Thursday, March 4, 2010

Reading books in Sicily - a rare passtime

On my way to the biblioteca I stop for a coffee and cornetto alla crema at the café down the road. It is such a gorgeous day, sun splitting the skies, a light breeze lifting the fronds of the palm trees down at the port, that I sit outside. An elderly man is sitting at the other table with his book in hand, a most unusual sight here. In fact, a man has stopped to say just this to him: ‘It’s a great pity that it is such a rare sight to see someone reading; they prefer to be at home watching the rubbish that is on TV – di Filippo (trashy entertainment show) or Grande Fratello (Big Brother).’
He is right next to me so I join in, agreeing, and I add that in Ireland it is fairly common for people to read the papers or books in cafés. I get a broad smile. And how come you are here signorina? It turns out his brother, ‘siciliano come me’ – a good Sicilian like himself, is married to an American lady and they now live in Seattle. I said we’d probably give Ireland a go too. Ah yes, he said, I think Ireland is a great place maybe a little off the beaten track, but a place of culture, compared to Sicily. But you have the great weather, I say, lifting my hands to the sun, since the man was getting a bit down at the thought of the various problems of Sicily. ‘I know, and that’s about all we have here,’ he said with a shrug of his shoulders. ‘And the great coffee,’ I say, just to get him smiling again, and sure enough he beams again and says he better let me have me breakfast.

The other man settles back into his book but most of the passers-by greeted him with ‘Buongiorno Ragioniere’, - Good day, Mr Accountant. Someone important indeed with whom you’d want to be on good terms. The last person says, ‘Scusa scusa, I’m disturbing your literature; but let me tell you, we’re all down at the sea, what a gorgeous day!’ The reading accountant turns to me, eyebrows raised, saying, ‘Not only do they not read here – but they don’t let those who want to read in peace do so!’ I was getting up to leave but he asks me to join him at his table for a moment, which of course I do, in anticipation of the illuminations on the Sicilian soul he’ll regale me with.
He shakes his head. ‘Ah signorina, people here don’t even read the papers, never mind books. And the children at school wouldn’t know how to get from start to finish in a book.’ I suggest it might be the way they are taught. He agrees; ‘The teachers have hardly been educated themselves and don’t know how to stimulate their students. So the children have no interest. All people want to do here is watch TV and gossip about other people’s lives.’ He smiles proudly. ‘I’ve travelled all over Italy, and you learn a great deal travelling. I used to go to the literary cafés in Rome’ – like Café Greco – I suggest, and he beams – ‘Exactly. I once met a few Chinese people there and we had a great chat and they invited me back to their hotel and we had a great drinking session!’ I agreed that there were cafés in Firenze and Bologna where you could sit and read, and he remembers a particular one in Padova near the University, which he used to frequent.

‘So you’re from Ireland,’ he establishes. ‘Sex is much freer in Ireland.’
I have to adapt quickly to the change in topic; but am I surprised? Sex is never far from the Sicilian mind. But I have to disagree. ‘I’d say it’s much freer here, signore.’ ‘Only in appearance. Sure they’re all at it behind closed doors, afraid of getting caught out.’ ‘Ah yes, a lot of tradimento going on,’ I feel relieved at getting things back to a moral ground, it’s too early in the morning to discuss sex with an unknown old man, even though he is the Ragioniere. ‘You’re right there,’ I say, ‘I think the fidelity rate is probably higher in Ireland. And there is probably more equality between men and women.’ Now he is on to the theme of tradimento, or betrayal. ‘You can’t trust anyone here, signorina,’ he says with a raised finger in warning. ‘Do you have many friends here?’ I have a few. ‘Don’t trust them at all!’ he said, ‘They’re all fake! People are only interested in two things here – money and sex. I’d hate to think of a nice girl like you getting taken advantage of.’ I reassure him that I am a good judge of character and have only a few good friends. ‘Signorina, open your eyes! That’s the best piece of advice I can give you, and I speak from many years of experience here. Trust no one, not even the ones you think are your friends!’