Work, play and decay in Sicily

Street scene Messina

 Socially Sicilians are very closed in and insular people. Not to say they are dull, on the contrary they are as warm-hearted and vivacious as anyone, they simply are reserved. Their distinct dialect keeps foreigners firmly locked outside of a conversation. Even as you open the code of their language there is precious little small talk in their lives other than the insipid gossip which keeps their society’s wheels oiled, no sharing of real emotions or opinions with others unless it involves politics or sport, then they posture and yell as much as they please.

The most astounding form of decay in Sicily is the corruption which has seeped into every aspect of society. There is corruption in public works, employment, education and health. The most stunning thing is people stuck in the cycle are only harming themselves and their fellow Sicilians, their own relatives, friends, society and their country.

I’m not a politician nor an economist but the corruption here is a very real part of life and infiltrates every aspect of Sicilian society. Fraud is rampant and public, it has lost its shame and now has become normal. There are many excuses for it from the large population, high unemployment, to the belief it has simply always been like this. Perhaps I’m being too idealistic, but I don’t accept any of these excuses. For me it is about making the right ethical decisions. Why would anybody choose corruption over honesty?

Children are taught unquestioned dishonesty from an early age. At school their teachers have been chosen by a distorted system. All teachers in the public school are assigned employment through a complex lottery since there are more applicants than positions, not only in the education sector but in all professions.

The first step in this gambling employment system is for everyone to sit an exam which classifies the applicants according to their results. Each person is assigned different points according to qualifications, experience and courses attended.

This super classification ladder is the basis for the allocation of employment positions which are assigned by working down the list from top to bottom. On the face of it, it seems relatively fair, only those administering this lottery can call a teacher at any moment. If the teacher isn’t home or is unavailable they pass onto the next name on the list. Those who are skipped are put back into the mix of the classification to be recalled only after every other name has been called. It is common if the person telephoning doesn’t know the person on the list they will skip ahead until they find someone they like.

There are many other ways of manipulating the classification: some teachers have gone in search of a political favor from a minister of government or a union or they might conveniently be the son, daughter, god child, niece or nephew of someone important who can push them up the list or they can simply bribe someone to be put onto the list. It is common to see the answers of the initial exams leaked beforehand, giving certain people perfect exam results. So those who get the jobs aren’t those best qualified, they are those with the best network.

So we have a majority of under qualified teachers in the Sicilian schools, engineers in the construction industry, bureaucrats in government administration, a whole range of white-collar workers who are under qualified and clueless about their profession and have found positions because of being recommended by others. This is the real source of decay in Sicily.

These ‘lucky’ teachers who have scrambled, lied and fought for a place, teach the same behavior to their students. Children see their teachers argue in front of them for extra education projects, funded by the government designed to teach students more about culture, history etcetera. Instead of being assigned to teachers without permanent positions the extracurricular projects are divvied up between teachers already working giving themselves a pay bonus.

Children see how pushy parents pester teachers to get their classmates better grades, they see the teachers’ favorites being chosen for extra attention. Children aren’t taught about the dangers of copying and plagiarism. Under the guise of parents helping children we see them writing essays for children and doing their homework instead of teaching them how to study and write for themselves.

There are few written exams and the grading system for oral exams is extremely subjective. The marking system is very lax and has come under the influence of political correctness, as no teacher has the power to fail their students without permission of the parent. Class averages are high, when generations before grading curves were more realistic.

The children who have been helped by their parents, favored by teachers and given high grades even if they are not warranted become bloated by a sense of false self-confidence. The result is a generation filled with arrogant, spoilt students who are ultimately unequipped to interpret the world in a critical and logical manner.

What does Sicily and Italy do with these students? They send them onto further education which reinforces elements of favoritism, plagiarism and corruption. Then they go onto participate in the same lottery system as their parents, commit the same hypocrisies and so the cycle of corruption continues.

Everybody knows the system and does the best to work it. This is part of the decay which comes from within Sicilian society, it is the fermentation that re-enforces a mentality that pushes the ‘raccomandati’ forward. I shudder to think about what goes on behind closed doors.

It would be naïve to deny favoritism doesn’t occur in other countries but at least with a résumé, an interview or a reference letter there is more of a chance someone well qualified will get the job. Nor do I want to suggest that Sicily is a region full of incompetents, as those good at what they do cannot help but find work eventually. My point is how Sicily is sabotaging itself through a system of methodical corruption.

