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One of the most fascinating parts of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s classic novel, The Leopard, is the Prince of Salina’s description of his fellow islanders. It’s an intense, thought-provoking piece of writing that offers many useful insights into the Sicilian psyche. The character of the natives, he says, has been formed by the island’s history, by the “violence of the landscape”, the “cruelty of the climate” and by the “monuments to the past, magnificent yet incomprehensible because not built by us.”
Sicilians are, therefore, according to the Prince, virtual strangers in their own land. Wave upon wave of foreign invaders, and rule from afar has meant that they have always lived a parallel existence. External conformity hides an internal life that is impregnable to outsiders. Those who govern can do what they please but nothing will ever truly change for the Sicilians because they inhabit a different dimension.
It is no coincidence that the most famous line of The Leopard is, “If everything is to remain the same, everything must change”. Everything has changed so often and so dramatically in Sicily, says the Prince, that Sicilians are tired. They have seen everything under the sun and there is nothing left to surprise them. They wish to sleep and will not be best pleased if they are awakened. Sicilians are exceedingly proud of their island and a great many wouldn’t dream of living anywhere else. Those who do (or have to) generally hope to return to their roots when they can.
At the same time, however, many cannot understand why anyone not born in Sicily would want to live there. “What” they say with intonation verging on the incredulous, “are you doing living here?”
What may appear to outsiders as a potentially dangerous altercation, will actually be a perfectly normal conversation.
To the untrained eye, Sicilians may initially seem inscrutable and reserved. Communication in shops or bars is often carried out with minimalist gestures, a raised eyebrow or a stifled word or two. It takes little to get past this stage, however, and a simple smile or an approximate attempt at Italian will thaw the reserve.
Once the barriers of confidenza (familiarity) have been broken down, Sicilians prove to be extremely hospitable and willing to do anything to help you. Should you ever get invited to a Sicilian’s house for dinner, you will come away with the sensation of having eaten at least three meals in one. They will probably offer to pick you up and drive you home and pamper you at every moment in between.
When talking amongst themselves, Sicilians are often animated. What may appear to outsiders as a potentially dangerous altercation, will actually be a perfectly normal conversation. No need to be alarmed! Sometimes, of course, passions do run high and then the linguistic sparks that fly are incandescent.
While seeing themselves as Italian (and by extension European), many islanders would consider themselves first and foremost as Sicilian. Genealogically speaking, of course, this means that they are also a little Greek, a little Arabic, a little Norman, a little Spanish and a little French. Many surnames bear witness to this fact and it is not unusual to encounter, for example, a Lopes or a Salimbene.
It is of course impossible to define “Sicilianity” and stereotypes are certainly not the answer. There are around 5,000,000 Sicilians living in Sicily and many more dispersed around the world. Every one of them will have his or her own opinion of what being Sicilian entails and each will, of course, be right!
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