets as we do: summer might be a distant memory where we left off, washed away in the London drizzle, but here it’s not over yet.
It’s a warm night with none of the oppressive heat that weighs over the Po river valley for much of the good season. Here there are no mosquitoes and a little humidity laced with a faint smell of sand and vegetation. You don’t sweat standing still, here.
Palermo flows under the yellow glare of sodium lamps; the taxi leaves the motorway and cruises into a regular grid of buildings of varying degrees of ugliness, carbon-copy of countless such tenements infesting every corner of the peninsula: from Milan to Mazara, from Ventimiglia to Villa Opicina, everything built between 1960 and 1990 has been a crime against architecture and good taste. Then, thankfully, streets grow smaller, buildings older, the traffic denser.
As is customary, I’ve arrived here without the foggiest idea of what to expect. Come to think of it, I know very little about this city that hasn’t got to do with its conquest by the Corleonesi in the 1980s. But that was the past: Totò Riina died the death he deserved, under arrest. Binnu Provenzano met the same fate, kicking the bucket without ever seeing the hard prison regime lifted. Even il Divo Giulio, Andreotti, has died in 2013 and undoubtedly the devil is still trying to decide in which circle of hell to have him thrown. A man with his pedigree belongs in basically all of them.
I imagined a city of quiet, winding alleys, whispered conversations, largely asleep this time of night. I was wrong.
Palermo’s old town is alive at eleven PM. I walk the roads of La Kalsa, the old Arab quarter, aiming for the apartment I’ll be staying at for the night; meanwhile, hundreds of Palermitans eat, drink and chat at countless open-air tables. I, too, stop for a beer and a pane e panelle, bread with a chickpea flour fritter; I ask the bartender if I can sit outside, at the dehor. She looks as if I’m speaking a different language and, in a sense, I am. Piedmont and Sicily have drifted somewhat apart in the 1300 years that lapsed between when they were united.
I join the crowds on via Maqueda, shuttling up and down. Far from being silent, quiet and hidden away, Palermo is as flamboyant as the crowd outside a Leblon bar. The youngsters, in particular, are a sight to behold. Young tanned women stroll in flowing robes while their male companions peacock wearing floral-printed shirts, tailored pin-striped linen trousers with high hems and loafers, a mixture of 1980s looks and Von Humboldt’s botanical drawings. Looking at them I’m reminded again that, if style were to be a prerequisite for citizenship, I’d have my passport revoked.
This is a city that doesn’t quite like being up early, or so it seems. When I go out for a jog, at 6:30 AM the following day, I’m alone in the tortuous streets of the old town. Yesterday’s revellers have gone, leaving in their wake a prodigious amount of rubbish. As I jog it occurs to me that I haven’t witnessed anyone caught in the act of littering – and nor will I for the entire duration of my stay – and yet the pavements are constellated with the detritus of the city, like Monday mornings in Camden when the foxes have beaten the council to the bin bags left out by residents.
I turn into via Libertà and Palermo changes face. Gone are the alleys, the labyrinthine texture of the medieval city. I run along neatly-arranged blocks of flats, genteel turn-of-the-century mansions with peach stucco, palm trees, cast iron railings and all those lovely finishing touches that add extra zeros to the real estate prices. Two street sweepers brush off dead leaves from the counterflows.
I turn right again, aiming for that sea that glitters occasionally at the end of some of the boulevards. I run past the terrifying walls of Ucciardone prison, a Panopticon gaol of unmitigated ugliness squatting on the edge of downtown, holding it in its grip. The road I’m running on degrades into a battered sidewalk littered with dog turds, but I press on: the seaside must be close. But, eventually, I’m defeated: a concrete wall blocks my progress, a rampart protecting the fort of the port as far as the eye can see. Cranes are busy at work behind it and I’m not invited.
Click on either photo to start the slideshow.
