The Sicilians: Installment 2

Those of you who follow the Times of Sicily regularly will know we have accepted Mark Spano’s memoir The Sicilians for serialization within these pages. Mark Spano is a writer, filmmaker and regular contributor to the Times of Sicily. At this time, we are pleased to offer the second installment, and we invite our readers to stayed tuned for each new episode of The Sicilians by Mark Spano.
—The Editors, The Times of Sicily













The Second Installment
(from) Lost in Emigration

…the truth about anything is nobody’s monopoly–not least, the truth about a place.
–Jan Morris

1At the very toe of the boot-shaped Italian peninsula, there, surrounded by seas, sits a rocky, three-sided island that has been called Sikelia, Magna Graecia, Thrinacia, Trinacria, Triquerta, Siquillia and Persephone’s Island. This is a place once inhabited by the ancient tribes of Sicani, Sicels and Elymians. Ownership of this rugged and fertile terrain has been contested for nearly as long as historical memory. Because of the island’s great natural abundance and its strategic location in the Mediterranean, it has been fought over by Greeks, North African Muslims, , Phoenicians, Romans, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Lombards, English, Aragonese, Spanish, Austrians, Italians, Germans, Canadians and Americans. My Sicilian family is a product of this history of invasion and conquest, although few of them, if any, were aware of it.

2My father’s people were vendors of fruit and vegetables in the Vucciria market in Palermo. Upon arriving in the United States, most of them engaged in this same work in the City Market of Kansas City, Missouri.

Through ancient times and into the Twentieth Century, there were continual struggles to control their island homeland. A number of languages were or still are spoken including Greek, Arabic, Latin, Hebrew, French, Spanish, Catalan, Albanian, Italian and a wide variety of local dialects. My grandparents spoke a Palermo dialect.

Languages, cultures and religions confronted one another, often, with cruel consequences. This confluence of forces brought about a place and culture that blends Europe, Africa and the Middle East; it is all of them and yet none of them. This place’s uniquely alloyed culture has touched most of the planet with its art, architecture, literature, philosophy, economics, history, food and agriculture.

The pre-Socratic Sicilian philosopher Empedocle believed that love was the earthly force that brought things together and strife the force that pulled things apart. The Sicily from which my progenitors haled gave them the love and strife of Empedocles, the strife being so all-pervasive that they were able to experience very little of the diverse cultures that had evolved in Sicily.

3I stand at the palace La Zisa with its Norman, Muslim, Roman and Byzantine stylistic influences infused throughout the structure. My reading has told me that it was one of the most important architectural remnants in Palermo. I am awed by a singular mosaic of archers, peacocks and palms in this palace, which dates to 900 CE. I wonder if my grandmother had ever seen this. It was just a couple of miles across the city from where she lived. Very likely she did not even know of its existence or that Norman conquerors used Moorish supervisors to design and build their architectural monuments.

Palazzina Cinese, the most unusual edifice I have ever seen in my life, is a hunting lodge constructed by the Bourbons at the edge of La Favorita, once a giant royal hunting ground on the outskirts of Palermo that is now a park famous for its magnificent palm trees. Palazzina Cinese is exquisitely Sicilian. It is decoratively painted inside and out in elaborate, early Nineteenth Century chinoiserie. Floor to ceiling, everything is covered with either extremely stylized Chinese scenes or geometric orientalism. The colors are the vibrant and primary hues of the Sicilian coast. My eyes almost refuse to believe the products of the combined efforts of the Sicilian sun and these saturated colors.

4If some Sicilian art and architecture is over the top, Palazzina Cinese is the most over the top. It is a building as idiosyncratic as an opera. The excesses of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier come to mind. Some critics say they cannot abide such excess. There is, I believe, a big lie here. Much of what is excessive in the world, that which tastemakers like to call crass, is as a matter of fact well-loved by ordinary people. I, genuinely revere the Palazzina Cinese.

Through the trees of La Favorita, I photograph the exterior of the Palazzina; I think quite possibly my grandfather may have walked through this park. He might have seen the very views and angles of the building I am shooting. Had he ever been inside? I want to believe he had.

Carlus and I play chicken up-close and personal walking into oncoming Palermo traffic, passing under the narrow entrance of the Porta Nuova. Certainly, one or both of my grandparents, a great uncle, great aunt or cousin had to have passed under this same gate coming into or leaving Palermo. I am frequently catching myself wondering about what I cannot possibly know and likely will never learn. So much about this place evokes in me an eerie curiosity. Why do I care so much? What the devil am I searching for? Not yet certain what and why I seek, I continue to explore.

Spaniards, Greeks, Italians, Normans, Arabs and Jews all lived in close proximity of one another in Palermo, each group endeavoring to maintain their own customs and traditions. Sicilians like my grandparents likely experienced little of these nearby, “foreign” strangers. Ethnic intermingling is a modern notion. Family members may have lived close to peoples very much different from them, but from all I glean from reading and talking to Sicilians, mingling was almost unimaginable. So, in Sicily they had little opportunity to find out about other tribes. Emigration changed that.

