The Italian Legal System and How to Evade it

Italians are a bunch of scofflaws. They think the laws apply to everyone else, but they personally are a special exception. All of them think that. Which explains Italy, really.

Sicilians take this to a whole new level. For a Sicilian, any rules, in any context, are created purely for you to see how many of them you can break and get away with it.

All of this makes the legal institutions in Sicily rather unique. In a society where breaking the law with impunity means you’re a hero, what are the law enforcers like? My tentative answer, so far, is “weird”.

The Palace of Justice in Palermo. I feel guilty all over just looking at it…

I was asked recently if I would do some interpreting at the law court in Palermo again. You might think wearing a suit and doing something grown-up would be fun for a barefoot housewife like me, a refreshing change from making jelly for children’s parties and scraping half a kilogram of glitter glue from all the kitchen surfaces each morning after doing the school run.

Glitter glue – in my house we sometimes eat it in sandwiches

Yet, you would be wrong! Being a court interpreter is not at all fun. I have been talked into doing it from time to time, but in reality I am still traumatized by the first time I accepted this type of work.

It was back in the days when I was fairly new in Sicily and didn’t speak Italian as well as I do now. In Sicily, the fact that you can only speak one and a half languages is no impediment to gaining employment as a simultaneous interpreter in a legal trial. If your husband’s uncle administers the official interpreters list, well, that’s ample qualification for the job. (This, incidentally, is why Sicily is part of the European Union only on paper, but part of the Third World in reality.)

To be fair, they did explain that they wanted a mother-tongue English speaker because the usual interpreters, who were all Sicilian, could not understand what the witness was saying. He was an “extracomunitario,” which means “person from outside the European Union.” I was told he had an extremely strong “extracomunitario” accent. What does a “non-European Union” accent sound like, exactly? I was keen to find out.

I dressed in a black trouser suit which I felt made me look highly serious and professional in a courtly kind of way, and went to work with my husband. For those of you who don’t know, my husband is Sicilian and works full time in the Palace of Justice in Palermo.

In the car on the way there, I tried to get him to teach me the Italian for the technical terms that I would need to know, such as “accused”, “defendant”, “state prosecution”, “witness,” “co-respondent shoes” and so on. For some reason which utterly evades me, and which I am still determined to get to the bottom of, he insisted that words like this were highly unlikely to crop up during the trial. He has worked in court for years. How on earth can he have managed to avoid listening to anything anyone says for so long? As I said, law enforcers in Italy are weird.

Eventually I had to drag the words out of him by resorting to a semi-hysterical screaming outburst, where I threatened to grab hold of the steering wheel and run us off the road into a large wheelie-bin.

We arrived unharmed and, having watched Hubby park the car in a space the right size for a motorbike, I sauntered into court trying to look as if I were not terrified. The whole court building is deliberately designed to make you feel like an utter nobody. The ceilings are so high you can hardly hear the echo by the time it bounces back at you, or else you have got bored of waiting and wandered off. The doors are solid metal and look as if they are capable of resisting explosions and heavy gunfire as well as amputating your finger if you are gauche enough to slam one in them. The guards wear military style uniforms and look at you as if you are about to go to prison for twenty years and deserve it, too. So there.

We went to the administrative offices first, which felt less intimidating as the rooms were wallpapered with hand written post-it notices held up with sticky tape. I was introduced to about twenty people and kissed all of them. Oh these continentals! They’re so friendly! In Sicily you even have to kiss the postman on both cheeks when he brings you a letter.

Eventually we went into the courtroom where the trial was to take place. The chamber was about the height of three houses and the walls were covered with flooring, to maximise echoing and the incomprehensibility of everything said by everyone. One wall was parquet, two were marble paving slabs and the last one was gravel.

I was most surprised to find that there was no jury. Hubby told me that Italian trials only use a jury for murder cases. If you don’t have the guts to be that naughty, you just get three judges instead. The barristers wore academic gowns like the ones we wore for graduation from university, except that their shoulders were embellished with elaborately knotted silvery ropes and heavy tassels which looked exactly like some de-luxe curtain tie-backs I saw recently in Homebase.

SPOT THE DIFFERENCE

An Italian lawyer’s gown with trimmings
Curtain tiebacks from Homebase

It was eight degrees centigrade and the building had absolutely no heating whatsoever, so everyone had their overcoats on underneath their gowns, except for the main judge, who had an anorak with fur round the hood. So much for my natty trouser suit. I should have worn a skiing jacket and a bobble hat, and maybe a few reindeer hides as well.