There’s a lovely beach in Mondello, a suburb beyond the coastal mountain that can be seen from anywhere in town. There’s soft sand, kiosks selling granitas, fish restaurants and a sea that goes from jade green to aquamarine to indigo; but nothing of that kind exists downtown. My run done, I return to the waterfront and find only a deserted stretch of grass and vistas of unfiltered industrialism. An exploration vessel under repair. A forest of cranes and other oil paraphernalia. Aging tankers. Cruise ships, hibernating until Covid-19 stops transforming their ilk into floating petri dishes. Palermo has no Promenade des Anglais, no via Caracciolo. It’s as if this city on an island looked at the sea and went “Thanks but no thanks”. Perhaps it doesn’t need it.
– § –
Ash rains silently over the city. Tiny flakes, grey and black, fall from the sky. They were trees, shrubs, grass: now they are nothing but impalpable, charred curls of organic matter, reminders of what once was.
“There’s a fire above Altofonte”, says the bartender of a café where I stopped for a coffee and a brioche. Except it’s a cornetto, here, as he politely points out. Filled with pistachio and ricotta and as addictive as anything shipped by the French connection.
A fellow customer is less laconic. “Some cornuto started five fires at the same time”, he says before unleashing a carpet bombing of curses in dialect. There’s plenty of appreciation for the arsonist, his mother and sisters but, unlike in the North, no deities and farm animals. Sicilians don’t do blasphemy. “The Canadair’s been doing the rounds since six” concludes the bartender; as if on cue, the drone of a prop plane ripples through the bar.
A yellow-and-red Civil Protection plane had been shuttling between the sea and the dry hills of the interior. It zoomed in the slices of sky cut by the buildings, a lightning apparition of straight wings, floaters and amphibious belly.
More ship than airplane, the CL-415 water bomber will forever be known, in Italy, as “The Canadair”, even though its maker has changed name twice since being called such. Whatever its moniker, the Canadair is, arguably, the nation’s most beloved airplane. Nary a soul has anything bad to say about this son of the great North; more than once, in the five hours it took to quell the blaze, I witnessed Palermitans smile at the red-and-yellow propper as it flew sortie after sortie, slamming six tonnes of seawater into the flames with remarkably un-Canadian violence.
– § –
Call it ignorance, call it the prejudice of a polenta-eating northerner, but I expected that Palermo’s downtown – the poorer, dilapidated streets of La Kalsa and Borgo Vecchio – be inhabited by old men wearing coppolas and corduroys, leathery faces and bendy legs, sitting outside with expressions as stony as an Easter Island moai. Once again, I was wrong.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
Doorbells, in La Kalsa, yield a microcosm of surnames: pure Sicilian ones and a whirlwind tour of the Subcontinent with Bengali, Punjabi and Tamil names written in scrupulous all-caps. A CISL branch – the Catholic trade union – has notices written in Italian and Bangla abugida.
The narrow streets facilitate a tentative, un-scripted and spontaneous integration, haphazard and chaotic as most things are in Italy. Volunteers at an ophthalmology clinic chat with an African family; a group of friends of different ethnicities pose for Instagram snaps at the port, speaking with the same accent, the same wide vowels. Mixed couples walk under umbrellas during a brief and unexpected squall.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
There’s an ease in all this, suggesting that this isn’t Palermo’s first rodeo. And it’s true: everyone, from the Phoenicians to the Americans, has been here. Muslim carpenters built the monastery of the Eremiti, garnishing it with red domes and spikes as the mosques in which they prayed. Verse 54 of the 7th Surah of the Koran is carved on a pillar of the city’s cathedral. A man bundles his children and beach paraphernalia into a Jeep; his right forearm emblazoned with the tattoo of a crucifix; on the left is a sentence in Arabic.
Click on any photo to start the slideshow.
