Sicilian History

With the images from my beautiful excursion around Mount Etna still etched freshly in my mind, I got ready for another day of Italian studies at the Babilonia Language School. After a relaxing breakfast on the scenic terrace of the Hotel Villa Nettuno, admiring the gorgeous view over the Ionian Sea, I was prepared for another day of school..

Punctually at 9:30 am our lesson started and our language teacher Carlo taught us the intricacies of Italian pronouns and prepositions. These are always complex topics in any language, but with all the exceptions to the rules, Italian has definitely introduced a few additional complexities. I really enjoyed Carlo’s teaching style because he provides feedback and corrections in a consistent but humorous way. After some grammar practice we got to apply what we had just learned, so we closed our books and Carlo threw sentences at us that we had to put into the correct grammatical form.

Just before noon I sat down with Alessandro Adorno, the founder and director of the Babilonia Language School. He had invited me to have a typical Sicilian treat: a “granita” – refreshing ice with a taste of lemon, orange, peach, strawberry, melon, coffee or various other flavourings. We sat down on the sunny terrace outside the “Mambar” and each enjoyed a granita, accompanied by a sweet brioche, a favourite breakfast for Sicilians. The brioche is dipped into the ice-cold granita and savoured with each bite. Alessandro explained that granitas are consumed at all times of day, as breakfast, as a snack and a dessert. He also explained that Italians usually only drink cappuccino for breakfast while tourists will have cappuccino at all sorts of other times of day.

We started to talk about the specialty courses that Babilonia offers: programs that include hiking, biking, diving, golfing, cooking and pottery offer additional challenges and rewards to language students. Alessandro pointed out that hiking often happens in very small groups or even one-on-one which provides a very intense nature experience. The cooking courses take place with local families and really give students a great taste of Silician home cooking which always uses high-quality fresh local ingredients to create an aromatic dish. During the lesson the students help with the food preparation, and afterwards the meal is enjoyed with the local family, providing many more opportunities for cultural and linguistic immersion and a reason to actively communicate.

I also commented that the local merchants and restaurateurs that I had met were surprisingly friendly and willing to chat with foreigners. Alessandro indicated that this is generally their nature, and the fact that it is not high season yet makes it easier to communicate with the locals. He mentioned that in the summer time when Taormina gets really busy, many of the merchants are taxed to the limits with work and there is less time or opportunity to communicate.

Alessandro explained that Taormina is a favourite tourist destination, and the Greek Theatre is a definite tourist draw. He explained that Taormina Arte is a local arts organization that brings art, theatre, music and dance programs into town during the summer months. World-renowned musicians such as Peter Gabriel, Alanis Morissette, James Taylor or the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra are all artists that have played in Taormina’s famous ancient theatre. Many other events are held for free in different venues throughout town.

I learned that Taormina first became famous in the 1800s when writers such as Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Guy de Maupassant or D.H. Lawrence visited this picturesque place. Alexander von Humboldt, the famous German natural scientist and explorer discovered Taormina already in the late 1700s. I mentioned to Alessandro that in my recent travels in the last few years I had stumbled across Alexander von Humboldt several times: first in Havana, then in Taxco – Mexico and most recently on the Canary island of Tenerife. Somehow unknowingly I had been following some of the footsteps of this famous historic world traveler.

There was one particular topic that I wanted to learn more about: not unpredictably I wanted to get a more in-depth understanding of this renowned Sicilian organization: the Mafia. Alessandro has extensive knowledge of history, politics and social science and started explaining that in southern Italy’s agricultural south a feudal power structure ruled by the aristocracy prevailed for centuries. These feudal landowners put in charge so-called “campieri” where managed their “latifundios” or large estates. The campieri were in charge of checking and managing the territory, administering justice and they were given absolute power as well as weapons for enforcement. Usually “justice” was determined on the spot and arbitrarily, without any kind of due process or court proceedings.

The vast majority of the population were absolutely poor, had no education, held many superstitious beliefs and had a deeply engrained fear of “the system”. This feudal administrative and enforcement system represented the beginnings of the Mafia which over the last 150 years or so has evolved into an international business organization which includes such things as drugs, weapons, prostitution, various illegal rackets, gambling and often the misappropriation of public funds. The Mafia today not only exists in Italy, but throughout Europe and North America. Organized crime from other sources such as Russian or Asia is also often referred to as “mafia” although this term did indeed originate in Sicily.

Alessandro enlightened me about the phenomenal economic significance of the Mafia and gave me a simple numeric example related to the drug trade: if of the roughly 60 million Italians 1 million has a drug problem that might require 100 Euros a day, this would result in a daily revenue of 100 million or 3 billion Euros on a monthly basis. Annualized this works out to 36 billion Euros just for Italy and numbers of similar magnitudes would have to be added up for the various other nations in the European Union. To this would be added the revenue from all the other branches of organized crime. Given these numbers I was no longer surprised when Alessandro referred to the Mafia as a “company”.

I learned that the Mafia comprises a large network of people in a hierarchical structure: from the frontline drug pushers and enforcers to drug and arms wholesalers to politicians and lawyers who, according to Alessandro, make up the “educated Mafia”, to bankers and financiers who generate and move money at the highest national and international levels. The Mafia is an intricate organization with tentacles in many cities, regions and countries across the world.

Historically the Mafia spread from Sicily, starting in the late 1800s when a lot of Sicilians emigrated to the United States. They were looking for new opportunities and ways to escape the ancient feudal system, but brought many of the old ways of doing things with them. In many ways the Italian Mafia in the United States became better organized and looked for new business opportunities. The Prohibition Era of the 1920s and 1930s became a fertile ground for profitable, yet illicit business activities that involved bootlegging of prohibited alcohol, prostitution and a variety of other illegal activities.

The Sicilian Mafia also played a key role at the end of World War II: the Allies wanted to organize a landing, one in the north near Dunkirk, and one in the south in Sicily. Alessandro explained that accordingly to recently discovered documents, former members of the CIA contacted US Mafiosi to get the Sicilian Mafia to help with the Allied Landing. With the help of the Mafia, the incursion of Allied forces in southern Italy near Syracuse indeed went very smoothly and there were no major battles until Montecassino south of Rome on the Italian mainland.

The Allies freed Sicily and removed the Italian fascist mayors and instead installed mayors and administrators with Mafia connections. In this manner Mafiosi were given access to powerful political and public positions after World War II, a situation that still occurs to some degree today. After the War, the US often supported Mafiosi candidates in local elections against the prevailing Communist candidates, and this created a situation were Mafia-linked candidates were often thoroughly entrenched in local and regional politics. As a result, public money is sometimes misappropriated for illicit purposes.

Alessandro has a thorough understanding of Italian history and the connections were fascinating. He also suggested that I drop by tonight at a cooking class organized by Babilonia, an offer I was definitely planning to take him up on.