How not to talk about Mafia

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked when I say I’m from Sicily is “Do you know anyone in the Mafia?”

I’ve always wondered what type of answer people expect to hear when asking questions like this.

Option 1: “Yes, man! Mafia people are so cool, just like in The Godfather!”
Option 2: “Yes, I do. And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to kill you”
Option 3: “Mafia? What Mafia?!” *disappears in a puff of smoke*

I tried to use all three options in different occasions (without the puff of smoke, unfortunately), but from the look on people’s faces I could tell they were not really satisfied with the answer. Soz!

I don’t usually give a lot of thought to silly questions like this – I just become very patronising and think you’re an idiot, that’s all – but what really bothers me is when people refer to Mafia as something cool and glamorous, as if they were talking about a very exclusive circle of VIP.

Even worse, I find it outrageous when the word ‘Mafia’ is used as a marketing tool to sell more products and give your brand that ‘added value’ that only guns and violence can offer.

The Lady Mafia effect

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine who runs a fashion blog in Italy received a request for a sponsored post from a new Italian brand called Lady Mafia. The email subject line was something like “Naughty and beautiful  Sarah Nile and Veronica Ciardi in promo ad for Lady Mafia!” The press release described a new line of clothing inspired by an homonymous comic book and  endorsed by two Big Brother celebrities “in perfect Godfather style”, they wrote.

Here’s the ‘perfect Godfather style’ bullshit in all its splendor.

Now THIS is the type of things that makes me really angry; celebration of violence, objectification of women and glamourisation of Mafia, all in one go. (Not to mention the junky-TV celeb endorsement, but that’s a whole different story…).

This might not sound like a big deal to people who’ve only heard about Mafia from the movies, but when you live in a country where this is an economic and political reality, when your heroes growing up were the people who lost their lives in the fight against the Mafia, this glorification of a Mafia-style way of life for marketing purposes is somehow disturbing.

My friend’s reply to that email was spot on and I decided to quote her response as an example of best practice. Feel free to copy-paste this message if you’re ever contacted by Lady Mafia

Hi there,

Following up from your email, I kindly ask you to stop sending me any material related to your brand.

Your ‘Godfather-style’ promotional hook,  the attempt to make Mafia sound like a cool and stylish cultural phenomenon and even the name of your brand deeply offend me as a woman and as a Sicilian.

Don’t even get me started on the female body  image portrayed by your brand.

Mafia is not a fashion trend. The picture of an over-sexualised woman with a gun in her pants is not a clever teaser. It’s just stupid.

Don’t even bother sending me another email.

Lady Mafia has been harshly attacked in the past by anti-Mafia organisation Libera, who have asked for the comic book to be discontinued. I personally don’t think censorship would be the answer to the problem, and I don’t think people should ever stop taking the piss about Mafia and playing with the ridiculous stereotypes that go with it.
But when the stereotypes turn into glamorous figures and the word Mafia loses its negative connotation, people have the right (and duty) to say something about it. Here are a few words to refresh our memory of what Mafia actually is.

“The Mafia is oppression, arrogance, greed, self-enrichment, power and hegemony above and against all others. It is not an abstract concept, or a state of mind, or a literary term… It is a criminal organization regulated by unwritten but iron and inexorable rules… The myth of a courageous and generous ‘man of honor’ must be destroyed, because a mafioso is just the opposite.”

— Cesare Terranova, Italian Magistrate murdered in 1979

Or, in the words of Peppino Impastato – political activist killed by the Mafia in 1978 – “La Mafia è una montagna di merda” (“Mafia is a pile of shit”).

5 things only a Sicilian mum would do

Today is Mother’s Day, so I thought I’d write a little something about Sicilian mums . Any reference to real facts or people is purely coincidental. (Love you, mum!)

PLEASE, NOTE: the following features do not apply to Sicilian mothers -in-law. They are an entire different species with whom thankfully I’ve had very little contact in my life.

Here are the top five things only a Sicilian mum would do to your life.

