Palermo vs the mafia

In the center of Palermo’s old city, I was struck by the doors of a 19th century home hung with a blue banner proclaiming resolute opposition to the mafia. I wondered about the story behind it, as Palermo is the home of the Sicilian Mafia, who call themselves “Cosa Nostra” (our thing).

Walking farther on subsequent days, we encountered exhibits demonstrating the determination of Palermo to rid itself of the mafia. They are part of Manifesta 12, Europe’s most important biennial contemporary art exhibition. It coincides with the designation of Palermo as the capital of Italian culture for 2018.

The city is waging a campaign against the mob whose lethal grip for decades took over much of the government and compelled the city’s merchants, industries, and citizens to pay tribute.

Murdered anti-mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino

During the 1980s, the judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino prosecuted hundreds of Cosa Nostra members in what was known as the Maxi Trial, the largest mafia court case in history. Four hundred and seventy-five mafiosi were brought to court and 346 were found guilty. In 1992, both Falcone and Borsellino were martyred in revenge killings. They became heroes whose names are known everywhere in Italy. Palermo’s airport, for example, is named after them. They are portrayed life-size in majolica at the entrance to one of the anti-mafia monuments.

Borsellino’s scroll notes, “The fearful die every day. The fearless die only once.”

Falcone’s says, “Men die, but their moral convictions remain, and they will continue to walk on the legs of other men.”

Under Sicily’s emblem is Goethe’s 1817 tribute, “Italy without Sicily leaves no impression at all on the spirit. It is in Sicily that one finds the key to everything.”

Since Borsellino and Falcone were struck down, 4,000 more have been assassinated. Journalist Attilio Bolzoni recalls that Palermo was a war zone:

I had been in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Iraq, but I had never felt so afraid as I did in Palermo during those years…. I had to watch my back all the time. You found the mafiosi everywhere, on the streets, in the shops, in the banks. It felt like a curfew was in place, there wasn’t a single cafe where you could sit at a table in the evening.

But the two murders marked a turning point. Thousands of Palermitani went into the streets to protest the killings and bombings. In 1993, an anti-mafia mayor was elected by 75 percent of the voters. New laws, harsher penalties and prison conditions made the mafiosi’s lives much more difficult. More than 4,000 mafiosi have been arrested in the ensuing years. Armed soldiers patrolled the streets of Palermo until 1998.

The city’s architecture reflects the mafia’s malevolence. Cosa Nostra took over the construction business and subsequently went on a building spree. Backed by their politicians, the mafia tore down beautiful art nouveau mansions and replaced them with ugly blocks of colorless apartment buildings. They ruined the beaches with rubble from the demolitions. It has been called the “sack of Palermo.”

With help from the government, Palermo’s citizens were able to invest in restorations of beautiful buildings that had been abandoned since they were bombed in World War II. In the last 25 years, more than 60 percent of Palermo’s historic buildings have been renovated.

In addition, a part of the funds and property (an estimated €30 billion) that were confiscated with the arrests of the mafia bosses has been used to create about 800 new social, environmental and cultural spaces for the city.


This 18th-century building houses an exhibit of Manifesta, a video of plaques and memorials placed on the spots where victims of the mafia were assassinated.



Spiral of Life

In the heart of the old city is another installation that is part of Manifesta. It represents the continuing war against the mafia and commemorates the mafia’s victims. Gianfranco Meggiato has created “an ode to the defense of the values of life and culture. It is the Spiral of Life, as opposed to the spiral of death, which seems to dominate in today’s society.” (explanatory sign)

The 2,000 burlap bags of which it is made are “sacks of memory,” each stamped with the name of a victim murdered by the mafia, Borsellino and Falcone among them. It was inaugurated on the anniversary of the massacre of Borsellino with five of his escorts.

Today Palermo is regaining its old splendor and the mafia is in decline. Art is winning and corruption is losing.

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After the storm

The day after

Sunset over a peaceful sea

The storm has passed

Day of the storm
Boats race against the coming tempest back to a safe haven

It was the the middle of August and a big, national, summer holiday. Everyone except emergency crews and restaurant and hotel staff was on vacation. The heat and humidity were oppressive.

Then the storm came. It lasted, with varying intensity, through the night. The lightening was focused on Capri: it blazed through closed shutters, dousing the house with light. Reluctantly, because of the heat, we had to close every window and door; the shutters were ineffectual at keeping out the rain. The deafening thunderclaps pounded us from less than a mile away. I have never experienced a storm so violent. (Hurricanes are in another category.) We were warned that global warming would produce extreme weather…

Next morning, no power, no surprise. No power also meant no water. Big holiday. The electrician was away and the plumber didn’t answer his phone. The power company threw up its defenses and no one answered those calls either. Soon we found out that we were the only ones without power.

