April 28, 2015

Italian Redlight District: grilled windows, silicon breasts and a party

San Berillo, a district in the historical centre of Catania. A district notorious for being the hub of prostitution in the city. And in all honesty, it is still, more than anything else, renowned for being a Redlight District. Most city dwellers don’t step foot in the maze of narrow streets of San Berillo without good reason. It’s dangerous, they say. But in recent months the people of the area have decided to collaborate with a group of associations in order to change this situation. Once a month, on a Sunday, San Berillo comes alive, and the people of Catania all turn out for a big lunch.


To give an idea of the atmosphere that reins in this district, just try to imagine a place where there are no passers-by, neither local people nor tourists, no shops and no bars. Just half-abandoned buildings, falling-down. And those few who do pass through the district do so quickly, without looking around, holding on tightly to their handbags. And then there are those that come to the area to please themselves, walking slowly, looking furtively at the sex workers and what they can offer.

Last Sunday however, the people of the city were invited to San Berillo’s social lunch. A social lunch through which people of the district and various associations try to break down some of the stereotypes that dominate the city’s imagination of the district, giving each and every one the chance to see, hear and feel San Berillo for themselves. It’s a chance to show that it’s not as bad as they all say, and that also in San Berillo live human beings. There are many problems that undoubtedly need to be resolved, problems, that have a negative impact on the daily lives of those that work in the district, raise their children there, sleep and eat there.

5   My first steps in San Berillo were accompanied by the stench of urine and empty bottles of wine strewn in the streets (probably left from yesterday’s party). There was a purse discarded on the ground, and there was silence. It felt almost as if I were in a church, where you must keep quiet, when your steps become lighter and lighter so as not to make a noise, and you start worrying “Did I put my mobile on silent?”.

And meanwhile your eyes begin to explore, in this case no masterpiece by a famous artist, decorated with gilted-gold, with cherubs looking down on you with their chubby cheeks, but rather your eyes explore the historical buildings of the district, designed by famous architects many years ago, now dilapidated, with broken windows with grilles and silicon breasts, comfortably perched in front of the door.

That Sunday I wandered those streets for a bit, looking for the place where the lunch was going to be held, and while I smelled the stench of those unpleasant smells I thought about the daily lives of those who live there. And while I thought that I was strolling through some of the most neglected and forgotten streets of the city, I realised that those very walls were staring at me with the graffiti of a master. There’s no doubt those walls silently hold a thousand stories. Stories not only for the history books, but that could become the basis of a book, or a film. It would be an Oscar-winning film.

Usually tourists only go to San Berillo as they would a zoo. They come to see the prostitutes with their buxom breasts. Many of these prostitutes were once men. But on that day, as I walked through the district, it was I that felt like an animal in a zoo.

Sat on chairs on the streets or looking from the doors, dozens of eyes scrutinize me with an unsaid question: “Hey girl, what are you thinking coming here?”

40As I continue onwards I start to hear music. The music leads me away from the unpleasant smells and grey colours to a place of happy voices, voices of volunteers working away preparing food in an open-air kitchen. I hear other young voices, from a radio station rigged-up in the street. A DJ is playing music and implores everybody not just to dance, but also have a taste of the delicious food being prepared, and buy a raffle ticket or two.

Slowly slowly more and more people start to arrive for the lunch: young and old, families and groups of friends. Some bring their dogs with them, others bring homemade dishes to share. Soon the small streets become crowded with people, it seems old friends are reuniting in their own back garden. The children laugh and play with washing-up bubbles, while their parents have a look at what’s for sale on the small market stalls and chat with their friends.

And at that very moment when the guys from the radio pronounce “Let’s have lunch!” a long table is immediately installed and filled-up with plates and snacks. Anybody that has ever seen at least one Harry Potter film will know what I’m talking about. By the kitchen a queue of people line up. Pasta, stews, bakes, rice, salads… plates fill up with delicious food, and people eat with smiles on their faces.

While I take some photos one guy comes over and asks me:31

“Beautiful isn’t it?

“Why is it beautiful for you?” I ask.

“Look around you: people of different cultures sitting side-by-side, talking and eating together. It’s wonderful.”

It really is wonderful, I think. They were not only of different cultures, they were of different worlds, those that were meeting here in the same place, sitting at the same table. As if nothing bad has ever happened: no racism, no stereotypes, stigmas, no homophobia or other forms of hatred. One Sunday a month, in a district where people don’t usually come for fear, you find a San Berillo of peace, equality and friendship. No more food? What does it matter! We can still dance and sing.

The stench of urine was replaced by the good smells of the kitchen, the grey silence with happy laughs. Falling down buildings are covered with the colourful drawings of children, and from the grilled doors it is not silicon breats that stare at you anymore, but sparkling eyes that call you to conversation. Who said that we can’t achieve peace? You just need a pan of pasta, a good sauce, and some cakes. And maybe a bit of music, so you can have a dance.

And the raffle was a success: first prize was a bicycle, and the winner: Vanesa. Congratulations!

Story in Lithuanian you can find here: 15min.lt

Photo report from social lunch in San Berillo:

Erasmus+ logoThis article was written during the project Communication Tools Use in NGO Activities

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