Some Sicily Conversations

The oddities of this island can be amusing; case in point – the variations on a conversation that I frequently have when ordering food here:

Me: excuse me, do you have any arancini that don’t contain meat?

Waiter: of course! I’ll bring you one with prosciutto…


Waiter: good morning signorina, how can I help you?

Me: yes, could you please tell me if you have any involtini without meat?

Waiter: oh yes signorina, we have them with meat but also with chicken! However you prefer.

Me: Um, thanks, I’ll just have the pasta salad please…

So perhaps I can surmise from this that the generic word in Italian for meat, “carne,” to them means…chunks of beef?

It is a land of colorful characters, like the 60-something man who, er, expressed his interest in me at the grocery store a few weeks ago. He paused next to me in the cereal aisle and considered his options. Apparently it seemed like a good opportunity to strike up a conversation:

Man:  wow…a man could go crazy looking at all of these different choices [turning toward me with a sly smile] – do you think you can help me make a decision?

Me: [uncomfortably] um…actually I don’t eat cereal…I, uh, I’m just picking it up for a friend who’s staying at my house.

Man: ah [he takes a step closer] well what does your friend like?

Me: [ever more uncomfortable] er, I don’t know, she just said to get some muesli…

Man: ah, muesli, good choice…so are you a student here?

Me: um, no, I work, but if you’ll excuse me I really need to concentrate on my cereal choice…

Man: can I buy you a coffee?

Me: sorry, I’m really in a rush…

Wrangling with the Sicilian bureaucracy at the workplace can be aggravating, though the inefficiency is at times so astounding as to be funny. Here’s a shortened version of a phone conversation I had today with the landlord of my students’ dormitory building:

Me: Sir, pardon me for bothering you but the Palazzo Hernandez currently has no water, and this is the second time it has happened in the last three days.

Landlord: Ah…well, as I explained to your colleague on Sunday, these things happen.

Me: …well, actually, in a year and a half that we’ve been renting the building it has never happened before, and in the last three days it has happened twice, so it think there’s a problem.

Landlord: No, I don’t think there’s a problem, I looked at the tanks myself and everything appears to be functioning normally.

Me: But everything isn’t functioning normally, because we don’t have water.

Landlord: Signorina, what do you expect me to do about it?

Me: Sir, you’re the landlord. I’m not talking about a burnt out light bulb, I’m telling you that 11 people are living without water. If you don’t know how to resolve the problem I would like it if you could put me in touch with somebody who does.

Landlord: How did you get this number?

Me: Excuse me?

Landlord: How did you get this number?

Me: I’m the director of the program and this is where we house our students, it seems logical that I would have your phone number.

Landlord: Well…maybe I can stop by tomorrow.

Me: I think it would be better if you came today.

Landlord: I can’t come today.

Me: OK, then could you perhaps send somebody or give me a number that I could call?

Landlord: No, I don’t know of anybody.


Ahimé, that it were merely humorous anecdotes down here, but many things have led me to question the fervor that I once felt for this place. This is a region of staggering unemployment: among individuals aged 18-35 the rate is 41% and only 1 in 5 young women have a job. People talk endlessly about corruption in politics and public offices, widespread collusion with the mafia and the raccomandazioni – that is, the process by which jobs are awarded based on who you know and what strings were pulled to get you in, as opposed to what your merits are. Last week while in Palermo for a field trip, we witnessed some interesting run-ins between local bureaucracy and our palermitana tour guide, Stefania. We visited the Palazzo dei Normanni, which was policed by four female employees, one of whom had a particularly hostile demeanor – tall and thin, stick straight jet black hair, tight and shiny black pants, uncomfortably high heels, long, red, fake nails that clicked furiously against her cell phone. I tried to get past them to get to Stefania, who had accompanied a student with a sprained ankle in the elevator: – Excuse me mam I said, our guide has gone ahead, could we please come through to meet her? The woman did not so much as deign to look at me. I tried repeating my request to the next woman, who at least responded, if only to say please wait outside, signorina. So we waited. Finally Stefania made her way over to us and things got moving.

PREGO! shouted (yes shouted) the woman with the nails to us and another group of tourists, none of whom spoke Italian or understood that she was “inviting” (commanding) that they come inside. PREGO! SIGNORI, PREGO! PREGO! She whipped out a hand fan and began violently cooling herself – she was so brusque, so aggressively unfriendly. Be quick about it, she snapped at Stefania, as we were hustled into one of the rooms for an explanation. Not five minutes into her talk the woman came inside the room – 2 MINUTI! Instead of explaining the history of the room we were in, Stefania had opted to give us a cultural lecture instead:

last year there was a ‘bando’ – a sort of public competition – for a number of jobs here, she said. There were thousands of applicants from highly qualified candidates with PhDs and experience in the field. But in Sicily nobody wins things on merit. Who knows who that woman slept with to get her job, and now she’s making 3000 Euros a month to file us through this place like a herd of cows.

PREGO, SIGNORI – the woman interrupted Stefania. The students tittered nervously at what she had just told us.

Oh don’t worry­, Stefania said, those women have no culture, they certainly don’t speak any English and they didn’t understand anything I just said to you.

Our tour continued. At a certain point we entered a room with a large, interactive screen. Stefania began poking the monitor furiously: I’d like to break it! she said, they used public funds to buy this crapthis is our money!

A bit later she motioned toward a window in one room – students, come look over here! There is a gorgeous view of the city from this window. She reached to draw the curtain aside.

NO! The woman with the nails intervened. They cannot go near the window!

Mam, Stefania responded, I’m just going to show them from here –

NO! We’ve been told not to let anybody touch the curtain.

Ah, said Stefania, so tell me, what exactly can we do in this place? Can you please tell me what it is that my taxes are paying for? You’ve rushed us along, you’ve interrupted my explanations, things that were open yesterday today are off limits. Aren’t you ashamed of what things are coming to here? 

The tension between the two women was palpable and I was taken aback. For every single thing that appears not to work here, there seems to be someone ready to openly and passionately denounce the dysfunction. So why does it persist? I hear statistics all the time about the problems here – here’s one for you: the head offices of the Region of Sicily in Palermo have as many employees as the entire English government. In all of Sicily, nearly 18,000 people are public employees of the Region; yet in Lombardy, where Milan is located, there are a fifth as many individuals employed by the region, despite the fact that Lombardy has a population that’s twice that of Sicily’s. You witness these conflicts, you discuss the same statistics, you hear whispers about who did what to get which job. But all of it is like looking for shiny fish swimming below the surface of a murky lake – you only get glimpses here and there of this dirty reality, and I’m never quite sure what it is I’m seeing.

How could I face being unemployed here? Where would I start if I needed a job? Sandro the sunny geologist says that after years of working at the local university alongside “the son of – the wife of – the lover of – the cousin of” and seeing these people chosen over him for projects and positions for which he was more qualified, he can’t take it anymore. He’s considering moving to Australia or South America, where he has Sicilian friends who left ages ago and never looked bac. The prospect of a Sicilian job-hunt, like so many aspects of a day-to-day existence here, is unsettling.


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