A full day passed. We carried buckets of water upstairs from the garden, where one tap was still flowing. We charged our portable devices at a neighbor’s house and left candles at the ready. Back home, it seemed quaint to carry lit candles from room to room as we readied for bed. No streaming movies, but thanks to our electronic devices, we could enjoy reading.

Fortunately, power was restored the next morning, lifting the sense of isolation and allowing us to appreciate the storm’s gift: refreshing, cool, dry air.

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The Well-Dressed Horses of Palermo

Everyone loves horses and has at some time or other dreamed of sitting in a horse-drawn carriage. Tourists especially like to ride them. Palermo offers horse-drawn carriages wherever tourists hang out in Palermo. The horses look much fresher than the ones on Central Park South in New York City, who seem rather more tired and weary. The Palermo horses’s millinery shows an Italian sense of style.

They wear lace-trimmed straw hats:










and casual straws



slouch hats adorned with flowers
and a plain model for the guys

dress-up frilly ones









and lest you think the men can’t be elegant too

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Palermo Journal: Life is sweet

Sicilians are famous for their desserts; they have a greater variety than the other Italian regions. They owe this distinction to the Arabs, who ruled Sicily for over 200 years and greatly influenced the island’s culture, cuisine and agriculture. Among the many foods and plants the Arabs introduced are citrus fruits, almonds, cinnamon, apricots, pistachio, pomegranates, sugar cane and watermelon, all of which feature prominently in Sicilian desserts.

So the signs were unmistakable. From our first breakfast in Palermo, we knew we were in Sicily. On a table laden with pastries there was a plate with empty cannoli shells and a bowl with creamy ricotta filling— Palermanitan DIY. In Sicily, cannoli are not pre-filled, because the shell gets soggy. (N.B. English speakers: “cannoli” is plural. One cannolo, two cannoli.)

We stepped out of the hotel into a land of cannoli, granita and ice cream.

IMG_3525I love cannoli and it was too early (for us) to have ice cream, so my eyes gravitated immediately to a store named Cannolissimo. They sell mostly cannoli, and they make them to order from a counter the width of the doorway and the store itself.

Custom cannoli

First, choose the shell: two kinds of plain or lined with chocolate or two other flavors. Next the filling: ricotta or ice cream, each with six flavors. What would you like sprinkled on top? You have seven choices.

We discovered ice cream heaven on our first night. Cappadonia had opened just two weeks before. The ice cream was the best we’ve ever eaten. The chocolate was to die for and the cantaloupe sorbet could have stood in for the melon with prosciutto.

Antonio Cappadonia

Antonio Cappadonia is the proprietor. The staff calls him “Maestro,” and so he is. He explained to us his process for making chocolate ice cream using only organic ingredients. Antonio insisted we taste his sorbet, which he makes only with fresh fruit that he himself selects, only when it is in season.

Tiziana and D’Amico

Il D’Amico and Chris with their new friend

Cappadonia is evidently an expert in human relations as well. It took months for him to put together his “team,” the out-going, gregarious and affectionate staff that serves the ice cream. They befriended us, kissing us when we arrived and again when we left.

No evening thereafter was complete for the team or for us without an ice cream fix  and warm hugs on all sides. Italians, especially in the South, open themselves to strangers, but I think they must not like strangers, because they rapidly transform them into friends.

Granita completes the trio of the most popular street sweets. You tell the vendor what flavor you like, and he pours flavored syrup over shaved ice. Granita is reputedly very refreshing in the heat, but it is too sweet for my taste.

Legend surrounds the invention of ice cream. Marco Polo may have brought it from China in the 13th century, though the emperors of the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 CE) are believed to have been the first to eat “a frozen milk-like confection.” Italians are always players in the fanciful (or not) history of ice cream.

Some believe it was invented in Sicily and taken to France by Catherine de Medici when she married King Henry II. Others attribute it to a Sicilian in the 17th century who opened the first café in Paris and there introduced gelato, the Italian version of sorbet, to the French public.

The Arabs, who ruled Sicily from the ninth to the eleventh centuries, drank an icy refreshment flavored with fruit juices. They called it sharabt, which later became sorbetto in Italian and sherbet in English.

It wasn’t until the 17th century that sorbet as we know it evolved with the addition of sugar. A Neapolitan is said to have written the first recipe for sorbetto. He also added milk to it, creating the first real ice cream.

Suffice to say that ice cream is so loved that everyone wants credit for introducing it to the world.

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It’s not easy to leave Capri

Marina Grande, Capri by Jorge Royan


We were leaving for Palermo, taking an hour flight from Naples. I couldn’t get the boarding passes from the airline’s website straight into my phone, because the local airline we’re flying hasn’t learned how to do that. I did download the passes, but wasn’t able to print them at home, and the airline would charge an exorbitant amount to issue them at the airport. I finally sent the file to a friend at a hotel and asked her to print them. We are outside the town (Mastrillo on the map), so we would have to detour in Anacapri on the way to the port to pick them up.

