header i-Italy

Articles by: Judith Harris

  • Op-Eds

    Bright Moments of a Difficult Year


    Some of us think this is a year best forgotten. But let us consider the bright moments. In Viterbo one evening, as we were headed to a concert, we saw a group of well-dressed young people seated at a table. They were collecting fingerprints because Roma (Gypsy) children were being fingerprinted by order of the Italian state. As we pressed our fingers onto the pages, and signed our names and addressed and gave our ID card numbers, we took great pride in the young people, who took their time and intelligence and energy to react in a peaceful, serious way.


    Another bright light was the show of courage of the Prefect of Rome Carlo Mosca, who refused to fingerprint Roma children, but instead sent Red Cross teams into the Roma “camps” to see which ones were inoculated against smallpox and mumps and polio (half were not). Oh, yes—I forgot to say that for his pains he has been removed from his post. Insubordination does not pay.


    Last month Isabella Clough Marinara, Ph.D., addressed a conference on racism, in which she described the situation of the Roma today in Rome. From her paper:




    “Under the last centre-left government and now under the right, the drive to shut down unauthorized camps and deport undocumented foreign Roma has resulted in large numbers now keeping constantly on the move in the hope of evading the police.

    “For many, deportation would mean the return to countries, such as Romania and Slovakia, where anti-Roma discrimination and violence are common. Thousands of other foreign Roma have been in Italy for decades or were born here but have suffered systematic obstacles to obtaining Italian citizenship. Most of those who escaped ethnic cleansing during the break-up of Yugoslavia and the Kosovo crisis have not been recognized as refugees.

    “They confirm that Hannah Arendt’s analysis remains true today: those who lose citizenship rights very quickly lose their supposedly inalienable human rights. Foreign Roma in Italy have again taken on the role they had in the Renaissance, exiles who are de facto unprotected by the authorities of any state. However, the Roma question cannot be reduced only to one of citizenship status, as many politicians claim. There is certainly a racializing element in the special policies which target them. In fact, Italian Roma and Sinti are also subject to fingerprinting and police controls which are not applied to other Italians. This amounts to ethnic profiling.”

     

    And so, lest we forget the significance of the season, let me introduce the Christmas beggar child Mary. A cocky six year old, tricked out in a cheap Santa suit, Maria  (her real name) is a Roma from Romania. She told me that she has no plans to attend school. Still, all alone, playing skillfully to the shoppers in the bustling outdoor market at the Campo de’ Fiori, she collected coins and then came into the Magnolia Café and clambered up onto a stool to give herself a treat with a bit of her earnings. She has no home, she is being exploited, but she has a bright smile and eyes like the stars of Bethlehem.


    Merry Christmas to the editors and readers of i-italy, and a very happy new year.

     

  • Facts & Stories

    The Church, the State, and Italy's Budget


    Desperate to save money, in a Senate debate over the 2009 budget last Friday the Italian government revealed plans to slash its E 537 million ($692 million) annual subsidy to the country’s 13,000 private schools, of which roughly half are Catholic with over half a million students—especially in elementary schools—and 41,000 teachers. The planned cut was to be of E 134 million ($172.6 million) distributed over the coming three years..


    During the past three years about one-third of the subsidy had already been eliminated.


    The Church reaction was uncommonly swift. That same morning Monsignor Bruno Stenco, who heads the Italian bishops conference (CEI) schools sector, said that already state subsidies pay for less than half their teachers, and warned that, should these new cuts go through, “the federations of Catholic schools will mobilize countrywide.” The possibility that the clergy would circulate petitions was also aired.


    Pope Benedict XVI moved with similar rapidity; speaking Friday the pontiff pointedly urged “the adoption of measures in aid of parents in their inalienable right to educate their children according to their own ethical and religious convictions.”


    No less swiftly, budget hatchet man Giulio Tremonti, 61, who is Minister of the Economy and Finance, backed down, announcing that an amendment to the schools budget would restore some E. 120 million ($155 million). Supposedly, the amendment had been written before the loud Catholic protest, but this did little to silence Government critics.


    “When the Vatican whistles, Tremonti comes running,” sneered Paolo Ferrero, 48, a former cabinet minister under Romano Prodi and head of Rifondazione Comunista.


    Watching on the sidelines were irate public school and university students and teachers, fresh from huge piazza demonstrations all over Italy, themselves battling (and losing) similarly radical cuts in the budgets for public schools, from elementary up to and including university research institutes.    


    In an interview with the daily La Repubblica, Rome University Physics Professor Carlo Bernardini complained that, while Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini will chat with students on Youtube, she has been deaf to their requests for a real discussion even as she “opens a dialogue with the bishops.”


    The students themselves seem to be floundering, frustrated at their failure to score their own points, and with few organizational skills. (On this, Italian readers see Sabina Guzzanti’s blog report from Senigallia) At a Rome dinner party last week an Italian professor was shouting at a graduate student over what is to be done.


    It is plain that the government headed by media magnate Silvio Berlusconi, already looking ahead to his campaign to become Italian President to succeed Giorgio Napolitano, has no interest in clashing with the Vatican, no matter how bleak the Italian economy and the Government’s budget loom.


