“All the cars you see around here,” yet another taxi driver bringing me from the Grand Hotel Villa Igiea to the congested center of town began in a confidential undertone, “it wasn’t always like that, you know. Before, it was all carriages.” Then, after a pause that he reckoned was long enough for the average tourist to appreciate fully the historic significance of the news he had just imparted: “Would you like me to take you to the airport when you’re leaving?” Well, I had news for him: I wasn’t leaving.

Coming from Venice to Palermo as something other than a tourist is a bizarre experience, a little like what I imagine a Social Register Brahmin might feel on having to move from the Park Avenue apartment he finally inherited from his great uncle to the most socially desirable building in Des Moines. “Oooh,” says practically everyone in Des Moines, “have you seen where Mr. Brahmin is living? That amazing new place behind the shopping mall? And you can see the park from every window? He must’ve paid a million dollars for that.” I don’t want to offend anyone, because of course I’ve never been to Des Moines and don’t know if it has parks and shopping malls, but the point I’m making is actually not uncomplimentary. I can even believe that Des Moines is a wonderful place to live. It’s just that it probably wouldn’t be as wonderful as the Upper East Side, in that New Yorker’s considered opinion. And if he’s got a wife, forget it.

All this is bolstered by the defensiveness of the average native, who wants to show the visitor from abroad all the things that, to his counterintuitive mind, make Palermo a social and cultural peer of Venice, Rome, or London. History? Before there were houses, we used to live in huts. Frescoed ceilings? There is a building around the corner from where my cousin lives—it’s got those. Real pretty, Ottocento. Too bad they had to make it into a gas station after the war. Culture? We’ve got the university somewhere over there. Or the library, anyway. No, that’s the county court. Social life? There’s now even a shop open on the Corso that sells Chanelle! You know, the French designer. And so on, when what the fellow should be pointing out instead is that the octopus here is fatter, the girls are prettier, the coffee in every bar is better than the best outside of Naples, the pastries are the couture equivalent of what one finds elsewhere in Italy, and the Teatro Massimo is, without exaggeration, a world-class opera theater.

The other nearly insuperable problem the Palermitani are up against is that in most tourist imaginations—those postcard places where Venice is sinking, Parisian cooking is all butter, English boys are molested nightly, and Santa Claus lives in the Kremlin—Palermo means the mafia. But, as I have more or less hinted on previous occasions, the rest of the world is sinking much fester than Venice in every conceivable sense; and just about every nation, every city, every social class, and every profession in this not-yet-completely totalitarian universe of ours boasts a mafia of one sort or another. Some of these, like the lawyers in the United States, are so obviously powerful that they have no need of violence; others, like the internationale of contemporary art with its associated galleries, museums, and media, are so well entrenched that their preeminence is never questioned; while still others, like the Sicilian mafia or the Propriétaires-Éditeurs of the Michelin Guide, are contented to perform their traditional roles in society, such as teaching people good manners and where to eat well.

Even in Palermo we have the mafia,” beamed the maitre d’hotel at the famous Charleston in the resort suburb of Mondello, imperiously waving away my healthy and otherwise perfectly attractive packet of cash the other night as soon as Alfredo G— had winked that he was paying for dinner. One can say that this kind of joke would slip easily from the lips of any quick-thinking flunky anywhere, but I would argue that it has a more transcendent meaning here. Social order before everything. La cosa nostra is good manners.

Last week, a little girl was kidnapped in the province of Trapani. But apparently the brigands had picked on the wrong baby—a baby, as it were, with the right connections—because 24 hours later, she was restored to her family, her clothes all new and a tiny gold chain around her neck as an added sign of contrition. Nonetheless, that same evening the child’s grandfather went on the local television news to apologize to all of Sicily, sahing that, if he had offended anyone, the slight had been inadvertent, and that, in the future, he would take care to treat everybody better. I don’t think I have ever seen a more elegant exercise in conflict resolution under any political system.

“And therefore?” you may interject. Well, I generally tend to put my money where my mouth is, and just at the moment my mouth is full of cassata, the nonpareil ricotta fruitcake of Sicily. Therefore, I’m going to buy a summer place here, a decision as irrevocable as it is closely reasoned. I have now spent a month at Villa Igiea, the sister hotel of the Grand Hotel delle Palme, going around with Alfredo and his many friends, one of whom, Maglio M—, is a former mayor of Palermo and an incorruptible regionalist who has done time for not ever having joined the national political mafia, a crime that the politicians in Rome call corruption. (“Soon, they’ll be putting you guys in jail for not having visited Brussels,” I jostled him, “and then you’ll remember fondly the good old days, when all you had to do to get along was buy lunch behind the Ouirinale for a couple of gluttons.”)

My conclusion is that, like Venice, Palermo is capable of retarding social progress, and hence is a desirable place to live. But while, in Venice, social order, good manners, and unadulterated food are guaranteed by the unwritten constitution of that independent republic—by its morbidly inward-looking aristocracy, by its fantastically antiquated and intricate guild system, by its topographic insularity and historical peculiarities—here in Palermo, the same result is all fai da te, with the mafia as the do-it-yourself underwriter of traditions, morals, manners, and social attitudes. In Venice, an African immigrant would be unlikely to pursue a local woman, because just getting into a taxi to follow her boat would set him back about $100. In Palermo, he would be unlikely to pursue her because the first guy who did had his private parts cut off and exhibited on a lamppost in his neighborhood, with an explanatory note attached.

Ever careful not to mix genres, I have tended to avoid meeting any of the local grandees, members of the fabled Sicilian aristocracy to whom many in Venice, in particular, are related by marriage. They have more or less abandoned Palermo, their great houses now crumbling tenements occupied by legal and illegal squatters, and it is quite clear that their names and escutcheons count for nothing in a place that has had to survive without them for so many generations. The power here—the power to resist progress, I mean, that being the only species of power I am interested in at this late stage of my intellectual development—is entirely in the hands of the native Palermitan middle class with the right connections. As far as I have seen, they are using that power to good effect, feathering their nests and dowering their daughters instead of building universities and opening art galleries.

Consider the result, which hardly recommends the magical place that everybody around here seems to think I come from. Even though I intend to live and hope to die in Venice, it has taken me 14 months of anguished social climbing to find an apartment to rent on the Grand Canal. I’ve had to wear masks of wealth, amiability, and crushed velvet; I’ve had to pretend that I was Marino Falier risen from the dead; I’ve had to gamble on reputations of friends and plead with presumed enemies. To find an apartment to buy in Palermo, an entire piano nobile staring down the most beautiful square in the city with its eight balconies—or maybe it was 12, I can’t remember now—took an afternoon. A local architect and his building team are already there, inside the long-abandoned Ottocento folly, ripping up the floor and putting in the requisite middle-class appurtenances of water boilers, air conditioners, and door handles. Naturally, we didn’t just walk in there. You don’t start feathering your nest in Palermo unless you’re told you can. Social order before everything. We are protected, you see.

“Well, I sure as hell hope so,” is all the sham Venetian actually manages to say, between mouthfuls of freshly made ricotta fruitcake.