‘Il Porto’

So, two weeks ago I talked about my adventure to Sicily and how I met two people that changed the entire layout of my trip.  Last week I told you about Guiseppe the police officer who took me out for some horrible scotch the night I arrived into Palermo.

This week, in the final week of the CreComm season, I talk about…

‘Il Porto’

I found a small restaurant café, like Giuseppe had suggested in the old part of the city that is nestled along the docks.  They call it “Il Porto”.  As I approached the entrance, I passed a tiny fishing boat.  The nets stretched over the front of the boat and dangled into the water.  I waved at the two tanned and weathered fisherman folding the already dry nets and continued to my newly discovered restaurant.  By the looks of it, the original part of the building had been there for some time.  The front of the restaurant, which was actually the back was open aired and looked out to the water. With the entrance hidden in alleyways it made it difficult to find.  I circled the building a few times until a young boy who was playing soccer with his friends in the alleyway pointed out the small doorway hidden almost like an old farmhouse cellar door.

Trapani
Trapani

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Being that the café/restaurant was right on the water, I imagined that the German and Italian soldiers would congregate there to drink coffee, wine and to talk and sing together.  After spending two days walking the streets I found that remnants of the war are all, but gone.  No one wants to remember that time period it seems.  The Americans began their offensive in July of 1943.  Trapani was taken by the Americans in August of that year and following this I could also imagine that this place then became their favourite beachside café.

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After entering through the sunken entrance and leaving winding streets I was surprised to find that the main room was quite large.  The tables were placed so every guest had a view of the water and the fresh breeze in their face.  Windowed doors were left open that divided the patio from the main dining room and wood slatted flooring clicked with each step.  It was a little noisy when I arrived as the fishermen were bringing in the day’s fresh catch.

A woman behind the counter smiled at me and then continued her conversation with the fisherman.  While her voice echoed throughout the café, I circled the dining room looking at photos that were placed along its walls.  Sure enough there were pictures of a man, I guessed the original owner, with what looked like American troops.  One of the pictures was of this man sitting inside this room with his arms around three American GIs.  I wondered if somewhere, not hanging anywhere, probably in dusty boxes, he had pictures of himself with German officers

My thoughts were interrupted and my attention was returned to the woman behind the counter; she could not have been older than thirty.  She took my order, and surprisingly spoke almost perfect English.  She introduced herself as Malena…

“Hello, can I help you?”

“What is that you are making?”  I ask pointing to the dough her hands are kneading.

“This?  It’s focaccia, it’s a herb and poppy seed dough that I serve with this soup,” she opens a pot and lifts the ladle.  I watch her continue to knead the dough; she places it on a stone tablet and slides it into the hearth behind her.  She then places a fresh fillet of fish that she has fried in olive oil and garlic and rests it on a plate next to a bowl of soup…

Sitting down to my lunch I watched Malena interact with her customers.  She greeted them by name, continued what I gathered to be daily ongoing conversations and provided taste tests to the young boys from the street.

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At first I wasn’t sure if the boys were coming into the café to get free food or to try their hand at flirting with Malena.  By the third visit, however, I understood.  She appeared from behind the counter holding a basket with some kind of cheese bread.  The boys, one holding a soccer ball, approached her, took a piece and then in succession continued by kissing her on the cheek.  They reminded me of the chipmunks at our cottage, prancing around an open hand full of seeds.  Each time the boys returned it seemed that they got a little braver, until finally the last boy kissed her on both sides and was going for a third when he kissed her on the lips.  He seemed to be more surprised than she was.  He jumped in the air and took off down the corridor outside the restaurant.  Malena shouted something in Italian and raised her hands into the air.  As she turned around I could see she was smiling.  She wiped her hands on her apron and rolled up her sleeves revealing her tanned olive skin.  Her hair was up into a ponytail and was as black as the coffee grounds shelved in jars behind the counter.  Her eyes were a rich brown with a hint of red; almost like the Sicilian earth.

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Afternoon turned into evening and I read a book that I had brought with me.   The sun began to set and the wind slowed.  With the fading sun, a new atmosphere took over the café.  Couples began to stroll in for dinner.  The sound of dishes clanging and the clinking of cutlery overtook the dining room.  I could hear breadcrumbs crackling in olive oil.  There was a sweet aroma of lemon and garlic that wafted through the room; there was laughter, the sound of fresh coffee being poured, and the snapping of biscotti.  Following the dinner rush, Malena sat down at my table and shared some wine with me…

“Did you enjoy the facoccia?”  She asks.