    In addition, 300,000 Italian children attend Catholic elementary schools, the Church’s strongest educational card in Italy. Public school facilities, whose income is being hacked away by Tremonti, could simply not handle the arrival of hundreds of thousands of young children whose parents could not afford to pay higher school fees for religious school. 


    Yet the situation is not altogether clear, for commentators here say that the details of the restoration of the budget cuts have been left vague, and that whether it will go to private or to public schools is not yet clear.


    What is clear is that, when the reaction against Berlusconi Government measures arrives with sufficient authority, the Government reacts. In the same way, when Culture Minister Sandro Bondi appointed businessman Mario Resca to head a new development office that would oversee all Italian public museums, historic buildings, libraries and archaeological sites, some 6,000 worldwide museum directors and prestigious art historians signed an on-line petitition. Spearheading the protest was University of Pisa archaeologist Salvatore Settis, who is chairman of an advisory council for the Culture Ministry. Resca’s appointment, mocked as “cultural mcNuggets” because he had headed McDonalds Italia for twelve years, is certain to go through at this point, but his purview appears significantly reduced, and he will have little authority over museums and their programs of loans, a sensitive issue.

     

     




     

  • Panoramic Rome, before and after Google

     It is thrilling news that University of Virginia’s art historian Bernard Frischer’s long-standing project to create a virtual ancient Rome is now reality, thanks to Google Earth. “It’s another step toward creating a virtual time machine,” Frischer said, “a continuation of five centuries of research by scholars, architects and artists since the Renaissance.”

     

    Frischer had been working for years on the project with Past Perfect Productions, when he was approached by Google administrators. Viewers not only see the topography of ancient Rome, but can tour the inside of some of the buildings as well. It is a first and a genuine accomplishment. 
    But what about before Google? In the 18th and 19th centuries creating panoramic views of Rome—some of them a 360 degree circuit on pasted sheets up to 30 feet long—was a vogue. Buildings were constructed specifically so that viewers could see the amazingly detailed circular views by Italian and foreign artists like Pierre Prévost and Ludovico Caracciolo, and fabulous cityscapes like those of John Newbolt, Thomas Shew, Carl Ferdinand Sprosse and Ippiolito Caffi.
     
    A few of these specially built viewing houses exist in North Europe, but all have been lost in Italy. Some of the pictures survive, however, and in a sophisticated and unusual exhibition, Rome’s history museum in Palazzo Braschi has put on view, through April 19, thirty-five of these extremely rare works in steelpoint, engravure, acquatint and oils.

    Italian history buffs will be interested in the two views from the Janiculum showing the French siege of Rome in 1849, which brought about the fall of the short-lived Roman Republic.

  • Op-Eds

    US Elections: “But Why Not an Obama Here in Italy?”



    ROME – Italians cringed this evening as news reports arrived from Moscow, where Premier Silvio Berlusconi said in a press conference today that the U.S. President-elect Barack Obama is “handsome, youthful and also suntanned.” When reporters gasped, he reportedly said, “But it’s totally nice [una carineria assoluta], a big compliment.” 

     

    Already Berlusconi had volunteered, presumably half in jest, that as an older man, he was ready and willing to give helpful hints to Obama.

     

    The compliments are more comprehensible in consideration of the fire storm unleashed by Senator Maurizio Gasparri of Berlusconi’s own Partito della Liberta‘ after Gasparri told a reporter on Rai’s GR 3 radio at 8:45 yesterday morning, “many questions weigh upon” Obama’s position on the efforts to combat international terrorism, “the real testing ground for Obama.” The implication was that Obama was somehow soft on terrorism, and a swift reaction came from Anna Finocchiaro, leader in the Senate of the Partito Democratico (PD) group. “People do grasp that these are words that risk undermining relations between Italy and its foremost ally, and that the government, with such affirmations, puts itself into a very serious situation.”

     

    Invited to back down, Gasparri said that he was simply referring press reports. Interior Minister Roberto Maroni of the Northern League contradicted Gasparri flatly, saying that both Senators McCain and Obama had, in their campaigns, guaranteed “total continuity in the struggle against international terrorism.”

     

    Center-right majority figures have also accused the left of exploiting the Obama victory for their own political purposes.

     

    Speaking for that left was PD leader Walter Veltroni, who called the Obama victory “a choice of hope over fear.” He added that, “The Bush values will be replaced in the world by new values of solidarity, multilateralism, equal opportunities, the environment—all things that we haven’t heard about in years,” and which will leave their mark on European politics. To an excited crowd celebrating at dawn in Piazza del Pantheon, he said that an era of American history is ended—the Bush presidency, "eight difficult years. I think of this in exactly the opposite way from the President of the Council of Ministers, who has said that the Bush administration has been the best in recent years.”

