Way down south

Vindication of stereotype is the bigot’s salvation. We’ve just returned from two weeks in Sicily, our second visit to the joyous isle but the first under our own motorised steam, and I have to say that Sicilian drivers are almost comprehensively lunatic. There are rules of the road, such as giving way to vehicles already on a roundabout or approaching it from the left, but they are ignored. Procession is achieved by aggressive bad manners: stop for someone and you’ll be stationary for ages or blasted by the horns of the drivers behind or physically shunted. I don’t exaggerate. We overtook cars on the autostrada whose drivers were reading documents; we ourselves were overtaken by impatient drivers and bikers screaming up behind us on the hard shoulder; use of mobile phones by speeding drivers is common, even on motorways; and so on. A courteous driver who took us to a few sites, such as Ragusa, Punta Secce and Scicli, said Sicilians, not just a few of them, regarded any sort of Highway Code as optional. The roads themselves don’t help – they’re neglected, badly-signed and in poor repair. Dangers appear without warning. The only respite from this continuous state of anxiety is when the roads go quiet at night or when you travel inland across countryside. There are no motorways of more than two lanes and in the eastern area from Messina down to Siracusa via Catania and Acireale, where we were staying, the central reservation resembles a continuous garden centre of spreading oleanders, making driving at speed seem even more claustrophobic and hazardous. Sicily, and maybe the rest of Italy, has a minimum motorway speed limit, which seems designed only to keep irritation for the speedsters to a minimum. Yet, yet…

Sicily is a land of ancient and Baroque splendour but it is in the dim past and overlain by a history of decline and economic stagnation. That chauffeur of ours, following the trail of Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano (his fictional places of occupation and detection now related to the TV films made of the books – extrapolations endorsed, incidentally, by Camilleri himself) pointed to a hillside forest of wind turbines, none of them turning and none connected to any kind of power grid. Powerless, in fact. It seems that the money for them had been sourced from EU funds, most of it used for other, probably nefarious, purposes. It’s a gift for the anti-Europeans, who are forever demonstrating that southern (poor) economies such as Spanish, Sicilian and Greek are a drain on the prosperous – and, by implication, hardworking – north. How anything constructive is done in such enervating climes is a mystery. But you could say that of their (frozen) polar opposites. Our chauffeur, characteristically these days, it seems, was forthcoming on ‘the Mafia’ or its more subtle and widespread variant, ‘mafia’. It’s the corrupting culture of obligation, in which you do something dodgy for me, and I’ll do something possibly dodgy for you. Such behaviour when disturbed, expanded, complicated and entrenched can lead to only three inter-related ends: extortion, violent enforcement and vendetta. The tourist shops sell Godfather T-shirts, appropriating Mario Puzo’s and Francis Ford Coppola’s Romantic view of the American-based Sicilian Mafia, who are in fact worthless thugs best quietly emasculated, their show of family values mere window-dressing for a life of murderous villainy. The overlong book and film suggest a softening, almost a vindication, of the Mafia’s moral turpitude.The relationship between Montalbano’s seemingly hamstrung provincial police force and the local ruling ‘family’ is one of Camilleri’s more interesting illuminations of Sicilian life. So, another reason for letting the European nations go their own ways. If you cannot deal with organised crime, you shouldn’t be a member of the ‘club’. And yet…

Sicilians are friendly and helpful, and really dependent on the family for their sustaining source of cohesion. And despite living with a collapsing infrastructure that miraculously serves its purpose, many appear to be well-off. Most of the badly-driven cars are latest models. The shops cater for expensive tastes, the restaurants for those multitudes in the habit of eating out. The homes in the older quarters are Tardis-like, their exteriors crumbling, their interiors warm and welcoming and well-equipped. The back streets of Acireale opening out on to the main drag of Corsa Umberto, if in Naples, would be dangerous at night; here, one never felt safer – from the people, that is; step out of line on the cobbles and you could be run over. The drivers are nuts. Yet…

Overall there’s a curious sense of place and tranquility, despite the shortcomings and the hair-raising highways. It’s certainly not Tuscany or Milan or Rome. But it has its history. The outer fluted columns that hold up the roof of the duomo in Siracusa are Greek and plain to see and touch. The fountain of Arethusa is, well, just there, which is enough for those with imagination, even if it’s only employed to recollect the music of Szymanowski, who was inspired by it. The ‘fountain’ is now a concreted deep well, the waters wavy with green plant life and fish and there’s a launch slope on which sleep geese and feral cats. It’s underwhelming for anyone with no interest in classical antiquity and myth. Sicily’s past, in any case, is deeply buried, except at Agrigento, where the intact Greek temples have a strange Hollywood-like presence. We didn’t go there this time, or to Palermo, Céfalu and Mount Etna. But we were under Etna’s gaze. It’s in the background, quietly breathing history. It was due to get worked up in the weeks after we left, but there’s been no news of serious eruption. History, as well as breathing, also sleeps.

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