The Myriad of Sicilian Secrets
I’ve known for a long time now, well, over the past 21 months since I’ve been here, that Sicilians specialise in keeping secrets. Everything is a secret. Who you know, what you eat, where you sleep. I’m sure this habit stems from decades of Mafia influence when keeping secrets is what kept you alive. But, they haven’t moved on and still today, in 2015, they carry this way of life upon their shoulders, much to the chagrin of any outsider trying to deal with them.
Maybe it’s different in the bigger cities, like Palermo, or Catania, but here, in the small hilltop town where I live, with a population of only 3,500 year-round, it’s very tight-lipped. This, I have discovered, is because they are all related. There might be three or four core families around and the remainder are cousins, aunties, uncles, nieces, nephews, grandparents, children of, those core families. For this reason, pointing the finger is an absolute no-no.
As a foreigner, you might go out in search of a builder or plumber and sign on the dotted line with one of them. Nobody but nobody will tell you that person is useless, because most likely you’ve chosen their cousin! Telling the truth about your cousin would cause such family grief, it is simply never done. So, silence is the key to their survival. It’s just another secret that the close-knit family can discuss behind closed doors in a dialect that even the DG for Translation of the EU could never understand!
Fortunately, for me, I do appreciate both sides of the argument, but I have a lot of friends who suffer greatly from this secretive society. It’s very handy to have a Sicilian partner, or husband, or wife in these matters. When you’re on your own, though, that’s it, you’re on your own. You must learn the hard way. You must have the wits to understand that you are battling an ancient system, one which will not be overthrown easily, and I must admit, I admire the resilliance of ancient systems.
Aside from the building profession, Sicilians take the secrecy law into everyday life as well. They answer questions and tell you nothing. It’s an art. It’s a way of life. It’s a law. If someone is sick and you ask what’s wrong, they never tell you. You will never find out what’s wrong with anyone. That’s a secret. Maybe they would get in trouble if they told you. They are all scared to death – of each other! If the guy across the road is a blind driver, for example, who should be taken off the road at once, not one of them will agree with you, because he’s their uncle. I swear, it’s true.
Actually, when I reflect on it, it’s rather hilarious. But, it’s a safeguard mechanism. It safeguards them from ruin while destroying, or at least making very difficult, the lives of strangers who come to live amongst them. But, strangers are not important. They come and go, like the caravanseri of old, they will pass, but we will still be here, living with each other, therefore, my lips are sealed.
I must add that this secretive behaviour is not specific to Sicily, though they do take the biscuit for it. The Greeks are exactly the same, just not quite as bad. It’s a Mediterranean thing and I’m sure it gets worse the further East you go.
While I might dismiss the custom as archaic, what boggles the mind is how Sicilians can actually talk so much, about nothing. If they are not discussing each other, what the hell are they talking so much about? I’ve discovered the answer to that as well and, do forgive me, but the answer is: niente. Given that they tell nobody nothing and given that they never stop talking, then I carry their art into the further realm of ‘speaking from the empty into the void.’ In other words: ‘What are you having in your pasta today?’ ‘Ah, yes, greens. Fresh today. The best. Can’t wait for 12:30pm’
It’s that simple. Real simple. Why would anyone want to complicate their lives with problems? That is just stupid. If I get my uncle arrested for blind driving, how will I enjoy my dinner? Nah, that’s not my business. My business is eating pasta in peace.
And, if I tell anyone that cousin of mine is the lamest builder on earth, then what? Catastroph! I don’t want to bring all the troubles of Hell down upon me. Let them discover the truth for themselves, Lord Have Mercy. Bring me my pasta and let there be peace. Tomorrow is another day and I can face the rest of my clan. Besides, what about that piece of land that belongs to me? Where is my destiny if I lose that?
It’s a question of risk and there is no Sicilian I know willing to take one. Years and years of being beaten down by, what else to call it, the Mafia, I believe they still live in a state of fear. Fear of you, fear of me, fear of each other, has made them this way. Anything that takes years to ferment, certainly takes years to still. And, in my humble opinion, Sicily is still gripped in a state of fear and suspicion and doubt. A state of secrecy.
Before I left Dublin, I attended some lectures at UCD (University College Dublin), held by the Head of the Department of Italian Studies. I made many notes, but sadly, I either threw them away or can’t find them. However, I do remember one lecture, on Andrea Camilleri, where he spoke about language, and Sicily in particular (since he was born in Porto Empedocle). On the subject of language, I remember Camilleri saying: ‘If you want to study literature, go to Florence. If you want to study secrets, go to Sicily.’
And here I am. And Camilleri was so right.