     

    Elsewhere, the discussion down at Remo’s bar in our piazza came with an edge. Usually at Remo’s no one talks of anything but il football, but the crowd yesterday and today buzzed with excited, even thrilled election talk. Only Remo himself, a notorious conservative, was terse, keeping to himself and saying, “I’m not saying anything.” The most eloquent shouted: “Welcome back, American dream!” “Why can’t we have an Obama here in Italy?” asked another of the denizens. “It could only happen in America, think of it!” said our local PD group. “This is exciting! The U.S. has a young person in charge, and we’ve got these old fogies we can’t get rid of.”

     

    Results were clear by 4 am in Italy, and Obama’s election seemed certain by 6 am. Democrats Abroad had registered some 5,000 voters in Italy, and through dawn of that morning hundreds of its members had remained jammed into Rome’s Stazione Termini, at a lively spot called Roadhouse Grill run by a Pakistan-Brit everyone calls “Mo,” short for Mohammed. Five big TV screens and a pancake breakfast with sausages and orange juice gave food for thought and survival. One Obama backer showed up with his dog, so that every time the crowd burst into applause (“We’re taking Ohio! Yeaahhh!”), the dog barked.

     

    Two photographs in the dailies deserve mention. The best was the election day cover in L’Unità, showing a lonely President George W. Bush walking down an empty corridor. The headline: “One thing is clear: Bush is out.”

     

    Worst: a nastily manipulated drawing of Obama’s face covering the front page of the daily Libero, with an accompanying sly editorial under the headline, “Strano ma nero,” strange but black. This was intended as a play on words for Strano ma vero (strange but true).

     

    We’re not laughing.
     

     

  • Facts & Stories

    The Crisis of Italian Universities: A Student Speaks Out


    ROME – It rained on the high school students’ anti-government parades this week, but it did not dampen their spirits, even though Monday’s demonstrations in Rome ended with serious clashes between right- and left-wing corteges, with three high schoolers injured.


    The law that chops off funding for schools was approved on Tuesday by the Chamber of Deputies and passed in the Senate today (October 29th). As one of its consequences, those elementary schools with fewer than 500 students, and all of day-care centers with fewer than 50 children, will be closed. Many of the elementary schools are in mountain towns with long traditions of proud local culture.


    The demonstrations against this unpopular government action, justified to avoid cuts elsewhere in the budget, continued all over Rome today. Some schools, such as the prestigious Collegio Romano, whose graduates include three popes, are now occupied by students. Police were out in full battle gear with shields, and to reach my own home I had to have special permission to cross the no man’s land in front of the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, a five-minute walk from the heavily protected Senate, where the debate now begins before a vote that will make the bill become law.


    Besides high schools, disastrous financial shortages are facing universities. On this, I received the following eloquent note from Roberto Casula, a student at the University of Cagliari. These are entirely his opinions, and here they are, lightly edited for clarity:

     


    It took only nine minutes for the Italian Chamber of Deputies to approve the terrible Law Number 133 Tuesday. Under its terms funds for Italian public universities have been cut by 1.5 billion Euros over the next three years, and the public universities are allowed to change their status from public to private. If a university decides not to change status, it will face the funding cuts. Therefore the easiest, but maybe the only, way for a public university to receive the same amount of money as it had in previous years will be to increase student-paid tuition.


    As usual, we the students will be the victims of an attempt to reform the university system in Italy. Every year brings an increase in the tuition fees and a cut in funding in Italian universities. Those students who chose public instruction probably will have to pay the same amount of tuition as those in private universities.


    The President of the University of Cagliari told us that in recent years the only way to avoid a deficit in our university's budget has been to increase tuition. Fees in private universities are high, and the Italian state already gives money to these universities, trying to put private and public schools and universities in an equivalent situation. The new reform brings the concrete risk that the public university in Italy will be killed.


    This is not only a budget problem. It's a problem of democracy and pluralism. The State, in subsidizing the private system, which survives only thanks to the State's help, threatens both the existence of the public university and also the study possibilities for the many students who simply cannot pay higher fees.


    Italian students in the Erasmus project this year will not find the same university when they to Italy in the next months.

    The law also states that the turn-over in the Italian university has to be stopped. In the next years only one new professor will be hired when five retire. In Cagliari alone, sixty-eight professors will retire and only twelve will be hired.


    Meantime, [French Premier] Sarkozy has announced an increase in the university funding. Both Spain and France have spent, in past years, almost 2000 Euro more than in the for each university student, and Germany over 1000 Euro. Italy, by contrast, cut the investments for every student by almost 500 Euro.

     

     

  • Art & Culture

    Rome’s Fountains


    ROME – It is arguably the finest Baroque fountain in all Rome, if not the world—the most complex, the most beautiful, and the most thrilling. The monumental centerpiece of the finest piazza in the Eternal City, Piazza Navona, was constructed in1651for the Pamphilj family pope Innocent X, whose hereditary palace was in that piazza. Gian Lorenzo Bernini and his highly qualified sculptor assistants hacked, twisted and polished white marble and travertine from the quarries north of Rome into the Fountain of the Four Rivers. This amazing, four-legged confection—a quadripod rather than a tripod—resembles nothing so much as a mammoth candlestick supporting, instead of a candle, an ancient Egyptian red granite obelisk 16.54 m tall. Bernini’s conceit was that, beneath all the weight of the obelisk, the fountain structure would be transparent, permitting viewers to see right through the fountain, past splashing stone horses and drinking lions, from one end of the piazza all the way to the other.