Before the arrival of the defendant, I had to wait over an hour while the three judges and the lawyers asked to postpone the hearing of one case after another. The average trial in Sicily takes four years, and now I knew why. During all this delaying and faffing, the female lawyers were twitchily getting things in and out of their Fendi handbags and Giorgio Armani briefcases and adjusting their Gucci scarves. I think they modelled themselves on Ally McBeal, except for one, who was more of a Fatty McBeal.

Faffy McBeal

At least my husband had tracked down the key witness by this point, though he staggered backwards when taking down his name. I had wanted to speak to the man before he was put on the witness stand, because of his allegedly incomprehensible “non-European” accent. Hubby said that he did not want me to go and talk to him as he reeked of alcohol and had a fairly strong armpit odour which I would find acutely distressing. Therefore I waited on the bench alongside a large assortment of designer bags, shivering miserably and anxiously sliding into a hypothermic delirium.

This Fendi bag costs more than I earned in the last 200 years

Eventually the crook himself arrived. This was the grand climax of the day. He was put into a cage to one side of the court room. He sat there snarling and grimacing through the kind of stubble you could use to strike matches on, and acting appropriately menacing and evil, occasionally clutching at the bars as if he were planning to rip them from the floor and use them to massacre the lot of us.

Hubby meanwhile escorted the witness up to the front bench and helped him remain vertical at all times, but left him to his own devices as far as placing one foot in front of the other was concerned, and I was told to follow. I was given a sheet of paper to read out and obliged, thus, to swear an oath to translate the truth, the whole truth, and not make any mistakes or God help me. At least I think that is the oath I swore. I only understood it in parts. Luckily my microphone did not work when I was reading it out so, if I mispronounced anything, nobody heard. I may have inadvertently turned it off myself as I was so nervous my hands were shaking.

Anyway, the object of my interpreting efforts was a Zairean with bloodshot eyes, who said he had witnessed the rape of a Zairean woman at the hands of the aforementioned North African in the cage. The mixture of booze and BO smelled so pungent while I was relaying his place and date of birth in Italian that my nose started running uncontrollably and I felt dizzy.

Apart from having a heavy accent and an alcohol-induced slur, his English was full of dialect words which I had never heard before.

“That man,” he said, pointing with his whole arm at the caged menace, “tiffed my mobblefon.”

“I beg your pardon?” I said.

“He did tiff my mobblefon,” repeated the man, lowering his voice confidentially.

“Your what?”

“Mobblefon.”

“Oh! Your mobile phone!” I squealed, delighted I had decoded something. “What did he do to it?”

“I thought she spoke English,” muttered one of the lawyers under his breath from behind me. His words echoed loudly from the marble paving slabs and the parquet wall.

“He tiffed it,” said the Zairean. He was swaying slightly and his eyes seemed to be getting redder.

“What?”

“Tiffed it!” he repeated. I do not know who was more desperate by this time; him, me or the judges.

“Do you mean thieved?” I asked, with a sudden flash of inspiration. “You mean he stole it?”

“Yes!” said the man. His eyes were like cooked tomatoes by this point.

The dialogue stumbled along like this for a while, and then the Sicilian barristers started using legal terms which I did not understand so things took a turn for the worse. At this point my stress level had risen so high I was actually struggling to stand up, because my knees were literally knocking together. Luckily the barrister for the prosecution soon realised it was better to avoid technical vocabulary where I was concerned, and very kindly phrased his questions in everyday terms.

However, I still had to cope with the fact that both he and the barrister for the defence were seated behind me, and using appalling microphones which were certainly manufactured by the same company which produces the ones they use on the London Underground. Maybe that is why my husband thinks they never use words like “witness” and “prosecution” in court. Maybe he just cannot hear them.

Meanwhile the accused in his cage was still clutching the bars and snarling and growling through his teeth, and also farting from time to time, which slightly spoiled the effect.

At this point the judge obviously felt a particularly fierce draft of cold air (or was it smelly air?), as he pulled his fur-trimmed anorak hood up and zipped it to the neck, obscuring his face completely. Well, I did say law enforcers in Sicily are weird. I do not know how the defendant felt but, personally, I would be very uncomfortable with the knowledge that my fate, and a possible lengthy prison sentence, were soon to be decreed by someone dressed like Kenny from Southpark.

