The Myriad of Sicilian Secrets

The Myriad of Sicilian Secrets

Our-Secret-560-DI’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.

Bernadette Landy-Lovatt
Bernadette Landy-Lovatt
Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, Bernadette left home at an early age, married young, lived and worked between London UK, Philadelphia USA and Thessaloniki GR, until 2002, when she returned to Ireland to continue in her post with the European Commission. In June 2013, having retired early, Bernadette made the decision to move to a small hilltop town located southwest of the island of Sicily, where, as a divorced older woman, with no Italian language skills, took on the task of renovating a wreck of a house ‘in the historical quarter’ and this running saga has become fodder for her weekly journal to family and friends, entitled: Path to Cianciana. Bernadette is the mother of three grown children, all currently living in different parts of the world. Reunions are worth it!

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  1. Bernadette,
    for once we can firmly agree to disagree! Generalising for things like “Sicilians can actually talk so much, about nothing”… or depict them like “Their business is eating pasta in peace”. Or even better “It’s a question of risk and there is – – no – – Sicilian I know willing to take one…” would find many people in disagreements, starting from Falcone and Borsellino to all victims of Mafia and people fighting crime and “Pizzo” today. Moreover, I firmly doubt Camilleri is sharing your thoughts about Sicilian secrets 😉
    As a Sicilian, I won’t “censure” your thoughts and have foreigners to read it! You are always welcome to share your feelings in Times of Sicily but we won’t recognise ourself in these words, no matter how difficult can be to live in a small town!

  2. I am not so certain I agree with all of what Ms. Landy-Lovatt has to share with us about Sicilians. I have never lived in Sicily, but in the past few years, I have spent much time on the island of my grandparents. I do not find Sicilians to be especially secretive so much as hesitant in some public matters. In personal matters I have found so many Sicilians to be welcoming to strangers, open to friendship and most empathetic to the genuine challenges of human life.

    Not all Sicilians are talkative. I know and have known many Sicilians who were not. I, on the other hand, cannot seem to shut-up. And, what is talk? What does talk do besides provide the transfer of the necessary details of living? For many of us, talk gives dimension to life, and in the face of uncertainty (and Sicilians have had more than their share of uncertainties), talk is the scaffolding of everyday living. Sometimes when content is better left unarticulated, communications about what appears to some as trivial may be crucial and possess a depth based solely on the moment to moment confidence it may offer. It is mere survival.

    Ms. Landy-Lovatt is Irish. I have never been to Ireland. I was, though, educated in the American Roman Catholic Church in the 1950s and 60s. I was educated by the Irish. Who could talk more than a fifty-year-old Irish-Catholic, sex-starved Jesuit? At best he might have had more wit than a Sicilian, but Sicilians have a humor all their own. But, what was that talk all about? Reassurance. The Jesuit in reassuring his students or his flock is reassuring himself about a particular set of uncertainties. (See the complete works of Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Brendan Behan or Sean O’Casey, to name only a few of my favorites.)

    Some of us have had the good fortune to have had a firmer footing on this planet than our forbearers. This is not something for us view with contempt. Those of us who have evolved beyond the need for such reassurance should look closely at those who need it. We should listen to them. Share what we have, and possibly offer some of the strength that we have gained, (strength that we have gained by dumb luck).

    I was fortunate enough to have been born and raised in the United States. I have my strengths, but such strengths come with a high price in the land of the free and the home of the brave. We are free, brave and prosperous, but we are disconnected from family, community, nature and beauty. With all the uncertainty in Sicilian life family, community, nature and beauty are at risk; yet, they endure. And, I truly believe that if one moves through Sicily or wherever one happens to be on this planet and keeps both eyes and ears open, there are few secrets anywhere.

    • Mark Spano, Thumbs up for the third sentence in the last paragraph. I mourn the loss of family connection, community, and nature and believe that this contributes to a lot of what’s wrong in modern American society.

  3. There are small and big secrets. For the big you have to move into the National Parliament. As a Sicilian born living abroad, I owe to say that the nature of Sicilian is deep interlaced with fantasy. This is also the reason why Sicily counts a so high number of writers and poets

  4. I can see both sides of the argument – as presented by Bernadette and as presented by Giovanni and Mark. The fact is, it’s all about positions on a continuous scale, isn’t it? Like Bernadette, I’m British and I find most Sicilians highly secretive compared to most British people. Does that mean Sicilians are very secretive, or does that mean we Brits and Irish are too open and spill our guts at the drop of a hat? Both are true – it just depends where YOU personally sit on the scale.
    The one thing I can say in absolute terms is that I have heard a lot of Sicilians criticising another Sicilian by saying “Da troppo confidenza” – “She opens up too much.” I have never heard anyone in Britain saying that about anyone, ever. Merely translating it into English makes it sound ludicrous!