    Such artistry comes at a price. For a fountain to function, water must run through a labyrinth of hidden pipes—and Rome’s water is notoriously dense with calcium, which can accumulate and block the flow. The stone itself is drenched with that water, but also with brilliant sunlight on summer days, alternating with mid-winter chills, when the occasional snowfall and not infrequent night-time freeze brings ice. Add traffic, and the result is cracks and fissures in the stone, erosion from particle pollution and smog, blocked water spouts, and, above all, risk to the supoprt system of the fountain itself.


    An ongoing restoration project costing over Euro 621,000.00 was begun in 2006 by the City of Rome together with the city’s prestigious conservation and restoration institute, the Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione e il Restauro. Speaking in the auditorium of the Ara Pacis in Rome on October 24 at an international conference on monumental fountain conservation, architect Annamaria Pandolfi of the institute described the problem of the Four Rivers fountain and the challenge of the restoration of a monument which had reached “an advanced state of deterioration.”


    Comparative photographs taken in 1970 of the single figures representing the four rivers—the Platta, the Ganges, the Tiber and the Nile—demonstrated the extent of the damage.


    The cafe, restaurant and shop owners at Piazza Navona did not oppose the conservation project for the fountain even though it required unsightly scaffolding. However, they lobbied intensely for it to be completed within six months, she said, “But that sort of speed was impossible for the restorers in charge of the work, which we knew would take at least two years.


    “In fact, a certain amount of time was spent on arranging financing. But above all, a restoration or conservation building site on this scale can be an even more complex project than a new construction. When the restorers come upon a problem, they must stop and consider carefully the various solutions. This takes time and the contribution of a host of skilled specialists: architects, biologists, restorers, photographers, chemists for mineral analysis, hydraulic specialists.” In addition, all past restoration and conservation attempts must be examined and analyzed; even restorations that are not bungled or did not utilize materials no longer acceptable may need restoration.


    For the carved portions of the Bernini fountain, sophisticated tools were put to use, such as a colorimeter and a video microscope. The extent of the erosion, and the depth of the fissures and elongated cracks in the four carved figures representing the rivers, were analyzed using ultrasound and laser scanning.


    The hydraulic system was studied via endoscopy. In the portion where a figure represents the Ganges, photographs showed that in 1970 water emerged, as if over an invisible umbrella, from two narrow spouts and from two broad fissures that ejected sheets of water. “By 2006, water was escaping from the wrong place. The fountain was almost entirely blocked, and the mechanical action of the water then damaged an oar that was part of the group,” said Pandolfi (see photo above).


    To analyze possible calcium damage that would block pipes, black marble disks were placed strategically at different depths within the water basin, so as to measure the amount of calcium deposited over a specific time period.


    Once restoration is complete, smog, however, continues as a threat to the Four Rivers Fountain, as well as the numerous other recently restored monumental fountains in Rome, according to art historian Luisa Cardilli, speaking for the Rome city administration. Those recently restored include the Trevi Fountain (in 1999), the Fountain of the Turtles in Piazza Mattei, the Acqua Paola Fountain on the Janiculum and the twin basin fountains placed in Piazza Farnese by Michelangelo. One at particular risk is the Fountain of the Triton in Piazza Barberini, which has been restored four times in the past three decades. Even the few fountains outfitted with closed-circuit water systems require constant, careful monitoring and maintenance, said Cardilli.

     

     

     

     

  • Op-Eds

    “Salviamo l’Italia”. Demo Diary


    ROME – Monday, September 15. Students and teachers in some 70 Italian schools showed up dressed in funereal black, in a protest against  Education Minister Mariastella Gelmini, 35-year-old lawyer from Brescia and a member of Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party. Gelmini plans to restore the old-style single teacher in all Italian elementary schools. Placards carried by some protesters denounced her plan as “Jurassic Schooling.” The minister responded by accusing the demonstrating grown-ups for exploiting young children. The Government says that, of all the cabinet, Gelmini is the single most popular figure after Berlusconi himself.


    Mid-October. In Rome Minister Gelmini is addressing the assembled MPs. In the speech she defends the government’s planned school budget slashes of E. 9 billion ($12 billion) and the elimination of a large number of schools. Inadvertently she gives her critics poison for their arrows by mispronouncing the word egida (in English, aegis). From what the British would call the back-benchers come snickers, catcalls and guffaws. (Click here to hear a defense of her and to see her speak, in Italian.)


    Friday, October 24, midday at the Pantheon. With each passing autumn day the students’ anger has increased, and today the tourists in the piazza in front of the Pantheon are stumbling over Rome University students, who are sprawled on the (not terribly clean) paving stones as their professor, standing and gesticulating, lectures. The students listen keenly despite the obvious discomfort and take notes. The same scene is taking place in front of the Senate building, Palazzo Madama, where the pro-government coalition senators seemed singularly indifferent to the student protest against the government’s deep cuts in school funding and inevitably in university funding as well. It’s a good thing for the open-air classes that the weather is holding warm and bright.