– § –
There are two stereotypes, when discussing the South, I don’t want to fall into: mafia and laziness. One is a lot harder to dodge than the other and, try as much as I do, I find myself falling into the latter. North of the Vucciria market, now a skeleton of the former self that enthralled Peter Robb and Leonardo Sciascia, is a block of tightly-packed houses left untouched from the days when the Allied forces, in 1943, bombed the city; not far from there is a small shrine left by a pious hand asking for help from the Almighty to clear the city of the rubbish. I wish to be able to say that my mind didn’t run to a Lombard phrase, “bun de fà nient”, good-for-nothing, that my grandma used when seeing these behaviours, but I’d be lying.
A sign, outside Judge Borsellino’s birthplace, marks it as the starting point for the rejuvenation – risanamento – of the old town. It’s dated 1993. Naples, Bari, Lecce, Taranto have all accomplished that in a fraction of the time. Palermo hasn’t.
It’s easy to be a pessimist about Sicily, but I’m not. I leave Palermo enthralled and frustrated, amazed and confused, enamoured and disgusted but, above all, optimistic. First impressions are often misleading, but I leave this city knowing that there’s something – the people, the sense of community, an air of go-getting – that tells me that things will get better.
Turn Left At Lenin’s Statue, my first travel book, is out on Amazon. Click here to buy an e-book or a printed copy.
Regulars of this blog will know that I originally hail from NW Italy. I was born in Piedmont but spent a lot of time in neighbouring Val d’Aosta (also known as Almost Switzerland). A region of glaciers, woods, gurgling streams, serene meadows and, sadly, shockingly disregard to nature.
Mountains, here, come in two sizes: those that have been turned in ski slopes and those that haven’t yet. When I refer to the sport of skiing I’m not talking about the Jimmy Chin-esque enterprise of climbing a peak and then going off-piste downhill. No, I’m talking about the one requiring plenty of lifts, cable cars, snow cannons and manicured runs carved through woods and meadows.
All this infrastructure is barely visible in winter, when everything is covered by a lovely cover of white powder. For the remaining 8 months of the year, though, it looks like this:
which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is pretty shit (and even shittier to trek on).
I used to spend every summer in a corner of Val d’Aosta called Ayas. An idyllic valley, dug through eons by the Monte Rosa glaciers. An idyll that, however, had been cratered, dug, levelled and chopped down in order to provide as much skiing material as humanly possible. Thirty-seven lifts, a hundred and eighty kilometres of runs, interlinking and bisecting the entire valley and neighbouring ones. So ubiquitous this infrastructure was that, as a kid, I stumbled into metal pylons everywhere I went in the valley. It felt as if every corner of Ayas had to be defaced by the skidmark of a piste running down the side of a peak.
Apart from one.
The Cime Bianche valley is a basin in the north-west of Ayas. Its location – away from the villages and basically poking the big glaciers in the ribcage – saved it from development. I remember trekking there for the first time, aiming for a bivouac (then painted red, now turned gaudy yellow) within spitting distance of the ice; I remember marvelling at its beauty, at is relative remoteness, at how unspoilt and wild it felt. It was indeed the last wild valley.
And so the Cime Bianche valley lived on, its remoteness a guarantee against roads, ski runs and whatnot. Until now, that is.
Spurred on by stagnant revenues, rising costs and by the impact of an increasingly unpredictable weather, the local powers that be have become restless. How to keep the tourist cash flowing and the good times rolling? The only answer is, in their mind, to build more, higher, further. To link the runs of Cervinia with Ayas, to allow skiers to pass from valley to valley. And who cares if the costs are astronomical, who cares if – every year – it snows when it should rain and rains when it ought to snow, who cares if you need untold amounts of water to withen the runs, who cares if tourists are now increasingly demanding (and paying top dollar) for ski-alpinism, unspoilt nature, wildlife. The Cime Bianche must go.
Courtesy Francesco Sisti & Altreconomia
A few people are standing against this. My brother, his fiancée Annamaria and photographer Francesco Sisti have been campaigning for protection of the Cime Bianche valley, to preserve it from becoming yet another ski run and, instead it, open it up to a less destructive tourism. Their activism runs through their photography, recently collated in a book, as well as through events aimed at sharing the beauty of the last unspoiled environment in this corner of Italy.
