Saturday, May 19, 2018

Discovering Sicily: The Godfather and the Mafia

Before visiting Sicily, my ideas about Sicily were picked up from the movie The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola 1972). Because Vito Corleone and many other Sicilians immigrated to America, I had the notion that Sicily must be a poor place. I also had the idea that Sicilians were all members of the Mafia, people who would make you an offer you couldn't refuse.  My brain teemed with preconceptions from the movie, and at the Milan airport, before boarding the plane for Catania in Sicily, I glanced at the dusky-skinned men with hooked noses, thought of Vito Corleone and his family, and felt as if I would meet Michael and the ill-fated Apollonia Corleone when we landed Catania.

At some point in our ten-day visit in Sicily, we would visit a filming location, the mountaintop town of Savoca where the scenes of Michael meeting and marrying Apollonia were shot. Technically, the town of Corleone should have been used for filming but Corleone was too far away from the crew and it would have cost more to film there. The Sicily scenes of The Godfather were shot in Savoca and Forza d'gro.

Pictures of Savoca

According to our tour guide, the town of Savoca has around 200 residents who on their own clean up the mess the many tourists leave behind. There are two public toilets available: the bar where Michael met Apollonia, and the sundries store across the way. The town is small but very picturesque. To show his gratitude to the townspeople of Savoca, Coppola had all the roads paved. Despite the connection, Savoca wants to be remembered for being a Commune of Artists more than being the Godfather-set.

Pictures of Savoca, including the bar where Michael Corleone first met Apollonia, the road going up to the church where they got married, the interior of the church, and modern art displayed on a wall.

Gingerly, our guides talked about how the Mafia got started, and this is what I understood: Sicily was an island ruled by many invaders, and eventually Sicilians formed groups to protect and govern themselves. In the beginning the term "mafioso" or Mafia member referred to someone who was suspicious of central authority. By the 19th century, private armies formed to extort protection money from property owners. These armies developed into the Sicilian Mafia. The Mafia continues to exist although in few numbers, and in fact, because the economy in Sicily is not good, most of the Mafia reportedly moved to Rome. 

According to our guide some 40% of the population in Sicily are currently unemployed. A school teacher makes around 20,000 euros a year, and that is enough to raise a family. Even though they do not earn much, Sicilians reportedly get by because many have small plots of land with olives and other plants that they tend over the weekends, and which give them additional income. Another interesting fact is that many Sicilians work in other parts of Europe and visit Sicily on holidays, accounting for the many apartments or condos that are shuttered during ordinary days. 

Pictures taken at Ortigia, Syracuse

There are parts of Sicily that make me think of Mexico or even the Philippines (the graffiti, the sense of untidiness), but there are parts that are First World. The historic sites are generally well-kept: the churches and tourist sites are in order. The hotels in the bigger cities are fine, although the hotels in smaller places are not-quite-there. 

But Sicily is more than about hotels and amenities nor about the Mafia, but about History.

I had been so focused on the idea of The Godfather and the Mafia, and didn't fully realize until I toured the entire island that Sicily is in the middle of the Mediterranean, halfway between Europe and Africa. The Sahara's scirocco winds hit us during our last days in Sicily; that's how close Africa is.

Those history classes from long ago filtered back into my consciousness -- the Greeks! the Punic wars! Carthage versus Rome; or as I now realized, the people from Northern Africa versus those from the European mainland. It all started to make sense. Sicily is more than The Godfather and the Mafia, it has a far richer history to offer.

How broadening travel is!  Finally I understood that the Mediterranean is a large water basin, and the peoples around this basin sailed about, connecting with one another. The Romans were able to control the area around the pool and beyond.

I'll be looking at some of the peoples who occupied Sicily in my next blog entry, so stay tuned dear Readers.


Maps are courtesy of Wikipedia
Tags: travel, Italy, Sicily, Catania, Palermo, Savoca, Mafia, #theGodfather

Read also
Sicily: Greek, Roman, and Norman Influences"
Visiting Paris in May

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