I am so pleased to host Veronica Mai Hughes, who writes the wildly successful blog The Dangerously Truthful Diary of a Sicilian Housewife. Valerie, a UK native, lives with her Sicilian born husband and their two sons in a small fishing village in Sicily. She and I have both talked about the difficulties inherent in the “outsider” acclimating themselves to Sicilian society. When I asked her to be a guest blogger, she agreed, and chose this topic. While she and I may differ on a few points, she offers here a very personal and very vivid account of her own experiences. Food for thought! I ask the reader though, if Veronica, an educated , married and economically stable woman experiences difficulties in Sicilian society, just imagine the plight of the refugee.
Being a Foreigner in Sicily
By Veronica Mai Hughes
Ten years ago in London, just before I moved to Sicily, an Italian colleague told me
“You can’t go to Sicily. Outsiders can’t cope there.”
I sometimes, perhaps often, wish I had listened to him and called the whole thing off, made my husband move to London, and continued thinking Sicily was wonderful by only visiting the place on holidays.
Instead I came to live here, and discovered that being an outsider in Sicily means just that – being an outsider. Having a Sicilian husband does not always give you a free pass. I have attended many a social function where I was treated like an Imam at a Bar Mitzvah.
Perhaps because Sicilians have been invaded so many times, they have a profound mistrust of anyone or anything from outside the island. Over centuries, they have failed to fend off foreign invaders over and over again. Instead they made their foreign enemies’ lives as troublesome as possible by shunning them, lying to them and tricking them at every turn.
When I am having one of my bad days, I sometimes feel that this Sicilian way of treating foreigners has become such an integral part of their culture that they do not know how to stop.
This suspicion of anyone from outside their island, their town, even their own family, is so profound that cousin marriage is still very common. So common, in fact, that when you are admitted to hospital in Sicily, the folder for holding your medical notes has a special box for the doctor to tick if your parents are blood relations of each other. That way, the doctors are alerted to look out for genetic disorders. Despite the vastly diverse origins of their gene pool, this inbreeding means that a whopping six percent of modern Sicilians have Mediterranean Anaemia, a devastating genetic disease. My husband’s parents are cousins and his family carries this disease. Before we in-laws could marry into the family, we had to have a test to make sure we were free of the deadly gene.
If you are an outsider in Sicily, you will always be one. I am still routinely charged double for fruit and vegetables, given the bad bits of meat, and even overcharged in the supermarket. I have to be vigilant every time I buy something, adding up the prices and checking my change. I have to be subtle about it too. I had one woman ranting about “foreigners who come from who-knows-where” outside my son’s school once when I had been too obvious in the way I checked the change she gave me.
I have found it supremely difficult to make friends with Sicilian women. This baffles me, as I have made friends with hundreds of people of all nationalities with ease – and kept those friends for life. Do the women of Sicily feel threatened because I have a masters degree in Classics whereas most of them have a University of Life diploma in ironing tablecloths and a doctorate in stain removal? Do they think I will use my Protestant background to subvert their children’s Catholic indoctrination? Do they feel it is a waste of time making me like them, because I have no social network here and will therefore never be useful to them? All of the above.
One Sicilian friend of my husband’s, who is about ten years older than me and one of the few people who has been genuinely friendly to me, told me she was shunned by her entire village when she did her degree. They disapproved of a woman having an education.
“I was more evolved than the rest of them and they felt threatened,” she said. “It made me an outsider. Once you’re an outsider, you can’t get back in.”
I remind myself of this every time I feel that invisible line separating me from everyone else. Sicilians don’t just shun foreigners like me. They do it to each other too. Whilst this is not a positive thing, it does offer me a little consolation on those awfully lonely days when I feel like crying.
Sicilian society works on the basis of doing favours and making others indebted to you. Then you call in favours when you need them. I have made many “friends” who happened to need something translated into English. I spent hours doing free translations then, when I asked for a small favour in return, they just said no. When it comes to outsiders in Sicily, they can break the rules. We don’t matter.
The foreigners who live in Sicily form their own support networks. There is a ghetto of Bangladeshis in central Palermo.
“They don’t want anything to do with us,” one Sicilian man moaned to me. “Why do they come here if they don’t want to mix? The Vucciria market has died because the foreigners who live in that area only buy their food from each other’s shops.”
“How many of those foreigners have you chatted to? Or invited to take a coffee with you in a bar, or come to your house?” I asked him.
He looked at me strangely.
“What would I want to do that for?”
At last, after ten years, I have made two close Sicilian friends. Their children go to my son’s school, so I see them fairly often when we collect our kids. One of them was rejected by former friends who decided she was not rich and thin enough to be a part of their clique any more: she knows how outsiders feel. The other caught tuberculosis and was treated, literally, like a leper by all the other parents at her son’s preschool.
Perhaps this has given them special insight into how outsiders feel. Perhaps they are just nicer than the average Sicilian. Whatever the reason, I am so grateful for their friendship. Without them, I would have given up by now, and fled this beautiful, irrational, maddening little island.