1. A Sicilian mum will try to feed you 24h a day

“Take a little bit more, dear”

“Come ooonn, just a little bit mooore!”

2. She will ‘gently’ remind you to wear the ‘undershirt of health’

The undershirt of health (la maglia della salute) is something that doesn’t exist outside of Italy. But within the borders of the boot-shaped peninsula, this piece of clothing  certainly holds magical powers. You must always wear it underneath your normal clothing to avoid sudden death. A Sicilian mum has the primary responsibility to make you wear the undershirt, even if it’s 40°C outside.

3. She will tell you off for walking barefoot around the house 

Another thing that might induce sudden death (in that notoriously freezing country that is Sicily), is  walking barefoot on a tiled floor. If you don’t believe my word, check out this post by Sicilian Godmother. Sicilian mums know that slippers can save lives, and they will help you save yours.

4. In some cases, a Sicilian mum might wield a wooden spoon against you (e.g. when you walk barefoot around the house, or forget to wear your undershirt of health)

If that happens, remain calm and do as she tells you. Don’t worry, the infamous wooden spoon (la cucchaia) has only ever been used in rare circumstances. In most cases, the threat of using it is enough to make any child behave.

5. She will try and keep you under the same roof until you’re 65

Except she won’t, really… She will be supportive of your choices and always stand  by your side. She will even learn how to use The Facebook and The Tablet to stay in touch with you.

Mamma Franca learning The Tablet.

Mamma Franca learning The Tablet.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the great mums in the world!

 

The Best and Worst of Sicily

This post was written by Veronica, the brain and pen behind Sicilian Godmother. When I asked her to write a guest post about things she loves and hates about Sicily, I didn’t expect to open such a big can of worms! Her initial draft was way longer than this, which says a lot about what impact Sicily has on people. I hope you’ll enjoy her hilarious (but painfully accurate) post just as much as I did. 


Have you ever known someone you loved like an obsession, but who drove you crazy at the same time? Sicily is like that.

When Secret Sicily asked me to write this post, I almost sent her a book. She told me off, so I cut it down to the winning three in each category.

The worst things in Sicily

BRONZE MEDAL: Terrible Driving

Great, we found a parking space

Sicilians think that holding the steering wheel is optional. With their phone in one hand, they’ll obviously need the other one free for gesticulating. To guide the car, they just have to use their knees.

They disapprove of double-parking, preferring to triple-park instead.

When they see a friend coming the other way, they stop alongside them for a long chat out of their car windows, thus blocking all the traffic in both directions till the gigantic tailback causes a crash at the level crossing around the block. Then, when they turn round the corner, they moan louder than everyone else about being held up.

SILVER MEDAL: Shameless Cheating

Sicilians know all the rules perfectly, but they think they are for everyone else, not for them.

Policemen get their friends’ parking and speeding tickets to disappear by magic, doctors never pay their income tax, and queuing is something Sicilians only ever get to see on television.

When I was showing a friend around Sicily last year, she commented on the beautiful English love poems spray-painted all over a wall.

“What classy vandals they have!” she exclaimed.

“Nope,” I told her, pointing at the school across the piazza. ”The kids put these up ready for their English exam.”

GOLD MEDAL: Disorganisation

Why is it that most Sicilians could not organise a piss-up in a brewery yet, when it comes to organised crime, they are more efficient than MI5 and the CIA? What would happen if education and medical care were outlawed in Sicily? I think Palermo University would take six months to overtake Cambridge and Oxford, and they’d find a cure for AIDS and cancer within the year.

The best things in Sicily

BRONZE MEDAL: Resourcefulness

If you left most people on a desert island with nothing, they would soon end up like this:

Your average desert island castaway

Most Sicilians, on the other hand, would manage to create a five-star tropical resort for themselves, like this:

A Sicilian castaway

They call this “The Art of Arranging Oneself.”

I once went to a picnic site with Da Family and found there were no free tables. Whilst we walked along, my brother-in-law picked up a length of blue rope lying on the ground, all the fallen branches we passed, and another piece of old rope. When we reached a small clearing he used them to construct a dining table, a side-board and a hammock.