 

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31 thoughts on “Work, play and decay in Sicily

    1. Yes, that’s what I want to do. May need to leave the country for a while 😉
      That photo was taken at Messina near the Town Hall, this past summer, I love how the city has so many hidden little pockets of green which frame the buildings so well. There are also many hidden roof gardens on top of many apartment buildings,I don’t know anyone who owns one, I’d love to climb up and take a few shots …

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  1. My first thought is that what’s ‘true’ for you isn’t ‘true’ for those Sicilians you’re talking about. And that would be really interesting to know to why they’re dishonest, etc – the motivation behind that. As you say, who wouldn’t chose honesty? Must be a reason. I don’t think you’re being too critical but I think everyone already knows that Sicily is a corrupt kind of place. Some individual examples are always interesting – take our breath away! But I always enjoy your blog so I’d be one of your book customers, no worries!

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    1. Thanks for your wonderful comment Colin. I think it is a cultural thing, it has always been this way and so they don’t even see it anymore. I think I may have to cut back on the ‘overawed expat’ aspect of my book, otherwise I might piss off some readers and I dislike the ‘me’ and ‘them’ labels as I have gradually become a part of the community … I think??
      I am particularly in love with a chapter of my book dedicated to my first few months here which features my in laws it is hilarious filled with many culture shock moments but I have no idea how they would react to being featured in it or even how to get their permission. It’s great to hear you are enjoying my blathering on here, high fiving myself on potentially selling one copy of my book 😉

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  2. I can see that this is very honest and observant. I see things like this in other parts of Italy. I also don’t understand why people don’t want to change the system…it isn’t working!!!!!
    I wonder if there will be repercussions for you if you publish this. You can’t assume that people you know won’t see it. I don’t think Italians ( or anyone else for that matter) likes their faults shown to others. You may need to move back to Australia before you publish.

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    1. Yes, Debra you are totally right, that is my exact fear. No country is perfect, Australia for example over the past decade has become a different place with a strange undertone of uncertainty and fear (but then what place hasn’t?!) You are right as soon as I get it published I may need to go into hiding for a while, even writing this blog has had subtle repercussions for my husband and I. Nothing heavy but menacing just the same. Nobody wants to have their boat rocked, especially from a foreigner …

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      1. Have you read a book called “The Italians”? I can’t recall the author, Luigi something. It was written in the 1960s but is remarkably current. He explains why Italians are the way they are.

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      2. Yes, I know and have read the Luigi Barzini book, I enjoyed how he weaves history together for insights into the Italian character, it is fascinating. I think a lot of the reasons behind Italian’s behaviour comes from their history …

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  3. I agree with Guy. Publish and be damned! The truth is a good thing. The extent of the corruption does not surprise me. It’s the same in Greece and getting much more so in the UK, believe it or not. Our dealings with a local council in the early part of the century revealed a shocking amount of corruption that we’d had no idea existed. At that time, few believed us. I understand your worries about the family. Perhaps it might be wise to publish under a different name – though you’d have to delete all relevant posts on this blog and start a second one under the new name to be sure of anonymity. What does your husband say? I’ll buy it whatever!

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    1. Thanks so much. I’m beginning to agree with all of these comments. I’m sure I need to distance myself a little more from my subject before publishing, it’s such a fascinating book that it would be a shame to leave it locked up in a draw forever. All of the books I’ve read written by foreigners in Sicily have romanticised this place and I feel so lucky to be writing my book very much on the inside looking out rather than the opposite way. The only other book has been Peter Robb’s Midnight in Sicily which was more about organised crime, I talk about the ordinary everyday life of small town Sicily, which is a far cry from downtown Palermo. There is also a lot about my own Sicilian heritage and feeling connected to Sicily on a basic level as well as the usual problems with expat life. It’s great to have your support.

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  4. I am new to your blog…directed here by pecora nera. My partner and I are planning and plotting our move to Italy and I love reading other peoples experiences, especially those that aren’t through rose coloured spectacles. I am all for honesty in writing but those close to the author can get their feelings hurt and relations can get strained. And although you feel there is not much chance of your adopted family and friends buying such a book, the world is a small place especially in our digital age…and who knows it could become an international bestseller 🙂 so why not publish under a pseudonym, then you can sleep peacefully at night.

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    1. Thanks for commenting Michelle and I’m really happy to have you reading along. Yes living in Italy is a constant challenge and as Pecora Nera says helped along with copious glasses of red. You are totally right about publishing under another name, I don’t want anyone to be offended. It would be wishful thinking to be penning a best seller, there isn’t enough sex, violence or vampires in my book 😉 Great to hear from you and hope you will continue to visit.

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      1. Awwww, thank-you. Popping over in February to check out a small town that we wish to settle in. It is a birthday treat and we thought it would be a good idea to visit without the sun, which gives us rose tinted glasses when we visit somewhere as a holiday 😊

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      2. Good idea Michelle. I hope your small town is near to a bigger one so that every once in a while you can get out if small town living get you down, I find you do need a break every once in a while. My small town seems more beautiful in the winter, quiet, restful and ancient. My birthday is in Feb too, but I hope to make a trip back home to Australia, but still nothing booked …

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      3. 50 minutes outside Rome by train…I don’t fancy driving in Italy, so finding somewhere with a main train line was a must plus I need to get back to the UK easily to work. Although I see that there have been some rail strikes recently, so plan my isn’t perfect, haha.

