Italy Day 2: Rome – Bicycle and Book Shops Part 2 (0 km)
That afternoon, as the sun began to set, the streets became livelier as Romans came out for their evening stroll. We walked back towards the Colosseum, stopping at the tourist office on our way. The woman behind the desk didn’t know anything about biking through Southern Italy, but Becky bought an Italian phrase book there. Afterwards we climbed up to a row of tourist cafés overlooking the monument. We found a table, but there was space only for two and awkwardly I perched opposite a young, tender American couple.
In the weeks before we left, I’d planned to do some in depth research on Italy, but had ended up writing an academic article on social housing in the UK instead. Still, I’d managed to pick up that Italian politics were in disarray and an election was due anytime.
Over the summer I’d also read a little about Italy’s relationship with Europe. After returning from France and realising I needed to look into how the EU is run in more detail, I’d bought Chris Bickerton’s book ‘The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide’. According to him, Italy’s relationship with the EU has wavered over time. In the 1960s, many were sceptical of joining, owing to the view that the European Community (EC) as it was known then, was an expression of western power and American influence. Later, Italians came to see the European Union as the country’s best chance to defeat the mafia and modernise the south. Since the financial crisis however, many Italians have turned on the EU once more.
It was getting late. Too tired to catch the train we elected to take a taxi. Two drivers stood waiting in the glow of the Colosseum. Half-heartedly we negotiated the fare with the younger, a bald headed man with a once-strong body. He was used to ferrying tourists around the city and as he drove he talked endlessly. Weary, I only half listened, as we headed away from the centre.
‘The building there was commissioned by Mussolini,’ he was saying, pointing to the Palazzo della Civilta Italiano. From my sunken position on the back seat, I could see a sand-coloured building with illuminated arches.
‘It’s neoclassical design. The arches inspired by the Colosseum. Did you know,’ he asked, ‘that Mussolini was a journalist and originally a socialist before he became a fascist?’
I had not known, and was more attentive now.
‘Yeah,’ he continued, ‘he was, before the First World War. But he became disillusioned with socialism, and they chucked him out of the party for being too, how do you say, yeah, ambitious. He was a reformist you know. At that time there was a lot of poverty, unemployment. He built railways and schools, started construction projects. The king did a deal with him, because he was afraid of revolution. There are still people in Italy, you know, who are nostalgic for the fascist time, when there was employment and investment.’
I thought then to ask him about Europe.
‘What do you mean how do I feel about Europe?’ he enquired.
‘I appreciate its a complicated question,’ I said reassuringly. ‘Of course there are different aspects to Europe, it’s geography, the EU.’
‘There is no union,’ he said definitively. ‘There is the same currency, nothing more.’ He paused then added, ‘You know here in Italy the euro is very expensive, it’s twice as expensive as in Germany.’
‘Yes,’ I responded, ‘I’ve heard people say it before.’
‘Here the economy is really bad.’ He continued. ‘There are only two countries in Europe which don’t have a base pay, you know, people work for only a little money, what do you call that?’
‘The minimum wage,’ I offered.
‘Yeah, Greece and Italy don’t have this. And you know, in order to get the economy moving, people need money to spend. Down in the South unemployment is really high. 50% of young people don’t have a job. Down there, there are no opportunities for the young people.’
‘Everyone we’ve spoken to has warned us to be careful in the South,’ I interjected. ‘Is it really true what they say?’ I asked naively.
‘Well yeah, if there are no jobs people are going to…,’ he paused, ‘you know, turn to other things. And of course there is the mafia, but I’m not going to get into that.’
His response did not fill me with confidence, and I was worried by the warnings we’d received by others throughout the day. Our driver was momentarily quiet, but soon began his unofficial tour once again. I wanted to find out more about Italian politics and so interrupted him, asked about the forthcoming election.
‘Well you know, today in parliament, they’ve been talking again about changing the voting system. We have this satirist, Beppe Grillo, well he was before, who started a party, the Five Star Movement. And you know, the main parties are worried about its popularity, so they’re trying to change the law to keep them out. And that means in local politics left and right making a coalition. Can you believe that, left and right coming together?’
I watched him as he spoke.
‘And of course he made some jokes in the past about the president and some other politicians, so they don’t really like him. Neither do the media, everyone says they are a populist party, but they are more centralist, I quite like their policies, yes I think they have some good ideas.’
After he’d dropped us off, I looked up the Five Star Movement online. In the British press I could find only a little information. There was an article in the Guardian, published in the spring, reporting that Italian health officials were blaming a dangerous rise in measles cases on the movement’s anti-vaccination campaign. There was more in the Financial Times, about how the movement is run through an online platform to support direct democracy. Both articles were mainly critical. I found nothing, then, about the electoral reforms.
As we neared the Hotel, our driver told us his name was Giuseppe, but everyone called him Pino. When he was young he’d lived in Blackpool, while training to be a boxer. Proudly he told us his coach was the only white man to survive three rounds with Muhammad Ali.
‘You know I really liked living in England,’ he told us. ‘There I was more free. Young people are more independent. Here, you know, it’s true what people say, everyone lives with their mother till their mid-thirties.’ He laughed.
In my twenties I lived in Spain, and knew that in general southern Europeans lived with their parents longer. But I’d not considered before that leaving home would be considered a privilege, and I was surprised by what he said, given the rise of individualism in the UK is seen to have undermined community and collective ties.
That night in the hotel restaurant there was a football game on, Naples versus Manchester City. All the tables closest to the television were occupied. Manchester were winning comfortably, but as we spread the map out to begin plotting the route, Naples scored and an immense roar came from the spectators. While Becky and I were on our hands and knees, plotting a path with a felt tip pen, Matt 1, sounding relieved, suddenly said he’d found an app which showed the route. It felt for the first time that day as though we’d taken a significant step towards starting our adventure.