Sunday, May 21, 2017

Modernized Poverty in Sicily

We are staying in Palermo's historic center, and I have never seen such widespread poverty in a developed nation. Most buildings are badly in need of patching and painting. There is lots of cheap fried food for sale, including fried pizza and a panino (sandwich) with fried chicken and French fries on the bread.

The staple food is sfinchione, which is a sort of poor man's pizza.  It's  crust is like a pizza crust but one inch thick, topped with tomato-onion sauce and oil - no cheese or other toppings and lots of white bread under a small amount of sauce.

At noon, a little three-wheeled tuk-tuk truck passes through our neighborhood selling sfinchione. To get him to stop, people yell down from their windows: "Luigi." The people two balconies over from us lower a plastic bucket on a rope down from the third floor balcony, Luigi cuts four slices for the couple and their two children, wraps them, and puts them in the bucket to be hauled up. Another couple with two children drive up in a car and buy four slices for themselves and a few more slices to put in a bucket lowered from a third-floor balcony a bit further down the street; then they yell from the street to the balcony for a while, talking to the people up there. Apparently, they buy their parents lunch and talk with them without walking up two flights.

Children playing on the street also yell up to their parents, and occasionally there is a loud argument between a husband on the street and a wife on the balcony. People hang out laundry on the balconies to dry.

So far, it sounds very much like the behavior you would expect in a typical slum of a century ago, which has its own sort of charm, even though life is hard and the food is not healthy. But new technologies developed in the last century make it very different:
  • The wide part of the street near us, which obviously was a piazza a century ago, is now parking lot, where the city rents out spaces and people double-park, blocking other cars parked there.
  • The side street are narrow, and most do not have sidewalks. Cars and motorcycycles drive down them at high speed, so it feels unsafe to walk on them.
  • There are almost as many motorcycles as cars, so there is continuous roaring noise in the streets. People ride motorcycles everywhere, even in the narrow, crowded pedestrian streets.
  • There is a motorcycle repair business just down the street from us, and they use a power saw to cut metal into the late evening hours - making enough noise to drown out conversation in our apartment.
  • People blast music at high volume. Most of them are far enough away that the noise is not bad, but there is also someone just one balcony over and one floor down from us who plays rock music so loud that, even with all our widows closed, it is louder in our apartment than the volume I would normally play music at. Fortunately, he only plays it for an hour or two each day; if he played it all the time, it would be intolerable to live here. 
This is modernized poverty: traditional poverty plus modern technology. If it is used sensibly, technology makes life better, but when it is abused, it can make life worse.

For example, recorded music can make life much more enjoyable if people play it at a reasonable volume or used headphones, but here, they play it so loudly that, for each person enjoying the music, a dozen people are bothered by the noise.

There are some hopeful signs. The two main streets in the historical center of Pallermo, Via Maqueda and Via Vittorio Emanuele, have both been narrowed from two car lanes to one by placing benches and planters in the roadway, to create more space for pedestrians and bicycles, and parts of them are closed to cars completely on most days.

There are some bicyclists around, but there is no way that that there will be more bicycles than motorcycycles any time soon.