        Love the description of your village in the winter, sounds serene. I hope you mange to book your trip back to Oz soon, it’s nice to be home at times and especially perfect around celebrations 🙂

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      4. Oh that sounds great escaping to the explore the eternal city every once in a while sounds fantastic. It is always a hassle for me as there are no direct flights to Australia from Sicily so I have to get a domestic flight up to Rome and all flights leave in the afternoon so when I get to Rome there is a lot of waiting around before actually going in the right direction towards Oz, so I have mixed feelings, it will be great to be home but it’s a real odyssey.

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      5. That’s the plan but I currently live within striking distance of 3 cities and rarely pop to them as life takes over…I think we are all guilty of not appreciating things that are on our doorstep.

        You should stop a few days in Rome before heading on to Oz, I suppose it depends how much luggage to you take back home with you!

        I’m looking forward to exploring in Feb, as its my 40th it will be a lovely memory…hoping that as well as doing the tourist spots we can find something nice and hidden.

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  5. This reminds me a little of Donna Leon’s decision not to have her books translated into Italian. One theory is that the Venetians would have “her guts for garters” as we say in Australia. We’re all touchy about our own patch; it’s OK for us to whinge and criticise, but not for others to do the same.

    Are you comfortable with the idea of used a pen-name, as suggested? it seems the way to go.

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  6. Publish!
    Many of your thoughts are well established in my daily life. I have lived here for 22 years and I see and live with the corruption (mostly on a minor level) and cronyism each and every day. Why does this go on so many have asked. My take is the answer that I often hear regarding the simplest and also complex issues.. “cause that’s the way we do it”! Change is excruciatingly slow.
    Folks who vacation in Sicily LOVE it here. I think your book will show what life is on a daily basis. Sicilians have a tourist face and a local face. Show both of them.
    I am very fortunate to have a character that doesn’t need a constant social activity. I can enjoy my own company and my activities. Even though my husband has family here I continue to be an awkward fit. Partly my doings as I don’t cotton to “the way we do it”! Partly because of the closed society you have mentioned.
    When I am in my house I could be anywhere…. even back where I came from.

    Publish, I will be rooting for you.

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    1. Thanks so much for your great comment Sharon and it’s go great to have you reading along it sounds we are having very similar journeys. I will be letting everyone know how my book goes. All the best to you!

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  7. I can see that the content of this book could be ‘controversial’ to some (you’re unlikely to find a travel/tourism type of publisher!) but as far as the content goes, it’s really an all-or-nothing decision. You could certainly publish under a pseudonym, and feel protected that way, but I think the most important thing is that you reflect on the value of what you’re writing – where is the real value? And who/what is your intended audience? As in any other creative work, really knowing its heart and purpose and value (no matter what anybody else tells you) will help you through the practical issues.
    For me, the excerpt you shared felt like an article ie. fairly broad strokes on quite a few related-topics,and I wondered how this would fare in ‘book-form. ‘ Fascinating though.

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    1. It’s going to be a challenge to find a publisher as it isn’t ‘Under the Tuscan sun’ but I’m not too fussed if I don’t get any interest I’m going to do an ebook and move onto something else, I have so many other projects to finish it isn’t funny so I’m happy to keep working call me a glutton for punishment …

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      1. Thanks for the advice, the site looks great. A few weeks ago I signed up for some information online with AuthorHouse and was kept on the phone for an hour by a pushy publisher telling me about their self publishing packages and ended up quoting me 700 pounds for a full publication, p.r and ebook self publishing. It was so irritating, I’m still not ready to publish but there is no way I’d go with them after that ear-bashing. It looks like there are some really pushy people out there in the world of publishing …

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      2. Oh dear. That’s awful. It’s not an area i know much about but can highly recommend Orna/ALLi as a source of info and inspiration…good luck!

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  8. I thought your comment about how reserved Sicilians are so interesting! What we keep getting told is how cold and reserved Northern Italians are (they seem perfectly friendly to me – though I think NZers also have a reputation for being a little quiet and reserved so maybe I just find them the same). Italy seems to inspire such extremes of opinion, though. A book that might be interesting for you to read (if you haven’t already) is the Dark Heart of Italy, by Tobias Jones. In the postscripts to the revised editions he talks about the negative feedback he received following publication, and also concedes that his analysis was maybe a little one sided. Good luck with whatever you decide to do!

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