The Dark Heart of a Beautiful City – Palermo, Sicily, Italy

The Dark Heart of a Beautiful City: Palermo
Palermo, Sicily, Italy

My first view of Sicily was when I flew into Palermo’s Falcone-Borsellino airport, the sweep of mountains, sea, and buildings slipping by, a landing as dangerous to pilots as the view is seductive. I was greeted at the airport by Maria Luisa, a dark-haired, dark-eyed Sicilian who also happened to be the cousin of the school director.

“Welcome to Palermo,” she said, shook my hand, and led me to her car.

I don’t know what I had been led to expect, in one of the poorest parts of Italy; maybe a monumental but rough city with besuited gentlemen wearing dark glasses and carrying violin-cases, which did not belong to the Palermo Symphony Orchestra. But I saw no such gentlemen on the way from the airport, and Palermo itself looked like any other modern city in the West, prosperous, with its mix of old houses, streets full of shops, and new apartment blocks.

The impression was dispelled when I was dropped outside a pretty villa in a quiet corner of Palermo, my temporary accommodation. The villa was divided into flats, and was inexpensive to rent was because it was round the corner from the area called the Borgo. “You get good food in the market, but hold on to your wallet,” said Maria Luisa as we went there to buy some things.

The Borgo must once have been a well-heeled place, with its elegant houses and villas leading down to the sea. Now, these houses were crumbling, and crowded, the balconies sighed with washing, and the energy of the poor hit you before you could assimilate it; children rode scooters which roared and wheezed in the pullulating streets while harsh Sicilians cackled and rasped in their dialect. Someone tossed a coin at an old man standing outside a storeroom, and he began to sing old Palermitan favourites, with grit in his voice that could have been carried by the wind and swallowed as you walked along a street.

I found later that much of Palermo had this atmosphere, especially the old town, with its grand palazzi and ornate churches, where some of the palazzi were monuments to the past, but others slums, with cloths for a door.

Though the Second World War was responsible for a lot of the dereliction, it is a tragedy that no attempts have been made to rebuild or restore these places. This is the fault of the organisation that does not speak its name in Sicily. There are even some who maintain that it does not exist. It exists, all right, and every aspect of Palermitan life is in one way or another influenced by it: the shopkeepers and stall owners who have to pay ‘protection’; the laundering of money in banks and restaurants; and the deliberate neglect of the old town to move people who can afford it out to the suburbs where lucrative construction deals continue to contribute to CN coffers.

Once, a group of my students, my Palermitan girlfriend Laura, and I decided to go for a pizza or something Italian in one of Palermo’s better-known, but inexpensive trattorias. What most of us suspected, but none of us knew for certain, was that one of the people in this party was hitched to a shady character.

The student (who I will call C.) had always dressed and looked like what Hollywood punters would call a gangster’s moll. This night was no exception: while we were in scruffy clothes (by Italian standards), she wore a low-cut top and expensive ear-rings that veered towards the vulgar. The same applied to her make-up. Stunning, but brash. Her man wasn’t part of the original plan, but she brought him along anyway. We ate well at the trattoria, and C’s man, who was listening to every part of the conversation in English, would interject with short observations of his own about New York and London. He was much older than her, a man of few words, and absolutely ordinary-looking – you would not notice him in a crowd – though his well-cut suit and expensive watch breathed out wealth. The waiters all seemed to know him and fawned on him.

Eventually, at his suggestion, we went for a ‘digestif’, i.e., another drink, in an upmarket bar. On the way to the bar, two of the students and Laura were talking in rapid Italian in low voices, and Laura then said to me: “Look, Danny, have you cottoned on about C’s man?” I said: “Yes.” We got to the bar: a chrome-plated place with pictures of Italian movie stars in the modern part of town. Here the waiters were even more obsequious than in the previous establishment, and everything was paid for on his tab. Most of us opted for conventional drinks – I had a Gin and Tonic – and we all started discussing the theme of jealousy. This taciturn man who listened most of the time said he didn’t mind other men ogling his sexy other half. One my students, said, only half-jokingly: “You mean you wouldn’t kill him?” The man’s reply to this was measured. He said: “I am Sicilian, I am Mafia, but even so, I wouldn’t do that, because I am not a jealous man.” We all laughed nervously.

Later, Laura asked me: “So, what do you think of C’s man?” I said: “I don’t think he was joking about being a bad man.”

The Mafia is invisible, but occasionally it shows itself to people who don’t matter, like myself, as part of the banter, a tossed aside. But the obsequiousness of the waiters, the general feeling a person generates, that is far more telling than any amount of banter.

Another example: I went to a party where someone asked me about the novel I was writing. “I’d like to see it some time,” he said. He’s a lawyer. “Just to check it’s legality, of course. Is it like The Godfather?”
“No,” I said, “it’s set in Prague.” We both laughed, but there was a warning in his words. Thank goodness I am not powerful.

On the subject of The Godfather, one of my students told me a great story. He was holidaying in Bora-Bora with his wife. The waiter at the local hotel was curious about this couple, but the only language all three could speak was English.

“Where are you from?” asked the waiter.
“Italy,” said my student.
“Where’s that?”

“What language do they speak there?”
“Ah, and are you from the capital?”
“Rome, you mean?”
“Ah, Rome is it? Yeah, are you from Rome?”
“No, I’m from Palermo.”

“Palermo. Oh, yes, I know Palermo! Sicily! The Godfather! Great movie – the Mafia! But aren’t Palermo and Sicily districts of New York?”

Occasionally, however, even now, with many of the leading mafiosi in prison, something flares up that tells you that the Sicilian tradition of silence has returned, certainly in some parts of Palermo.

When I was still living around the corner of the Borgo, two people were lynched in broad daylight in the heart of the marketplace. According to the papers, this was unusual because the bad people decreed that no killings should take place before dark. The people running shops and stalls in the Borgo wanted to do business, and not put people off shopping there. How else could they pay protection money? There were, of course, ‘no witnesses’ to the crime. Not one, in spite of the fact that the place must have been swarming with people at that time of day. Various stories circulated, but the most popular version was that it was a blood feud between two non-mafia families. The police, however, were swarming around, and helicopters buzzed backwards and forwards in the sky above. The place was closed off and it was like a war zone for a day.

Two days later, everything returned to normal. That’s Palermo for you.