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
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
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
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!
in the Hotel Joli, Palermo on 11.1.17.