In Sicily, they lived outside of the mainstream of Nineteenth Century Europe and emigrated to a Twentieth Century United States. Their exposure to the diverse peoples of the New World was immediate. It must have been bewildering to have been pitched into the deep end of the pool of work and business for people who had been so sheltered by family and so deprived of useful knowledge by religion. My father’s people were lost in emigration.

This is my story of the place from which my father’s people came. It is of a place and people that I discovered in my own personal fashion. My paternal relatives did not fare all that well in the New World. My father’s parents and most of his many siblings were not big winners in the great American lottery of economic mobility. They were as good as any other people, but they were naïve, unprepared for the American challenge.

As I piece together the few fragments of information I have about them as a group or individually I believe that Sicily was every bit as perplexing to them as the New World. They were simply unprepared for what America held in store.
The Sicilians of my Kansas City childhood and Sicilians in Sicily have very distinctive noses, some aquiline, some bridged with a crook right at center-face, some rounder than they are long. Il naso is often the most prominent facial feature, competing only with the eyes for top billing on the Sicilian visage.

Noses in Sicily are extremely important. I believe that my own strongest sense of awareness is olfactory. I have a Sicilian nose in terms of its size, shape, and it is a major apparatus for understanding my environment.

We Sicilians do possess a strong sense of the visual, but my greatest insights come to me via my nostrils. The sense of smell has diminished in homo sapiens over the millennia but not so much for me. Even though I am two generations away from that three-sided island, I believe (but certainly cannot prove) my Sicilian DNA has endowed me with knowledge of the world that is achievable only through smells.

On my first walk through the Vucciria, Palermo’s old open-air marketplace, I felt at once I was in someplace familiar, a place that was mine; though, I had never walked those streets before in my life and had heard very little about the place. I’m sure it was the smells.

Vucciria, my innkeeper Giuseppe tells me, is a market in decline. It’s not the best he says. I should go to the Capo or Ballarò. No, I can’t. Vucciria is the market where my father’s family worked. They left the produce business of Vucciria in Palermo and moved to the produce business in the City Market of Kansas City, Missouri.

5Vucciria is located at the foot of the church of San Domenico. There are some cafes around the piazza and down the steep and narrow side streets the market begins. There is every manner of antiquity in Sicily. Some places are old, worn and venerable. Vucciria is not that. The stones of the streets and buildings of this market are old from overuse. They are old from layer upon layer of tire rubber, produce, meat and fish grime underfoot. Old from paint and placards slapped one upon another dating back to when? No one knows.

This is not one of the spruced-up, revered European markets the likes of Rue Cler or La Boqueria St. Joseph. Vucciria is stall upon stall squeezed into almost no space. The proximity of surrounding buildings shades the market for most of the day, the congested passages nearly without sunlight in one of the sunniest places on the planet. Cars, trucks and motorbikes move in and out among the pedestrians. And, there is noise. In Sicily, there is noise almost everywhere. Nothing is quiet in Sicily. The vehicles rattle and puff, brakes squeak and gears grind and Vespas sputter like flatulent old men. Everyone is yelling, yelling to sell, yelling to complain, yelling to say hello, yelling to curse an enemy or yelling to profess undying love to the shapely dark-eyed madonna doing her morning shopping.

6Then, there are the smells. On the piazza of San Domenico there is the blended funk of exhaust, horse piss, last night’s mussels and clams with white wine and garlic and stale beer. On the first steps down the shady corridors of the market itself there is the stench of bloody pork innards and overripe apricots. An old man, skinny and gnarled with more grey hair on his ears than on his reddened and scaly head, turns sausages on a makeshift charcoal grill in front of a stall. My eyes burn from the smoke as do his. A neighboring vendor woman complains to him of the smoke. The crusty man chuckles a little and continues turning his links.

As I walk the market, breads, burnt sugar, butter, citrus and coffee combine in a single morning smell that makes me want to fall asleep. I am not sleepy long, jolted by the olfactory assaults of the fish stalls. Some odors can only make one more alert. The fishmongers are happy men, young and old, good-naturedly insulting one another as they work, sharpening knives and gutting the day’s catch with a minimum of blade movement.

7There are flowers and produce of every variety. Trinkets, blankets and designer knock-offs. Women and girls walk the market. The boys and men stand around. Males stand around in Sicily. They pose and preen. They smoke cigarettes and roll their sleeves. They gaze with seeming disinterest in all that passes. Many of the vendors are not native Sicilians. There are Indians and Pakistanis, Koreans, Chinese and Indonesians. Hearing people with East Asian looks speak Italian has always struck me as strange. I’m not sure why.

At the Palermo airport I once heard a taxi driver of what I guessed to be Korean origin cussing out a colleague in the crowd of massed taxis in the airport drive-up. Hearing this man with his East Asian appearance using the Sicilian vulgarities and anatomical curses of my Kansas City childhood seemed absurd. A bit like seeing a Tibetan monk wrapped snugly in his red robes transacting business at an ATM in Greensboro, North Carolina. Something that also made me laugh for reasons I do not completely comprehend.
I walk Vucciria again and again. I never tire of it.

