Knights ride into a girl’s life in many guises and mine is a neighbour who appears about once a month carrying packs of mineral water. I cannot remember exactly when he began to speak to me or offered to bring me water from the supermarket but I certainly didn’t hint at a need or tell him I had no transport. It is a simple act of kindness of the sort that Sicilians will perform for you every day but it makes my life easier and means a lot. This is not to imply that people are not kind in Britain, for of course they are, but we are not known as the most reserved race on earth for nothing. In Britain it would be thought intrusive to offer. Here if people observe a need they act upon it. “Sempre a disposizione” [“always available”] say tradesmen and, with the exception of the two weeks around the ferragosto holiday, they are. “Se ha bisogno, signora…” [“If you need anything…”] say neighbours and acquaintances and they mean it.
Let me tell you about a few more kind people I have met here: First there is my wonderful hairdresser, who also serves as my confessor, psychoanalyst and counsellor. “Why didn’t you tell me?!” he will exclaim if I mention a problem I have been grappling with. “If you want to find a trusty tradesman, come to me”, he said when I first arrived and I have taken him at his word. It was my hairdresser who introduced me to a bank, helping me to open an account quickly, it is my hairdresser who arranges a discount for me when I need to buy expensive items and – oh, yes – I nearly forgot to tell you that he does my hair too! The hug and the shoulder massage if you are feeling down come free.
Then there are the many shopkeepers near my home who will always help if they think a bag is going to be too heavy or who will call me to come in and have a sweet biscuit or a piece of cake if I am passing and it happens to be a member of staff’s birthday or even the birthday of some distant relative. It’s an excuse for a little festa and a festa is for everyone.
Recently when my mobile battery gave up the ghost in a bar where I often have an aperitivo, the waiter immediately brought a charger to my table. Good service, yes, and good business practice, too, for that sort of consideration ensures that you will return, but it is also thoughtful and kind.
A single woman in Britain is often without help for tasks that require a man’s skill, height or strength not because the men she knows would be unwilling to lend a hand but because their wives see such a situation as a threat. Here the wives will send the men around and again, you don’t even need to ask.
Last year I had an illness which caused me to lose my balance sometimes whilst out walking. So many people – among them many that I did not know – expressed concern or offered an arm that I was quite overwhelmed. When I later had a spell in hospital I was visited by every woman who lives in my street. I had not told any of them that I was going to be admitted: they didn’t see me around, remembered I had been unwell and came to find me. No one here will be left to cope with illness alone, just as no one need grieve alone or spend a feast day without company.
Finally, much has been written in recent weeks about the problem of illegal immigration in Italy. Sicily or the island of Lampedusa are often the destination of what I call “boat loads of sorrow”. Sometimes the “clandestini” do not make it to dry land and unidentifiable bodies are washed up on the shores of Sicily. When this happens everyone is distressed, particularly the police and coastguard who find these lost souls. On Sicily the bodies are given a decent burial and in 2007 the Director of the Reception Centre on Lampedusa suggested that those who had perished at sea in this terrible way at least be given a name. He was much criticised for this suggestion and it is not an unproblematic one but it was, I believe, made for the best of reasons and, in the face of appalling tragedy, was a gesture of simple kindness.