In less than ideal circumstances, I found myself once again, for the first time in two years, in Palermo, the capital city of Sicily. That city that was once home to me between the sweet years of four and seven, and then again for another three years between the formative years of nineteen and twenty-two.
In a land that has been occupied by foreign powers more times than I care to count, I have also been an invader. I’ve spent too many years abroad to consider myself a native, and yet this has been my home for about a quarter of my life so far.
The original Phoenician word for the city was Ziz, which somewhere I have read means flower. Palermo is flanked on three sides by mountains and the fourth side is right on the sea. I can imagine how this was ideal when the city was founded over two thousand-five-hundred years ago – an invader could hardly waltz in without having to climb 1000+ meter mountains or risk a direct naval assault.
And yet, Palermo has been conquered again, and again, and again. We can count the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Byzantines, Spaniards, the Normans (!), the Americans, and now finally the traffic, the immigrants, and also the tourists. I find it highly ironic when some of the people here speak negatively about the latest bout of immigration from Africa and also from parts of Eastern Europe, when the entire history of Sicily, and part of the reasons why it is so beautiful and diverse, is the result of continuous immigration for over two thousand years. And while the tens of thousands of young people that leave the island each year for cities like London don’t see any issues with going to stay in a foreign country, they don’t give that same leniency to the people arriving to their precious island.
The historical immigration can be clearly seen in the city’s architecture, in which the latest conqueror would assimilate the defeated side’s culture and buildings. For example, the cathedral of Palermo, even to a layman’s eyes, quite clearly used to be a mosque at some point.
A few ancient street signs in Arabic also give away the historic part that the Middle East has played in this city, and so do the incredible food markets which, to my imagination, must be as close to a Eastern Bazaar as you can get in Europe.
The most fascinating aspect of the city for me is the long main road that divides the city in half, and runs from The Statua (the statue) all the way to La Stazione Centrale (The Central Station). This road is so long that it is able to simultaneously house shops such as Prada and Gucci, two beautiful, if somewhat un-kept, theatres (Teatro Massimo and Politeama), and then degenerates into small shops selling ethnic food and lots of boarded up units.
Food in Palermo, like most of Italy, is of the utmost importance. It’s discussed, it’s cooked, it’s analysed, and, most importantly, it’s eaten – in vast quantities. You can’t really blame the locals, the food here is perhaps some of the best in Italy, which itself is one of the top cuisines in the world. The food served in the street or in restaurants is wholesome, in overly generous portions, and absolutely delicious – even if most of it is out bounds for me, as I abstain from eating meat and fish.
The markets themselves are an inseparable part of the historical centre of the city, which incidentally is one of the largest in Europe, although to this day it still recovering from the American bombing during the World War Two. In fact, during my stay here a 250kg bomb was found by some builders and an entire area of the city had to be cordoned off as bomb removal experts from the army came in to remove it.
The historical centre is my favourite part of the city. It’s a mess, with rubbish and rubble threatening to become uncontrollable, but you can also see that effort is going into restoring parts of this area to its former beauty, and if you walk around early in the morning it almost feels like stepping back in time.
The Palermitani, and Sicilians in general, are an incredibly warm and welcoming race. It’s not unusual for someone you’ve just met, a friend of a friend of a friend, to take the time to drive to drop you off home in the opposite direction to their destination after an evening out.
One could almost accuse them of constantly being in a play. Palermo is the only city where I have experienced the following:
Two men, and it’s almost always men, are having a discussion while walking, and if one of them wants to emphasise a point, he will stop walking, grab the shoulder of his companion, and then turn ninety degrees towards him, so both partners are facing each other, instead of facing forwards along the pavement, and then he will make his point. This will be completely irrespective if anyone else is walking along that pavement, or even how wide that particular pavement is.
I’ve heard a story that this same thing happened in London when two Italian – probably Sicilian – were crossing a pedestrian crossing. The stop-and-discuss maneuver happened, and then the light turned red for the pedestrians and green for the cars, and yet, there they continued standing. When a London cab hooted at the men, the shoulder-grabbing man simple gave the taxi a quick look, and held up his other hand as if to say:
“Wait a minute, this is important.”
And the thing is, for him, it most probably was important. In contrast to myself, where I feel I am almost an observer of my own life, the Palermitani truly live their own life. Everything is of the utmost importance, from what’s for lunch tomorrow to the latest family issues, they truly care to a degree which I have never managed to.
I read in a book somewhere that there is a big difference between cultures that were historically based on farming, and cultures that were historically based on herding. This is because they encourage two completely different sets of behaviours.
The farmer doesn’t have to worry about whether someone will steal his entire crop overnight, because the hypothetical thief in question would have major logistical problems on their hands.
The herder, on the other hand, does have to worry about whether someone will steal his livestock each and everyday, and this breeds distrust and a confrontational attitude towards his neighbours.
Sicily, this incredibly mountainous island – I believe around 90% of the land is not flat – falls into the latter category.
I believe this is what has led to the culture of revenge that has been so widely publicised in well-known films and books, and also what leads the Sicilians, even to this day, to care so much about all the details of their lives.
And don’t get me wrong, I don’t see that as something that’s wrong, in fact, I am somewhat struck by jealousy about it. I think that perhaps being able to attach the utmost important to simple daily events is the way to give life meaning when there might very well not be any.
Perhaps there is something here that’s tied up with the religious character of Palermo, a city that has so many churches that I suspect you could cross it without leaving holy ground for more than a dozen meters or so. You’ll often find small back streets in the historical centre that have three or four huge stone churches that are hundreds of years old. It makes me imagine a time when on a Sunday these must have been all full of Catholic citizens going to mass. Nowadays it is somewhat a different story, while many still profess to be Catholics, the modern vices are unrelenting and I highly suspect that few young people here do much more than pay lip service to the Vatican.
I think the best way to describe Palermo is a city of contrasts. The best example is the view from the local promontory, Monte Pellegrino, which strikingly looks over the city at a height of 500m or so. I have quite an intimate knowledge of this mountain as I must have cycled up to the top around fifty times, one time famously getting under the 25 minute mark with the feeling that my heart was going to burst out of my chest.
From here you can clearly understand why the Phoenicians decided to found a city here, and you can almost imagine all the orange groves that would have lined the entire valley area, and also the stunning sea and bay that is just as awe inspiring now as it must have been back then. However, you also can’t fail to notice the rape of Palermo that happened in the 1960s and ‘70s, when the Mafia controlled construction companies, aided by corrupt politicians, and ran amok and destroyed most of the historical villas and built horrifically bland concrete apartment blocks that weren’t meant to last, they were just meant to turn over a quick profit. The city is now home to hundreds of these blocks, and as soon as you leave the centre the character of the city changes completely, and personally I feel like what I imagine that a communist-era medium-size Easter European town must look like.
I don’t feel it’s an understatement to say that there must have literally been no urban planning whatsoever during that period. This was a shock that in some ways ruined what must have been a jewel of a city, but we are also fortunate that it was so beautiful that large chunks of the city still maintain some of the beauty. I read a theory on talent from the magician Tommy Wonder, of how each and every one of us has a different shaped diamond, the size of which represents our potential talent, and the finish and polish of it which represents the work we’ve put in to take advantage of this source of talent.
My opinion of Palermo is that it is an absolutely enormous diamond, based on its location in the middle of the Mediterranean, the incredible food, the warmth of the people, the almost-perfect climate, and also its geographical and historical significance, but that this is a diamond that hasn’t been polished for a long time
All of this said, there are few experiences which are better than getting lost in the back streets of the centre and walking around for hours, and then rewarding yourself with a beautiful Cannolo.