North and South

Letter From Palermo

The proprietor of the restaurant M——A——, known as “Ricotta,” likes to share with his intimate friends—for the most part fecund, avuncular family men who, between them, did upward of a thousand years in the high-security Section 2 of the city’s thistle-shaped Ucciardone jail, awaiting trial on accusations of various victimless crimes, usually involving government building contracts, accusations that, mirabile dictu, invariably came to nothing—the story of his first and last visit to Venice.  As I know nothing of the Sicilian dialect that he speaks—except how to inject the right note of lazy indignation in the retort “Ma qual’ Amercan’?” whenever the taxidriver ventures, “American?” the story is simultaneously translated into the soulless standard Italian of the mainland by several voices in the womanless crowd.

My friend Maglio explains that the Sicilian spoken by our hero is high Palermitan, which is far more different from the dialects of the countryside than, say, the sounds of Tuscany are from those of Umbria.  Thus, where Ricotta refers to himself as “io,” his social counterpart in Madonie, some 60 kilometers away, would say “ia”; in Salemi, 70 kilometers from the city center, he would say “ieu”; in Marsala, which is 30 kilometers from Salemi...

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