Saturday, October 5, 2013

Sicilia Uno

Monday, September 30, 2013
The Sunday's Times has an article on students who don’t go very far away when they go away to college. boundaries.html?_r =0  The article discusses several college students who live near their family as they attend college.  Examples include a Macalester College student who has half an hour walk from her parents in St. Paul, MN; a Columbia University woman whose mother in Brooklyn is only a subway ride away; a Princeton University student with a family in Princeton, NJ. 

I couldn't help thinking back to the Golden Oldie days when Grandpa Alan first rode the Q-11 bus up Woodhaven Boulvevard to the subway station on Queens Boulevard of the (then) GG local for three stops to Jackson Heights/Roosevelt Avenue getting on the E train express to Seventh Avenue then changing to the D train uptown to 145th Street for a short stroll to CCNY's North Campus.  Note, on days when I headed to South Campus, I got off at 125th Street instead.  There was no route more direct.  

This inconvenience was not a factor in my choice of institution or residence.  CCNY was tuition-free then, as it had been for generations, until the Republicans took control of Albany.  My family simply could not afford even modest tuition for me, no less room and board anywhere except Skid Row.  Home it was, therefore, for the next four years, sharing a bedroom with my brother as he completed his senior year at CCNY and then went to Columbia University for graduate school.  It seemed to make little difference to him; he always was a much more conscientious student than I was.  He probably spent time at Columbia’s library, while I recall holding my calculus textbook on my lap sitting in front of the (one and only) family TV set, black-and-white for sure.  

I can’t muster any sentiment about those days.  My parents were decent people who had little to communicate to their uncommunicative sons.  Neither of us had cars. In fact, I did not get my driver’s license until I graduated college.  Dating was fitful and frustrating, with more time spent on subways with strangers than in the dark with a girl.  Part-time and summer jobs provided pocket money.  I guess trust funds hadn’t been invented yet.  

What if?  No doubt I missed a lot by living at home.  I left college no more emotionally developed than I had been as a high school sophomore.  I’m not sure whether my infamous graduate school career at Cornell proved that I wasn’t ready for non loco parentis even into my 20s, or that the hormones, energy, anxieties and lusts that should have been dissipated as an undergraduate emerged even more vigorously once unleashed in Ithaca.  Go know.     

I met another good duck today at Ping’s Seafood, 22 Mott Street, one of Chinatown’s best “nice” restaurants.  The plate holding half a Peking duck ($25) was quite full.  The whole half was served up, cut into manageable pieces, along with slivers of cucumber and scallions, hoisin sauce and six flat pancakes.  However, not all the pieces of duck on the plate made it into a pancake because many still had bones.  By the fifth pancake I was peeling meat off the bone to build my duck sandwich/roll/burrito/blintz/gyro/crêpe.  All I could do with the sixth pancake was wipe up the remaining hoisin sauce.  The meat itself was only mildly fatty, leaner than not.  In all a good, slightly over-priced duck.  Charging $1 for tea was unnecessary.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013
Zagat's released the results of its annual survey of 48,114 regular restaurant patrons.  It reported that the average dinner in New York City, including entree, drink and tip, cost $48.56 - about 20 percent more than the national average.  I'm in no position to question this, because most of my meals outside the Palazzo di Gotthelf are lunches, usually in Chinatown, far below what my friends and colleagues in midtown are paying.  In fact, while I am a regular contributor to Zagat's surveys, I often feel thwarted because they ask for Dinner prices, when I have acquired a large inventory of lunch experiences.  My numbers, therefore, are skewed to the low side, since a plate of Singapore chow fun may prove more delightful than a glass of house red and a plate of mushy pasta, it will almost never exceed them in cost.

Today, our department is having a rare general meeting, only the second that I can recall in my near four years here.  It took up most of lunch time, so I fueled myself in advance with a combo over rice, lots of white sauce, some red sauce with a pita on the side ($7) from a Halal food sidewalk cart.  We’re not sure of what this meeting will entail, but, since we are employees of New York State, not the federal government, we don’t expect to be placed on furlough until Lee’s surrender at Appomattox is reversed.

Skipping Chinatown today is appropriate as I set my sights on Sicily where we should be able to have a late lunch tomorrow.  So, it will be spaghetti, not lo mein, vermicelli, not mei fun, fettuccine, not chow fun.  I’m ready for the challenge.  