We had two choices: drive to the harbor and leave the car there or take the car on one of the two daily ferries to Naples and leave the it at the airport for the week we’d be gone. Then Sal came up with option three. We’d take a taxi to the port. But since a taxi can’t navigate the very narrow and treacherous road that winds through the hilly countryside to our house, and since lugging our bags up the 88 steps to the road in the hottest part of the day was definitely not an option, Sal decided to drive me with the bags to the main road and leave me there while he took the car back home. Then he would climb up to rejoin me and the taxi he had previously ordered would pick us up there. 

I’ve been coming to Capri for more years than I care to recall, and I can count the number of times it has rained on the fingers of one hand, with some left over. Today, I added another finger while waiting on the roadside for Sal to return. Only drizzle, fortunately. It was pouring a few miles away in Naples.

We waited until it was a few minutes before the taxi should have arrived. Sal called the dispatcher to make sure the car would be on time, but after switching him from one agent to another, an agent advised Sal he could find no trace of either the reservation or the confirmation. And we had to pick up the boarding passes, fight the traffic to the harbor, make the ferry on time so we could get to the airport in time to check in and board the flight. My husband is the anxious type. You can imagine his condition.

Finally, a car came. I jumped out when we got to Anacapri and made a beeline for the hotel. The receptionist was very friendly and though the passes hadn’t been printed, she assured me I’d have them right away. Right. Right away Capri style. The slowest printer I’ve ever met seemed to print one word at a time.

We did finally make it to the ferry, to Naples, to the airport and finally, Palermo. The only mishap was Sal discovering a short while after we cleared security that his wallet wasn’t in his pocket. But the travel gods smiled down on us. The wallet was still on the floor where it had dropped.

A few hours later, we dropped into a comfortable bed in Palermo and slept soundly.

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Trump’s military parade

Military parade in Moscow, 2010

One way a despot controls dissent is with an ostentatious display of military force. An autocrat who loves gaudy extravagance, Trump was so impressed by the military parade he witnessed in Paris last year that he returned home and immediately demanded one of his own, a large-scale military parade rolling through the streets of Washington.

VoteVets, an association of veterans who know only too well what it takes to prepare for war and actually risk their lives, looks askance at Trump’s proposed jingoistic propaganda. The chairman and Iraq War veteran Jon Soltz wrote in an email, “This parade is not about honoring our military — it’s about using our military to honor Trump, a man who dishonors America and puts our country at risk.”

In 1991, Pres. George W. Bush had a parade to honor the vets returning victorious from the Persian Gulf War. That parade cost $12 million. A similar parade 27 years later would cost much more.

The streets of Washington were not built to withstand an onslaught of tanks and armored personnel carriers. Reportedly, it would cost at least as much as the parade to repair the damage to Pennsylvania Avenue and the rest of the parade route.

In February, even Trump-supporter Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-NY, told CNN, “I don’t believe we should have tanks or nuclear weapons going down Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, tweeted that he supported a parade, but added his hope that “this parade will not focus on military hardware, but on military service, sacrifice, and saying ‘Thank You’ to those who protect our nation.”

In an apparent response to bipartisan objections, the Pentagon issued a planning memo in March, saying the parade will “include wheeled vehicles only, no tanks — consideration must be given to minimize damage to local infrastructure.”

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-IL, told NBC  that the idea is a “fantastic waste of money to amuse the president.”

Soltz called it “a national embarrassment all conjured up to serve a weak president’s frail self-image…. a disgrace.”

If you agree, pressure your members of Congress to intervene and stymie Trump’s wet dream. Do it now— the parade is scheduled for November, probably on Veterans Day.

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Don’t like vaccines?

Not vaccinating your kids leaves them vulnerable to disease their whole lives.

  • When your daughter gets rubella when pregnant, how are you going to explain that you chose to leave her at risk?
  • What will you say when she calls you and tells you she has cervical cancer, because you decided that she wouldn’t need the HPV vaccine?
  • What do you tell your son when he breaks the news to you that he cannot have kids, thanks to the mumps that he got as a teenager?
  • And what do you say when he gives influenza to his grandma? How do you explain that she won’t be coming home from the hospital? Not ever.
  • Do you tell them that you didn’t think these diseases were that serious? That you thought that your organic, home-cooked food was enough to protect them?

Do you say, “sorry”?

This was written by a doctor from Australia, Rachel Heap, for Northern Rivers Vaccination Association.

I reposted it as a PSA.

Hat tip: Sunni Mariah on Facebook. She saw this in her doctor’s office, posted it, and within a few days it went viral.


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