Monthly Archives: March 2007

Sei una vittima?

Today on a walk I saw a billboard asking “are you a victim of racism? if so, call this number toll-free”. Also on the advertisement the faces of two women: one black and one white. Each of them had half their face painted another color. The black woman had half her face painted white, and vice versa. The advertisement struck me as at once silly and dishonest. Prejudice in Italy has little to do with skin color.

First, a few distinctions. I believe there is a huge difference between a person who is culturally Italian but ethnically (if that’s the right word) non-Italian and a person who is both culturally and ethnically non-Italian (i.e. recent immigrants). Without statistics I can’t really make an accurate judgement, but from my own observations there is not a large group of the former group. I’ve seen a few Asian- or African-looking kids and adults who seem thoroughly Italian, but in this respect Italy is a lot like Nebraska or Vermont–seeing an assimilated non Italian is a bit rare. Indeed, to my American eyes, Italy is incredibly homogenous.

But this homogeneity is largely an illusion–it’s what you see if you focus on skin color. What the world sees as ‘Italy’ is only a recent establishment. It has been just under 100 years since Italy became one nation. Before that, there were distinct provinces, with distinct cultures and languages. On TV and radio and in schools Standard Italian is spoken, but when Italians speak to one another they mostly speak in dialect. Which dialect you speak depends on your town, so that the towns of Prato and Lucca (about 40 kms apart) have distinct dialects. Without Standard Italian, Venetians and Florentines would have a hard time communicating, and Venetians and Neapolitans might find it impossible. I know a girl from southern Italy whose father, and the other older inhabitants of her hometown, speak the local dialect, which is in fact a dialect of Greek. The language is a holdover from when the town was a Greek settlement, a time so long ago that my American brain gets headaches just thinking about it.

This is all to say that there is a lot of prejudice and what might be called bigotry flying around this country, and none of it has to do with skin color or ‘race’. Because I’m American I’m supposed to be boorish, loud, and lacking in good taste (I assure you, I have excellent taste). The French are arrogant, the Germans don’t know how to smile and are always on time. Southern Italians are ignorant and lacking in class or culture. Florentines are uppity. Romans are rude. You shouldn’t trust Neapolitans, or Albanians.

There is a lot of strife between cultures–Italy has an enormous immigration problem. Desperate Albanians have flooded the gates, in their escape from genocide. North Africans and Pakistanis are also here in great numbers, seeking better opportunities. If Italy offers better economic possibilities to these immigrants, it is awful to imagine what it must be like in their home countries. To be honest, Italians’ distrust and hostility to these groups makes sense to me. They speak different languages, eat different foods, have vastly different societal norms and customs. Furthermore, in Italy’s struggling economy, these immigrants are in a difficult position when they are holding jobs that an Italian might have. It seems very natural that such distinct groups are wary of each other.

Another cultural difference that is very relevant is how immigrants treat women. The feminist movement had a profound effect on Italian culture. In many ways, women’s place in society, in public life anyway, is comparable to that in America. There is a lot of complaint about mamma’s boys, and wives being burdened with more housework than their husbands. This report establishes that in terms of workload (paid and non-paid) shared between the sexes, Italy might be the greatest country on earth if you’re a guy. Yet the vast majority of immigrants to Italy come from truly patriarchal societies. Where women are controlled beyond what we in the West really understand. Honor killings have started to make news in Italy. See my post below, The Ol’ Dead Arm to read more about my sense of violence against women here.

My point here it to say that culture, rather than race, is relevant when we talk about discrimination. Skin color is not a factor in the kinds of cultural clashes taking place in Italy. I think that billboard was motivated by what Americans call white guilt, not a honest reaction to actual social issues. I also wonder if this ‘white guilt’ and victimology language is not an Anglo import.


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Offense taken

I’m sorry to inform you that ketchup is not free here. You know those little packets of ketchup and other condiments you get at fast food places? You have to pay for those.

I’m as shocked as you are.

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Andare postale

When I’m back home in America, and I tell people that I live in Italy, I mostly get awed reactions. To many Americans, it seems very glamourous to live in Europe. The town I live in has Etruscan architecture still in use, and the majority of its buildings are medieval. Produce and meat are flavorful and abundent, and often sold by the producers. Across the street from my apartment is a bar that specializes in dairy products, like fresh pecora ricotta and burrata and the whipped cream that the owner spreads on brioches and dollops on your cappuccino. These are wonderfully unique parts of life here–they make the day-to-day pretty special. But in the end, these are aspects of life a tourist would focus on–they don’t describe the more significant sweep of what life is like here.

I’ve been trying to file some papers with the Questura, the police commisary. I could take the number 13 bus to the Questura at 5 in the morning in order to get in line to get a low number (numbers are given out at 8, and if you get there at 8 you’ve got no chance of getting a low enough number in order to be seen that day). Or I could walk a mile to the one post office in town that offers this document filing service (office hours: 9 to 13.30). This service comes at a price, which I have still to find out, but i believe it is something like 30 euro for the luxury of not spending your day at the Questura. Note that the central post office, which is about 5 times bigger than this particular one, and also, CENTRAL, does not offer this service.

