a conversation about sea sponges on the island of Lampedusa

Last year when I visited Lampedusa, I hadn’t even noticed the little freshly painted shop at the end of the main street selling natural sea sponges.  This year, visiting the shop and talking to Giovannino, its owner, turned out to be one of the highlights of my stay on the island.

The shop is small, but very attractively set up, with sponges of different types and sizes displayed on tables, and hanging from the walls, and a series of photographs showing the various stages of processing.  It is obviously a shop run by someone who knows, and cares about, what he is selling.  That someone is Giovannino, a dark haired, strongly built man, probably in his 50s, with that distance and deep reserve Sicilians often seem to have, at least on first meeting.  I made a small purchase, complimented him on his shop, and asked if I might come back some time to talk to him about sea sponges and sponge ‘fishing’.  He graciously agreed. 

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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.

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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”.   Read the rest of this entry »