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Memories of Palermo
by Jilliana Ranicar-Breese

I chose to spend a short time in Palermo in early January 2018 as the winters, like Malta, are pleasant and mild. As I walked around the elegant city I recalled another time decades ago when I visited Sicily for La Semana Santa in 1974. The year the famous film 'Serpico' was released. Why was that relevant? You will find out when you read on!

I had been originally invited to Rome by a theatre director Toni Damia who had posted me the ticket. It was the Easter holidays and I had been his English language teacher at St Giles School of languages in London. At the last moment he cancelled to shoot a spaghetti western movie in Almeria. I decided to go alone as I had already lived in Rome in 1967 and was not going to waste a return ticket!

But when I got to Rome I decided I wanted a different cultural adventure. I had read about Sicily and Easter in the Mafia city of Caltanasetta so why not go? After all I spoke Italian.  Mind you Sicily is an island of dialects but then there was the cuisine and the fascinating island steeped in culture through invasion by the Greeks, Saracens, French, Spanish and even the British during its turbulent past.

I needed help at the Stazioni Termini to buy a rail ticket as there was complete chaos and a long queue. A middle aged friendly lawyer called Arturo kindly helped me with my suitcase asking my destination. Sicily was my reply but where he asked? I had no idea and so, as he was going first class to Catania, he suggested I join him. There were no couchettes free so along with 2 nuns and a farmer, we stayed up all night devouring the farmer's salami and imbibing excellent Sicilian Nero d'Avola. We finally got in to Catania, exhausted at 7.00 am and Arturo kindly suggested I come to stay with him and his wife in their home.

I was immediately put to bed with an enormous black cross above the bed. I awoke about noon to overhear his wife excitedly telling a friend on the phone that they had an English language teacher to stay.   I was ignorant in those early days and so did not visit the city to see what it had to offer, in fact I had no idea what to do or where to go. Not like today with the internet and guide books galore. Arturo to the rescue who decided that I should stay with his young friends in Taormina. He arranged it and put me on another train and that was that. Perhaps it was this couple who recommended Caltanasetta but first a visit to their friends in Palermo was on the menu. They arranged for me to be met at the train station. I was on a Sicilian merry go round and being made a fuss of.

The train chugged in 2 hours late at 4.00 instead of 2.00. I was starving and imagined the unknown people would not wait for me. Apparently I found out they had! There were no mobile phones in those days and in fact I was so inexperienced, I had not even asked for the name and phone number of my hosts.  Young girls in their 20s did not travel in Italy alone let alone Sicily that was in a time warp and controlled by the Mafia.

I walked out of the station looking for a cheap hotel as I was on a limited budget. As a teacher in the 1970s, I took home, after tax, £28 a week. Italy was cheap in the 70s, not so today! I learned a new word -  'locanda' a cheap pension but on a higher floor. I saw the sign, the building looked elegant and I asked someone what the sign meant.

I climbed the twisted dark stairs to the second floor. A large woman with long greasy black hair sat at a desk in a black negligee talking to a rough looking tall man who was minus most of his teeth. I didn't understand a word as they spoke in dialect. I asked for a room and was given a simple double one for 1,000 Lire, the equivalent of 50p. She took my passport, was very formal and gave me the impression that foreigners were suspect especially a young woman on her own. I didn't know everywhere in Sicily closed from 1-5, 'la pausa' so where was I going to get something to eat? La signora, who offered me nothing, suggested I went with the man, her tenant, in search of sustenance.

Down the stairs we went. He made it obvious in his limited Italian, that I had to walk behind him. It appeared he owned a bookshop and would open it up as by now it was 4.30 and he opened at 5.00. We arrived at his shop in a dark side street with a heavy metal blind. He wound it open grunting he would leave me inside and bring back something for me to eat.

Seated in the corner behind his untidy desk, I looked around his small chaotic shop. There mainly seemed to be magazines shrewd all over the floor rather than books on book shelves. Curious I decided to take a look at the magazines. Porno!  Well 70s light porno!! The magazines contained black and white photos with square black blocks over nipples and pussies! Laughable really. Not much going on in the photos. He caught me putting the magazines back. I told him I couldn't see much because of the black square boxes. On hearing my comment he got excited saying he had others more revealing to show me. I refused saying I was not interested. What did he bring me? A hard inedible pear and a bottle of strong liquore alle mandole. Was he totally crazy?  On a empty stomach! I refused both and decided to leave or rather flee. As I passed him, he slapped me on my derrière! I screamed at him 'non sono una putana!' and stormed out into the street that was beginning to show some life as the shutters were being raised for the evening session after 'la pausa'.

I fled and finally finally found a place nearby to eat a simple pasta before retreating back to the locanda. I went to bed early without locking the door. Suddenly at about 9.00 there was a sharp demanding knock on my door. Thinking it was la signora, I opened to find the toothless wonder standing in silence, in one hand with a sepia film star magazine showing Jayne Mansfield with her husband Mickey Hargitay and in the other hand an open fan of Lira notes amounting to quite a bit for my potential nocturnal services no doubt! I snatched the magazine and locked my door. Later I was told he had made me a 'good' offer whatever that meant!

I prepaid for the room so I could leave my suitcase and have my nice room on my return from Caltanasetta. Off I sped  on Venerdi Santa to the city famous for its procession. I don't remember where I stayed but I recall meeting a man with his little girl in the crowd watching the religious procession. Tourists from England were unheard of and so excitedly he said I must meet the cinema owner who was his boss because he had an English wife and his boss would want to meet me.

Perhaps that was Saturday, anyhow I was ushered into the smart presumably new gleaming marble Mafia laundered cinema and made to meet a very fat, obviously Mafioso owner. Smoking a large cigar with a pot belly, I was warmly greeted by the Signore X who shoved the phone into my hand and commanded me to speak in English to his wife! He said I could see any film for free and 'Serpico' was showing that afternoon.  What would I like to have with my coffee? He snapped his fingers like Don Corleone, and a mignon arrived, almost bowing. I ordered a ham and cheese Motta toast which I devoured in his office with a cappuccino. Later, while watching 'Serpico' with Al Pacino he told me It was all arranged and I would be collected Sunday to have lunch with him and his English wife but it never happened. The car never came! Promises, promises!

Back I went by train to the locanda in Palermo. On arrival the cute little granddaughter came up to me proudly announcing I would be sharing a room with her. Despite pre-paying, my room had been given to a honeymoon couple. I complained, this time to the husband, a meek depressed man sitting at the table on the second floor.

I was thus lead down one flight to a splendid apartment on the first floor and given the owner's bedroom with religious frescos on the ceiling! From that moment on I became integrated into the family for my remaining Sicilian days. Their son took me out for gelato and his sister meshed my hair with silver streaks as she was a hairdresser. The father had been a pharmaceutical representative but his partner had ripped him off. He had lost all his money which was why the family had to rent rooms on their second floor to cover basic costs. Mamma Mia!

On the last day there was an engagement party just before my train back to Rome. I was invited of course by their son.  When I wanted to pay for the rest of my stay, despite the signora looking cross, their son insisted I was his guest! I was even given food for my journey back to Rome!

It's a shame today in 2018 I don't have his name to thank him but I never forgot the Sicilian hospitality I did not find in the mainland Italy. Another life, another world and another culture. VIVA la Sicilia!

Written in the Hotel Joli, Palermo on 11.1.17.