“A blood relative or not, he’s my relative. Pasquale’s everybody’s relative: he’s “il nonno di Ustica.” Nonno Pasquale’s blue eyes – the same color as Ustica’s sea – twinkle at friend Gaetano’s affectionate words. A smile spreads ear-to-ear across his gentle face, pink cheeks still smooth with only a suggestion of wrinkles. Pasquale Palmisano will be a hundred next May. “Just over a thousand of us live on the island and I’m now the oldest”, he told me proudly.
Pino and I can’t imagine a Sicilian vacation without a few days on the volcanic island of Ustica, north of Palermo. I can’t imagine a stay on Ustica without hearing Pasquale’s stories. What a relief to know he is still here. On this visit, though, I didn’t find him out on the Palmisano farm land, sitting on a rickety wooden stool, whittling the reeds for the baskets he made, shaded by his huge, wide-brimmed straw hat.
He lives in the village now – “I have to take care of my wife who can no longer walk” – and was sitting in Ustica’s main piazza with his card-playing cronies, shaded now by the leafy gnarled arms of the centuries-old ficus trees. Nonno Pasquale spends the days with his bed-ridden wife and only goes out to the piazza and his friends at 5 pm when a caregiver comes in to watch over his wife.
…and so he continues to face serenly the hardships life has delivered (maybe one of the reasons he is nearly a hundred?). I’ll always remember the many stories of his infanzia povera which he told me so matter-of-factly when I chatted with him four years ago: I remember hearing about the shoes his father made of donkey skin for his eleven children, learning to make baskets at eleven to hold the ricotta his mother made, having to leave school in fourth grade to work the land…
As we caught up now, Gaetano interjected, “…and he doesn’t even need glasses….and what a memory!” Pasquale protested, “But I don’t remember this signora americana who’s here to visit me again.” One of the card-players chuckled, “O, Pasqua, I wouldn’t even remember a woman I’d met yesterday!” All the men laughed.
Pasquale insisted on offering me refreshment and while Gaetano went into the café to order me an espresso, Nonno Pasquale asked me how I had found him. Early that morning – as in many past Ustica visits – I had set out early for a walk, down the road. The rocky landscapes of volcanic Ustica, plummeting down to a turquoise sea, entice the hiker. But walking has to be in the early morning before the scorching sun rises in the sky sending vacationers into the water, the “locals” inside their houses and the few island farmers to the shade of their massive olive trees.
As on every Ustica sojourn, we were renting a room with elderly Signora Graziella and her husband Guido who live in a typical Mediterranean white-washed, flat-roofed house not far from the Palmisano land. From their house, I headed down the road bordered by black volcanic rock walls draped with caper vines in white flower and fuchsia bougainvilleas, flaming red hibiscus bushes peeping over the tops.. The pungent smell of wild fennel filled the air.
I found “young Pasquale” watering a field of broccoli plants, his donkey nearby in the shade of olive trees. Across the road, time for breakfast for his uncle Salvatore – a son of Nonno Pasquale – who was seated on a rock, cutting into chunks of cheese with a pocket knife. Bread completed the meal. “Your cheese?”, I asked. Salvatore told me they had long ago given up the cows and that only three farmers still have cows on Ustica: “not worth the labor when we get only four Euro or so per kilo of meat”.
The family now raises vegetables and especially legumes: the tiny baby lentils of Ustica (made world-famous now by Slow Food recognition), borlotti (that delicious speckled bean), fava beans, white beans, and chick peas. The legumes were for sale in baskets at their roadside stand – along with bottles of island capers, tomatoes, eggplants, figs and melons. Piles of cucuzza, the long and twisty Sicilian “serpentine zucchine”, lay in piles along with bunches of the leaves of the serpentine zucchine plant: the main ingredients of a Sicilian favorite, la pasta con i tenarumi.
Young Pasquale makes the baskets now for all the farm produce, having learned well from his older namesake. Before leaving them and heading to the village where they told me I’d find Nonno Pasquale, I bought a package of lentils. On second thought, I turned back to buy a basket: though now made by “young Pasquale”, it would still always link me to “il Nonno di Ustica,” Pasquale Palmisano.
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