Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sicily and the " Mafia" 1984-5

Sicily. 1984 . Wondering about the Mafia.
A description of our year in Italy, 1984-85 would not be complete without a chapter on our  “ adventures” in Sicily.  Although one can drive to Sicily from Rome, and there are no passports or visas required, it is quite a different country. The language is different, that is, the dialect is quite pronounced, and the customs and even the people look different. It is a mixture of the Mediterranean: Italians, Greeks, Arabs, and the descendants of the Crusaders, who used Sicily as a port of call during the crusades and left a lot of blue eyed, blonde children, still seen in many isolated villages. 

 Messina is the gateway to Sicily. It is a large port city, the first city you arrive in when you leave the toe of Italy. It is a pleasant city, with palm trees, and definitely has a Mediterranean atmosphere. It was our first port of call, since R, the director of the lab in Rome had asked me to deliver some cells to the lab of Dr. A at the Microbiology Department at the University. Instead of actually going to the department we met Dr. A and his boss, the chairman of the department, Professor L at a restaurant in the city.  We had not planned on staying in Messina any length of time, since we were planning a vacation  and tour of the island. Our first stop was to be Taormina.  However for some reason we did stay overnight in Messina at the Jolli Hotel, which was the best hotel at that time in the town. We did meet with Dr  A and Professor L both very friendly individuals, who insisted in paying our hotel bill and they decided that they would visit us again within a few days in Taormina and show us around. We actually were not very keen on this since we wanted a vacation on our own but they insisted, this was Italian hospitality. Taormina is a beautiful small picturesque town South of Messina. Today it is a town for the jet setters, and the ritzy set with very fancy hotels. I don’t remember where we stayed other than that it was on a very narrow street, on the top of a hill, overlooking the city. We spent our time walking around the town, with its Greek ruins and old Jewish Quarter .It is a very colorful town, as are all towns of Sicily, with gaudy hand painted doors, painted and decorated wagons pulled by horses or used to display flowers. We went for walks exploring the nearby villages, which were picturesque but poor compared to Taormina itself.. As expected after a couple of days Dr L  called on us. Dr. A could not make it. Dr. L  drove a large Cadillac which with difficulty could maneuver in the narrow streets of the city. He insisted we come with him to a restaurant on the beach, just outside Taormina, in a small town called Naxos. It seems its real name is “ the Gardens of Naxos”. I remember the name because of the association with Greece since we have been recently (2010)  to the Island of Naxos. Professor L had everything arranged. When we arrived at the restaurant there was much bowing and hugging in the Italian fashion, and we did have a pleasant meal. When we got up to go back to the hotel (in the Cadillac), no money changed hands that I could see. Knowing this was Sicily, I said to myself, must be some Mafia arrangement, but I could be wrong.  I had probably seen too many movies including the Godfather. It was just that Professor L fitted into the stereotype, soft hat, heavy overcoat, rather portly, he looked like my or Hollywood image of a  Mafia “ godfather”.
From Taormina one obtains a great view of Mt. Etna. The mountain was usually covered by cloud or smoke. It still is a living volcano that erupts periodically. At the foot of the mountain there are still quite a few small white villages and we drove around, I ,at least rather scared of  possible eruption.
 I will not give you a tour of Sicily, suffice to say that we drove through all the ancient Greek and Roman cities, Syracusa, Agrigentum,  and passed through the center of the island past snowy peaks ( this was spring or early summer), stopping at Piazza Armerina, famous for its  Roman Villa. This was a villa belonging to a wealthy Roman. The frescoes on the walls of the various rooms are extremely well maintained, and depict scenes from every day life, including 10 women wearing two piece bathing suites (bikini’s) playing various sports, as well as more prosaic frescoes of wild animals and hunting scenes.  I really was amazed at the murals of the women in Bikini’s. As it says in Ecclesiastes “What has been will be again,   what has been done will be done again;   there is nothing new under the sun”. We drove back up to the North coast   finally reached Palermo, with its magnificent cathedral.  As we walked down one of the main streets of Palermo, looking at the shop windows, Mimi started yelling in a loud voice, stop, stop,. For a moment I had no idea what had happened.  I stood paralyzed. A motorcyclist riding on the pavement had snatched her handbag.  It contained quite a bit of cash, credit cards and keys to our apartment in Rome.  We approached a driver  in a small car who was close to us, but he would not give chase to the cyclist.. My suspicion is that he was in league with the thief. We wearily made our way to the nearest police station, where they took down all particulars of the theft.  Being robbed was not a nice feeling, it was a personal affront, and left us feeling rather foolish . The previous day a group of tourists had their bus held up at gunpoint and stripped of all their jewelry.. However in this event the Mafia  did intervene and  insisted the robbers give back their loot, since such happenings were destructive to the tourist business. Unfortunately in our case, the police did nothing, or at least said they could do nothing, and we had to spend the next few hours phoning around cancelling our credit cards. We also had to call Senor F in Rome and tell him that the apartment was in danger since the keys and address of the apartment were  in the handbag.  Realizing that we were in some panic, he suggested we meet with his cousin, a Professor of Physiology, a resident of  Palermo. He would supply us with needed cash, since without our credit cards and stolen cash we had very little money left to pay our hotel expenses. In fact I did not think of it at the time, but once we cancelled our credit cards how would we pay the hotel ?
