Most of my dealings with the mafia — to the best of my knowledge — have been pleasant ones. Visiting Sicily three years ago, we stayed at a delightful hotel high on the slopes of Taormina, with a stunning view of Mount Etna. Learning that we were leaving his two star penzione to head off to the untamed wild lands to the south, the owner of the hotel pulled me aside, surreptitiously slipped me a piece of paper with a mobile number on it, and said ‘You have any problems, anywhere, any time, you call this number.’ Then he gave me an inscrutable Michael Corleone-esque kind of a look. ‘Any problems at all.’
I forgot to bring the mobile number with me on our return to Sicily, which was a shame. This time we had opted for Palermo; that noisy, bustling baroque sprawl that during the ’80s and ’90s was plagued by slayings, kidnappings and even the execution of an anti-mafia campaigning priest, Father Pino Puglisi. Nowadays you can pick up a ‘No Mafia’ T-shirt in any self-respecting Sicilian tourist shop, so Pino, who subsequently became a saint, didn’t die in vain. But Sergio, our local guide, is having none of it. ‘The mafia won,’ he explains over a delicious lunch in his favourite trattoria, ‘they control everything — the government, the bureaucracy, even the European Union. They don’t need to kill or kidnap any more.’
Sergio despairs of the corruption within Italian and European politics, and is especially scathing of Silvio Berlusconi and his media empire, whose sole purpose, he declares, is to smear the opposition at every opportunity whilst turning a blind eye to any misdeeds by the government. An avid supporter of Beppe Grillo and his Five Star party, Sergio explains to me that Grillo spent many years as a political satirist, poking fun at the established order of the day, until the jokes became no longer funny and he decided to fix the system from within. When Sergio asks me what I do for a living, I explain that I am a political satirist whose job it is to poke fun at the established order of the day. Sergio looks at me suspiciously.
Wayne Swan would be impressed. The Palermo banking system involves everything a normal banking system requires: great security, loads and loads of paper-stamping staff, weary tellers and queues of customers. Even gigantic impressive-looking bank buildings; nearly one on every corner. The only thing missing is any actual cash. In fact, as I soon learn, there isn’t what you might call ‘money’ in any Palermo bank. It makes our own mining tax that doesn’t raise any cash look amateurish indeed.
I am drawn into Sicily’s byzantine and existential banking system after an uncharacteristic moment of honesty with a cab driver. Heading from the airport into town, I suddenly realise I have no small denomination euros. In Sydney, cabbies get most irate if you don’t have anything smaller than a fifty dollar note. I dread to think what they do in Palermo. I politely ask the driver if he can pull in at a bank on the way. ‘No problemo!’ comes the cheerful reply.
Nervously leaving my wife alone in the cab (this was, after all, the kidnapping capital of Europe), I head into the beautifully baroque Banco di Sicilia. First, I must pass through a Get Smart-style set of bullet-proof air-locks, which involve pressing buttons and waiting for green lights before you are allowed through. The man in front of me looks like — er, how do I say this without stereotyping? — a mafia hitman who has stepped straight out of a Tarantino film; dreadlocks, pockmarked face and bulging torso squeezed into an ill-fitting shiny suit. I nod nervously. He grins back, his gold front tooth glinting malevolently in the Mediterranean glare. Once inside, it’s as if we’ve arrived at the very worst Aussie Medicare office. There’s a complicated ticketing system; the number in my hand bearing no similarity to anything displayed on any of the numerous counters. The patients — sorry, I mean bank customers — are all forlornly sitting around on plastic chairs, morose expressions of frustration and tedium on their faces, whilst the tellers are all frantically stamping bits of paper in a monotonous routine reminiscent of a Terry Gilliam film.
I decide to employ my rakish, good-natured Hugh Grant-style charm, and march straight up to the first counter waving my cash. ‘Scusi!’ I blurt out in as Pommy an accent as I can muster, ‘I just need to change some cash. Anyone change this for me?’ A deathly silence fills the bank. A dozen tellers stare at me, one with a twitching gammy eye. Tarantino-man taps me on the shoulder and whispers in flawless English: ‘They don’t have any cash in here.’
Four banks and 20 minutes later I return to the cab for the final time, defeated and dripping with perspiration. Not a single bank in Palermo, I have now discovered, actually handles money.
Fortunately, my cabbie still isn’t fazed. Babbling into his mobile with one hand, and steering through the dusty, chaotic, horn-blaring traffic with the other, he assures us yet again there is ‘no problemo’. I’m unconvinced.
Just outside our hotel, there is a screech of tyres and another cab niftily pulls up directly in front of us. The driver leaps out and pops open his boot. There is a rapid exchange of incomprehensible Italian with our own cabbie, then cabbie 2 pulls out a beaten up suitcase and rushes towards me. For a moment I am convinced this is the beginning of our kidnapping. Wrong again. Cabbie 2 opens the suitcase, which is full of bundles of cash and beckons to me impatiently. I meekly hand over my pathetic note, and within seconds he cheerfully counts out all the change I could possibly want, in whatever denominations and coins. And he doesn’t charge me a cent. Mobile banking, Sicilian style.
Rowan Dean is incoming editor of The Spectator Australia (print and online).
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