In Sicily, Squalor and beauty have always existed cheek by jowl, finds Griselda Heppel

Some chapters on in The Leopard (I know, I know, I’m a slow reader but it’s been a crazy summer), a paragraph brought me up short. Not for its quality of writing (which goes without saying) but because the aspect of 19th century Sicily it describes chimes uncannily with what will strike any traveler there today: 
Beautiful Sicily
the contrast between the wild, extraordinary beauty of the landscape and the heaps of refuse spread along roads, fields, streets, lapping the foundations of baroque churches and palaces and spilling over into mediaeval squares. 

Litter is of course a problem all over the world but Sicily takes it to a whole new level, appalling not just the tourists who flock there for its wealth of classical architecture, but visitors from other parts of Italy too.

Now, according to Lampedusa, this is nothing new. When he wrote The Leopard in 1957, non-biodegradable plastic rubbish was not the problem it is today; yet the careless behaviour that would allow it to become as bad as it is in Sicily goes back hundreds of years.
Set against the backdrop of Italian Unification in 1861, the novel depicts officials sent from the northern province of Piedmont to the island being aghast by what they see: 

In front of every house the refuse of squalid meals accumulated along leprous walls, trembling dogs were rooting about…

In Lampedusa’s view, filth and beauty existing cheek by jowl is rooted deep in the Sicilian mindset, itself created by the sheer difficulty of survival in such a harsh landscape and climate. The hero, Don Fabrizio, recalls the reaction of some visiting foreign naval officers (British, as it happens):

They were ecstatic about the view, the vehemence of the light; they confessed, though, that they had been horrified at the squalor, decay, filth of the streets around. I didn’t explain to them that one thing was derived from the other.

A Paradise of Pasta
Reading this brought me straight back to a holiday my husband and I took in Sicily with some friends a couple of years ago. What we didn’t realise was that these friends were great Montalbano fans (as in the TV series): for them Sicily was a paradise of home-made pasta served in simple trattorie behind mediaeval doors; streets winding through ancient, honey-coloured villages, leading to squeaky-clean squares empty of parked cars and only two pedestrians loitering somewhere at the top of the TV screen; enchanting fishermen’s cottages looking out on to wide stretches of gleaming, empty beaches.
Not wanted on film, thanks
Their distress at the Day-Glo plastic, empty cans and rotting food disfiguring every beautiful scene was acute. The mess bothered me too but not as much because I didn’t have that perfect television picture in my head of what it should be like. It’s not that the cameras had lied, exactly; more that they’d been positioned to cut out all the ugly bits. And each location had clearly been given a good clean-up before every shot.

Montalbano gazes across an unspoilt Sicily
The funny thing is, our friends knew deep down that filming creates its own reality. Part of the joy of watching a series like Montalbano is the beautiful setting; why would a film director want to spoil it? Yet we buy the dream all the same without realising it, which means that visiting the location of a favourite film or TV programme sets us up for disappointment. I rarely watch the hugely popular Inspector Morse series but when I do am amused to find, for instance, the detective knocking on the door of a house in Jericho with the Sheldonian Theatre in view just behind it, making an aesthetically pleasing but geographically impossible shot. 

The Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford: aesthetically pleasing,
geographically impossible.

Not quite the same as trails of litter everywhere (though we have our fair share of that in Oxford too); but could still be disconcerting for an ardent Morse fan trying literally to follow in their hero’s footsteps.

None of which solves Sicily's rubbish problems. If Lampedusa was right, only a massive shift in the Sicilians own outlook will do that.

Find out more about Griselda Heppel here:

and her children's books:

Ante's Inferno 


The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst


Elizabeth Kay said…
Really interesting post. It was India that shocked me, as far as rubbish went. That was in 1999. I went again in 2012 - it was worse - and I'm going there once more next month. It's the mindset that is completely different. The more I travel, the more surprised I am at the different attitudes I encounter. The most surprising countries come up with the most surprising solutions. Rwanda has a once a month clean the city day, when everyone stops work to clear up Kigali. Our guide said, that would never happen in Kenya. Two countries, so close geographically, but with such different outlooks. Amazing.
Thank you for this post. Like Elizabeth in the post above, your post also made me think of India. Despite the government attempts to raise civic consciousness about throwing rubbish in public places, the problem seems to be getting worse. Malaysian beaches could be pristine with their pure white sand but in places like Langkawi are wallowing in plastic rubbish. Yet neighboring Singapore, with government intervention and strict fines (and a nanny state!), is very very clean. Not sure how we can solve this problem worldwide, but shining a light on the problem is a good start.
Griselda Heppel said…
Thank you, both. I've never been to India but I can absolutely see the parallels. I've been to Africa - not to Kigali, where the monthly clean-up Elizabeth describes is a great idea - but to Senegal and Mozambique, and seen villages ankle-deep in plastic rubbish, bent cans and often broken glass, where people walk barefoot in the sand. They have more excuse, because if there's no public waste collection - and there was no sign of that - what are people to do? The instinct to discard things no longer needed is clearly so deep-rooted, and until 100 years ago, while rubbish could be disgusting, at least it would gradually break down biologically. With the advent of mass-produced metals and plastic that is no longer the case but our mindset is still the same. As you say, it needs a real effort of will from both people and governments, not to mention well-functioning waste disposal systems, to make the difference.

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