Everybody’s business is everybody’s business in Sicily. It’s a beautiful thing. And a loud thing. Especially in fish markets.
Never before have I travelled through a country where buying postage stamps is a community effort; finding the right bus stop becomes the interest of at least half the bus; and where the idea of ‘going out your way for someone else’ appears to be a foreign concept. Everything is part of everyone’s business, therefore there is no “for someone else”, it’s just living, participating.
Plans often go a little sideways in Sicily, due to the Sicilian’s tenuous relationship with the term organisation. The fabulous thing is that when a situation gets tricky then any person within earshot automatically becomes part of the solution, or at the very least part of the long loud debate about how the issue should be solved.
I have been helped throughout my solo journey here by many random people, young and old, men and women.
My absolute favourite experience of this was quite cute and extremely generous, and involved a fishmonger in the Catania Fish Markets. Celebrity chef Rick Stein has described these markets as his favourite fish markets in Europe and I must agree. It’s one of those places which wakes you up, stirs you around, and takes full hold of all your senses.
Many fishmongers make a huge racket, with their verbal adverts singing out competing over each other. They sing to everyone and no one in particular. It doesn’t even mix together into a one rumbling sound. Every voice must be heard, with individual pitches raised up above and around each other. I see one seller try to call out but his mouth is full of freshly cooked crab meat which tumbles out. He playfully shoves the second half of the meat into his friend’s mouth, passionately yelling at him as he does so. The look on his face is deep enjoyment, fresh crab bouncing out of his mouth as he smiles and sings and munches away. Must have been a great catch that day.
He is a young one. The rest are aged. They know fish – the quickest way to catch them, precise place to chop them, tastiest sauce in which to cook them. They walk through the rows of fish with tight, white t-shirted chests puffed up, cigarettes dangling from lips, large knives hanging casually from weathered bloody hands. They live with fish on them, somehow in them.
Amongst the noise is the threatening mix of slimy fish. It’s tough to find somewhere to sit in the fish markets. After walking through I wanted to sit to take it all in, but with slime and guts and fish blood flowing all around its best not to sit. Large liquid fish eyes stare up at you, round and black and as large as my fist; swordfish heads sit amputated, perched in their own blood, their swords pointed upwards. Their tails separate nearby; they are not the sum of their parts anymore, and yet fiscally they really are the sum of their parts now; each piece priced for its own worth. Pippies squirt water through the crowd, still alive and trying to jump for freedom from their cramped death beds.
Amongst this someone brushes their purchases against me as they squeeze past. I look down to see a line of fish blood across my wrist. This I dislike. Yet I am all out of tissues and not willing to bloody up my new Sicilian dress. It dries deep red and I feel a little more like I belong. I suddenly become absorbed with my lack of shoes. Flip flops! Who wears flip flops to fish markets? As I traverse blood rivers, side step shrimp shell and prawn poo my toes become speckled and shiny with wet fish scales. I’m really getting into the flow of this place now.
As I jump a small pool of multi-coloured unknown-ness, a nearby fishmonger smiles, shaking his head at my foolish choice of footwear. He is sitting on a crate, and bends slightly to tap his solid, trusty, fish-covered, knee-high rubber boots. I raise my shoulders and arms in an Italian kind of “eh, well, what can I do hey”. And that is when he starts to take off his boots, raving on in Italian and waving his hands at me to sit next to him. He wants to give me his boots! This man would actually remove his own boots to save my silly tourist toes!
He has one boot off when he looks up to see my face. Sadly I am sometimes unable to hide my reactions from my face, and at this moment I am actually disgusted (yet honoured) by the idea of wearing this man’s filthy fishy hot rubber boots. Disgusted more than by the scales now firmly attached to my toes. We look down at our feet together, then look up and laugh together.
The man pats me on the back, puts his boot back on, and picks up a small hose to hose my feet. I leave the markets with clean toes and a tidy heart, feeling blessed by the generosity of these Sicilians.
Everybody’s business is everybody’s business in Sicily. It’s a beautiful thing.