You can sign their petition to protect the Cime Bianche here.
Almost 10,000 people have done so. If you could join in to tell a local council that there are other ways, other means to make a honest living without ruining the little wild environment that remains it would be great.
This place is ancient. Countless generations lived here; even more passed through. Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans. Then Vandals, Goths, the Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Spaniards. Germans and the Allied forces. All left a piece, a memento of their passage.
This is a city of convoluted alleys and of buildings in constant state of flux. A wing is refurbished while the other crumbles into a mouldy heap. A new window opens up in a decrepit wall. A fresh lick of paint over rusty iron.
This is also a place where old and new clash together in a deafening clangour, yielding results that satisfy no one. A city where the perfume of pastries just pulled from the oven fist-fight with the stink of horse piss. A city both filthy and spotless. A city where Brobdingnagian monstrosities tower above the old town like space invaders.
This is a place of contradictions, where street signs promise 40-day relief from sin in exchange for a prayer. This is a place intriguing, maddening, fascinating and frustrating at the same time.
This is Palermo.
From the comfortable flatness of London, Alpine trekking evokes images of paths meandering towards isolated peaks and a soft mattress of pine needles covering a path running through the woods. Not in the mountains surrounding my hometown, though.
Boulders make a natural staircase through the beech wood, ascending parallel to the rumbling torrent. A road has been dug through the valley that opens at the end of the treeline, but “road” is too much of a word. It’s a river of syenite, a stationary rock avalanche that somebody has half-heartedly arranged into something resembling a flat surface. The path, when I eventually got to it, turns out to be made exclusively of slabs of stone. There’s no bouncy padding of pine needles and leaves, here: only rocks, boulders and blocks of stone.
My brother and his other half, when unencumbered by their posse of Labradors, cover the 8 km and 1200 metres of elevation gain to Monte Camino in about two hours. Normal people, a sign said at the trail head, would cover the same distance in three. My aim, triggered by deluded self-respect, is to get there in under three. As I eat the peach that I’d promised myself as a halfway treat, I begin to question my optimism.
I press on, climbing up and down the boulders. From somewhere come the only words I know from an Irish song and my brain repeats them nonstop in a Paddy rendition of Auṃ maṇi padme hūṃ.
One two three four five
Hunt the Hare and turn her down the rocky road
And all the way to Dublin, Whack fol lol le rah!
And so it is that, repeating whack fol le rah like a possessed man, I scramble past the refuge, say hello to the early morning skyrunners – already on their way back and bouncing like goats from boulder to boulder – and land on top of Monte Camino. The time is 09.55 and I started two-and-a-half hours before.
I stand on the dichotomy between two worlds. Here are the lowlands, flat as a pizza and Vietnamese in their sequence of green rice paddies, humidity and clouds of mosquitoes.
There, instead, is the crystal-clear air of the mountains and a parade of icy peaks: the Monte Rosa massif. Mount Cervino, Matterhorn for the non-Italians, stands on its own with a cloud as a hat.
A Buddhist prayer flag flaps near the Catholic chapel. A Bernese shepherd dog is more interested in my bresaola sandwich than in my cuddles. Time to descend.
Hikers come in two types: those who find the way down a lot harder than the way up and those who are wrong. The ultimate StairMaster becomes trickier and more taxing as I negotiate it downwards, but there’s a constant stream of dogs to pat, of trekkers to say hello to and of things to photograph. A herd of cows is moving across a minuscule plateau with bovine placidity, guided by dogs commanded in dialect by the young shepherd.
A bee and a wanna-bee (I’ve been dying to write this for ages) pollinate some field flowers.
A cable car soars overhead.
Then I’m back in Oropa, where teenagers play violins and, somewhere, there’s a bar with Menabrea on tap and the Black Madonna smiles benevolently.
