A conversation with Antonietta …

5 February, 2010

This week I had a particularly interesting conversation with Antonietta –or perhaps, to be more precise, I should say that I was on the receiving end of a particularly interesting monologue.  With Antonietta, what starts out as a conversation often ends as something closer to  a monologue. This week she barely drew breath.  The subject was Palermo.

It’s a subject Antonietta returns to over and over again.  Although she’s Italian, she’s not Sicilian and is critical of the way of life here.   We had barely exchanged pleasantries when she launched into an attack on Palermo and the mafia.      

“There are things about this city I really hate”, she began.  “I really detest the mafioso behaviour of the people here.  The mafia isn’t just a group of mafiosi – it’s a state of mind, a way of looking at the world”.  

She then referred to a scene in the film,  I Cento Passi *, saying it should be watched over and over again.   In this  scene, one of the characters says, emotionally and cynically, after his friend has been killed by the mafia:  “We all know that nothing’s going to change ….Why don’t we Sicilians just admit it once and for all?  We want the mafia! And it’s not that we’re afraid of it …. it’s that it makes us feel safe!  We identify with it!  We like it!” 

By now, Antonietta had warmed to her subject.  “Let me give you an example”, she said, as she  proceeded to tell me that in the 1980s she used to visit a beautiful shoe shop near where she lived.  This was the time of the maxi-trial, which opened in 1986, during which almost 500 mafiosi, including leading mafia figures, were put on trial.  “The mafia was in crisis” said Antonietta, “but the proprietor of this shop lamented the fact.  She lamented the fact that the maxi-trial was taking place, saying:  ‘We were better off when they [i.e. the mafia] were here’ ”. 

Antonietta’s outburst was prompted by two incidents, both much closer to home.   “You might consider them banal”,  she said.  Then she paused, before adding with decision:   “But they are not banal!”.    

First, the stairway in her building had not been cleaned for weeks.  Having failed to get any co-operation from the other people in the building, she finally decided to clean it herself and ask the other proprietors for a contribution to the cost.  The amount was small.  It was, she said, a matter of principle.  One of the other proprietors refused rudely, saying there was no way he was going to contribute.   Next time, he said, he would clean the stairs himself – something Antonietta knew would never happen.

Then, the light on the stairway disappeared.  Strange, thought Antonietta.  “Who would want to steal a light?”  She asked the proprietor of the next door flat, Signora B, if she knew anything about it.  “No, no”, she said, “but my flat is being decorated.  I’ll ask the workmen.  Anyway, I don’t have time to be bothered with things like this”.   Later that day, Antonietta met the woman who works for Signora B and asked if she had heard anything further about the light.   “Oh, yes”, she said, “It’s here in the flat – the Signora removed it because it uses too much electricity”.  The next day, having obviously spoken to ‘the Signora’, the woman’s story was different:   “The workmen removed the light”, she said.  “It was the workmen!”.   

Antonietta wanted to make sure I understood that although the incident was small, important principles were involved.  “The Signora was taking advantage of someone weaker than herself”, she said, “and  both she, and the woman working for her, were being dishonest – changing stories to suit themselves.  We are in 2010 – technologically we have advanced, but we have not advanced morally or spiritually.   Where I lived before, the mode of operating was direct, frank and straightforward.  Here there is bad faith – no one trusts anyone else.  They always think the worst.  This intention to deceive is like a leitmotif running through society.  I did not grow up in an environment like this”.

On this note, our ‘conversation’ ended.  But two days later, Antonietta was back – and this time in a much lighter mood. “You remember all those problems I told you about?  Everything has been sorted”.  Then she smiled and said: “And it’s been sorted because the mafia exists! “

She went on to tell me that she had spoken to the woman who runs the bar opposite her building.   She had, in the past, been told, without paying much attention to it, that this woman is ‘important in the neighbourhood’.  “I get on well with her”, said Antonietta, “and, for me, that is all that matters”.  This time she told her about the problems she was having in the building and the woman seemed sympathetic.  The next time Antonietta met her, the woman said she  had spoken to the people concerned:  “It’s not right that they should behave in that way”.    

Then everything changed.   The next time Antonietta met the man who had rudely refused to pay her for cleaning the stairs, a man she had been battling with over various issues connected with the building for at least two years, he was charming.  He told her he had left the money, plus some more ‘for next time’, with the ‘ Signora in the bar’.  “Don’t worry” he assured Antonietta “I will sort things in future – leave it to me”.   Also, the light has been returned to the stairwell and was working perfectly.   Everything was in order.  “How do you explain that?”Antonietta asked me – without either expecting, or waiting for, an answer.    

