I did a workshop this week in Palermo, Italy for a group of MBA students and startup companies at the ARCA Technology Incubator. Palermo is a fantastic place of chaos, crowds, energy and even innovation.
I once heard a story about an American law professor who was in Italy holding lectures about the American law system. After one of his speeches there were 2 Italian students who approached him and said “Professor – is it true that in America if someone falls down and injures themselves on the sidewalk in front of a building, that the building’s owner is liable and can be sued?” The Professor answered, “Well, yes, this is true if the owner can be proven to be negligent.” The two men started discussing this fervently amongst themselves in Italian with much waving of the hands and loud voices of enthusiasm. Finally the professor said, “So, would you fellows like to go to America to study Law?” The Italians answered. “Oh no, no, no. We want to go to America and fall down on sidewalks!”
The Sicilians are champions at adapting and making the most of any situation. Sicily has been invaded and conquered by the Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Muslims, Normans, Catalan, Spanish and perhaps 10 other different empires throughout history. Governments come and go here, but the Sicilians remain. Somehow they make the best of the situation. The architecture the conquerors left behind is an amazing mix of Gothic, Roman, Greek, Classic, Neo-classic and Tasteless. Most buildings are either in an advanced state of decay or under unorganized reconstruction. The sidewalks are narrow and impassible because there are armadas of small Fiats parked on every available square meter of sidewalk space. If no Fiats, then there are 22 motorbikes piled into a single parking space. The roads are disorganized, chaotic and without any easily visible signs or indications of direction or place. Billboards and garbage everywhere add an ambience that completes the picture. Palermo is hectic and yet somehow still lovely. It has a strange charm that takes some time to sink in. I don’t think that Palermo is really part of the western world. It is more like a third-world country that is disguised as a province of Italy. Silvio Berlusconi and his unique style of leadership was so popular here in the last election that he won 63 of 63 seats in congress. OK, personally owning most of the national media can be a bit helpful.
Amidst all the chaos and the mess, you will find the lovely and friendly people of Sicily. Few speak English. I just went into the information center at the central train station and the two ancient, gray-haired men working there did not speak a word of English and were mildly irritated with me for wasting their time. Amazing, but if you are polite and try to use some travel-guide Italian phrases you will find that most people are patient, helpful and delighted to be of assistance. You will also find many smart researchers, scientists and professors in the technology centers.
Making the best of any situation is a useful skill, both for Sicilians and for entrepreneurs.