And then came the miracle of St Calogero.
Porto Empedocle was a bit like a night club. By day tatty and depressing, by night it underwent a mysterious transformation, if not into a place of beauty, then into a place of idiosyncratic enchantment. The shadows of the night masked the decaying buildings and general delapidation. The street lamps lit the town in an mellow, theatrical glow. Young,old, very old, families, couples, singletons thronged the via Roma. There was a buzz about the place.
Quite unknown to me, it was the Feast of St Calogero, the local patron saint, whose image suddenly appeared at the top of the steps from the church in the via Roma, accompanied by furious synchronised rattle from five drums, a blast from the PE band and a peal of church bells. It was a splendid cacophony. At the same time there was a sharp intake of breath, many crossed themselves, a few applauded.
I could just about make out St C through a forest of smart phones and tablets raised like votive offerings. He was raised up on a kind of wooden raft, which was carried on the shoulders of a good many willing bearers through the sea of packed humanity. He lurched to one side and then the other as he came down the steps. Every now and then the procession paused while puzzled babies were held up to touch him or be touched by him and other people were shoving mysterious bits of paper into a hole in his middle, below his robes dotted with gold. There were art nouveau lights at each corner of the palanquin, and a halo of Christmas tree lights above the saint’s austere and unmistakably black face.
To describe the apparition as kitsch is to miss the point. If the image was in the best possible taste, it would be both vulgar and unapproachable. It was the kitsch-ness of St Calogero that gave it its force. It made it approachable. It appeals to our sentimental side. It was direct and immediate. And it could be carried without too much few anxiety of it coming a cropper. The massed ranks of drummers, the band and a phalanx of followers led by a man with a bell set off around the town, stopping every now and then more more puzzled babies to be held aloft.
The rest of us drifted off in search of food and drink. I has a pane con meusa, a bun stuffed with spleen and other interior oddities I saw bubbling away in a cauldron on a street corner. It was gloriously greasy, with a delicate, slightly livery flavour and a whiff of drains. The streets were awash with folk, eating , drinking, chatting, laughing. I wondered how many towns in Britain in Porto Empedocle’s apparently woeful state could boast at least 15 trattorias, as many bars, not to mention pizzerias, panninorias and gelaterias. Whatever else, the people of Porto Empedocle liked to eat well.
I went down to the dock to wait for the ferry to and from Lampedusa to arrive. A chap was cooking sausages and onions outside the bar on the quay. A golden plume of smoke rose up from it and disappeared into the night. An old man sitting on bollard a with a guitar struck up a conversation with me. Where was I from?What was I doing? I asked him why he was laying the guitar on the dock. It helped pass the time, he said. He was waiting to catch the ferry, too. And music was beautiful, wasn’t it? I agreed. He began strumming ‘I love you, Pantelleria. You’re so beautiful.’
Among those getting off were about 200 + immigrants, Africans. They came off in blocks of about 70 or so, enough to fill the four buses that drew up to take them heaven knows where. It was a very smooth operation, and there was no enmity among the Sicilians on the quayside as far as I could tell.
Shortly afterwards there was a fantastic firework display to mark the end of the Feast of St Calogero. There was something in that for everyone. Not long afterwards the ferry pulled away from the quay and headed for Lampedusa.