The salient difference between Cinderella and her sisters, unfortunately for all you defenders and upholders of the Protestant work ethic out there, is not that she eats her bread in the sweat of her brow while they eat sweetmeats, try on varicolored gowns, and loaf about.  The salient difference between them is that Cinderella is pretty, and they are ugly.

Had Cinderella the opportunity, a doubter such as myself might argue, she would lead a life every stitch as idle.  While, conversely, in their heart of hearts her plain sisters would happily scrub floors if they could but have her flowing gold tresses in recompense.  In fairy tales, tresses are always that color, to indicate the recessive gene and thus, possibly, to remind the reader that progress is a double-edged sword.

To change the subject slightly, I have been reading about the bedbug epidemic in New York City.  Apparently, one can hardly stay in a Manhattan hotel without bringing the bloodsucking critters home, whereupon within days the pestilence spreads to the entire building.  Newsreels roll to reveal the frantic paterfamilias putting saucers of kerosene under the legs of the matrimonial bedstead and other scenes of similarly medieval character.

When I lived in New York 40 years ago, it was the cockroaches.  Like the new plague, that old one “accepted not the face of man,” to recall the Coverdale translation of the Bible, raging in the tenements of the South Bronx as it did in the Upper East Side palaces of the mighty, with the result that, as in some exhibition of synchronized swimming in an old Hollywood movie, a legion of unformed maids named Maria wrung their hands in exasperation upon entering Park Avenue mansions’ kitchens through servants’ entrances.

What next for the First World?  Rats?  Poisonous snakes?  Locusts with human heads?

I live in Palermo, where a dead dog in the middle of the road is not an uncommon sight; where not a single building, including those built by the Sicilian mafia within living memory to appropriate government funds, is in possession of an intact facade; where garbage collection is a political issue on par with defense spending in the United States; where all cars are dented from minor collisions; where pasta shapes are what wives are to a Mormon; and where general indolence defines daily existence.  Yet we have no bedbugs, our cockroaches rarely venture out of the palm trees in which they nest, and there are fewer rats in Palermo than in central London.

It occurred to me the other day that the indolent South is like Cinderella, while the industrious First World is like her ugly sisters.  Visual evidence bears out the simile, as I find every time I travel to London or leaf through an illustrated magazine like Tatler or Vogue.  The hundreds of billions earned by the men and spent by the women—on cosmetics and creams, on clothes and plastic surgery, on exercise and diets—are the equivalent of the “choicest and fattest morsels” I remember from the Russian text of the Cinderella story.  These fell to the share of the sisters and “only made them more yellow in the face,” even as our heroine got “miserable scraps” that made her “more beautiful with every passing day.”  Returning to Palermo, I see these Cinderellas in the street, with their flowing tresses, albeit black, not golden, with liquid eyes, admittedly, not a recessive blue, but the sherry brown of Marsala, and every one of them is like a ripe pea in a green pod of health, prosperity, and virtue.

More than skin-deep, this simile.  The hospitals in Sicily are atrocious, our doctors do little more than hand out aspirins, and a dentist is as likely to amputate a limb as to extract a tooth; yet nobody here suffers from obesity, hardly anyone complains of depression, and I don’t know of a Sicilian adult, not to mention a child, who might think of expressing his frustration with life and civilization by arriving at a school playground gun in hand.

Sexual crimes are extremely rare in all of Italy, and all but unheard of in its southernmost provinces.  Pornography here is the exclusive purlieu of its connoisseurs.  Italian television would strike an American as a kind of Mad Men recreation of a bygone era, an innocent showcase for housewives’ aprons and stocking tops whose darkest and most vicious exhibits would not abash a six-year-old Briton unless earlier in the evening he had been sniffing glue.

Would you take health advice from a man who’s got lice?  Gosh, it even rhymes.  But if you listen to an authority like Mario Monti, currently this country’s prime minister, you will hear that Italy must change, that her ways are outmoded, that she must at last join the First World and step lively in its march of progress.  In short, that those golden tresses must go, that Cinderella’s beauty, health, and preternaturally good cheer are an insult to her sisters, and that if a prince should ever call at the house looking for a bride, he had better arrive in a pest-control van.