The View from VIU: Discovering my Sicilian roots, Chazz Palminteri lookalikes, and a scene from 'The Godfather: Part III'

As I am writing this, I am currently riding the Italian high-speed rail train (the Frecciabianca) back to Venice from Milan, where I visited this weekend. Today’s blog is about my travels throughout Italy over the past three weeks, and all that I learned about Italian politics and culture.

As I mentioned in my last blog, for spring break I visited Florence and my ancestral homeland of Sicily. I had already been to Florence on a high school trip to Italy three years ago, and it was by far my favorite city of the trip. This visit did not disappoint. I traveled with a Canadian friend who I met here, and we hit the usual attractions (the Duomo, the Campanile, the Palazzo Vecchio, the Accademia, etc.) and ate delicious food.

One night we went to a supermarket to buy a bottle of wine, and we struck up a conversation with an Algerian man who bore a striking resemblance to Chazz Palmenteri. He only spoke Italian and French, which was good because the only other language I can understand besides English is Italian and my Canadian friend, naturally, is fluent in French.

chazz

Photo courtesy of qpicture.com

 

He told us that he originally immigrated to Paris from Algeria, but was arrested for possession of marijuana and was deported. He then lived in Naples for a time, but recently moved to Florence. He expressed an admiration of Bill Clinton, because he has “balls,” but disliked Obama because he felt he had none. Needless to say, as with pretty much every person outside of America, he hated Bush.

Even though I am a strongly opinionated (if you haven’t already realized by now) political science major, the immigration issue isn’t one that I have intense feelings on one way or the other. But from being abroad for this long, I can tell you that Italy, and by greater extension, Europe, has a bigger immigration problem than the U.S. While illegal immigration in America primarily comes from Latin America, Europe has an abundance of North African Muslim migrants, and from what I can understand, has even laxer immigration laws than America.

I don’t know whether or not the Algerian man I met was in Italy legally, and I wouldn’t have even thought of asking him in the first place. But the reason he was here was in search of work and a better life, just like almost all immigrants around the world. But this immigration is met with some hostility from the general populace, and anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe is stronger than in the U.S.

I spent three days in Florence (from Good Friday until Easter), and Easter night I took a train back to Venice to sleep. The next day, I flew from Venice to Palermo, Sicily, to begin the next, and solo, part of my break. Here, I visited the Palazzo dei Normanni, the Cathedral, the Garibaldi Gardens, and took a tour of the Teatro Massimo.

Just worth noting here: the Teatro Massimo has always held a special place in my heart, because Mary Corleone, played by the insufferable Sofia Coppola, was mercifully shot to death on its front steps at the end of "The Godfather Part III," which was not only symbolic of how badly her father, the director Francis Ford Coppola, dropped the ball on the final chapter of the trilogy and made a terrible casting decision in choosing his daughter, but this scene is also a metaphor for the future of Sofia's acting career. #nepotism #rantover

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2UYLVBwnzws

The Palazzo dei Normanni has to be one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. It’s a mix of Roman, Greek, Byzantine, Arab, and of course Norman architecture, and is almost entirely made of marble and stone. The Palace is also the home of the Sicilian Parliament, but unfortunately, it was in session and we weren’t allowed to visit the second floor as a result. But that was fine, as the Cappella Palatina on the first floor and the ancient walls underground were open to visitors.

palazzodeinormanni

Overlooking the courtyard in the Palazzo dei Normanni. Photo by Kenny St. John/Gavel Media

Contrary to what many Americans believe, Palermo is not a dangerous city. Yes, it is a little rough around the edges, and it is not a major tourist destination. In fact, the majority of tourists tend to be Sicilian-Americans like me who are discovering their heritage. But I was walking around the city in some dimly-lit areas on the night I arrived, and not once did I feel unsafe. And Sicilians love Americans, especially those that can speak Italian, and are more than willing to help out. This is due primarily to two reasons: a) Sicily was the first place America liberated in Italy during World War II and b) Most Sicilians have family in America.

Wednesday at noon I took a train from Palermo though the Sicilian countryside to Agrigento, where I stayed with my Sicilian relatives, who I met for the first time. My stay in Agrigento was by far the most moving experience of my life, especially because Thursday morning I went to Castrofilippo, the town of my family roots, and was able to go inside the house of my great-great-grandparents, see their graves, and go into a small chapel where  my great-grandmother donated the money needed to build the altar there.

 

The plaque engraved in the back of the altar dedicating it to the memory of my great-grandfather, Rosario Curto. Photo Courtesy of Kenny St. John/Gavel Media

The plaque engraved on the back of the altar, dedicating it to the memory of my great-grandfather, Rosario Curto.
Photo by Kenny St. John/Gavel Media

I was able to learn a ton about Italian politics from my Sicilian cousins, who actually weren’t too politically inclined but understood the collective psyche behind it all. No one in the family voted in the recent election except for one, who supported Berlusconi. This caught me by surprise, as many of the Italians here at VIU actively despise him.

But to be fair, that’s just the impression that I got from being around other university students. And Berlusconi wants to build a bridge or a tunnel between Sicily and the mainland, exactly the type of infrastructure project that has the support of the Sicilians, and would also generate jobs and boost the economy. Take note here, Obama, and don’t let the Republicans torpedo your high-speed rail plan. Something, by the way, that Italy has all over the country, and we don’t. Make it happen.

I was also curious about the Sicilian mafia and the carabinieri, the Italian military police that figure prominently all over Italy. Think if MP’s or FBI were in regular deployment all over America, that would be a rough comparison. My cousin said that the mafia situation on the island has gotten better in recent years, especially with the high-profile arrests of several leading Mafia dons. The Mafia frequently clashes with the carabinieri, and I even saw a memorial in Palermo dedicated to the carabinieri who lost their lives in that fight. But the carabinieri are not popular with the Italian youth, as they are seen as fascist.

"To the fallen in the fight against the Mafia." Photo Courtesy of Kenny St. John/Gavel Media

"To the fallen in the fight against the Mafia." Photo by Kenny St. John/Gavel Media

This actually has some basis, because the carabinieri used to be the strongmen of Mussolini’s regime. But apparently there is a neo-Nazi rally in Rome on Hitler’s birthday, and the carabinieri turn a blind eye to the Nazi salutes (which are illegal in Italy).

Last weekend, I went to Milan to stay with another Sicilian cousin, who had moved there 10 years ago for college and currently works there. Like the rest of my family over here, he did not vote and felt the system was so corrupt and unfixable. However, he still pays attention to politics. On Saturday night he and his girlfriend were transfixed, watching the news that 87-year-old Giorgio Napolitano, the president, had been elected in Parliament to another seven-year term. The day before the vote, Bersani, the center-left candidate for Prime Minister, stepped down as Chairman of his Party after no coalition was able to form. Parliament is still hung, which will most likely lead to yet another unelected technocrat like Monti to be appointed Prime Minister by Napolitano. Welcome to Italian politics, it’s hopeless.

(Editor's note: a coalition was formed on Saturday between the center-left and the center-right)

As for my future travel plans, in two weekends from now I am going to Rome and staying with a Sicilian cousin who studies there. Two weeks after that I'm heading to London for the last weekend before finals.

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