    Saturday, October 25, 7:30 am. Protest day has begun. Police are setting up road blocks, and Piazza Venezia is already crowded with young and older Italians, obviously just arrived from outside Rome. They are clutching maps to try to figure out where they are to begin the giant, nationwide march that has been called to support the student demands. Placards in front of the Senate say things like “Roma Libera” (Free Rome), and “We are not afraid of  you” (of whom? Police? The government?) More interesting is the sign saying, “We [students] are not going to pay for this financial crisis.” Their final destination: the ancient Circus Maximus, where the leader of the opposition Partito Democratico, Walter Veltroni, will speak later in the day. But some demonstrators have moved on to the outlying Cinecittà, blocking traffic there. Police appear nervous.


    Saturday, October 25, mid-afternoon. Inside the vast Circus Maximus the crowd is immense. Walter Veltroni and former Premier Massimo D’Alemma speak in turns, predicting that this demonstration signals “the end of the honeymoon” with voters which Premier Berlusconi has enjoyed since last Spring. University authorities and respected professors, like those holding outdoor classes on uncomfortable cobblestones, openly sympathize with the students. So does this reporter, but frankly, I muse privately, that honeymoon won’t be over until the anti-Berlusconi factions stop shooting themselves in the hoof, as per their open rift with the Italia dei Valori party.


    Saturday, October 25, midnight. Most fortunately, the day is over without a trace of violence, and that is a true victory. Students are continuing their occupation of a building at the La Sapienza, the ancient University of Rome whose campus is in buildings designed under Fascism.


    Sunday, October 26, morning. Left-of-center newspapers trumpet the success of one of the most imposing anti-government demonstrations in recent Italian history. The left claims a turn-out of 2.5 million, the center speaks of perhaps 400,000, and the right, no more than 200,000. Even if the figure is a “mere” 200,000, this is twice the size of the historic 1970’s metal-mechanics’ workers march on Rome.


    “Berlusconi will make a mistake if he just shrugs this off,” concludes the authoritative Stefano Folli, deputy editor-in-chief of the financial daily Il Sole-24 Ore. But then, he goes on to ask, does the left have an identity?  The answer is: probably not.


    Meantime, my own thoughts turn elsewhere: to the Government’s proposal to have separate, short-term schooling for immigrant youngsters so that they can learn Italian and hence be better inserted into the Italian schoolrooms subsequently. It sounds rather a good idea—that is, until I hear, on Radio 3, a well-spoken schoolteacher from Venice saying, “Rubbish. We have had in Venice plenty of immigrants’ children in our schools, and they all learn Italian within three months. There is absolutely no need for such an expensive, useless and latently racist extra schooling, which will also add another layer of bureaucracy.”


    In the light of the reasons behind the demonstrations, which is to say the budget slashes for schooling, her words make all too good sense. Is anybody listening?

     

  • Life & People

    Cappuccino Connoisseur, and Proud of It

    ROME - Little represents American city life better than the painting—you know it well—of a grimly illuminated diner. In it a lone and lonely man wearing a hat, like the one my father always wore, sits wretchedly on a stool as he nurses a midnight cup of coffee.

    This is not Italy. Italy is the café, and what is consumed there. For me, this is the Italian cappuccino. Calculating a minimum of 320 daily presences in Italy per year, with one cappuccino at 8 o’clock in the morning and another at 11, in the past six years or so I have sipped, and occasionally spat out, 2,560 cappuccini.
     
    To make a proper cappuccino is a tricky business. The foam cap must have precisely the right, creamy consistency, for it keeps the cappuccino warm. A foam overdose—where you can actually see bubbles—will cool down the cappuccino. And at any self-respecting café, the barman or woman lets the steamed milk rest a moment, then bangs the metal pan on the counter to remove the unwanted big bubbles.
    I begin the day with a cornetto as well (alas, increasingly, made from mass-produced frozen dough). A few at the café will dip the cornetto into the cappuccino; in the Sixties a popular Italian version of candid camera TV had an entertainer dip his into the cappuccino of another man, unaware of being filmed.
    As everyone knows, ordering a cappuccino at the end of a meal, or, heaven forbid, in the middle of the afternoon, is un’americanata, pronounced with a sneeringly nasal “ata” at the end. This refers to a style or action so vulgar that only us Americans will do it. Needless to say, the word is often spoken by an Italian decked out in blue jeans, dock shoes, oxford-cloth button-down and loafers made in Italy.
     

    A cappuccino is relished most in the right café. Too much shiny marble is the café equivalent of bling and in certain cases can intimate dodgy ownership, as in money recycling. The bling cafés have their place, but the most interesting cafés come in unexpected places, and are often dark. During my six years of work at the U.S. Embassy, just off Via Veneto in Rome, I would steal away from its august halls to sip a cappuccino in the bleakly serious in-house coffee bar of the Communist-dominated General Confederation of Italian Labor (CGIL), where my Marxist cappuccino was antidote to a certain narrowness of perspective. I have also found hospitable cafés inside hospital lobbies, where patients toss a raincoat or bathrobe over their gowns and stand by the counter to chat with anyone who will listen about their operation or new baby.
     