It’s taken three years, five revisions and a list of rejections as long as Donald Trump’s comb over, but at long last Turn Left at Lenin’s Statue is here – or, rather, on Amazon. Here’s a little bit of a description of what you can find, carefully crafted to read like a fireside chat (you can almost hear the log crackling in the background).
So, what is this book about?
Let’s start with a disappointment. It’s not a description of how a car GPS’ instruction would be sounding like in a world where the USSR never collapsed. What it is, instead, is a tribute to Central Asia. Half travelogue and half chronicle, Turn Left follows my journeys through the lands stretching between the Caspian Sea and the Taklamakan Desert. It tells the stories of those who lived – and live – there: from Alexander the Great to long distance truckers, my purpose with this book has been to describe ‘what it means’ to be Central Asian.
Why did you write it?
Delusions of grandeur aside, the idea of writing Turn Left matured with time. I’ve been fascinated with this land ever since I could remember, even though it took about 30 years before I finally landed there, on a snowy day in Almaty. That first visit triggered another and then another and so on, unveiling a reality that was a lot more complex and intriguing than the post-Soviet drivel I expected to find. Eventually, all these stories coalesced into a single mission, which is also the ‘spine’, if you will, of the book: to describe this region through the stories of its peoples. To try and tell what it means to be Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uyghur and so on by letting the people describe their own realities, adding my experiences but without shoehorning my views into theirs.
Why should I read this instead of, say, Eat Pray Love?
To each his, or her, own I guess. But if you want to read something about relatively unknown places – and let’s face it, Tajikistan ain’t exactly Bali – and different peoples rather than the usual me-me-me that infests our lives, then this could be a good option. Plus, it’s got camels, archery, Uzbek footballers and goats. Lots of goats.
Where did you go?
The book documents a long series of rambles, a haphazard tour describing a loop with both ends in Almaty, a lovely city tucked away in the bottom right-hand corner of Kazakhstan. Inbetween are chapters dedicated to the Aral Sea, Bukhara, the Pamirs, Kyrgyzstan and Xinjiang: anywhere opportunities, world politics and interesting stories steered me.
What’s the main message of the book?
Turn Left wants to be a rebuke of today’s tendency to reduce everything to caricature, to a strapline, to a 280-character summary. Central Asia is particularly prone to this, being alternatively described as a swamp of dictatorship, a hotbed of terrorism or a dystopian hell-hole. All of that can be true, as well as it’s true that Central Asia is where I found genuine warmth, true hospitality and selfless generosity. To cut the story short, the one message that Turn Left wants to convey is that reality is a lot more complicated than it seems and that’s not only fine: it’s what makes the world interesting.
One last question: what happens when you turn left at Lenin’s statue?
Well, a lot of things! But, jokes aside, you end up in a dusty courtyard with a dog, an abandoned Russian car and a great view over the Pamirs. See here.
Turn Left at Lenin’s Statue is available as paperback and Kindle e-book on Amazon from today.
As soon as Jeff’s industrious elves (or, rather, a server in some Amazon Web Services data centre in suburban Leighton Buzzard) check that neither the Kindle nor the paperback are hiding contents unworthy of featuring on Jeff’s Big Shop in the Internet, Turn Left at Lenin’s Statue will be out. And, in case you’re wondering, this is how the cover looks like.
Animals can speak. And thanks to a nifty little app I downloaded, I now speak animal!
“Say what?” says the hind.
“Hey, mister Heron…” “What’s the matter, darling?”
“Don’t you worry dear, I’ll keep an eye on him. He looks big, but I did Aikido in high school school. Just hide behind me”.
“Can you change the background with Photoshop, George? I’m normally in Mauritius this time of the year but with all this lockdown nonsense I’m afraid I’ll be stuck in Twickers all summer. I know, ghastly”.
“Hey, sir! Want to see something cool?”
The man did not turn round. But somebody else was impressed.