Italy’s cheating heart

An email

I recently got an email from one of my readers with an interesting question. After reading a book by British historian and aristocrat John Julius Norwich, she thought that she might have to worry about the Mafia. My reader is thinking about buying a house in Sicily, and a flippant throwaway line from Norwich suggested to her that the Mafia might approach her to pay protection money.

Norwich’s books are a little dated but are dedicated to the island’s history, and for this, they are a great reference. But Norwich didn’t ever live in Sicily, so he was very much a foreigner who came for brief research trips, so he isn’t the best reference for facts about everyday life in Sicily.

I have lived in Sicily for twenty years and reassured my reader that I have never seen any such thing. The Mafia we see in the movies is very much a myth that Hollywood has reinforced. You aren’t going to get anyone asking you for protection money.


About the Mafia

The Mafia in Sicily isn’t Marlon Brando, Al Pacino or Lucky Luciano who are all American inventions. Organised crime on the island has its origins in Sicily’s history which apart from many invasions from foreign powers embodies also much poverty and depression in a once mostly agriculturally based society. The first Mafiosi were illiterate, malicious thugs who used any means to extract money for their organisations. These were and are people with no conscious, cold-blooded killers who did things like dissolve children in acid and cut up their victims and feed bodies to swine. Most of the last Bosses have been captured or died.

There was a period when organised crime and terrorism was a problem here, but that was in the 1990s. After the anti-mafia trials and the deaths of Sicilian Judges Falcone and Borsellino, what was left of the Mafia went underground. The Mafia will not come knocking on your door; these days, they are probably more involved with politics, drug trafficking and big development and business. I have never been asked for money.

When visiting bigger cities in Sicily, you generally have to be more careful about petty crimes like pickpockets. The general understanding is not to carry anything too valuable with you, don’t be ostentatious, keep your valuables at your accommodation. Like in any big city worldwide, you need to keep your eyes open and be safe. I remember a relevant part of a great and funny book called Sicily; It’s Not Quite Tuscany by Shamus Sillar lived in Catania for a few years. He tells about taking some friends sightseeing around the city, and they made the mistake of carrying a large bag with a computer in it, which was promptly stolen out of the car. It was slightly traumatic but a cautionary tale about visiting Catania and other Italian cities.

Generally, smaller towns and villages are pretty tranquil and safe. There are neighbourhoods to avoid in the major cities, together with train stations at night and periphery. Any run down area neglected areas are a sign to be careful. If you are a tourist, you won’t need to worry about going too far out of the way to visit the main sites.

Apart from the petty crime, I think the natural thing to worry about, especially if you are buying a house in Sicily and Italy in general, is all the red tape. Real estate in Sicily is very reasonable compared to the US, UK or Australia. You can easily buy a villa or apartment for a fraction of the price, but what follows is worthy of a circle of Dante’s Inferno.

Doing anything like buying or selling a property or even renovations will take twice as long, even three times, as there will be a million problems. The ancient and positively baroque bureaucracy is a thing of beauty, designed by many centuries of history, and a lack of reforms will reduce anyone to tears of frustration. The paperwork, documentation requirements and fees will take forever to process. 

You will also be dealing with real estate agents who are very complicated sly characters who will want their generous cut. If the house needs any work, it’ll be hard to find good people to do the job; they will probably charge you way too much. The real Mafia is the bureaucracy, real estate agents and workmen. The Italian culture of furbizia is the real danger.


Expat problems

A few years ago, I was a part of an ex-pat blog writing group who occasionally got together and wrote about things we were experiencing or simply funny moments of culture shock. One of the posts was about exchanging stories about the Italians who have lied and cheated us with ease and nonchalance, which is both infuriating and puzzling. 

Not to say other countries don’t have problems with corruption, the world is rife. In most Anglo-Saxon countries, a politician or public servant or any other important figure caught out doing something dodgy is publicly shamed and practically disappears from circulation (well, all except Boris Johnson!)

In Italy, fraud is a sin easily pardoned; I’d go to the extent to say Italians expect their politicians to be sly. In the country where Machiavelli’s Renaissance masterwork of politicking The Prince is a classic. The idea of furbizia, which translates to a mixture of cunning, trickery, astuteness and guile, has become a solid part of the Italian character, it’s not very attractive, and as usual, this trait becomes more pronounced in the South, like most things tend to do.  

At the risk of offending any Italians, I have lived in Sicily for a long time; I am one hundred per cent Italian. I live here full time, and I’m in a committed relationship with this country, so it’s not simply a case of an ex-pat whining about Italian’s imperfections. Italian’s are usually the first to acknowledge the terrible corruption, bureaucracy and other problems in Italy. 

I’ve had many conversations waiting in line with people who are dumbfounded by the inconsistencies of their own country. It’s cathartic to get out the frustration by complaining loudly to whoever is nearby. But honestly, it probably will never change because it’s a part of the culture. I’m sure people have been complaining about the same things forever. Unless there is a total, comprehensive, well sustained political reform and overhaul of everything from the legal system to the public service, which is unlikely, nothing will ever change.

For foreigners making the realisation that the situation is how this country works and carefully trying to understand why they are persistently being cheated by a government they love is traumatic. Honestly, no country is perfect, but Italy is pretty close to it.