    By contrast, the Italian café, especially in the morning fray, is a scene of wild movement. As the crush of customers heaves and shoves and elbows toward the front of the bar, jockeying for space and attention, the barman (still usually a man, for this is man’s work, though encroached by women, these days from East Europe) must somehow remember the orders and then, out of the chaos, create order by matching the fare to be served with the face he may see for the first time. Many before me have made the list of orders:
     
    “Un caffè.” (Don’t fool with it. This is serious.)
    “Un caffè macchiato.” (Dash of milk. I’m the fancy type.)
    “Un caffè corretto.” (Corrected with a good strong dollop of brandy. Favored by street people and serious blue-collar workers.)
    “Un ristretto.” (Especially concentrated, for those with strong appetites.)
    “All’americano.” (Thinned down with water into a timid broth.)
    “Doppio.” (Double dose, for those in dire morning distress.)
    “Freddo.” (Cold.)
    “Scecherato. (“Shakered,” or coffee-milk in a blender with ice.) And so on.
     
    The cappuccino variations begin with whether it is to be served the old-fashioned way, in a glass (nel bicchiere or in vetro), or in a thick pottery cup (in tazza). From there the consumer proceeds to specify how much or little foam is desirable (poco schiuma, senza schiuma).
    Over the noise the barman in his black cummerbund shouts the order down the counter to his colleague manning the coffee machine, then slams a saucer in front of each customer—larger if for cappuccino, smaller if for caffè—and places a spoon onto the saucer in a specific position: one o’clock, three o’clock, six o’clock. Like the knots in strings made by the Incas, each spoon position tells a story, as I learned when I once absently shifted my spoon and found myself being shouted at.
     
    Other conventions must be respected. When a customer requested a glob of whipped cream for his cappuccino in a seaside coffee bar last August, the barman objected. The whipped cream was there and visible, a luscious Mount Everest in a glass bowl. But the barman pointed out that this was high summer, the whipped cream was for gelato cones only, and anyway the morning too hot to think about adding whipped cream to a cappuccino. Instead of stammering a lame apology, the customer said stubbornly that in his cappuccino he liked whipped cream all year round, every day.
    From the little knot of habitués came snickers. They knew what the barman’s response would be. They watched as, performing for his audience, the barman scornfully filled the cappuccino to the brim and topped it with a giant dollop of whipped cream—filled it until it spilled over, making a brown puddle in the saucer of the poor customer, who had no choice but to drink it all up while ignoring the guffaws, even as dribbles from the cup slopped down the front of his nicely ironed shirt with its fancy label.
     
    I sympathized, for as a connoisseur I too have special requirements, which are in fact demands. No matter how hot the temperature outdoors or in, I order my cappuccino bollente (boiling), although many Italians prefer theirs tepid. For the barman to steam the milk until it is hot takes him extra time. He gives in, but sometimes with a grumbled, “Me, I couldn’t drink it that hot.” Occasionally a die-hard fixes me with a spiteful stare that says, “I’ll fix her,” and then makes it as fiery hot as he can—a foretaste of hell.
    These are the same barmen, needless to say, who ignore their customers to trot out from behind the counter to feed a customer’s dog a tasty morsel from one of the sandwiches behind the glass counter.
     
    A special challenge is to get a look, for free, at the morning newspaper. Usually found atop an ice cream freezer, it is usually stained, with the sports pages curled up and scarred brown from others’ beverages. In Rome, the paper is usually Il Messaggero, and getting at it requires ingenuity in the daily battle with the regulars, who want to pour endlessly over the soccer reports. Few tifosi (fans) are about to be put off by a woman, uninterested in sports and a foreigner to boot.
    The trick, then, is to walk inside, and immediately check to see if the paper is free, then pin it down, set up your beachhead, and, while simultaneously ordering, start reading; otherwise someone else will arrive and grab the paper, and there it goes, for ten minutes you hear nothing but disgust at what la Juve did to la Roma or il Lazio.
    Still, three days out of four, I get to the newspaper first—though not without a fight. And perhaps that is part of the fun.
     

  • Life & People

    Italy: Immigration Politics in a Land of (Former) Emigrants


     ROME.  Visitors to Genoa this summer have delighted in the exhibition "La Merica! Da Genova ad Ellis Island". Opened last June, it is now a huge permanent installation in the Galata Museo del Mare (Museum of the Sea). The curators have used letters, diaries, taped accounts, film sequences and imaginative multi-medial techniques to illustrate the voyages of the millions of Italian migrants who sailed from Genoa between 1892 and 1914, when the outbreak of World War I interrupted the flood.   

     
    For the new installation, the old maritime station at Ponte Federico Guglielmo (today's Ponte del Mille) has been recreated, so that the museum visitor—armed with passport and ticket—can board the ship and visit sleeping quarters, latrines, infirmary (one doctor per ship), and dining hall. Real time would require two weeks at sea, but today's time traveler speedily arrives at a reconstructed Ellis Island reception point, where he or she disembarks to get in line for questioning and inspection for disease.
     
