After a few days in Palermo I’m able to shop on credit. I only go to the super market for brand items like Barilla because everything else I can buy on the street. Vendors, Sicilian men with faces like leather, sit beside their three-wheeled trucks displaying colorful arrays of fruits and vegetables. Five euros can get you enough produce to last a week. There’s also plenty of street food like arancine, balls of meat wrapped in rice and deep fried in a golden crust, or sfincione, a simple but delicious Palermitan bread and tomato specialty.
Seeing these guys many times a day I’ve developed a relationship impossible with cashiers in a supermarket. I’m friends with the fruit guy, the arancine guy, the fish guy, and the wine and olives guy. The advantage is that if I find myself short on cash I can bring the money next time, and maybe next time they’ll tell me to forget about it. If a pizza costs five euros and I only have four, then the price drops to four. I shop daily, picking up each meal as I feel, so I’m continuously opening and closing little debts up and down my street. The vendors are eager to over fill my bag and their approximate measuring techniques – one man still has a brass steelyard scale – always work in my favor. In exchange, I happily hand over coins that “I don’t need” or round up to the nearest euro.
Little touches like this, over time, turn mundane business transactions into personal affairs. It’s a little bit of theater that demonstrates reciprocal willingness to do a favor, to wink at the rules, to transcend from being buyers and sellers to being friends. As charming as this mentality is in the context of vegetable stands, it points to a darker side of Sicilian culture. The eagerness to make sacrifices and break rules for friends also means disregard towards strangers, civic duty, and impartial application of law. For all business in Sicily, whether public or private, it’s essential to have friends. Without them, expecting that basic services or business standards are met is a gamble.
A conversation I had with two men working in migrant reception centers illuminates the concept:
Adam was criticizing Bob* for allowing himself to be exploited by his employers. Adam said that Bob, at his boss’ request, took on responsibilities far beyond his job description and ran big legal risks. If people like Bob wouldn’t accept such demands from their bosses then the country wouldn’t be as corrupt, Adam said.
For example, at the migrant center Bob is responsible for the safety of the minors. If one of them wants to leave and go into town, Bob needs to alert his boss and get the request approved. But Bob says that there are so many requests, and such poor organization, that it’s implicit that the rules needn’t be followed. So Bob just lets the minors out. The boss is happy because he neither gets bothered with requests nor takes responsibility if something happens. Bob is happy too because he still has a job and even gets paid on time – a rarity for social workers in Sicily.
But Adam points out that if one of those minors gets hurt or in trouble, Bob is the one who will face the music. The boss can claim he didn’t know what was happening, that Bob never informed him of anything, and so Bob would be the one facing court and maybe jail. By contrast, Adam refuses to break the rules and put himself at risk and consequently has a much harder time holding on to jobs. Bob makes friends, Adam doesn’t.
The Sicilian modus operandi is personal. If you have friends the rules don’t apply, if you don’t have friends you can’t apply the rules. Regarding the migrant centers, many people have told me that without political connections it’s impossible to open a successful center. To cut costs at one migrant center, the director had his friend at a hospital prepare meals for the migrants using hospital food and deliver them by ambulance. All, of course, at the public’s expense.
The stories are so outrageous that people can’t help but laugh when they tell them. In fact, there’s often an undercurrent of admiration and envy when Sicilians tell of those who cheat, scam, or steal to game the system. There’s a sense of silent respect for those cunning enough to succeed. Of course, many Sicilians are nauseated by this attitude, but they are typically found in Germany, the UK or the US. A few proud, brave, young Sicilians have decided to remain in Sicily as an act of defiance. These people – and I’ve only met a few – look very tired.
*Not their real names