Now that I am in a completely foreign environment without a strong skill in verbal communication, I am having a curious time “reading” non-verbal language from the people of Sicily. The majority of communication is non-verbal naturally. We read others gestures, posture, expression and even their scent to make a connection. We use our senses in every way to find out if it is safe to approach a stranger or even a friend. As we all know, a simple wink can lift our spirits as swiftly as a furrowed brow can dash us to the ground. Body language is our oldest and best method of discerning what is happening at the present moment.
On to this can be added a layer of culture that brings to the present moment a history both geological and hereditary. We pass down through our socialization what is the norm of behavior in our group. People in the United States typically greet another by looking them straight in the eye and extending the right hand to shake the others. Should one behave at all out of the norm, a comment can be heard about the “brush off” given. When in reality, you were just not connecting in that moment for a million reasons that the senses can give you to hesitate. The other person may not appreciate what is best for you or have a clue what your instincts might be saying. A greeting can be muddled in a split second. Bring in a layer of ego and the moment can become even more complicated. Bring in gender and it’s getting deeper into the potential for confusion. So, having been a few days in Sicily, I am becoming aware of the norm.
There is a generalized belief in a lack of order in Italy. In the United States, it is common for people to form a line and stay in it. People get quite cross if an attempt is made to cut the line. Certainly, a comment will be made about the behavior being boorish and unfair. When in Sicily, put that aside. The concept of people passing each other on the street, a la go the way of the road, is not understood. It’s the first stereotype I found to be accurate. There is no line, anywhere. Oh there’s an occasional roping off to attempt to channel people in one direction, but that is just one more thing to melt through.
I attended the annual May Celebration of Infiorata in the City of Noto a few days ago. The festival was well attended by hundreds if not thousands of people. It was here that I learned how to move in the crowd or in general among Sicilians. Sicilians don’t cut you off, are not trying to get there first and are certainly not outwardly competitive. They simply don’t see each other as something to get around. You are not in the way, nor can you see others as ever in the way. Nobody is pushed, there is hardly even a sensation of someone touching you, yet people will sort of walk right up on you and keep walking. It’s not that I have to back off or get out-of-the-way. No, somehow we walk by each other. When the official ceremonies at the festival ended. I figured out how to negotiate the crowd by following the person in front of me. I call it the melt. Everybody moves in their own direction whenever, wherever and however they want. You just do so too.
It was amazing to watch people try to find a comfortable place to stand to watch the grand promenade and concert on the Vittorio Emanuele in front of the Piazza Municipio. The steps leading to Chiesa San Salvatore directly opposite the main viewing area don’t offer the best viewing even though they are tiered. The person in front of you can be sitting down, but the steps are shallow and even than the view is blocked. So, for an hour or so, I watched and joined in trying to find the best spot to see this grand spectacle celebrating the Baroque tradition of Noto.
Sicilians do not react outwardly with impatience or annoyance at all. If there was a big mass of people but you decide to walk through it, just say, Permesso which in English means, may I pass. Nobody will look at you, nobody will shift out of the way, but somehow, the person melts into the crowd and goes by. Everybody heard you but nobody is acknowledging it. At least, not in a discernible way I expect. It’s possible the permission was granted, it is just so subtle I am missing the cue. Somebody came along with a baby carriage headed straight towards the staircase in this sort of mob but not a mob collection of people. The family decided to go down the stairs. I thought, how does he get the carriage down one step? What? No problem. As he reached the point of no return, the guy in front of him turned around, never looked up, but picked up the front of the carriage and they went down the stairs safely with baby. Nobody said a word, nobody looked at each other, it just happened.
Sicilians do not look directly at you ever if you are a stranger. At least, not when you are walking towards them. Even when shopping, it’s an indirect glance, not really in the eye if it gets that far. But, don’t think they don’t see you. It only seems they don’t. I think Sicilians have a great ability to see peripherally, almost as if the eyes see behind them and all sides without shifting the head or the eyes. It is a cultural habit that is the norm here. Even the cats do it. In the United States, even the stray cat I feed every night looks right at me. But, with one exception being this calico from Ragusa Ibla, all the others have the same manner of looking but not looking at you. They know you are there, you know they are there, but we don’t look with the eyes. Not at first. I am not intending to get close enough to have but the most common of conversations with people here. If a friendship is formed, it is likely only transitory and rather unlikely. Even those I am interacting with routinely keep a distance somehow, even though polite and talkative once a connection is made. We are talking, we are exchanging ideas but we are not connecting beyond the superficial. We don’t look the other in the eye. It’s odd to me but the way of life here.
I am aware of the difference and comfortable with it. I find it refreshing to not have to meet people and “make” conversation. If a guy does approach a woman on the street, that’s the one to get rid of quick. That is not the norm. Be polite, do not return even a comment, unless you feel ready for a challenge on how to get him to go away. Sicilians may have some of their own beliefs about foreigners that they are trying out. It’s okay, just say no.
How to look Sicilian style is the name of this article. Not with the eyes, but with the senses, some internal turned on personal radar that “reads” the other with something else. Perhaps it is a Sicilian sixth sense. It’s subtle. It’s a great navigation tool to have, melt and maneuver in a crowd without even trying. Be in the crowd but not swayed by it. Stand alone in the middle of the crowd. Stand your ground without raising a finger. And, that was my day in Sicily.
Written by Frances Ann Wychorski May 19, 2015