So, I arrive at the post office and take a number. The place is packed. Lots of little old ladies in fur coats, for some reason. This strikes me as amusing, as it is a very warm day. But if you’ve got a fur coat, you’ve got to wear it. So after a half hour, my number is called. The guy behind the window, after hearing my foreign accent, immediately begins rudely demanding various papers and tax stamps, in a way that says “I know you won’t have the right documents”. I’m a bit nervous, so I’m fumbling around in my stack of papers. I hand over the tax stamp, which cost me 15 euro. Then I give him a copy of my passport. I had made three, for no other reason than they come in handy in tight spots. In everything I’ve read for this particular operation, there was no indication that I’d need a copy of my passport, but I brought three anyway, because they invariably ask for something you didn’t think you needed. So I was proud of myself as I pushed the copy through the little hole in the window. But, horror of horrors, the man shakes his head and tells me I need a copy of every single page in my passport. I have never heard of anything like this, but he pushes my papers back at me and calls the person behind me.

On my walk home, I think about everything I deplore about this country. All those people in the post office, waiting to mail packages or pay bills or deposit money. In Italy, the post office offers a number of public services. I’m not sure what all, but most people pay gas or water bills there, pay taxes, etc. So everyone has to go to the post office fairly often. Like government services all over the world, the lines are long and the employees surly and inefficient. I watched a woman mailing a package stand at the counter for 20 minutes. The hours are terrible, so if you have a job (and this is another problem in Italy: jobs are very hard to come by), you have to take substantial time off work or spend your Saturday doing what should be a 5 minute task.

In America, it is sort of a joke–but true as well–that there are police stationed to DMVs ready to arrest the unfortunate souls who, mired in beaurocratic hell, finally crack after being told they need to go home and file some other sort of paperwork. It is common for several people to be carted away each week. Yesterday at the post office, I saw one potential violent case. Here’s what happened: the numbers were being called in order, but it looked like they weren’t. For example, if you have P50, it seems like you should come after F49, but actually A35 came in before you. The letters refer to different services the PO offers. Mr. A35 had come in to the office before Ms. P50, but the latter didn’t understand that. All she knew was that it seemed that the person behind the window was messing with the order and she had been standing there all day, mannaggia. So she starts yelling about the unfairness of this, with Mr. A35 trying politely to explain. Everyone else in the office is staring dead ahead as if this isn’t happening. Finally the person behind the window calls Ms P50’s number, just to appease her. She almost says no, just to spite him, but instead gives him an earful before starting the 20 minute process of mailing one letter. I’m smiling and looking around because I found the interaction incredibly amusing, but no one looks up.

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Question raised

Overheard on the street the other day: a group of men arguing about whether his name is Obama Barak, or Barak Obama.

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The Ol’ Dead Arm

A very close girl friend of mine was attacked by a young Arab man in a club the other night.

All was happiness and light until my friend decided to move from one spot to another. As she squeezed her way in between some revelers, she noticed that one lad intentionally left his hand by his side in such a way that her rear portion brushed it. A classic move. She frowned at the guy, intending to convey “I saw that and I didn’t like it”. The guy yelled at her and punched her in the arm. Hard.

Now, when she told me this story, I immediately asked if he was Italian. She confirmed my hunch that he wasn’t.

I have a real hesitation to make broad sweeping generalizations about diverse individuals. I really do. This hesitation might cause me to be a little unclear about my point, so let me be up front: the Arab immigrant men in this town, and I expect in other towns as well, manifest their cultural discomfort as violence towards women.

If you’ve got your eyes open in this town you know that the Arab men here have very different values regarding sex than do the other men. For the record, I personally know Greek, Finnish, Swedish, German, Maltese, South African, Australian, British, Polish, Hungarian, Israeli, and Italian men. Every time a strange man tries too hard to talk to me at night when I’m walking around, every time a man a man hisses at me, or tries to grab me, every time a girl gets mugged, every time a man makes an inappropriate comment to me on the street, it is an Arab man. Even though it is a cliche, I must make disclaimers, because I want to be understood. Yes, other men can be obnoxious: they might whistle or yell something or try to strike up an unwanted conversation. But the underlying tone that comes through is admiration, or just drunkenness. With Arab men, I very often feel threatened, and there is an undercurrent of rage, or at least emotional turmoil.

I imagine it must be very strange to come to Italy from Tunisia, Libya, or Morocco–countries where most Arab men here are from. To come from a culture that silences and controls and punishes women to a country that celebrates them must be a shock. Italian advertising is a bit shocking even to me in the sense that it uses what I’d call sexually explicit images to sell things like phones and detergent. On Sundays, families parade around in their finest clothes for what seems like all day. Women from 13 to 80 wear low cut shirts, short skirts, and high heeled boots. Glamour is very important to most Italian women–as well as for most men. So to come from a country where women’s rights are very limited–in the public sphere as well as in the private sphere–and where women are kept on tight leashes–well, I imagine that really defines cultural shock. And you don’t see many Arab women here either. So to be in such a different culture without women who understand your come on lines is not a position to be envied.

Still, I find that this cultural confusion manifests itself in violence towards women. Girls are mugged all the time here. I myself was mugged a few months ago, at knifepoint. Boys and men are never, ever mugged. There is no male on male violence to speak of in this town between natives and immigrants. That is strange, since it seems like there would be great opportunity for it–as any American living in a town with high immigrant population knows. The explanation is that a) these Arab men don’t know how to treat women in a respectful way and b) they are cowards so they don’t want to tangle with other guys and therefore c) they pick on the defenseless (i.e. girls)

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I am a twenty-something American living in Italy. I’ve started this blog to catalogue my observations from my daily life here. Living in Italy is wonderful and awful, and I’ll tell you why in the coming months.

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