 “This is an example of how things work here” she went on.   “It’s like a protected zone.  I believe this woman would have the power to prevent thieves breaking into my house!”.  Then she laughed, but it was a laugh without humour:  “Incredible!  I’ve been protected by the mafia! ”. 

  •  I Cento Passi, directed by Marco Tullio Giordana, is based on the true story of Peppino Impastato’s fight against the mafia.  It is a beautifully made film, compelling viewing, and a valuable introduction to modern Sicily.   

14 Responses to “A conversation with Antonietta …”

  1. Sally F Says:

    It is so often the small things that tell. I have just managed to get hold of an extraordinary little film made by a chap called Jamie Uys in South Africa in the late ’50s or early ’60s. It is about the Afrikaans and English living in the same country and I remember all my family laughing a lot when we saw it. Seeing it again I still laughed but I also saw much more than I could have done when I was a child how satirical it was and what a sharp observer of the society he was writing about the maker was – corruption, which is no post-apartheid malaise, included. It is not only the Mafia in Sicily …

    • kateludlow Says:

      Interesting – and a timely reminder that this is not the only place with problems! It’s just that you do begin to feel the weight of them here. The film you mention sounds interesting – as does the experience of seeing it again, with a different perspective. Many thanks for the comment.

  2. CateM Says:

    A fascinating insight. It left me feeling slightly unnerved and wondering if Antonietta is now somehow caught up in the system she so detests.

    As you know, I have seen I Cento Passi but I wanted to comment that it is one of the most moving films I have seen. I can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone interested in this subject.

    • kateludlow Says:

      Hopefully, Antonietta won’t be in any way caught up in the system. But I know what you mean – I must say I felt slightly unnerved too! Many thanks for the comment!

  3. Antonio Says:

    An incredible story – but what a comment that the mafia can run things/make things happen that even the authorities cannot. Antonietta’s story has an element of Stockholm syndrome about it.

    I would love to see I Centro Passi.

    • kateludlow Says:

      Thank you for your interesting comment. I hadn’t thought of the Stockholm syndrome in connection with Antonietta’s story. I can see why it came to mind, but I don’t really think it applies to Antonietta. As far as I can tell, she sees things pretty much as they are and doesn’t have any particular attachment to those who helped her out this time.

  4. jan w Says:

    Un-nerved – that’s an understatement! Now I am wondering why on earth the stairs outside your apartment were so slippery that I fell and broke my foot – had you ‘made an arrangement’ to have them cleaned on my behalf? Being ‘cared for’ certainly brings its own sense of adventure. Watch your step in future!

    • kateludlow Says:

      No – I’m definitely not in a position to ‘make arrangements’! In fact, my neighbours often remind me that although I live here, my experience is really that of ‘a tourist’. However … I’ll do my best to make sure that next time the stairs are not so slippery. Thank you for the comment!

  5. Nancy Says:

    I’d like to subscribe. How do I do this??

    • kateludlow Says:

      Sorry! I haven’t yet worked out how to put a ‘subscribe’ button on the home page; however, I think you will now receive an email from WordPress telling you how to subscribe. Let me know if you don’t – and thank your reading the blog.

  6. CateM Says:

    If you click on ‘reply’ under the latest comment you will see, underneath where you type in your comment, two boxes that you can tick. One is to be notified of follow-up comments via email and the other is to be notified of new posts via email. You can tick one or both of these boxes. I hope this helps!

  7. Antonio Says:

    Thank you for your comment Kate. My Stockholm syndrome comment was not related to Antonietta but was more general and was brought to mind by the shop proprietor’s comment lamenting the maxi trial and suggesting people were “better off when [the mafia] were here”.

    However, I do wonder if, one day, Antonietta will be asked to do a small “favour” for her benefactor in return; if so, it would just demonstrate how insidious the whole ‘system’ is – and un-nerving as you and some of your correspondents have said.

    Catherine’s comment makes me want to see I Cento Passi even more!

    • kateludlow Says:

      Sorry, I misunderstood! More generally, the Stockholm syndrome comment is interesting – my feeling, though, is that the shop proprietor’s response was probably more influenced by pragmatism. But that’s just a guess! Hopefully, Antonietta won’t be asked to do any ‘favours’, but you never know!


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