We all at sometime in our lives dream about escaping to another country. Usually these dreams are not fulfilled, but a small percentage of us take the plunge and move. For me the country of choice was Italy, and even though there are many advantages of being here, some of the little differences between English society and Italian, can at times make you want to get on the next plane back to London.
I teach English in the South of the country, if you mention this to anybody in England, the first word that invariably comes out of their mouth is ‘Mafia.’ But what is the Mafia? I remember seeing Marlon Brandon in the ‘Godfather’ many years ago and not really understanding the subtle nuances that lay underneath the main plot. Having been in the South of Italy for almost fifteen years, the culture behind the Mafia is clear. The Italian phrase for Mafia is ‘Cosa Nostra,’ which quite literally means ‘our business,’ and this phrase explains the system that we know as Mafia. It is rooted in the very fabric of Southern Italian mentality and is best summed up as the ‘favour system.’
To explain how the system works, here is an example of something that happened to me when I was fairly new to the country. I had been living in Italy for about a year, when a piece of toast removed a filling, and it was with dread in my heart that I made an appointment with the local dentist. I hate going to the dentist at the best of times but to go to a foreign one was the sort of experience I had not envisaged. In England when you go to a dentist for the first time he would normally do a check on your teeth and write it down in your Dental notes using words something like; ‘back molar cavity; upper bridge amalgam: front deep cavity filling.’ In the South of Italy this is not the case. On my first visit, I was instantly shocked by the fact that the dentist was smoking a cigarette; and then, leaving it burning in the ashtray, without checking anything, produced his drill and replaced the filling. These are some small cultural differences that though shocking, were nothing like the surprise that I received when I went to pay the bill.
On asking the Dentist how much I owed him, he replied nothing. I asked him again, thinking we had misunderstood each other in translation, but he still replied nothing. It was my wife who is Italian, that stepped into the conversation and insisted that he took some money, and thrust the equivalent of about thirty pounds into his hands. In my ignorance I didn’t realise what was going on until months later, when it all became clear. The dentist telephoned and asks my wife if I could take one of his sons as a student, as he had been marked ‘insufficient’ in school. If we had not paid for the dental treatment, we would have been obliged to do this for nothing, but because money had changed hands, we could charge our normal fee. Thus the riddle of the ‘favour system’ had been beaten for the moment at least, but it is always destined to raise its head at any place or any time.
To understand the favour system is to understand why ‘Mafia’ mentality rules in the South. Nothing here is for free, and the payback for any favour will depend on the person you owe the debt to. This is the blood and soul of ‘Cosa Nostra’ and it is as strong here today, without ever being really visible, as it has ever been.