    Until 1905, when norms to protect passengers were first established, the ships in use were simply adapted from whatever freighters were to hand. Fatal illnesses were frequent, especially pneumonia and typhoid.
    Many arrived nevertheless. A youth from Genoa recounts that, at Ellis Island, he was amazed to hear for the first time people speaking a Babel of languages. Fearing that no one would come to find him, he waited, panicky, until a young man came up and demanded, "Where are you from?" The boy gave the name of his town. "I'm your brother," cried the older youth. This was their first meeting.
     
    Then there was Carlo Fagetti, age 23, who wrote his mother on May 25, 1907, "Dear Mamma, I had a pretty poor trip, 27 days at sea, always suffering from hunger. We disembarked and then after three days on the train we arrived in losangelo."
     
    Last week on Capri this reporter, in real time, met a charming Italian of sixty or so selling trinkets at beachside —postcards, necklaces, bracelets, seashells—to tourists. With his profits over the years this pleasant, good humored gentleman had funded his son's chic new restaurant in Chelsea. This man's son, like my own, is one of the new Italian migrants into Nuova York, remote from the stinking holds of steamships and Ellis Island.
     
    Today, immigration into their country is among Italy's most perplexing problems.  This was recognized late last month by Pope Benedict XVI, when he spoke specifically of his "grief" at the "massacre at sea of immigrants fleeing from war, hunger and disease…an open sore that poses a question of conscience to all men of good will." He referred specifically to the 71 who had just drown off Sicily, and called for "new policies for receiving" migrants in Europe. 
     
    Coincidentally (well, not quite a coincidence), the Vatican sponsored a conference on the Roma [Gypsy] question, held last month in Friesing, in the pope's home region of Bavaria. "In the EU country racist and xenophobic attitudes towards nomads [Gypsies] and immigrants is on the rise," warned Mons. Agostino Marchetto, heads of the Pontifical Commission on Migrants and Itinerants.
    Coincidentally (again, not quite), Kevin Appleby, speaking for the U.S. bishops conference, warned both Republican and Democratic candidates that a 700-mile wall will not stop illegal immigration, encouraged by overly restrictive laws. What we need, he said, are "less rigid laws that will encourage work and opportunities for everyone, and compassion."
    As Adriano Sofri wrote in "La Repubblica": "And weren't we the Gypsies back then?" Probably, he added, in fifty years or so these migrants to Italy will be touring a museum installation showing all the horrors they lived through.
     
    Mindful of their own past, Italians have traditionally done a good job of respecting new arrivals, but have been caught short by the sheer numbers of arrivals today. The Roma have taken the brunt, and this writer is among the many complaining about the Interior Ministry's decision to fingerprint Roma children. It is only fair to say, therefore, that in Rome at least this has evolved into a census-taking operation in official Roma camps, conducted by the Red Cross. So far this census has shown that one of five Roma children has never been vaccinated, nor attended school.
    On the other hand it also shows that four out of five have been vaccinated and go to school, at least in the legal camps.
     
    Anti-immigrant feeling is still strongest in the North, where populist Northern League leader Umberto Bossi is on record suggesting that Italy shoot cannon balls at the incoming boatloads. Short of this, how much can we sympathize with the anti-immigrant Italians?
    With a huge legal immigrant population, 12% out a total population of 360,000, Verona is a case in point. Since the Middle Ages, when it vaunted one of Europe's greatest animal fairs with attendant entertainment, the city has been a crucial East-West, North-South crossroads, including today for TIR traffic from East Europe. Today, says Mayor Flavio Tosi, things have gone too far.
    In an interview with Enrico Bonerandi, Tosi dismissed the Bossi solution ("only verbal cannonballs") but also the pontiff's plea for more compassionate policies, saying that the pope had not been speaking of Italy, but of Spain and Greece. Anyway, the tragedies at sea "are hardly the fault of the Italians," which is true enough in its own way.
     
    On the other hand, Tosi praised Premier Silvio Berlusconi for signing a treaty with Libya last month that includes proposals aimed at reducing the pressure of migrants—the working words here are "aimed at"—landing on the beaches at the island of Lampedusa, whose medical and housing facilities have been overwhelmed by the hordes of arrivals, from 30 to 100 a day, during this long summer of good weather.

     "There is a limit, and we have reached it," says Tosi firmly.
    Dear Mr. Mayor, The only response to this is: I don't think so. No less than global business, the escape from global poverty will not be stopped. All praise to Benedict XVI for offering wiser counsel than the politics of the cannonball.

     

  • Facts & Stories

    Does Misery Love Company? Italy’s Roma

    ROME – Misery may love company, but it is not a two-way street. Few are more miserable these days than the Roma, or Gypsies, in Italy, whose camps are being bulldozed by officials, whose  shacks are being firebombed at night by self-styled vigilantes, and whose children now risk being fingerprinted.