  5. I find Sicily to be a place that differs from one block to the next, so I agree saying “Sicilians” is often dangerous. In Castellammare everyone recommended to me for services such as a plumber, a dentist or a house cleaner has been terrific and I’ve retained their services for all the ten years I’ve been here. As far as conversation I might appreciate a respite in Cianciana, because I can’t get my fellow Castellemmarse to clam up. Talk, talk, talk. Of course I say the latter with love and affection.

  6. Bernadette, I think you have to look at the bigger picture here. All small village life thrives a lot on pettiness, wherever you are in the world. Perhaps the only difference here is the cultural context that you find yourself in. Remember that this is a population that has been invaded since the beginning of time so they have a natural inborn mistrust/cover for each other/self survival tactic which they put into practice whenever they come up against another ‘foreigner’ which, in this case, is you. Try to look at it from their point of view. Naturally, they all know that their cousin, the plumber is pretty useless at his job, but that doesn’t mean he mustn’t work as far as they are concerned.

    I guess Cianciana is only just getting used to the recent ‘invasion’ of foreigners who are buying up property there so naturally they are pretty interested in the money you are willing to spend to renovate, so all sorts of improvised builders and tradesmen will offer their services. But then that happens in Britain too. Polish builders have a reputation of being cowboys in their field. It happened to me here in Cefalù too and my husband was 150% Sicilian who believed that no-one could pull the wool over his eyes!

    I grew up in a small village in the south of England where the first Indian family to move in down the road was regarded with suspicion and it was very much a case of ‘them’ and ‘us’. As the village became more multi cultural we learned to live together. Perhaps that’s where the villagers of Cianciana are at now. Give them time. You’ll find that they have generous hearts.

  7. Dear all,

    Firstly, please excuse my silence today, Sunday, but I’ve had no electricity all day… and I would now like to thank my friend Diane Johnston, for keeping me company and alive during this ephemeral episode, the second in a couple of weeks…
    I appreciate all of your comments and am glad that it has caused a bit of a debate where Giovanni and I can ‘agree to disagree’ at any time! My thanks to you Giovanni, for publishing it in the first place!
    To me, it’s important that not everything is painted in red nail-varnish and that sometimes we may feel free to express ourselves.
    Regarding Camilleri , I would like to point out that you would be surprised (Giovanni), at how close a friendship he has with his Irish ‘colleagues.’ Let me refer you to a book which was published in 2013, entitled ‘Camilleri and Ireland.’ The amazing thing about this book is that it was published in three languages: Irish, English and Italian. It was published by UCD The Foundation for Italian Studies and edited by Eric Haywood, the Director of Italian Studies at UCD. (ISBN 978-1-905254-71-2). I would imagine that the lecturer in question, who gave me that quote, wasn’t kidding!
    It’s always good to open one’s mind to the ‘great outdoors.’ A little bit of fresh, foreign air never hurt anybody and I’m truly glad that as a community of writers and thinkers, we have a channel such as Times of Sicily to get it out there!
    With appreciation and respect,

  8. Bernadette,
    did you start learning some Italian at all? (Not talking about Sicilian). Without Italian in Ciancianapoli, all what “they” say , clear and loud, will be secret to you anyway. Not wonder 😉

  9. Oh yes, I learnt some Italian. I learnt that Greek was no good to me here at all and I then learnt that English was some form of foreign Italian. I learnt that French is dead, I learnt that German is dead. And I learnt that English is the Lingua Franca for the moment. I believe I am right.
    Indeed, my friend, I learned that life is too short to learn Italian! Sorry! But, I’m right!
    Italian is dead too. This is the horrible, reality of life at the moment.

