A short interview with Francesca …

31 March, 2011

4.1.1Francesca is one of my neighbours – a curious mixture of emotional instability and intellectual curiosity, but an  interesting commentator on life in Sicily.  She moved into Palermo’s historic centre only when she fell on hard times after the death of her husband; most of her married life was spent in one of the streets off Palermo’s via Liberta’, the area generally preferred by Palermo’s middle class.  Originally from the North of Italy, Francesca is acutely aware, and highly critical, of the very different mentality that, she says, exists in the South.  In this interview, she talks about her own background and her experience of Sicily and Sicilians. 

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Francesca, before we talk about your experience of Sicily and Sicilians, tell me a little bit about yourself and  your family.   

I was born in Trieste at the beginning of the Second World War, but both my parents originally came from Sicily.  My father was born in 1896 in Castelbuono, a town in the Madonie mountains east of Palermo, and my mother was born in 1897 in Messina.

It seems strange now, but although Castelbuono is only 14km from the coast, my father had never seen the sea until, at the age of 17, he set off, by himself, for America to find work and help his family.  He found a job there, working on the construction of a tunnel under the river, and began sending money back to help the family.  But he had only been there for about a year when the First World War broke out .  He would have stayed in America, I’m sure, but he felt he had to come back to Italy, partly out of a sense of duty, partly to avoid being considered a deserter .  He came back and joined the army.  He was in a unit led by Gabriele D’Annunzio at Fiume.  When the war was over, he found himself in Trieste, I don’t really know how.  He worked there for many years  as a policeman and, after that, selling insurance.  He was bright and he did well.

My mother’s family was also from Sicily.  They lived in a village outside Messina, but moved to Trieste when she was 18.  Although she’d grown up in Sicily, and her family was Sicilian, she was always critical of the Sicilian mentality – and impatient with it.  When she was quite small, her uncle had married a girl from Trieste, and she always said that as soon as she met this girl, she was struck by her very different outlook.  It was a different way of being, a different way of thinking, and one that she found superior to anything she had known.  I’m not really sure why her family moved to Trieste, but I think there were difficulties in Sicily and because they had a connection with the city through my aunt, they moved there.

Your father’s parents remained in Castelbuono?

Yes, and he continued to help them.  Every year we would go back to Castelbuono for the summer.  My father worked for nine months and then had three months in Sicily – although some of the time there he was also selling insurance.

What was your first impression of Sicily?

I didn’t like it at all – in fact, I was disgusted by it!  My mother thought the same, but she was more tolerant.  I would spend all year at school in Trieste and then come to this place where it wasn’t possible to do anything.

Why wasn’t it possible to do anything in Castelbuono?

Let me give you an example.  You have to remember that we’re talking about the town more than 50 years ago – not the town of today.  When I was about 14, starting to grow up, I dressed very differently from the girls in Castelbuono.  Many at the time still wore black and apart from that they dressed badly, without any taste.  Not that I had luxurious clothes, but I made the best of what I had – and  I was treated as though I’d come from outer space.

I remember wearing some pants that at the time we called fishermens’ pants.  At that time, women in Castelbuono wore only skirts, and mostly black, and when I went into the street I was pelted with lemon and tomatoes.

By whom?

By grown men!  And I remember that, on another occasion,  I had a summer dress with a high neck (I never wore low necklines) and wide straps over the shoulder and when I wore that in the street, I was shouted at by men telling me to go back home because I was indecent.  It was a completely different world.  I remember too that when I was still only about 14, a young man of about 25 or 26, to me very much an adult at the time, called out in front of everyone something like  “this one  would fill a brothel”.  I was desperate and went home to my mother in tears.  She went straight out and reprimanded the man, but this sort of thing went on all the time.  This period was really traumatic for me.

You have to remember that at this time life in Sicily was very different.  For example, no-one went to the beach.  The nearby beach was beautiful, but it was completely deserted.  I would sometimes go with one of my cousins, but going to the beach was regarded as a strange thing to do.

All this was completely different in Trieste at that time?  

You are joking!  In Trieste you could go to the cinema, to the last screening at night, go to the sea, to a bar – anywhere – without any interference.   When I arrived in Sicily all those years ago it was like stepping into a world that was completely different from the world I had known.  The mentality was completely different from mine.    It still is!

How did you come to remain in Sicily?

I met Giuseppe, my future husband, at Castelbuono, and we spent our married life in Palermo, but  I’ve never really been comfortable here.  The mentality here is strange.  It’s difficult to explain, but there is always something deceptive in people’s manner.  Things are not what they seem.  Of course there are exceptions.  Sicily has produced some wonderful people.  But, in general, people here always doubt you – they never take what you say at face value –  and that reflects something about themselves.  An honest, straightforward, person doesn’t always doubt the truth of what others say.  Then there is a presumptuousness – particularly among Palermo women.  They know everything!

But above all, there is a lack of openness. People always say that, in many ways, Palermo is still an Arab city.

But it’s a thousand years since the Arabs were here …

Yes, but it remains in the memory.  According to me.

What I’m saying is not new.  Last night, for example, I watched Pietro Germi’s 1964 film, Seduced and Abandoned and there’s a scene in that that illustrates perfectly what I’m saying.  It’s very funny.  Really excellent!  If you want to understand Sicily, you should watch this film.   A girl is seduced by her sister’s boyfriend and becomes pregnant.  In order to redeem the family’s honour, her father arranges to have the boy killed, and to avoid this happening she goes to the local police station to report the matter.  She is being interviewed by a senior officer who comes from the North, and there’s a junior officer taking notes.  Trying to understand what is going on, the senior officer and asks the girl if the boy had harmed her in any way.  “Oh no!” she says.  The junior officer looks at the senior officer for a moment and then says “Sir, you have to understand – we’re not in Treviso.  There when someone says ‘no’ they mean ‘no’.  Here, when they say ‘no’, they mean ‘yes’.”   When you see the film you’ll understand better what I’m saying – it captures the mentality perfectly.

It’s always been the same, as long as I can remember.  And it’s still the same.  Nothing changes!

5 Responses to “A short interview with Francesca …”

  1. Sally F Says:

    Fascinating

  2. richmondrambles Says:

    My heart goes out to your neighbour. After all these years she is still a stranger in a strange land. Well done for capturing a small part of the history of Sicily.

  3. richmondrambles Says:

    I felt so sad for her – how lovely that you have spent the time hearing her story


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