Professor S. appeared, gave us an envelope containing about $500 and invited us home for coffee and drinks. This show of hospitality certainly calmed us down and was very much appreciated. On our way back we had planned on staying the night in Messina, and again our “ guardian angel” paid the bill. I think I had told him of our misadventure in Palermo by phone. . Dr L invited us to spend some time on his house on one of the Aeolian Islands of the coast of Sicily, but we declined.  Perhaps we should have taken the opportunity of seeing a different side of life.
 I was invited a few weeks later to come down to Messina again and give a seminar.  Again I stayed at the Jolli hotel. During my first evening I was shown around Messina and  told of the devastating earthquake and Tsunami of 1908 which destroyed the city, and killed as many as 100,000 inhabitants.  I had previously experienced an earthquake in Mexico, and so could imagine what it must have felt like. The earthquake in Acapulco was probably around 6, and really did shake up everything. The story of the 1908 earthquake made me very nervous and apprehensive. What would I do if it happened again ?. but in contradiction to what I have written above I said to myself, history does not repeat itself, and I am worrying over nothing. I had just got into my pajama and into bed, when I began to feel everything shaking. Was this my imagination or a dream ?. The shaking and swaying continued for some time. I rushed down stairs (I was on the top story) and found most people standing outside, discussing the tremors. Their attitude was very nonchalant, since this is a common occurrence in this part of the world.  I eventually  went back up to bed, but could not sleep because of the aftershocks.  It was not a serious earthquake in that there were few casualties, a few heart attacks and panic attacks, but I was quite shaken . I had pictures in my mind of waking up in the morning and wondering around a devastated city.
Anyhow the next day I gave my seminar, met with the faculty, and Dr. L asked me whether he could send one of his students to my lab in the States as a post-doctoral student. I met D, she seemed eager to come, and was well qualified. Her English was good, and so the arrangements were made that she should join the lab on my return. D. was a nice person to work with and her stay was quite productive.  I later found out from a colleague in Denmark, that Dr.L. had been shipping D. to my lab (as he had previously done to Denmark) in the hope that she would find a husband. That was not to be,: however she did marry a native Sicilian  few years later.
After D had been in the lab some time, I received a communication from Dr. L and Dr. A that they would be in the States and would like to visit me in Bloomington. I arranged for a seminar for Dr A., which was actually of very little interest to our faculty, and invited the two of them plus a few students for dinner. After the seminar they visited the lab, and one of my more outspoken students, a native “ Hoosier” who had never been out of the USA says to Dr. L  when he came into the lab “Hi, you look just like what I imagined a Mafioso to look like “ . As mentioned  Dr. L was a bulky well dressed gentleman with a topcoat, and soft hat, not at all like a scientist, who might go around with jeans or at least short sleeves. This particular student, JD had been working on  interferon, the same area of research as Dr. A and thus had seemed appropriate to invite home for a dinner party.
Somehow at dinner the conversation came round to the trial of a group of mobsters going on in New York , the trial of the “ five families’ and  Dr. L let  drop in the conversation that one of them  was a distant relative. There was an embarrassed silence all round.  I think JD realized the faux pas he had made in the lab.  Was Dr. L in the Mafia, was he a “god-Father”. ? I don’t know. D indicated that he certainly looked after the members of the department, and that it was difficult to achieve the position of head of a department in Sicily without such connections. I don’t think I will ever know the truth and I let it rest at that. I have often wondered.
Despite the misadventure in Palermo, our visit to Sicily was very memorable, a beautiful and interesting country., and certainly the faculty of the microbiology department were very hospitable.
Post Script. From the Daily Telegraph 2000.
Headline: One of Italy's leading universities has been infiltrated by the Calabrian Mafia for 25 years, say investigators.
They made the claim after police arrested 37 academics, doctors and students linked to the University of Messina in Sicily last week. A further 79 professors and researchers have been placed under formal investigation.
The unprecedented police raid, which has shocked the rest of Italian academia, followed a three-year inquiry into allegations of Mafia-run violence and corruption at the 452-year-old institution.
Italy's university system is famously corrupt with rampant nepotism and sinecures, but Messina is the only university to have been exposed as having direct mafia connections.
In recent years two Messina professors have been kneecapped by unknown assailants, four bombs have exploded in university buildings and the cars of several academics have been set on fire outside their homes. Lecturers have been threatened before examinations by students claiming Mafia backing at all levels of the university hierarchy.”

 However I could not find Dr. L or Dr. A’s name on any of the published list. Most of those involved were in the medical sciences as were these two.  I am still wondering.