By Tara Isabella Burton
I went to Palermo because it was home, and because nowhere else yet had been. I had too many stamps in my passport, too many languages only half-spoken, and a room in a shared house in England piled high with the talismans of my wanderings: Orthodox icons, Croatian carvings, Armenian carpets festering with fenugreek and mold. Every six months or so I panicked and impulse-bought a discount airline ticket to Marrakech, or Istanbul, or Madrid, because a book or an article or snippet of overheard conversation convinced me that there, there, I could belong. I looked at real estate in cities I’d never been to, just in case. In my second year of university I decided, somewhat ostentatiously, to give up bacon, in an attempt to revive my Jewish roots.
I’d been raised in a restless procession of countries, my mother eternally convinced the next one would be our last. I’d met my father for the first time in the previous summer, when I was nineteen. After awkward pleasantries we’d driven through Umbria and played at small talk until his English and my Italian gave out. We’d gotten stuck on the word “rewind” halfway through his attempt to explain our relationship—he gave up and bought me an ice-cream cone instead. We hugged goodbye; we traded text messages; I was no closer to home than before.
I hadn’t felt what I’d expected to feel: a tug of belonging, my blood boiling next to his. My father was affable; he was genial. But no cataclysmic force had risen from the hills to claim me. I had not fallen to my feet, rending garments with the Italian extravagance that was now my birthright. I’d only smiled, and nodded, and not belonged.
In broad, slick English one of the boys asked me if I’d like “to fuck.” No ancestral spirits sprang up from the earth of Etna to defend my honor.
But I had gotten something useful from the meeting. My father told me that he’d grown up in Palermo. A nearby town still bore his last name. I’d always been better with places than with people.
I pictured how it would be. Third-cousins in subterranean cafes would recognize me by the color of my eyes and the shape of my brow. They would gather me to their breasts and stroke my hair and force-feed me pasta with fennel and sardines. I would traipse over ruins like a mountain goat; I would eat tomatoes whole and let the juice pool in my palms. I would throw myself like a mermaid into the crashing sea. I built for myself a Palermo of frescoes and mosaics, Moorish domes and candied fruit and alleyways and markets, a scrapbook of images I thought—for a moment—could be home.
When I stumbled out of the train station the following March, slipping on cobblestones and pulling at my dress, I realized what a stranger I really was. I dragged my suitcase past packs of Sicilian teenagers. They did not recognize me or take me in their arms, but continued smoking furiously. They mocked, in slang they thought I did not understand, my mozzarella complexion, my frizzy hair, my ill-fitting dress. In broad, slick English one of the boys asked me if I’d like “to fuck.”
No ancestral spirits sprang up from the earth of Etna to defend my honor.
We tell ourselves stories about places, and our stories are stories about us.
I barricaded myself in the dank and mildewed Hotel Casanova and stared out at the sea. The reflection of the Sicily I had come home to did not exist. It rained for three days, and I never saw the mosaics at Monreale.
We talk to ourselves when we travel. We get used to the double-voiced loneliness that accompanies us somewhere strange and, because we have already imagined it, familiar. We tell ourselves stories about places, and our stories are stories about us. We knead our dreams and our memories into the clay of new streets and new cities, and because they are a part of us we are never alone.
But Sicily silenced me. Palermo overwhelmed me. It tore down the ramparts of the imaginary city I’d built for myself. It smeared its chaos into my face. It laid waste to my fantasies and left me to wade through the visceral, greasy reality of Palermo-that-was.
I could cultivate my carefully held illusions about myself: I was an Edwardian lady explorer; I could curse in five languages; I belonged everywhere.
I had no time to think. I had no space to dream, to impose my Palermo on the dank and labyrinthine city, where blistering suns snapped fast on the heels of storm clouds. Geriatric flower sellers massaged my bare legs near the Cathedral, crowing that I must be cold. Chickens squawked and stank, and in the shadow of the old Zisa men were throwing them by their necks into jeeps. In the Vucciria, a warren of marketplaces snaking through the crumbling-plaster streets of the old town, a fishmonger thrust a handful of squelched squid into my face. The tentacles flicked brine into my eyes.
I could no longer tell myself stories. At times, wild with savage loneliness, I started sobbing—at bus stops, on trains. I wanted, desperately, for something to defend me from this city that was not mine. My last day in Sicily I broke down in tears in the heart of the Vucciria, stinking of squid, and pleaded with the silent household gods to let my wanderings end in Palermo, to let this place be home.
Home, after all, is where everything is safe, where everything is known. It is where we curl into delusion, sidle up against our imaginations like cats. As long as we are safe, as long as we can lie to ourselves without reproach, then we are home. Istanbul, Marrakech, Madrid had never been foreign to me. They had all, in a sense, been homes—where I could cultivate my carefully held illusions about myself (I was an Edwardian lady explorer; I belonged everywhere; I could curse in five languages; I was the bastard daughter of the tenth son of an unknown Italian count). But Palermo, my father’s home, was not, and could never be. It sent me ricocheting through the chambers of my loneliness, careening away from my familiar fictions I told myself about myself. In Palermo, for the first time, I was nobody at all.
So I remember Palermo, as I do not remember Marrakech or Istanbul. It is the city that I cannot tame. It will not let me wrap my arms around it, and will never wrap its arms around me. It is the only city that does not belong to me, and it will not let me go.
Tara Isabella Burton lives between Tbilisi, Georgia, and Oxford, England, where she is working on a doctorate on the theology of artistic creation. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Spectator, Literary Traveler, Lady Adventurer, and more. In 2012 she received the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing.