My last morning in Tunis was dedicated to finding myself a new bag, a new, large, bag in which to carry the extra t-shirts and toiletries I had bought myself. I had two rules – the bag must be relatively inexpensive, and (more importantly) it had to look like something Jack Kerouac would have used.* What I wanted then, I suppose, was an army surplus duffel sack. Khaki or denim. One strap. Old. This I could not find, and in the end I settled for a khaki one strap sack bag made of unpleasant synthetic material. The look would be there, if not the feel. Look but don’t touch, that eternal rule.
The strap tore off on the way to the ferry terminal, I had to tie it to the base. The side ripped open as I clambered over prone bodies in the middle of the night. The bag is ruined. And, somehow, I utterly failed to score a replacement whilst in Sicily. Perhaps because my fucking bank decided to cancel my debit card AGAIN.
My two days in Palermo were spent largely carrying a torn, khaki sack around, sprinting along deserted streets looking for an ATM in the brief window of access HSBC’s call centre occasionally gifted me. I was dripping with sweat, the aubergine, booze and ice cream forcing itself out of my pores instead of (as I’d become used to) my anus.** I’m back to borderline perfect health. For me. I’m pissing more than I’m pooing – that’s “normal”, right?
This morning I had an encounter with mortality. After having a deeply moving existential crisis upon visiting the Catacombs of the Capuchin monks in Rome a few months ago (see link here [link may not exist]), I hoped for a repeat experience courtesy of the underground death vaults of the Sicilian branch of the same visceral cult, sorry, monastic religious order. I descended, early, tired and alone. The catacombs are located uphill from the centre of Palermo, a little off the beaten track and not somewhere one would wander by accident.*** Instead of (as in Rome) the bones of a few hundred dead monks arranged into pretty (weird) patterns in four small rooms, the dead of the Sicilian Capuchins have been placed to rest, intact, along both walls of a largish series of subterranean corridors. Side by side, two, three, thousand corpses stand, are held up. Men, women, children. A few are laid down, some lean against each other, a handful are kept in sealed glass cases to preserve skin… Body after body after body. Death after death after death. Each at a different stage of decomposition. Some bone, all bone, clean and white, some faded like ivory. Others with thick layers of skin on their hands, faces, the outline of eyes staring out mournfully, teeth, hair, beards, all dressed, all dressed in clothes more intact than their flesh, beautiful clothes often, elegant, charming suits, worn by men long dead. Bonnets, lace, framing the head of a child, a toddler, a baby. Death, intact. A storeroom where bodies are stacked alongside pens, cardboard boxes, extension leads. Death everywhere. Death everywhere. I left affected, as in Rome. It is sobering, but important. No matter to what you dedicate your life when alive, we all rot the same. One can be clean and unimpeached in life, but even the “miraculous preserved dead” I saw this morning lacked something key, something human, something real. To discuss life after death is to not use language properly. A body rots. Bodies rot. And bodies, as the Catholic Church teaches time and time again, bodies rot the soul.
We should all dance into the fire before it’s too late.
* Though I would disagree to the point of physical violence with anyone who called me a hippie (THUS PROVING I’M NOT ONE), I would take the epithet beatnik with no qualms whatsoever.
***Unless wild dogs, collapsing buildings and regular noises that sound A LOT like gunshots don’t put you off a casual urban ramble.