SILVER MEDAL: Love of Children

When my son was a toddler, he would get smothered in kisses wherever we went. The postman, the chemist and all the fishermen in the village would kiss him, cuddle him and offer him sweets. Absolutely any Sicilian restaurant would rearrange half their tables to make space for our push chair, and offer to warm up bottles of baby formula too.

Then we visited England. A grumpy girl beside me on the plane swore because she thought my son might cry during the flight. In London we were told by three restaurants in a row that children and dogs were not allowed. When we travelled on London Underground a woman deliberately made her heavy shoulder bag swing into his face.

I couldn’t wait to get him back among the Sicilians, who treat everybody’s bambini as they treat their own.

GOLD MEDAL: The Men

A SIcilian man being sexy

Sicilian men cook. Can you think of anything more sexy than that?

Sicilian men can think of nothing they’d rather do in their spare time than get seven chickens, two lambs and five goats out of their freezer, buy a calf from the butcher and a truck of vegetables and invite all their friends and family over for a barbecue.

Being English, the food I expect from a barbecue is a piece of chicken marinated in lighter fuel, which is mostly raw but burnt black on one side.

Sicilian men hand me things like tender artichoke hearts which they have drizzled with crushed garlic in lemon juice and olive oil, or a flame grilled swordfish steak with their own secret orange and black pepper garnish.

Christmas with a Sicilian family: a survival kit

This post is dedicated to all the Sicilian expats who, like me, are going back to their homeland for Christmas. If you’re not from Sicily but for some reasons you’re spending Jesus Day with a Sicilian family, read carefully and repeat after me: “I can do this!”

Here are the top 5 tips to survive Christmas in Sicily without any serious brain or physical damage.

1. Get belly-ready

Sicilian dinners require some serious belly training, and I’m not talking about abs. You’ve got to find that extra room in your stomach you never thought existed. Learn how to stretch your belly from the eating contest masters and you’ll be able to get through a ten course meal and an over-bearing gran.

2.  Learn the fine art of juggling conversations at 120 decibels

As soon as people take their seats and the first starters arrive, the Christmas dining table will turn into a battlefield where everyone fights to the loudest word and the last bruschetta. One person will start shouting to the person sitting the farthest away at the table, and others will follow, until you’ll find that you’re part of 10 different conversations and nobody will let you finish one single sentence. Keep nodding and carry on.

3. Prepare your answers in advance

It doesn’t matter if you’ve been away one month or ten years, every time you come back you’ll have to answer the same questions before even thinking of starting a normal conversation.

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What’s the weather like in London? Do you eat well in London? Have you lost weight? Have you gained weight? Is London REALLY expensive? Where do you live in London?… Is that close to where the queen lives??

Keep your anwers short and vague – ok, yes, perhaps, perhaps, yes, North London – and then ask what’s for dinner.

4. Avoid repeated questions

Gather as many people as possible in one place when answering the questions above, so you won’t have to repeat them ten times.

5. Avoid unwanted questions

Whether the question is about your wedding date or your plans forthe next ten years, there are many ways to drive unwanted attention away from you at the most convenient time. Here are some of my favourite techniques:

    • The “WOW, these lasagne are really great!” technique, which will stir the conversation to how great Italian cuisine is as compared to those barbarian foreign foods.
    • The shock effect – drop the “I’m pregnant” bomb and then say it was a joke before some elderly relatives die of heart attack. They’ll never remember what their question was.
    • The political digression – bring up anything the Prime Minister has done over the past week and it will trigger an endless stream of moaning and a review of the past decades of bad political management from all Parties. Everybody will have a view and will shout it out loud, leaving you free to go.
    • The field crasher – pay someone to crash your Christmas dinner at the right time, possibly naked. This is always a winner.

And now the cheesy bit: whatever your crazy family habits are, enjoy your time back home, eat like a pig and unleash the inner Sicilian in you. You’ll have the best time of your life!

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Are you spending Christmas in Palermo? Here are the top 15 things to do in the city