"Think Palermo, Sicily; think Mafia," a friend said, and he was serious.
"Racist!" we answered, half laughing at his obvious Northern Italian prejudice. We, on the other hand, were citizens of the world and would not be so obtuse as to write Palermo off as Mafialandia. It was the late 1970's, and my Italian husband had just announced his company had transferred our little family from Northern Italy to Palermo.
We did our homework and arrived in Sicily full of enthusiasm. The Neolithic hill dwellings, the Greek temples, the Roman ruins, the Carthaginian ports, the Arab palaces were there, waiting for us. We would dine on fresh tuna in picturesque little trattorie by the sea, taste Sicilian wine and cannoli and pasta with sardines and fresh dill. We would enjoy Sicily.
To us, the Mafia was an enigmatic, anachronistic social phenomenon that had absolutely nothing to do with my husband and me. Sure, every day, the news carried stories of murders, drug and gun trafficking, extortion, and prostitution in Palermo. But every metropolis has its problems, we reasoned. We were absolutely certain the vast majority of Sicilians were people just like us, people who worked hard and raised families without ever resorting to crime. We were determined to learn the culture, assimilate our little family into the texture of Palermitan society.
I was reading Henry James at the time, especially his 'Italian' novels, A Portrait of a Lady in particular. I knew the meaning of the word 'epiphany'. It's that moment when the veils are pulled away, and the main character recognizes the people around her, despite their elegant demeanors and upper class trappings, for what they are: dishonest, manipulative, sometimes violent people. Thus, I recognized the epiphany when it happened to me. Of course, it didn't happen in a Florentine palazzo, with 15th century art on the walls. We're all a long way from Henry James by now.
It happened two weeks after our arrival in Sicily. My husband and I, our five-year old daughter and our feisty little mongrel were choosing a camping spot in San Vito lo Capo, a sleepy fishing village on the southern coast, then just waking up to tourism possibilities. On the beach, there was a camping area, a dingy outdoor disco and a small amusement park. Unauthorized hotels and villas were going up all along the coast, but the village was still intact, picturesque and quaint. It consisted of a few long, straight, sun drenched streets of continuous two storey stucco houses, with front doors opening directly onto the street. The streets started at the beach and ended up against the olive-tree covered hills, a mile or so away. It was a picture postcard Sicilian village.
From the beach in the late afternoon sun, we could see groups of black clad women, their chairs in the street, but facing inward, toward their front doors. With their children playing around them, these women were making lace on 'tombolas', hard cylindrical pillows where cotton thread is pinned and then twisted and knotted. Every block in San Vito had its group of women. Near each group was the block's own cafè, with a few straight-backed chairs and wooden tables, populated by old men in 'coppolas', the typical black felt fisherman's beret. They played dominoes or checkers or card games involving a lot of slapping and throwing of what looked like tarot cards.
Giorgio, our anarchic mutt, had been with us through three moves, from Naples to Verona to Sicily, and was still confused. He was four years old and barely housetrained. For some unfathomable reason, Giorgio loathed sand. That's why, when we parked the camper and opened the doors at the San Vito beach, he had one look at the surroundings and took off at top speed the second he hit the ground, road-runner style, up the nearest street. I ran after him, but he was faster.
I saw him stop for a moment at the first corner, in front of a group of women and children, then turn left. Huffing up to the corner, and looking around, I saw no trace of him. I asked the women if any of them had seen which way Giorgio had gone after turning the bend. In unison, they raised their chins, and smacked their tongues against their teeth, making a loud click. The movement first looks like a 'yes', but is a very definite 'no' in Sicilian dialect.
"But he ran right past you!" I said. They shifted their chairs closer to the doors and continued sticking pins into their 'tombole'.
I ran on, asking at every corner if anyone had seen a little black dog running like a bat out of hell. I got the same answer from all of them, men, women and children. Clicks. No one admitted to seeing my dog. And yet, there were no other dogs around, and the distance from our camper to where Giorgio disappeared was not that far. Why would all of these people pretend they had not seen the animal? Was my Italian not clear? Did I look too distraught?
After wandering around the maze of streets for an hour, frustrated, tired, angry and without Giorgio, I returned to the camper. I asked my husband if I looked like a crazy woman, so crazy that no one would answer my questions.
He said, "No, honey, it's just 'omertà'."
"Omertà. Not talking, not reporting what you have seen. Staying out of anything that doesn't directly concern you or your family. Silence, for self-preservation."
"A lost dog is a danger to these people's self-preservation?"
"Well, you never know, is how they feel. Better safe than sorry. And anyway, omertà is a part of the culture here. Babes in arms drink it up with their mother's milk."
So, even children were taught to never answer questions from anyone outside the family, and, corollary, to never ask questions either. A child could ask the wrong question and get himself in trouble.
