Most mornings, my route to the waterfront joins via Alloro, a stone paved street once lined with some of the most important palaces of the city.  As I turn into via Alloro and head towards the water, I pass the large  15th century church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, known as La Gancia.  There is a marble memorial mounted on its wall, and beneath it a small, irregularly shaped, marble-framed ‘hole’  labelled ‘Buca della Salvezza’- Hole of Salvation.  Almost every day I have passed this wall, sometimes wondering vaguely what the memorial is commemorating, but not, until recently, taking the time to investigate.  When I finally did investigate, I found there is a fascinating story behind the Buca della Salvezza – a story that has become part of the fabric of the city.  Everyone who knows anything about Palermo seems to know it.      

The story concerns an event that occurred during a popular uprising in 1860, when Sicily’s patience with Bourbon rule was wearing very, very thin.  Just a little more than a month later, Garibaldi’s 1,000 entered – one step closer to the unification of Italy.  The story behind the Buca della Salvezza is a story of rebellion, betrayal, bravery, endurance, solidarity – and, perhaps above all, luck. Read the rest of this entry »

Almost every day, the Giornale di Sicilia has at least one article, and often a headline, about the mafia.  I try to read and understand as much as I can, but this is an endlessly complex society, and I am an outsider.  Progress is slow.    

 This week, one article in particular has caught my attention –  partly because it concerns a shop that I know, partly because it is a story of courage.

In 2008, Giovanni Ceraulo, the 47 year old owner of a chain of clothing shops  in Palermo, Prima Visione, decided that enough was enough.  He had paid the pizzo, protection money, to the mafia for 13 years.  He would pay it no longer.  He said at the time that he didn’t want to see his children grow up with a father who had allowed the old system to continue.  Read the rest of this entry »

Finding the ‘genius’ …

12 January, 2010

Il Genio in the Vucciria

I first heard about ‘il genio’ from Salvatore, a young local who had come to show me how to make a pasta dish with red peppers.  When we finally sat down to eat the finished dish, he started telling me a sad story about his life in Palermo.  Then he moved on to talk about Palermo itself, and the story of ‘il genio’. 

Given what he had been telling me about his life here, I was surprised by his obvious passion for the city.  I probably shouldn’t have been.  I’ve since found many people here with the same deep emotional attachment to the city, and the same capacity to talk about it in almost poetic terms. 

I was immediately intrigued by the story of the ‘genio’, but also confused.  I had mistakenly translated ‘genio’,  as ‘genius’ in the sense of someone of exceptional ability.  ‘Il genio of Palermo’ is better described as ‘the spirit of Palermo’ or ‘a guardian deity of Palermo’.  He is represented as a man, with a young body and an old face, wearing a coronet on his head and holding a huge serpent with its head close to his chest.   Sometimes there is a chest of gold at his feet.   Read the rest of this entry »

I am living in a little apartment that looks down onto one of the narrow winding lanes in Palermo’s historic centre.  I think I am gradually beginning to be accepted by my neighbours, but it has taken time.   The fact that I was still here when summer had come and gone seemed to be a major turning point.  

It is not an easy city to get to know – and for some, not an easy city to get to like.  Much of the historic centre is in a state of degradation: once grand city squares are dirty and littered with rubbish, noble palazzi crumbling and forgotten, their tall once-elegant windows now just a series of gaping holes filled with bricks.  It takes time to see the seam of gold that runs through this city and its people.  But it is there.  And finding it is well worth the effort. 

Why am I starting a blog? There are two main reasons. The first is that  I hope it might help me understand the city better, and enable me to share that understanding with others.  The second is purely personal.  I have always had a memory like a sieve – one with rather large holes – and that, combined with a monumental lack of self-discipline , often leaves me feeling that life is slipping through my fingers.  I am hoping that the process of writing will help me hang onto what I am learning.        

I have been slow to start!  Procrastination, I find, is very closely linked to lack of self-discipline – even now the motivation for making a start comes not from me, but from my daughter.  Several months before moving to Palermo, I met her for a few days in Bangkok, and together we visited a fortune teller at the Wat Po temple.  After examining various charts and perusing the lines on the palm of my hand, he began to say, over and over again: “You should be writing – nothing creative – your material should be what you are doing day to day”.  This struck a chord with me – I had wanted to write ever since I was a child.  Still I did not make a start, but from that day on,  my daughter began saying, over and over again:  ‘Just do it!’  

So finally I take a deep breath and make a start … 

Here’s to her!