Really bad Karma

Organised crime rooted in Mafia-style practices such as bribery, extortion, murder, public contracts, vote-buying represents only a fraction of Sicily’s corruption which includes particular areas, such as building construction, restoration and money laundering. Certain practices, though deplorable, are not necessarily illegal in Italy, where conflict of interest laws are lax, and things like nepotism and cronyism are a normal part of professional life. It is still possible, for example, to obtain a high grade at the University through an offer of money or even, in the case of a pretty studentessa, sex.

Corruption in Italy takes many forms, from providing public contracts to politicians’ friends, bribery and illegal kickbacks. Funds for a construction project such as building or expanding a hotel, an education program, a skills development program, or agricultural subsidy are mismanaged and corrupt. It took thirty-five years to complete the Palermo-Messina autostrada, and some fifteen million Euros mysteriously disappeared during the restoration of Palermo’s Teatro Massimo opera house.

Widespread corruption is endemic, especially where public funding is involved. The situations created by the project managers are real tragedies in a land of poverty and high unemployment, where there are vast differences between rich and poor and where even a simple job is considered a privilege. Rich project designers are paid millions to produce little or nothing, while others work humble jobs to make ends meet. Most disturbing about these opportunists is their complete lack of any sense of responsibility or guilt.

Despite these incredible hypocrisies, Sicilian’s often ignore project scandals and other forms of corruption because these things are part of their daily lives. Payoffs and even sexual harassment are considered perfectly normal in Italy. It is part of the usual system of self decay that has been going on for many centuries in Sicily. It would be the perfect fodder for a biting satire if it weren’t a distinct reality.

Sicilian’s admire the quality of furbizia or shrewdness, the ability to outsmart someone or manoeuvre themselves around an unfair law or authority. The importance of furbizia is a survival instinct left behind from their history of being a so-called colonised or conquered people. This ugly personality trait results in a lot of white-collar crime, which is detrimental to the country. A Sicilian who is being too furbo ultimately shoots himself in the foot. Not to mention exposing himself to a whole lot of bad Karma.

Trying to explain the intricacies of Italy to someone who doesn’t live here is like painting a caricature; you can barely scratch the surface, and it can never do justice to the complex character of Italy. It’s not that Italy is filled with darkness, violence, and injustices; it’s more than this country comprises many different faces that coexist with the darker elements. There is lovely generosity and kindness in Italy, too, I know it is a contradiction, but Italy is schizophrenic and amusingly diverse.


Duplicity of character

One of my favourite books to constantly dip into is the anthology titled Cento Sicilie (One hundred Sicily’s), dedicated to the many writers who have attempted to depict the island. In the book’s introduction, Sicilian writer Gesualdo Bufalino attempts to explain the reason behind the complexities of the island:

‘Atlases say Sicily is an island, which must be true as atlases are trustworthy books. However, one must have a shadow of a doubt when one reflects on the definition of an island, usually comprehending a compact concentration of race and customs. At the same time, everything is dispersed, mixed, changing like in the most complex of continents. There are indeed many Sicily’s; we will never finish counting them. There is the green Sicily of the Carob trees, the white of the salt harvests, the yellow of sulphur, the blonde colour of the honey and the purple lava. There is the foolish Sicily, so relaxed as to seem stupid; a shrewd or sly Sicily dedicated to the most useful practice of fraud and violence. There is a lazy Sicily, a frenetic one consumed by the worries of materialistic inheritance, one who performs life-like a carnivalesque screenplay, and one who ultimately looks out onto a ‘windswept ridge’ into the beginning; of a blinding madness…

Why are there so many different Sicily’s? Because Sicily’s destiny is to be a link through different centuries between the grand culture of the West and the temptations of the desert and the sun, caught between reason and mysticism, in the contrasts of logic and the heat waves of passion. Sicily suffers from an excess of identity; who knows if this is good or bad. Of course, for whoever is born here, the happiness of feeling like you are sitting in the centre of the world doesn’t last long; it is quickly taken over by the suffering of not knowing how to disentangle a thousand complexities and interweaving bloodlines to find one true destiny.’


The frustration of fraud

So now you are as confused as I am. We can begin to admit how utterly overwhelming Italy is. Welcome to the life of a foreigner in Italy who daily confronts the labyrinth of double-dealing. All Italians are victims of their culture of duplicity; they complain about the impossibility of getting a job on merit alone, the necessity of seeking out a political recommendation, the convoluted public service. They persistently curse a banking system trying to rip them off, rampant tax evasion, an abyss of constant political upheaval and corruption that affects everything from health care law enforcement to education.

Lining up at the local post office, everyone complains about the inefficiency and liberally shares the stories of their suffering scams or rip-offs. Local GP waiting rooms are a source of collective therapy and gossip for people frustrated by delays and handballing of medical treatment from one specialist to the next. One big mess seems to overwhelm all who live in this country. Despite all this, everyone gets along with the business of living life. After all, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, less naïve, more furbi (shrewd) and not so likely to fall victim to the next fraud.

One particularly grating thing about being a foreigner living in Sicily is how a Sicilian hears an English/American or Australian accent and automatically rubs his hands, thinking about ways to rip you off. You can be living here for decades and still be treated like a cretin, charged double at the shops, ignored at the post office and spoken to as if you are a simpleton. Sometimes, when I feel overwhelmed by this resistance to foreigners, I delegate phone calls and errands to my husband. Or I do as a Sicilian does, complain loudly using copious amounts of appropriate Sicilian swear words.