  10. @ Bernadette – I believe the fact that you cannot speak Italian nor Sicilian and they can’t speak English not Irish, let’s say it doesn’t help in this Sicilian/Ciancianese context. Nevertheless, when I’ll meet you again, I’ll tell you some of my secrets… I’ll tell you what I did last month, for first time after 44+ years, that nobody knows, (only my wife)… 😉

    @ Sicilian Housewife
    “Dare troppa confidenza” o “prendersi troppe confidenze” is not Sicilian but rather Italian and has strictly nothing to do with keeping or not keeping secrets. IE I can say that to a guy who is starting bothering, sometime also as a “joke”. Ask Luca, he will explain better. I thing this is one of this thing that my best English and your best Italian wouldn’t help to overcome our “language barriers”.

    Keep cool and enjoy the coming Spring!

  11. Italian is not dead. But if you don’t read italian books, don’t watch italian movies and don’t speak Italian (even if you live in Italy) it is obviously dead for you. Lots of people study Italian in the world, mainly because they love it and because they are interested in italian culture. English now is a sort of global language, a beautiful and very useful language. But of course italians prefer to speak their language in their country. If you speak only English you’ll have a very detached relation with this piece of world and it will be very difficult to understand more than what your neighbors are having in pasta today.

    • I get the feeling that a lot of what I had to say in ‘The Myriad of Sicilian Secrets’ actually fell by the wayside. Being human, we pick up on the bits that interest us, the bits that annoy us, the bits that we relate to most. I tried to give an overall view of some of the aspects of Sicily which do not involve all the lovely sunny bits. Regarding the Sicilian language itself, I’m of the opinion that it is more worthwhile for me to learn Sicilian, since this is the language spoken around me on a daily basis. So, I abandon any idea of being studious in ‘Italian.’ My priority is to understand what my neighbours are saying and in that regard I am proud to announce that my Sicilian is improving and I’ve had a few pats on the back lately by the locals in terms of my ability to understand them.
      When it comes to the issue of how much talking any human can do, the people of the Mediterranean are the specialists. This morning, in the bank, the female teller spent so much time talking, on a personal basis, to her customer that in any other country she would have been fired. If she could just do her job in a business-like manner the painful queue wouldn’t take so long.
      Us people from the North have been trained to wait for no one, this could be good or bad. The consequence of that training is that we have no patience for listening to chatter while we visit the bank. We are there to ‘do business,’ nothing more, nothing less. This morning I realised that it’s a venue to see all your friends, kiss them on both cheeks, and generally, show off your new jacket! It’s both amusing and infuriating all at once.
      Before I finish, let me just say that I stepped onto my little balcony just now. The view to my left is a breath-taking vision of the rolling green countryside under the hue of a setting sun. To my right lies the centre of town, blue sky and an almost full moon rising. Don’t think for one minute that I don’t love this place, that it hasn’t gotten under my skin, that I don’t feel free to speak about it, in all it’s glory. One can only express oneself when one feels comfortable enough to do so!

  12. Dear All, just yesterday I heard my English friend commenting on the behaviour of our common English friend: she went like..”oh yes she is very reserved person, you know, it’s normal, she’s English” ..????????????????. It only shows how generalising doesn’t have a lot to do with reality and is a bit risky.
    Have a nice day

  13. This discussion is all very interesting. I grew up in a Sicilian immigrant family in North Beach, San Francisco. From my view point here were subjects that should have been secret (or at least discussed discrete) that were out there for the world to know!. Other subjects that should have been shared were forbbiden, like terminal illness. I have relatives that live for gossip but will then make sure you know how wrong it would be to talk about _____. One’s own issues should never be shared. That’s in the USA.

    In Sicily, with my wonderful cousins, I’m in the dark most of the time. Oh I’m told lot’s of secrets, i miei cugini feel safe telling me, they know I won’t say anything because I only understand 10% of their Italian and %5 of their Sicilian. Then there’s my deaf cousins………..

  14. PS I didn’t know about Times of Sicily until an hour ago when I found this article posted in the Facebook Group – Speak Sicilian. I am quite pleased to have found you all and I’m impressed by the thoughtfulness of the discussion of what could be a controversial subject

  15. The secretiveness of The Sicilian people quite possibly stems from: ” If you can’t
    say something good about a person, don’t say anything at all”, and with regard
    to personal matters, ” why bother anyone with your problems, most people have
    enough of their own to deal with”. In short mind your own business. There is a vernacular Sicilian expression for this. Quite possibly it could be found in the Urban Sicilian Dictonary. Proud to be a first generation AMERICAN of Sicilian decent.

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