Military on the streets, violent racist cops and the most corrupt government in Westrn Europe, most guidebooks never show this side of Italy.
Getting off the train at Milano Centrale, I avoided the junkies and pickpockets that inhabit the station like rats and made my way over towards the airport bus. It was raining heavily outside the train station though and I was glad to see the enterprising Bangladeshis were selling umbrellas for 5 Euros. I only managed to buy one just in time before they were forced to split by the arrival of a police car and… an army jeep.
The scene of unofficial street merchants running from the cops is repeated all over the world and I’ve long given up wondering if the authorities would prefer if they became thieves or drug dealers instead. But police harassment is one thing, army on the streets is quite another and the rise in armed cops and soldiers on the street blows a chill right-wing wind.
Earlier in the year I heard a story from an Italian with dreadlocks, a family man who was sitting in his car waiting for his son to come out of school. Suddenly from behind him he heard a furious honking of a car horn and an irate woman’s voice yelling at him to make way.
“But my engine isn’t even on!” he protested at which the lady in question really lost it and the two of them soon began to trade insults.
The woman’s daughter, a child of 7 watched the scene from the backseat of her mother’s car and asked:
“Why is the gentleman upset, mama?”
“The gentleman is upset because the Right have won!” she announced triumphantly.
It’s been half a year now since Berlusconi came back to power in Italy uniting right-wing and neo-fascist forces behind him. Mention Berlusconi’s name to most thinking Italians and they’ll either roll their eyes, shake their heads or let loose a furious flow of expletives. Owning half the TV channels in Italy and in control of the others, he makes sure that the average Italian home sees little else than propaganda and starlets in mini-skirts hopping around aging, worse-for-the-wear male presenters.
He’s also tied in with the various Italian mafias and only managed to avoid court proceedings for the umpteenth time by delaying the charges for so long with legal tactiics that the statute of limitations kicked in. In fact, there’s scarcely a bad thing you could say about a politician that doesn’t apply to Berlusconi and some of my Italian friends never stopped frothing about him. Which is possibly why he won the last election as everyone was too busy hating him to suggest an alternative.
“So if he’s such an asshole, how people still vote for him?” I often asked. The exasperated reply was inevitable:
“He’s a billionaire. People think that if they vote for him then they’ll get to be rich, too.”
It would seem a dumb answer if I hadn’t heard it so many times. Tied into corruption, surrounded by model bimbos while preaching family values, Berlusconi leads the kind of life that many Italians dream of. Tired of the utopian promises of the bickering Italian Left, Berlusconi’s message is so much clearer: if you’re rich and powerful you don’t have to give a dead horse’s head about anyone else.
For the immigrant Africans it means police beatings, deportation and the continued exploitation of those just off the boat will only get worse. The TV news hype up the dangers of rape and murder by the immigrants, the police beat those who hesitate to show their papers and the Mafia take new arrivals to work in the fields for a handful of Euros a day.
Berlusconi’s chums, The Northern League, continue to push for the separation of North and South Italy, where unemployment and corruption choke most economic activity to a minimum. An exception is Napoli where power has effectively been surrendered to the Camorra, the local mafia, whose reign of terror has killed over 3000 in the last ten years. With free run of the port and unregulated factories producing fake designer clothes so good you can’t tell the difference, there’s a fair chance they made something in your wardrobe.
Not exactly the Italy of renaissance art, pizza and anemic catwalk models that fills the guidebooks.
It’s still a great country, though, filled with kind, funny people who enjoy life and who are ready to help the traveler. Like so many other places in the world, they just have a rotten government.
I’ll be back next spring and until then, if there is a God, maybe He’ll hear the collective Italian prayer for Berlusconi to develop just a little fatal prostate cancer.