There is one word to describe Sicily, uttered by my favorite, fictitious Sicilian: Inconceivable.
But first, an introduction to Italy itself, before we get to its largest island. Italy is a young country of about 150 years, forged from several very different states. Hence, there are tremendous differences between regions and cities in the country. Italy, I’ve heard it said, roughly follows a North-South continuum. The Northern most city, Milan, is the richest, least stereotypical, most secular and by far the most cosmopolitan—People have told me it’s almost like a city from Germany or France. Rome, in the middle of the continuum, is a nice mix, but a bit of a tourist trap. But then you hit Naples and that’s where people say, “Oh! Here are the stereotypes.” And that’s normally where the story ends.
Except you can go farther South. Once you hit Palermo, that’s when things get…interesting.
The first phrase that came to my mind when I touched down in Palermo, Sicily: It’s a first-world Mexico. Stacks upon stacks of rough, Latin-style domiciles and tenements dominate the hillsides of the Mediterranean port, resembling a tide of advanced favelas. The roads look straight out of Mad Max and the traffic is even worse. Traffic laws are mere guidelines as cars swerve in and out of lanes, easily 20, 30, even 40 kilometers over the speed limit. Did I mention that when drivers deign to use their blinker, it’s reversed? The left light blinks when they merge right!
The city streets themselves are cobblestone, cracked and worn from heavy foot traffic and corrosive sea air, looking like they haven’t had a decent repair job since Mussolini was in power. Stray dogs and their excrement roam the streetsof Palermo with reckless abandon. The walls of the sandstone buildings are covered with graffiti and gang tags. Windows have bars on them and police patrol the streets with sub-machine guns. The places you can’t safely go after dark outnumber the places which you can, to say the least.
Sounds a little bit like Tijuana, right? Yet, here’s where the First-World comes in. All the cars are sparkling Fiats, Mercedes, BMWs and good old Fords. They just happen to sport the battle scars of the vehicular warfare that is Palermo rush hour. Regularly you would see women who look straight off the runway walking down streets that make Detroit look cheery. Or, for example, take the run-down Latin buildings. On the outside, they look like something out of a Vice Documentary. But on the inside, they are immaculate. Small corner stores are beautiful, with inlaid tile and bright coats of paint. My BnB I stayed at, for example, looked like hell on the outside, complete with bars on the windows. Yet on the inside, it was gorgeous, roomy, and above all, clean. Go figure.
Furthermore, take every Italian stereotype you can think of and amplify it by ten. Dining habits? Dinner starts at 9 and goes ’til midnight, with five courses being light. Speaking style? I felt like I was watching interpretive dance when I spoke with people. Religiosity? Trust me, the amount of Jesus I saw rivaled the Bible Belt. Of course, I could go on for ages.
The constant dichotomies I witnessed over my week in Palermo and the surrounding areas of the isle of Sicily boggled my mind. Whether it be trekking through winding, sketchy streets to find a 12th century castle in the center of town or visiting gorgeous plazas filled to the brim with beggars and street hawkers, the contrast between plenty and poverty was constant.
This is not to say I disliked the town—quite the contrary, actually. I had a wonderful time in Palermo and had fantastic experiences on the daily, as you, my dear reader, will see over the next few days.