Friday 2 May 2014

"You Don't Actually Pay for Parking..."

1 May 2014

Okay, whatever I had planned for today, it didn’t work out. I left my hostel for Palermo quite early in the morning, making sure I’d be on time. When I arrived at the accommodation centre, no one was there. But let me tell you what else I experienced. It turns out that after all, this day wasn’t totally worthless.

Driving in Sicily is a nightmare. If there is a traffic jam, the two lanes on a dual carriageway will quickly turn into four – cars will even block the emergency lane. I nevertheless drove successfully into the city centre of Palermo, which turned out to be quite different from what I had expected. Forget what I wrote yesterday about Greece and Sicily being not very different from one another – they are. One of these differences concerns the mafia. Apparently

it is everywhere. A number of shops in Palermo have stickers in their windows though, saying “Pizzo Free,” which means that they do not pay the mafia. I had my own experience with…irregular authorities this morning when I parked my rental car. As soon as I turned off the engine, a black man started walking towards me. I asked him, “Is parking okay here?”

“Yes, of course,” he replied. “But how much do you want to give us?”

“How much is it per hour.”

“Well, you don’t actually pay for parking.”

“Okay, so what do I owe you then?”

“It depends on how much you want to give.”

Islamo-Christian architecture in Palermo
I was slightly confused, and handed the man two euros, hoping that this would be enough to avoid any damage to my car, for which I don’t really have insurance by the way. When I got out of my car, the guy was very happy to speak to me though, and I found out his name and that he had come to Italy from Ghana seven years ago. He usually lives in Milan, but had recently moved to Palermo because he found it easier to find “days jobs” there. He told me that the north of Italy is very industrial, while the south is more rural, and thus better suited for people like him. When I enquired what kinds of ‘day jobs’ he meant, he talked about “helping with parking” and agricultural jobs. Now I was onto something – this is what I had come for.

The guy told me that Africans work in Sicilian agriculture because it relies on the use of manual tools rather than tractors. Africans have experience with sickles and gathering fruit. I was very curious about how much people are paid, and after some hesitation, I was told that a day’s work earns one between €20-30. According to the man I spoke to, Italians have a strange attitude towards black people, and that they are not like Germans. An Italian would easily get €50 for the same amount of work.

The more we spoke, the angrier another guy near the parking space seemed to become. He started walking towards us, and turned out to be the Ghanaean’s boss. That’s when our conversation ended. The guy I spoke to was very warm to me and kissed me goodbye.

I started walking towards the accommodation centre, and I am not exaggerating when I say that about a quarter of the people on the street were either black or Indian. I quickly noticed that Palermo has an Islamic past. Many of the road signs are written in Italian (both with Latin and Hebrew letters) as well as in Arabic. I walked through a street market whose smells and sounds reminded me very much of the Middle East. Huge fly-infested chunks of meat hung from butcher’s hooks, and people were selling chunks of swordfish by the kilogram. I bought a few bananas and walked on. I reached the Piazza de Quaranta Martiri after asking a few people for directions. This is where the Jesuit accommodation centre was supposed to be, yet I saw no signs that would indicate this to be the case. I called the centre, and heard a telephone ring somewhere. I was at the right place, but no one picked up the phone. Eventually I found a doorbell that said Centro Astalli on it. I rang, and a minute later a black man stepped on a balcony and asked me who I want to speak with. I asked for Emmanuel, only to be told that no one is working today because it’s a public holiday. Great.

Because driving off to Catania, I decided to make the most of it and walk around the city. Sicily was an Islamic emirate for two centuries after the year 1000. Around 1200 the island was invaded by the Normans, who turned out to be surprisingly tolerant towards the Muslims. A unique blend of Moorish and Norman architecture was the result of this intercultural period of history, the traces of which can still be found in Palermo today. I visited a church that was designed according to Islamic architectural principles, with domes and all. It turns out that the Southern Balkans and Sicily do have similarities after all. Both regions share an Islamic cultural heritage. I am sure that Muslim immigrants appreciate this heritage, finding it somewhat easier for them to feel at home than in the cold European north.

After my walk I started driving to Catania. At many traffic lights dozens of Indian-looking men waited to clean people’s windshields – I guess this is another one of these ‘day jobs’. Sicily is a very green and mountainous island. Right now I am at the base of Mount Etna, the famous volcano. I had never seen a volcano before. Tomorrow I have lots to do, and probably lots to write about again…

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