Saturday, February 20, 2010

'All Sicilians are actors' 18/02/2010

It’s 18 February and about 26 degrees in the sun here in Sicily. It is so warm that by the time I got to Vacarella at 10.30ish, my hair was burning. Since the weather has been so stormy the last few days, forcing the locals to stay at home and play cards or watch San Remo, the Italian version of the Eurovision Song contest, the beautiful weather today has brought them all out on the street to buy fish, or watch others buy fish. Crowds are gathering round the latest catch, which the fisherman is still hauling off his boat. Eels spiral in a bucket, bright eyed red mullet are already lying on the metal tray, and he now pours on small silvery ‘mope’, some still alive and wiggling. A quiet row has formed, waiting for the moment when the fisherman will be ready to sell. Two old men wheel their bikes through the crowd, waiting with patience and resignation for people to move to let them past, instead of saying, ‘excuse me’. The fishermen start gutting fish or wrapping them up for customers while 20metres away the rubbish overflowing from the open skips and pile on plastic bags on either side, has started to stink in the heat. Behind the people waiting, short squat men with wrinkled faces and bulbous noses talk in pairs in low guttural dialect. It is hard to tell that they are talking to each other, so busy are their shifty dark eyes darting around the passersbys; noting who’s there and who’s not, who’s being two-timed (‘cornuto’, a favourite insult even when not true, as it is one of the biggest violations to a man’s pride in Italy) who owes whom money, and who’s on their deathbed. In public, with so much going on, Sicilians don’t look at each other in conversation; but in bars, in at a quiet time, confidences can be shared without the worry of missing something important.

At the bar across the road with my cappuccino, I reflect that often bars in Sicily are not as noisy as you would expect. In most parts of Italy, the bar is a hive of activity, an essential part of every day life, the daily coffee gives the Italian some meaning to their morning, a chance to greet acquaintances, exchange news, reassure themselves that all is as it should be. But in Sicily, it can also be the place of muted confessions, an important information-exchange, an implied threat. Private matters are discussed over a cappuccino, an agreement is knocked back in the toss of an espresso cup – or roundly challenged with a bang of the cup on the counter. Here, two elderly gentlemen have the local papers spread in front of them and read out news of interest to each other, commenting accordingly. A man and a woman sitting in front of me keep their voices low in case I should overhear what they are talking about. Two men come in and take up position so they can watch what’s going on outside. Love, death, double-crossing and two-timing – our cook proclaims it all loudly in our kitchen as soon as she’s heard it, but it’s all happening in front of you in the street and under your nose at the bar; hence the need for the daily coffee. Who knows what your beady eye might spy on the way to the café. And who’s watching me? That’s what the Sicilian is thinking.

For Sicilians are all actors, the girl outside the library tells me. She is working on a congress on Beni Culturali being held on the first floor, but since it is safely in progress, she and her colleagues are all outside in the sun, smoking cigarettes and watching out for news in the faces of passersby. As she talks, of course she doesn’t look at me; her eyes are across the street, and our chat is constantly interrupted by her greetings – most respectful to the Professore Meriano, chairperson of the Beni Culturali – overjoyed to a friend she hasn’t seen for at least two whole days. Sicilians, and Italians in general, love talking about their native characteristics, and in a most contradictory way, probably know themselves better as a race than Irish people, but yet are not at all open to self-criticism or self-irony. Giulia tells me she is delighted about the good weather, that it was about time it stopped raining (it has rained for about a week) and she thought spring would soon be on the way. Being weather sensitive, she can’t go out on wet windy evenings, but now that the sun is out and it will be a mild evening, she’ll probably go out tonight to see who’s around – as will many others, she predicts, who have been cooped up at home with the cars, the football on TV and San Remo. She wouldn’t last a week in Ireland.

The seagulls are out in force wheeling over the water’s edge and swooping down to scoop up any remains of the fishermen’s catch. A plate of scraps has been left for the cats. Some fishermen are taking advantage of the good day to touch up the paint on their boats – apple green, sky blue, white. The rugged mountains are dark grey behind the morning mist, in relief against the strong blue of the February sky, snow-capped Mount Etna clearly visible.

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