Our innkeeper Giuseppe is a man of indeterminate age. He may be as young as his late fifties or as old as seventy-five. He is up very early. He is surprised to find me in the sun room reading at 6:00 a.m. He apologizes profusely because I have no coffee. “Tomorrow morning, I will have coffee for you by six.”

“That’s not necessary,” I said. “I’m fine.” The next morning I was in the sunroom a little before six. A thermal carafe of freshly brewed coffee was waiting for me on the sideboard.

Giuseppe is a Palermitan. We are staying at the downtown palazzo of his mother’s family that he converted to a guest house with a subsidy from the European Union. He refinished the terrazzo floors himself. They are breathtaking. I had thought that they were original to this downtown Baroque building, where Carlus and I were staying on our first visit to Sicily.

Carlus and the rest of the guests at Giuseppe’s Palazzo are still sleeping. With coffee, an unopened notebook and pen, the morning sun is enough meditation for me. “Please world,” I whisper into my cup, “leave me alone this morning.”
Every journal entry or poem I’ve ever written in the early morning was either a salutation to the quiet joy of having morning to myself or a grunt of utter contempt for whatever job I was working that had robbed me of the quiet joy of having morning to myself. I have wanted my whole life to have my time be my own. Whether I produce any worthwhile notes or writing while sitting this morning is neither here nor there. My body wants its morning. It wants its morning alone.

The Sicily that was described to me, the Sicily I had learned from others is nonexistent. At my more private times on my first trip I am repeatedly comparing in thought what I have seen and heard to all that I was told about Palermo, Sicily, Sicilians and the world my grandparents left. It did not take long for me to determine the Sicily I carried in me from stories from grandparents, great aunts and uncles, cousins and friends was pure fiction. No such Sicily exists and likely never did. The Sicily I experience is not the Sicily of family stories. The Sicily I am finding is more than, and other than, I ever could have expected.

8First and foremost the Sicily I see differs vastly from the Sicily I knew only from hearsay. I had heard stories about extreme poverty, for example. But the Sicily of today is without destitution. Yes, there is poverty both in the towns and on the countryside, but everyone I have seen is fed and decently clothed. There are panhandlers, gypsy children and street people, more part of a class of performance artists than of the truly destitute. No one is starving in Sicily. No one is in the truest sense a beggar. This was not always so.

I did encounter gypsy women on two separate occasions working quite similar gigs. Both were heavily shrouded in black, clutching rosary beads and nearly prostrate on the thresholds of churches. As I came near enough to enter La Martarona, a Palermo church sentried by one of the gypsy women, the woman squealed and wept in a high operatic fashion, bewailing the thoroughly miserable lot that the fates had handed her. Both women must somehow have recognized me as a tourist because neither of them went into their swoons for native Sicilian church visitors or passersby. Perhaps they realized that Sicilians, the masters of such histrionics, would regard their verismo opera as the performance of rank amateurs.

And, I learned that a Sicilian would not likely bemoan poverty without some humor in the retelling. Poverty was/is the fortune of many in Sicily. One would not bore one’s friends and neighbors with the overt suffering shared by most if not all of your peers. Emoting to one’s peers required humor. Sicilians do a great deal of smiling and laughing. They are show-offs and terrific storytellers. They have not relinquished an oral tradition. Laughter has aided in their survival.

Heartbreak, on the other hand is quite another matter. In the world there are all sorts of heartbreak. In Sicily, there is only one. Heartbreak is the loss of your beloved.

If one loses a child, for instance; that is a silent suffering. (Well, little is truly silent in Sicily.) Stoicism in grief is more in keeping with the Sicilian character but not without its requisite theatricality. The parents and family members of the dead child would be silent. The rest of the community would be rife with discussion of how that mother is or is not coping; how hurt is so evident in the face of the dead child’s once cheerful father.

If Sicilians are to weep and wail it is over lost love.

Mark Spano
Mark Spano
Mark Spano is a writer and filmmaker. He has recently held zoom Q&A for a Melbourne Australia Sicilian group. Also completed a short marketing/fundraising film for Family Promise of the Triangle. Spano completed a feature documentary entitled “Reimagining Sicily” that explores the rich aspects of the island’s history and culture that are relatively unknown across global media. He holds a Master’s Degree in Literature and Creative Writing and an MBA in Marketing. He is a Sicilian American residing in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA.

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  1. Interesting article. My great grandparents came here from Sicily. If only there were more information on them and the history. Family name Bruno.

  2. Bravo! I’m new to Sicily…love the insight. Can you tell me where Guiseppe’s Palazzo is located? I’m always looking for new places to stay while in Palermo.

  3. Paula, there are plenty of books and websites. Times of Sicily is a great resources, and there are plenty of others. Do some research on your family, and post it so we can learn about them too.
    All the best,
    Mark Spano

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