First and lasting impressions of Palermo: stereotypes

Image from Carmen Laeuzza

Looking above the street level on Via della Libertà, I see high rise ‘Palazzi’ buildings and elegant apartment buildings all along the road as far down as I can see. The street is lined with multi-storey buildings with intricate stonework, some with particular wrought iron designs and glass panels. They are all stylish and antique and remind me of the apartment buildings in the historical centres of big cities such as Florence, Milan or London.

Tired of the endless apartment buildings and the expensive clothe and accessory shops, I retrace my steps to the station and change direction, walking straight out from the frescoed main entrance. This part of the city has less traffic and confusion. I meet two tourist stalls directly across the road, one selling tacky Sicilian carriages, tambourines, vases, and other ugly Sicilian memorabilia, the other selling pirated C.Ds and DVDs.

I see a Chinese dress shop, the budget way to shop in Sicily, striding along the road. These stores have sprung up throughout Sicily and Italy in every imaginable place, usually run by Chinese migrants; they sell clothes at very reasonable prices, making them a cheap alternative to the high quality but expensive Italian shops.

Italian clothing shops are full of exquisite fashion. Yet, with the advent of the Euro currency, it has become exaggerated over various sectors, clothing being the most inflated followed closely by petrol and food.
Further down the street, there are a series of bus stops, with people lining up and busily buying tickets; others are sitting on the heaviest luggage I’ve ever seen. I overhear some German phrases of frustration, no doubt the German’s sense of order is being insulted by the typical delay of some greyhound bus.

Happy to leave the tour buses behind me, I see my first glimpse of an authentic Palermo, which strangely doesn’t seem genuine. Stopping for a coffee, I sit and take in what’s happening around me. The café is quite stingy; the front display counter is out on the wide pavement, exposing food to excess sunlight and making the ice cream fridge work way too hard.

My coffee is brought out, but my croissant is forgotten, and the teaspoon is bent out of shape. I wonder if this is all a practical joke; perhaps it is true what they say about Palermo.

There are many stereotypes about the Palermitani, which I never really noticed until I sat down at this café. People say those from Palermo are dirty, lazy criminals with a distinct lack of personal hygiene and peculiar taste in food. I’m afraid I have to disagree with these stereotypes, finding them unfounded.

In regards to the typical food dishes of Palermo, there is a wondrous array of seafood, including pasta with swordfish and pasta prepared with the black ink of an octopus. One dish perhaps leads to the unfounded rumour of Palermitani’s taste for bizarre food. The sought-after delicacy of the stigghiola is grilled lamb or goat intestines stuffed with barbecued over hot coals like a giant sausage.

After finishing off my coffee at the dodgy Palermo café, I walk around the block to see various food shops. From fruit and vegetable vendors to butchers and a seafood market complete with carved up swordfish proudly on display. Swordfish is the famous speciality of Palermo, together with an array of other seafood which is a product of the still fertile coast off Palermo.

Looking at the gigantic swordfish, it seems too fake. The colossal head was severed and put to the side with its meter long sword nose sitting proudly on the bench. The carcass was being sawed up into thick fillets for a discerning seafood client. The thick inner bone is slit easily; its pinkie red colour makes me realise it resembles more a side of beef rather than a swordfish.

The swordfish is impressive with its glorious sword nose, equally sharp fins, and dark blue silvery fins that remind me of a tuna. It is a real delicacy; it made me feel sad seeing this grand fish being carved up. I would have loved to see it in action instead of on display being carved up, ready to be cooked and eaten.

A common trick by fishmongers is to procure the head and tail of already slaughtered swordfish and the trunk of the less expensive ‘pesce mucca,’ a type of shark common in this area, which can be easily passed off as swordfish.

Taking in this part of Palermo, a few blocks from the station, I suddenly feel I am watching a carefully constructed show like someone was playing me a line.

I see many people walking around, working, and the general confusion of an ordinary day, yet I feel there is a lot more going on under the surface. It all seems too much like a movie set.

With this strange sensation swirling around in my head, I puzzle how on earth I got this impression. Perhaps it is seeing too many Mafia films set in Palermo, or maybe all of those stereotypes about Palermo have made their way into my subconscious without realising it.

Walking back to the train station, I sit eating a panino lunch while waiting for my train. I am happy to have had my first brief taste of Palermo, without a map or the complications of a tour group, managing to discover some beautiful works of art on my own.

I promise myself my next visit will be longer, with a general map and the explicit aim to work my way past those misconceptions. I want to explore Palermo without the baggage of clichés. I look forward to seeing Palermo beyond its stereotypes.