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Sicily, Old & New

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Photo: David Cicconi

Viviana's tomatoes have been drying on a plank for the past three days. Their flesh looks molten, like congealed drops of magma that have fallen from the sun and landed here, in Modica. They're Pachino tomatoes, the small ones you can find in almost any supermarket in the world, but these tomatoes have a curious aura, maybe because Pachino, one of Europe's southernmost towns (it lies farther south than Tunis), is only 20 miles from here. I keep looking at them, even though I'm supposed to be packing, trying to find a place in our luggage for all the flavors we have accumulated on our tour—thyme-scented honey, bars of chocolate, wine, and jars of the capers that grow wild out of stone walls.

Like many people, I carry images of the "old Sicily" around in my head. I imagine groups of unemployed men strolling slowly through the streets, "like a torpid circulation of blood," as Norman Lewis put it in The Honoured Society. I see bereaved women in black weeping at the funerals of their husbands and sons, victims of Mafia killers.

Can there ever be a New Sicily?Can an island so ancient, where the past is present in the smallest details, ever really change?Romans, Normans, Swabians, Saracens, Spaniards, Bourbons, and Garibaldians have conquered and tried to change Sicily, but the defining features of the island for at least 500 years—bribery, corruption, poverty, and joblessness—have remained, and the vestiges of feudalism go back as far as Roman times. In Sicily, wrote Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in his supremely cynical novel The Leopard, "everything must change so that everything can remain the same."

Recently, however, there have been signs that Sicily is indeed changing, and that it won't ever be the same again. During the 1990's, partly in gratitude for the island's strong support of his political party, Forza Italia, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi spent billions in public money there on new roads, new airports, hospitals, and, most extravagantly, a proposed bridge across the Strait of Messina that would have cut car-transit times from 12 hours to 10 minutes. (The project was shelved by Romano Prodi, Berlusconi's successor, last October, and the funds reserved for building the bridge will instead be used to improve ferry service between Messina and the mainland.) The private sector has responded to these improvements in infrastructure. In the mid 1980's, Sicilian winemakers, after years of producing wine for other labels, began to establish their own brands. Restaurateurs and food producers followed the winemakers, and hoteliers followed them. And although the Mafia has certainly not disappeared, its DNA seems to have changed in the decade and a half since the murder of Mafia prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino caused general outrage and revulsion. The Mafia has moved into legitimate businesses, such as health care, retirement homes, and hospital equipment—mafia bianca, Sicilians now call it.

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