Sunday, 15 December 2013

5 positives about Palermo

Acts of kindness from people I don’t really know

The other day, when I walked into the university’s merchandise store, the guy inside started chatting and offered me a coffee as he was already making some. He was interested in how I was finding Palermo and pleased to hear I’m having a good time. I worked in the merchandise store at Bristol Uni for a year, and while I hope customers found me friendly and helpful, I wouldn’t have offered someone I didn’t know a coffee like that. It wouldn’t have crossed my mind to. Whether or not I might have wanted to, that kind of thing just isn’t done in urban England. I would have got a weird look if I had. Most customers in shops in huge cities like London are in a big hurry, or at least act like it (see the thousands of people on the tube that walk at a fast pace but then queue to stand on the escalators, which they would clearly walk up if they were in the rush that they made out to be). I’ve loved being in an environment where it’s normal to make a kind gesture like that for someone you don’t know at all – kind deeds that it's especially nice to receive as a student 2000km from home.

Other recent examples of kindness of this sort include the numerous mechanics giving me free lifts (whether it be 4 or 40km), a classmate spontaneously buying me a hot water bottle after I mentioned my flat doesn’t have heating, and a restaurant owner walking half a mile down the street to meet me to make sure I found his restaurant (I’d struggled to take in his directions over the phone). Small bits of friendliness like this and the way that people in shops you often frequent treat you like friends. I no longer even have to open to mouth to utter the words ‘Un Cappuccino e un Cornetto (Croissant)’ when I walk into the bar opposite my Faculty each morning – they’ll have already started preparing them when they see me walk in. It’s once you get to know shopkeepers and they get to know what 'the usual' is for you that things get rewarding and you feel a real part of the community here.

Palermo’s the fifth biggest city in Italy, but in many ways it’s as if it’s a village. This is something I particularly appreciate having spent 18 years living in London (and 2 in Bristol, which is friendlier but no comparison to Palermo). I know lots of Londoners like the fact that, aside from the odd tourist unaware of London's unwritten rules, there’s virtually no chance that a ‘stranger’ on a tube train will start talking to you. It means you can focus on your copy of the Evening Standard or whichever other method you use to avoid eye contact with the passenger opposite (usually either using phones even though you have no signal or 3G underground, or studiously looking at the tube map above). But I’m not one of them. One of my favourite things about family holidays to the Lake District was that people who you pass on walks or in the street say ‘Hi’. For me, the combination of my favourite aspects of villages in a sprawling city is a dream. And just one of the many reasons why I’ve grown attached to Palermo.

Local pride
I also like how keen the locals are for you to try local specialities and enjoy the things that they enjoy. I got an approving ‘Bravo!’from a street vendor when I announced that I’d like to try Pane con la Milza (he probably would have been even more impressed if I’d said Pane Ca’ Meusa - what it’s known as in Sicilian dialect). On my first day, I ordered a Lemon and Strawberry ice cream. I thought it was a perfectly respectable combination (not like Lemon and Chocolate or anything), but the gelatiere had other ideas. ‘Try this’, he said, handing me a spoon of ice cream which he explained was Fico d’India flavour: a special pear that 'You only find here' which seems as sharp as a cactus. He probably thought I was only here for a few days (rather than a few months), but I liked the way he didn’t so much recommend but rather insisted that I go for that flavour instead of one of the other two, keen to ensure that I tried something typical of Palermo while I'm here.

Food, which Sicilians are understandably proud of (even people I’ve spoken to from other regions concede that Sicily is the best food-wise), is just one area in which you get a sense of Sicilians' local pride. Local loyalties and campanilismo are strong throughout Italy though. People across Italy feel an attachment first to where they’re from exactly, whether that’s the town or region, and then the country (aside from during World Cups, when they all cheer for gli azzurri). Also because of the history and geography, with Sicily being an island, this seems especially strong here. There are nearly as many instances of ‘No Ponte’ (No bridge to the mainland) written in graffiti as ‘No TAV’ (no to more high-speed rail, which anyone who’s spent time in Italy will have noticed that they seem obsessed with all over). When someone in my sleeper train compartment asked me where I was from, I said I’m ‘Inglese’ (English). When I asked him, he said he’s‘Siciliano’. Most people here seem to consider themselves Sicilian first, then Italian. You might sometimes get that kind of thing with nations that are part of the UK – people who consider themselves Scottish or Welsh (or Cornish – those that do also consider Cornwall a nation, after all) first, then British. But rarely with UK regions/counties.

Brioscia, and fewer image-obsessed Italians
The ice cream episode was also my first experience of Brioscia, the popular tradition here of eating an ice cream inside a brioche. It works surprisingly well but is very messy to eat – think of a sandwich which you’re struggling to hold together full of ice cream which drips uncontrollably. But I liked the way that something so messy is so popular and, because virtually everyone has it, you don’t feel self-conscious eating it. I can see why people say that Palermitani tend to be slightly less image-obsessed than their counterparts in certain cities in the North of Italy. Can you imagine people walking around Milan eating Brioscia (and with the inevitable ice cream dripping onto their clothes)? I can't. To an extent, Palermo seems a welcome contrast to the compulsively image-conscious Italy I’ve witnessed in the past – refreshing, even if a Brioscia itself isn’t exactly that (you have the strange feeling of feeling full up, as if you’ve eaten a whole meal, rather than just refreshed like after a normal ice cream).

Try before you buy
Also I like how much they’re happy for you to try stuff before you buy – always encouraging and immediately offering, so you don’t need to ask, which I sometimes feel self-conscious doing. You enquire about a particular ice-cream flavour, and by the time you’ve finished your sentence, they’ll already have grabbed a spoonful for you to try (the gelatiere, I should add, did only decide what second flavour I was to have after I’d tried and liked Fico d’India). Owen and I, ahead of our dinner party, asked a seller in the market of Ballarò how spicy the chillies he was selling were. ‘Try one’, he said straight away. And, after a sprint to the nearest bar for some bread and water, we found out for ourselves just how hot they were, nonetheless buying a huge bunch for a Euro. In short it’s nice that ‘try before you buy’ applies with virtually any purchase (i.e. Not just clothes or other items you obviously expect to be able to try first) and that you never have to ask – they’ll just offer.


Finally, I love the trust in shops and markets, which is by no means limited to being between sellers and customers they know. In the Butcher (which is, for good reason, always busy) on my road, one member of staff weighs your meat, wraps it up and tell you how much your purchase costs. The cashier, without looking at what kind of meat it is, will then ask ‘How much?’ and you’ll tell them. It would be so easy to pretend it cost less than it was, but obviously that just isn’t done. If they’ve paid us the compliment of trust, the least us customers can do is pay them the correct money (and it’s damn good meat which you’d pay twice as much for in England anyway!). One food vendor I've got to know in Ballarò, who splits his shifts with his son. When he wouldn’t be there, his son, aware his dad knew me, would ask ‘How much does my dad ask for?’
(Note: these five are by no means the only things I like about Palermo, hence why I've enjoyed my time here so much, though I am looking forward to being home for xmas)

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