I have just arrived in Palermo. Tomorrow there will be a ceremony to honour the two top recipients of the EESC’s civil society prize, Confindustria Sicilia and Libera, for their fight against organised crime – the mafia. It’s difficult to avoid thoughts about the mafia when you fly in here. At Capaci, on the motorway from the airport to the city, two monumental obelisks record the 1992 death of anti-mafia magistrate Giovanni Falcone (together with his wife and three bodyguards), and you can still see the small, white outhouse up on the hill from where the massive bomb, hidden in a culvet under the motorway, was exploded. The airport was named, in his honour and that of another anti-mafia magistrate, Paolo Borsellino, assassinated in Palermo just two months later.
I had an hour to kill before a formal dinner in the evening, so I set off from my hotel, guidebook in hand, for a little wander. I found exactly what I was looking for in a small side street near the church of San Domenico. It was a narrow street, full of vegetable stalls, butchers’ shops and bakeries and down at its far end there was an osteria, with people gathered in the street, sipping beer or wine and simply being. Kids drove up and down the street on motorinos, or on bicycles, perilously zipping in and out between the stalls (the street was too narrow for cars). I ordered a glass of wine from a spectacularly surly barman and sat on a bench, beside two lovers, and pretended to read my guide. In reality, I was drinking in the street scene. As travel writer Jan Morris has written, ‘The truth is that if books furnish a room, people do make a city,’ and here were the people, calling to each other in their almost plaintive but very melodic dialect. It was a truly enjoyable hour and, though it may sound pompous, I set off back to the hotel thinking that I had already understood something of the spirit of this city and of its people. But it was also saddening to think that Falcone and Borsellino were born and brought up in neighbourhoods just like the one I had briefly visited.