Wednesday, October 2, 2013
Our flights went well.  Moving the Alitalia plane away from its parking spot in the Rome airport in order to fly to Palermo took an extra hour, however, while they repaired the little truck that couldn't.  So, we arrived in Palermo a bit later than expected, but that made little difference.  A walk around the the old part of town where our hotel was located, followed by a nap, got us ready for a hearty dinner.  Except the restaurants recommended at the hotel desk and others on the way were all closed.  We thought that we might have landed on a fast day devoted to a Sicilain saint unknown to our quartet of New York-area Jews.  Instead, it was the clock, not the calendar that frustrated us.  It was before 7 PM, too early for dinner.  Fortunately, we stumbled into the front door of Le Delizie di Cagliosto, via Vittorio Emanuele 150, just as the clock struck seven, and were rewarded with a very good meal.  We (four) ate variously spaghetti with anchovies, fried cheese ball, spaghetti with sardines, macaroni with egg plant, steamed mussels, fried calamari, maybe something else, veal scallopini in lemon sauce, pistachio semifreddo, a little wine, aqua frizzante (seltzer) and spent under 70 euros. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013
Giuseppina Fiamingo was our guide for four hours on foot in the old city.  It turns out that the neighborhood of our hotel contains many of the most notable sights, so we saw a lot as we went rambling.  A few times, this lovely 35 year old suggested a pause, but us old folks wanted to push on and we did.  On the other hand, the nap later this afternoon was especially welcome.  We knew to wait until after 7 PM to find a restaurant, and had no trouble but less satisfation than last night.  However, we returned to Al Cassarta, Gelateria Artigianale, via Vittorio Emanuele 214, for gelato, not daring to take a risk with such a vital matter.  We had only sampled their wares last night, but tonight we jumped in with all our taste buds. A wise decision.

Not all went as smoothly as the gelato.  Earlier, I walked over to Avis to pick up the car we would usefor the next 6 days.  I decided to take it this evening rather than wait for the morning and possibly rush our drive to Agrigento, which would take at least two hours.  Agrigento is the major archaelogical site in Sicily, loaded with Greek temples and ancient ruins.  
Now, read this wording carefully:
"An international driving license is required if the license is printed with nonRoman Alphabet.  An international driving license is required for drivers outside the European Union." 

Last year, I rented a car in Israel, and, in the past, I've rented in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain only using my New York State driver's license, clean as a whistle, by the way.  Today, however, Avis insisted on an international license and wouldn't budge.  Many hours later spent on the telephone with the booking agent, I got a temporary commitment from Thrifty for a car tomorrow.

Friday, October 4, 2013
The Thrifty office in downtown Palermo had no cars, but just a 60 euro taxicab ride to the airport took us to the Thrifty office there, in a bank of other rent-a-car companies.  Thrifty was happy to accept my NY license, but, after all the paperwork was done, they announced that they had no GPS, in spite of my explicit request for one to the, otherwise very cooperative, booking agent.  No GPS, no car, announced Grandpa Alan.  I had already seen the chaos of Palermo driving on the taxi rides from and to the airport, and as we walked around the downtown.  Not just the driving, but the absence, ambiguity and/or illegibility of street signs.  No GPS, no car.  Immediately, cool and calm Steve, a traveling companion, slid right over to the Enterprise counter and asked for a NY-compatible car with GPS.  Presto, prego, gesundeheit.  For only 300 euros more than the Avis or Thrifty reservation, we had ourselves a VW Golf with automatic transmission, which allowed others to drive.  Normally, European rental cars come with stick shift as do many family cars. It was too late to go to Agrigento, but we headed to the scenic mountain town of Erice, a recommended site/sight, about 45 minutes from the airport, further east from Palermo.  The guide books omitted a critical fact.  Erice is inhabited only by goats and people who get a heart attack or stroke from climbing the extremely-sloped, perilous mountain road to the top and spend their waning days looking down over Sicily, the Mediterranean, Northern Africa, Italy until the outskirts of Rome, and east to  Iraq.  Thanks to the wise counsel of America's Favorite Epidemiologist, we stopped several miles above sea level and managed to turn around without falling over the edge of the road, thus avoiding recuperation and retirement in Erice.  In fact, Steve drove down as I recovered in the back seat, mildly hyperventilating. 
I'm sure that I'll recover my equilibrium in time to start negotiating for recovery of my complete advance payment for the Avis/Thrifty rental.

Saturday, October 5, 2013
We got back on schedule and drove the almost two hours to Agrigento, on the south coast of Sicily.  It is home to the Valley of the Temples, which some of you thought was located in Great Neck.  Agrigento contains ten Greek temples, ranging from rubble to recognizable.  We had a good guide, an absolute necessity for all but post-graduate archaelogists.  We had lunch nearby, antipasti all around, and headed back to Palermo.  Jill had the very good idea of stopping in a random small town on the way back to see a side of Sicily away from other tourists.  By chance, we chose Bolognetta (could it really mean small baloney?), right off the highway, and found two treats, of a sort.  The first was a first-class bakery that made, and was willing to sell us, excellent cookies and pastries as an afternoon snack.  While we were sitting on a bench on Bolognetta's main street, via Roma I think it was called, always a good guess in Italy, a funeral procession came from the church one block away.  The priest walked in front of the slow-moving hearse and a van with bouquets of flowers on its roof, followed by all the mourners on foot.  No limos, no Escalades, no Mercedes, no SUVs.  Other townpeople stood on the curb as the procession passed.  It was very moving and dignifed.  Riposa in pace, Sicilian friend. 

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