A few minutes later, Giorgio came sauntering along the beach boardwalk, looking contrite, but somehow satisfied. I scolded him, and we started making dinner. Over the marvelous fresh fish sizzling on the barbecue, I was, however, still pondering the implications of omertà. What did omertà mean for children, for parents, for teachers, for priests, for city officials, for the police, for the government, etc? Omertà. Mafia-think. It was my epiphany moment. I looked at everything in Sicily differently from that point onward.
My husband worked for a multinational. His directive from headquarters was to clean up the local office, get rid of the deadbeats, inject some energy into their transactions. We had rented an apartment near the center of Palermo. I felt it was my duty to understand the place, to try to blend in. Our daughter would be starting school there, and we would be in Sicily for at least three years.
In August, I visited the public elementary schools my daughter might attend. Every school, even in the best parts of town, was located in a dilapidated building formerly used for something else: patrician homes from two centuries ago, old storefronts, or decrepit office buildings. Many had broken windows covered in plastic; the classrooms had not been painted in decades and were full of mismatched, broken down rusty metal desks. There was not a trace of children's art in any of the facilities. The bathrooms were so filthy and bacteria-laden as to be dangerous.
And yet, we weren't living in a poverty-stricken city. Palermo boasted fancy boutiques, well-stocked shops, three or four theaters, a beautiful opera house, a nice stadium, and lovely well-groomed beaches. Baffled, I finally gave in and found a teaching job, in order to enroll my little girl in one of the many outrageously expensive private schools in Palermo. This one had intact windows, clean bright classrooms and happy children playing in the well-equipped playground. I asked the principal and owner of the school why there were no public schools like his. He turned a bit red, then answered that he had no idea! Omertà.
Our next door neighbor was a well-dressed, affluent woman in her fifties, married to a 'financier', she said. She shopped for food every morning, so that her cook would have the freshest fruit and vegetables to work with. She played bridge in the afternoon, and went to the theater or opera in the evening. One morning we met in the corridor, and she had a good look at the tomatoes and zucchini I had just bought. She sniffed and tsk-tskked a little, then ordered me to leave my bags at the door and follow her back to the market stand just around the corner.
She chatted with the grocer awhile, then touched every lemon in the citrus stack and chose one. She didn't pay for it. Taking my arm and giving me and the grocer a big warm smile, she turned and left. Again, I was baffled. We walked back home in silence.
The rule in Sicily back then, but not elsewhere in Italy, was that grocery shoppers did not touch the goods. Not allowed to choose their own tomatoes, zucchini or whatever, they waited to be served by the grocer and accepted what the grocer gave them. At Christmas a large tip was expected for service rendered. Our neighbor had not followed The Rule, and the grocer had said nothing.
The next day, that same grocer invited me to choose my own fruit. I asked him why this sudden disregard for The Rule. He too turned slightly pink, raised his shoulders in a How-should-I-know? gesture and proceeded to charge me half the normal price. Omertà plus privilege were at work, I suddenly realized. Some of my neighbor's glitter had rubbed off on me. I shopped in the huge, anonymous outdoor market, the Vucciria, every Saturday from then on, and hid my fruit and vegetables from my neighbor's probing eyes.
Within a year we understood that this combination of privilege and secrecy was rampant on every level. Sicilian society was very class conscious, structured and secretive—a medieval world with computers. It was the perfect petri dish for the Mafia, or perhaps the Mafia was the perfect petri dish for this society. Our newly made friends all had an agenda, usually involving finding jobs for unqualified relatives; our daughter's teachers handed out grades according to the 'importance' of the child's family. Our condominium administrator invited me not to do the gardening around our apartment, but to pay a gardener, his nephew, an exorbitant amount to do it. It was the 'elegant' thing to do, he said. He added that I was the only tenant in the entire apartment complex doing my own gardening. Maybe because I was a 'straniera', a foreigner, he added with a charming smile.
My husband fired a lazy worker for long unjustified absences from work. The next day another neighbor, an educated young lawyer we had considered friendly, launched a few veiled threats having to do with our car. He then hinted strongly that my husband was to re-hire the lazy worker immediately. We had never mentioned my husband's job to this young man. Needless to say, the worker was not reinstated, we took to parking our car in a garage, and our neighbor never spoke to us again.
Our second year in Palermo, two anti-mafia investigative magistrates were shot dead in the streets, within three blocks of our apartment. In the worst part of town, ride-by shootings were not unusual. My husband and I finally admitted to each other that we were frightened and that we both hated Palermo. We missed the open, frank people in Northern Italy, we missed being able to express an opinion, to interact with real friends, and, yes, we missed supermarkets.
Shortly afterwards, our little girl, her eyes brimming with tears, asked us why she was not allowed to play soccer, and why the girls, and never the boys, had to clean up after fingerpainting, and why the teacher never stopped fights between the boys on the playground, and why… and why…
My husband asked for a transfer the next day. It meant a substantial drop in salary. It didn't matter. We were out of Palermo within a week. We had learned our lesson: assimilation into some foreign cultures is not always possible.
Copyright © Corbitt Nesta 2006. Title graphic: "Quiet Please" Copyright © The Summerset Review, Inc. 2006.