A Sicilian High Court Judge

After this, the only other fly in the ointment was the fact that all these characters had met each other in a doss-house run by someone called Father Nino, and somewhat inconveniently I did not know the Italian word for “doss-house.” It was so frustrating that the barristers managed to ask question after question without ever using the word doss-house, to help me out, whereas the Zairean used it about three times in every sentence.

Judge Kenny was still inside his hood, so I was unable to gauge whether he had realized I was in trouble.

I called it a “rifugio” in Italian, desperately hoping that this would be alright, even though the only context in which I know, for certain, that one can use this word in Italian is those little log cabins where hypothermic mountaineers can shelter from the snow to stave off death from exposure. This word probably came to mind because I was beginning to feel hypothermia and a touch of pneumonia coming on. It is very unfair to suffer brain-freeze without actually having eaten any ice-cream. I just hope that I have not left Judge Kenny with the impression that all these illegal African immigrants love mountaineering and reside in a hut maintained by a missionary priest at high altitude.

A doss house in Palermo for homeless illegal immigrants from outside the European Union

Eventually, for those three and a half hours of interpreting, I was paid the princely sum of fourteen Euros. That is about enough money to buy a hot water bottle, or one single metallic trim curtain tieback (on sale), or perhaps about two square inches of a Gucci Scarf. Apart from the boredom and risking death through exposure, I had undergone the most stressful three hours I had ever experienced in my working career.

So, when Judge Kenny sent a message via my husband asking if I would be available to translate for another trial coming up soon, I replied,

“Tell him he can take his court case and stuff it right up his anorak. I’m too busy getting glitter glue off the toaster.”

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18 thoughts on “The Italian Legal System and How to Evade it

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed that. Your traumatic ordeal has really brightened my morning (in the nicest possible way of course).

    One good thing about the Italian double kiss greeting is that everyone knows where they stand. It’s the randomness of the UK approach that brings me out in a cold sweat.

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  2. You can cry as a lawyer, but don’t worry about the terrible waste of EU funds. Just regard all that money in the same category as the overseas aid for “developing” countries, which also always ends up in the pockets of tyrannical corrupt despots.

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  3. this is brilliant! have a very funny picture painted in my head right now of an orange kenny judge with tassle tiebacks stood next to a glitter glued up toaster! dorsetdaze is right, you really do deserve a wider audience! 🙂

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  4. Excellent. I am the wife of an attorney in the US and can imagine having many of those same feelings if I had to go to work with him. He’s been practicing for 19 years and only recently have I started to feel like he isn’t playing dress-up when he puts his suit on to go to work.

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  5. What I find hilarious about Judge Kenny is that when the temps in Palermo get to 15, everyone dons their puffy down jackets. I was wearing a light sweater and getting weird looks. Talk to me when it’s -20 (which is what it can get to around here occasionally in the winter with windchill).

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    1. I know, I get funny looks a lot too when I’m in a vest top and they’re all zipping up their fleeces. I actually have a friend who comes round to my house and tells me off if I’ve got bare feet. “You need slippers!”
      Have you seen my “How Sicilian are you?” Questionnaire – I bet you’ll like that!!!

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      1. OMG, I found it, I am laughing so hard I am crying.

        I met a charming lady in my town who moved here from Catania 25 years ago. She hates the winter cold here, but when she went to visit her parents in the fall, her mother was yelling that she was going to catch pneumonia and die because all she was wearing was a light jacket. It was about 30 degrees out and raining. Chilly, yes, but she did not feel the need for the anorak her mother was constantly asking her to wear before she went out.

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  6. I just love your blog – it gets better and better. I’d say “write a book”, but then you might not have time to do all the amusing/informative things you write about in your blog. The Sicilian-gened half of me thanks you for a peek at my ancestors. Once my Sicilian grandma passed on, the old-country customs slipped slowly away in our U.S.A. home. They were mysterious and fun to me as a child. It’s great to find them all still alive and well back in beautiful Sicily.

    P.S. – Some people may think you exaggerate, but I know better!

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    1. I’m glad you enjoy the blog.
      I am working on a book actually! It’s half finished. When done, I’m planning to publish it on Kindle, so… watch this space!
      BTW Have you seen my post on the old blog site about “olive oil medicine”? Several Sicilian Americans have contacted me telling me they remember grandmothers doing it, and delighted to hear it’s still done in Sicily.
      http://siciliangodmother.blogspot.it/2012/03/sicilian-medicine-or-is-it-magic.html
      I’m curious to know if your SIcilian grandma was a pracitioner of this kind of medicine???

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