Frontline World

Sicily - A Bridge Too Far? , April 2004
a FRONTLINE/World Fellows project
The Strait
Il Postino
Nino Calarco
Anna Giordano
No Dolce Vita
It was nearly midnight when my Palermo-bound train started boarding. I yanked my overstuffed bags up the steep metal stairs and squeezed them through the train's narrow aisle. I started falling asleep almost immediately after settling into an empty compartment.

The Roma Termini train station

The Roma Termini train station has everything from lingerie stores to a gym offering Turkish baths and aerobics classes. After weaving through the endless crowds of travelers, it's easy to understand why it's called "a city in a city."
But I quickly got the feeling I was being watched. When I opened my eyes, a young man -- wide-eyed and grinning -- was staring at me. "Italiana?" he asked.

"No, americana," I said quietly, hoping to avoid drawing attention to myself.

Within a few minutes, my new friend, Rocco, and four of his traveling companions had piled into my cozy train compartment. They were part of a group of nearly 30 young Sicilian carabinieri (military police), all headed home for the holidays.

"You're traveling alone? But the trains can be very dangerous," Rocco warned, insisting it was a good thing they had happened along to protect me.

None of them spoke much English, and my Italian is terrible. But somehow we managed to talk for the next couple of hours. We talked about American music, the infamous Britney-Madonna kiss, Italian food and dating.

And they wanted to know what an American journalist was doing in Sicily.

The view from the train as it travels from Rome to Palermo

The view from the train as it travels from Rome to Palermo makes the long journey worthwhile. In Termini Imerese, on the northern coast of Sicily, Monte San Calogero towers over the seaside town.
My trip was a homecoming of sorts. My grandparents left the island about 100 years ago, but we always kept in touch with our cousins who stayed behind. I also was coming to investigate the Italian government's plans to build the world's longest suspension bridge -- a two-mile-long behemoth designed to span the Strait of Messina and link Sicily to mainland Italy. Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi promises that the project -- scheduled to begin next year -- will bring jobs and development to the south, long considered to be the least developed region in Italy.

But critics say the bridge will bring disaster to the island.

Some say the project will funnel about 6 billion euros (nearly 7.3 billion U.S. dollars) into Mafia-run construction companies, others say the bridge will destroy the environment and many feel it's just a waste of money.

I'd come to find out what most Sicilians think about the bridge. Would a link to the mainland help Sicily develop? Will it ever be built or will it, like so many other projects in Sicily, be started but never finished? I also wanted to find out whether the Mafia is still a real threat on the island.

The military police had very few answers for me -- but a lot of questions.

"What do Americans think of the bridge?" asked Aurelio, who, at 24 years old, was one of the oldest in the group.

I fumbled for an answer. Should I tell him that Sicily has fallen off the map for many Americans? Sure, it was a center of civilization during Greek and Roman times, and when Arabs and Normans ruled the island. But it's been a long time since Rome fell.

"Americans haven't heard much about the bridge yet," I hedged.

Our shared language skills were nearly tapped out, but luckily, it was getting late. So we gave up trying to separate Mafia fact from fiction and tried to get some sleep instead. Aurelio even offered to sing me a couple of love songs as lullabies.

All of this reminded me of my first trip to Sicily a few years back, when I realized that it's difficult to feel lonely on the island. In fact, it's nearly impossible to be alone at all.

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