    The mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno, has an unsavory past of  neo-Fascist youth stunts that twice brought him police trouble. Those of us who believe in second chances have been slow to attack him for the idiocies of teenagerdom: after all, Fabrizio Cicchitto was a Marxist-Leninist in his youth and then a member of the P2, and this has not stopped Premier Silvio Berlusconi from making Cicchitto his third-in-command, after Gianni Leta.

    But now Alemanno proposes fingerprinting Roma children. The outcry has been so strong that the Prefect of the city of Rome, whose bailiwick includes the plight of the Roma, is cautiously backing off, saying that, well, the EU allows children over six to be legally  fingerprinted. The problem here, of course, is that the EU directive would refer to all children, not to a specially selected group of undesirables.

    Some 150,000 Roma live in Italy, and an estimated 15,000 in Rome alone. Some have lived in Italy for generations, and even a good many recent arrivals are fully legal. However, an unknown number—many flooding in from that recent arrival to the EU, Romania—live  in perhaps twenty illegal camps in and around Rome, some totally without running water or electricity. For these there is no easy solution. Italy, like all traditional societies challenged by a massive arrival of immigrants from other cultures, is baffled.

    Tullia Zevi, for fifteen years president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities in Italy (UCEI), makes the point that, “A country’s minorities are a sort of thermometer indicating, from the way they live and their conditions, the degree of democracy in that country. I’ve always had a strong sense of solidarity with the Roma and their problems because their destiny has been similar to that of the Jews, and this is an injustice which is only rarely remembered.

    “The current wave of anti-Roma feeling in Italy is a challenge that our times offer us, and which we have to face. In part we are doing this: we are becoming ever more European, more a part of the rest of the world, thanks to improved communications and shifts in population…. But we also see extreme right-wing racist ideologies rooted in a lack of culture and in frustrations.”

    In Milan graffiti proclaimed, “Zero Roma Camps,” and in a dawn attack on a camp in the Bovisasca suburb police made a number of arrests. Roman Catholic Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi protested, saying that the Roma living in Bovisasca were being treated beneath the minimal level of respect for human dignity. “And just what kind of benefit do such methods achieve?” the Cardinal Archbishop of Milan said. “The dignity of individuals must always be respected.”

    The problem is intractable, as anyone can see. At midday recently in Naples, that crime-ridden city drowning in its own rubbish, the thermometer stood at around 100 degrees inside the crammed car of the little Circonvesuviano train, when the strains of an accordion could be heard. A rough-looking teenage Rom walked down the aisle through the crowd of passengers and tunelessly played a song. Stumbling before him, struggling to stay upright as the train swayed, was a tow-headed, dirty-faced boy of perhaps five holding a can in front of him to collect coins. But no coins were proffered, and indeed no one paid the least attention either to sullen teenager or child, whose face was a mask of misery.

    I was outraged. If the child had been Italian, I thought, people would have protested. Well, I would, and did. Seeking out the train conductor, I informed him as forcefully as possible that such exploitation of a child should not be allowed.

    Giving me the briefest of glances, the conductor shrugged. “I’m not a policeman.” So much for my protest. Alert to my fussing and fuming, the Rom and his tiny ward had meantime slipped off the train at the next stop.

    That was not the end of the story. At ten pm that same evening, seated over wine and pizza at a cheery outdoor restaurant at the lovely Piazza Dante of Naples, my heart sank when I heard music—that same music of so many hours before. The Rom teenager was back, and still circulating with the same Zombie-like child, staggering blankly from fatigue. I could think of nothing better than to write as withering a letter of protest as possible to the Naples daily, Il Mattino, for which I had occasionally written opinion pieces. My letter pleading for social welfare workers to help Roma children was duly published, and duly ignored—until one day when I was buying a ticket to enter a museum in Naples, the woman in the ticket booth said, “I know you.”

        “What?”
        “I was on the train that day—I saw the boy, and I saw you go for the conductor. Then I read your letter. But nothing happened.” She looked at me with, I thought, pity.

    I was puzzled. This obviously rather kind Neapolitan woman had felt no need herself to take action of any kind, or to protest. But then, as I immediately realized, she knew, before I did, that protest was obviously futile. Her pity was as much for herself as for the suffering child, for she understood her own sense of powerlessness.

    Others are reacting, however. At a school in Rome, where 22 elementary schoolchildren are in a class with several Roma children, the parents are fighting to protect the Roma students’ right to remain in the school despite blinkered bureaucrats who would send them away. Food, showers, laundry—the parents are doing all they can because, said one, “they are spitting on the Roma children, who are at risk.”

    In Milan, where a priest managed to get a large group of children into a school, the teachers are refusing to put them all in the same classroom which would become a ghetto. For their pains the teachers are being accused of racism, but are not backing down.

    And there are other bright spots. In a flash flood in a low-lying area outside Rome two weeks ago, a family trapped inside a car in which water was rising inside included a handicapped child unable to walk and an elderly man. Desperately knocking on the car windows, unable to open the doors, those trapped were ignored by passersby and even by Carabinieri, until an anonymous Roma man appeared, forced open the doors, and carried all to safety. Then the Roma slipped away.

    Newspapers have appealed to know his identity, but to date he remains unknown, an authentic accidental hero.
     

Pages