“Oh yes, fantastic.”  I say staring at my empty plate…  “Your English is perfect, did you study here in Trapani?”

“No, I studied for two years in London.  I came back last fall to run the restaurant because my grandfather fell ill…. Are you from Canada?”  She asks.

“Yes, Winnipeg, do you know it?”  She shakes her head.  “It’s somewhere right in the middle,” I say smiling. “When did he open the café?”  I point to the pictures on the walls.

“Oh yes that is him, Papa Antonio.  He opened it in 1940, and had run it till last fall.”  She folds a napkin while answering the question.

“Does he remember anything about the war years?”  I ask.

“He is still breathing, but his lips, limbs and ears have failed him.  He rarely spoke of those times, just that they were difficult … Why are you interested in the war?”  She asks.

“I graduated with a degree in European history and I am searching for a story to write about,” I say.

“That is too vague an answer for me,”  She says smiling.

I laugh.

“I know, but I just finished school and I felt that if I was here, something would inspire me; something or someone would find me.”

She is very nosey I think to myself.  I pause as I craft my next question, but for some reason pause, instead choosing to take another sip from my wine glass.  It is strange I should have a million questions about this newly discovered Grandfather.  I ease back into my chair, run my hands through my tangled hair and take a deep breath.

“Tired?”  She asks, no doubt seeing my hesitation, “did you just arrive?”

“A few days ago, I am a little tired, but more so I find myself needing to relax, I just need to relax.”

She smiles at me and takes a sip of wine.  It seems odd but there is something about her that I find so reassuring.

“Why are you so interested in history, what made you choose history?” She questions.

I hesitate to answer her, taking another sip of wine.

“Actually it was my Grandfather who inspired me.”

“How so?” she responds.

“I grew up with his stories.  He was born in Ukraine, during Stalin’s infamous purges and forced famines.  Do you know of Stalin?”

She nods.

“He grew up in immense poverty.  … He had to make decisions in life, which made his childhood very difficult.  He was later conscripted into the German army and fought in Belgium and Slovakia.  He survived the war and immigrated to Canada in the spring of 1948.  He arrived with nothing; within twenty years he had a wife, three children and a construction business that would eventually grow to become quite successful.  Though I still have questions, to me he survived all odds.  It is one thing to survive, it is quite another to become a success.  I had a desire to uncover stories like my grandfather’s.”

“I love your passion; it sounds like your Grandfather is your hero.  Have you written his story?  Because it sounds like there is a story there,” she says.

She undoes her pony tail, pulling her flowing hair behind her ears.

“No I haven’t.” I respond.

“Why haven’t you?”  she asks.  “To me writers write about their dreams, passions and their heroes.  They write about what they know, about what they can feel and touch.”

I respond with a smile, ignoring her question and let silence overtake the table.  Waves continue to crash against the rocks outside the patio.  Our table is right at the divide between deck and dining room, and the ocean breeze gently brings in the fresh salt air.  The patio is partially covered by a canvas that is pulled back and tied to wooden pillars that connect to the windowed doors.

“Did you like London?”  I ask changing the subject.

The question is asked as she takes a sip of red wine.  She smiles at me again and swallows.

“Yes, I did and I would move back there in a heartbeat if I could,” She responds.

“You like the hustle and bustle of big cities?”

“Oh yes, so many people, such different paths and lives that co-mingle together.  I loved it very much…

The setting sun turned to moonlight.  With every glass of wine the café began to get smaller and smaller.  The sparkling of tea candles started to swirl around me. By what I thought was two-thirty in the morning the café was empty, it was just her and I left.  As silence once again overtook the table, Malena rose from her chair and began clearing the empty wine bottles and glasses.

She then returned to the table, looked at me for a minute, reached for my hand and together we left the cafe. Arm and arm we began walking Via Farrigelli.  I walked with her until we reached the base of the city near Mount Erice, where she kissed me on the cheek and went on her way. I stumbled my way back to my hotel. I must have drank too much, because with every step my thoughts were not about Malena and her olive skin, but her words, “To me writers write about their dreams, passions and their heroes. They write about what they know, about what they can feel and touch.”

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