At the end of December, an American wrote a thought-provoking letter to the editors of the Giornale di Sicilia. In the editorial, the author writes about the reactions he experiences when he talks about Palermo to stranieri. I laughed aloud when he reported that many people believe Palermo to be dangerous. He even remarks about how he told a Palestinian he had come from Palermo, and the Palestinian remarked that he was such a brave man.
I am dismayed. Palermo has come so far -- yet our understanding this remarkable city has not progressed beyond the stereotypes of films and books. Palermo seems to be a prisoner of its past. Even important literary works which seek to expose the mafia, while important in exposing the realities of organized crime, still, passively, taint our understanding of the city.
I admit that many years ago my own opinion of Palermo was clouded. I remember the first time I planned to visit the city to meet a friend of mine, telling him how I was a little nervous. He quipped, "Don't worry, I don't think that there will be any shootouts on the street corners while you are here." He helped me to see how foolish I was being: judging a city that I had never visited and basing my opinions on movies, books and dated news reports. I discovered that Palermo was a wonderful jewel in the Mediterranean with a rich history that I had only begun to discover.
Roberto Alajmo's book, Palermo è una cipolla, is a wonderful work that describes the city best. No guidebook does what this book does. Recently translated into English, this book is a must for anyone visiting the city. Alajmo paints a realistic portrait of the city, being careful not to gloss over the city's ills while at the same time promoting its beauty and charm. He has a way of understanding your feelings and fears of the city as if reading your mind: "Here comes the difficulty, however. Everything mentioned in the previous chapter, added to everything you have heard over the years, the months, the weeks and days of your life have left you feeling a shade apprehensive." (Alajmo, Roberto. Palermo. London: Haus, 2009. Translator: Guido Waldman. Print. pp. 31)
Yes, Palermo can be gritty and overwhelming at first. My own first day in Palermo was so overwhelming, but I survived to tell the tale. My friend drove me all around the city, showing me how it was no different than any other city in Italy. We also walked all over the city and explored all the quarters of the city. Soon I began to see the marvels and wonders of Palermo. Over the coming days, I began to appreciate the city more and more. More importantly, I wanted to make sure that others could appreciate the city as I do, and I promote the city every chance I get.
I have traveled the world several times over, lived most of my life in the United States, spent several years traveling and living in Australia, as well as stints in Rome and exploring Europe, parts of Asia...and yet, Palermo is still one of my favorite places in all the world!