The Easter break saw members of the school community disperse to the four corners of the globe. Some chose active holidays: others relaxed.
The Headmaster and his family spent a week in the heart of Sicily. Whilst some were seeking Spring sunshine and relaxation, the Headmaster was keen to get under the skin of an island he was visiting for the first time.
Sicily is often associated with the Mafia, a reputation many islanders wish to distance themselves from. As you drive past a location closely associated with the Mafia heartland: Palermo, the words ‘NO MAFIA’ can be seen emblazoned on a hillside building. But the Mafia continues to hold sway in some parts of Sicily, notably amongst the working class.
As part of getting a sense of the people, I sought out the opportunity to have a shave at a traditional Sicilian barber not far from Corleone. Those aficionados of the film ‘The Godfather’ will know of the fearsome reputation of Don Corleone!
It was a struggle to track down such a barber, given my lack of understanding of the Sicilian dialect and an absence of helpful signage. Eventually, I was told that Nicola, a local shepherd, would meet me and my younger brother, Andrew, at our villa, at midday, to accompany us into the heart of the nearby town of Calatafini Segesta to meet a friend of his whose family had been in the barbering business for centuries. At the appointed hour, Nicola appeared in his car before speeding us down a pot-holed road at a speed that made me forget my slight apprehension at the prospect of a shave with a cut-throat razor.
We were ushered through some backstreets of the town to a building that looked like a residential home. Inside was a small, sparse room with a single barber’s chair and two men: Gianni, the barber, and a friend. They looked far from threatening and proceeded to talk in an animated fashion about the Champions’ League quarterfinal between Real Madrid and Juventus – or so we guessed. This conversation continued as Gianni began to apply shaving foam to my face looking at the other two men in the room at the same time, rather than me, whilst doing so. I wondered whether he would continue to look away while he was shaving me! However, when it came to the moment of truth, Nicola and the third man left the shop.
During the next half hour, a masterclass was delivered by Gianni, who deftly executed the closest and most expert shave I have ever received. I had the sense of an artisan at work. I thought, when all the foam had disappeared from my face, that the job was done: far from it – a further layer of foam was applied and a second, even closer shave was administered with the cut-throat blade.
At the end, I arose from the chair grateful not just for surviving my experience at the hands of a Sicilian barber, but also for the care and expertise he had shown. What is more, the 10 Euro note I proffered was resolutely declined.
It is always humbling to find a community that has generousity at its heart and this is the abiding memory I will take away from an off-the-beaten-track part of Sicily. The visit to the barbers was arranged by an English speaking Sicilian who arranged for Nicola the shepherd to introduce me to Gianni the barber. She said of her community: ‘We are all friends here’. When you meet a Sicilian for the first time in the local area, they won’t ask: ‘Where are you from?’ They will ask: ‘Who do you belong to?’
The heart of a strong community is that all are made to feel welcome and that they ‘belong’.