Thursday, August 30, 2007

Go ahead, make my day!

Ever wanted to re-enact that famous scene from a “Dirty Harry” movie, you know, the one with Clint Eastwood, where he stares at a punk criminal and says, “Go ahead, make my day”?, when you’re at a red light and a window washer just won't take NO for an answer? It’s come across my mind a zillion times in more than 15 years of living in the “Eternally Chaotic” city, Rome, where one is bombarded by an array of gypsies, Pakistanis, Bengalis and what not on a daily basis.

The latest “polemic” in the Bel Paese now regards a politician in the Florence government: he’s finally said “basta” to window washers that torment Florentine drivers. He’s threatened them with fines of up to 250 euros, three months in jail and the confiscation of their tools (wow, that'll really hurt them by taking away their sponges!!!). Naturally, in Italy where hardly anyone ever takes any law without some type of Machiavellian-like discussion, politicians at a national level are up in arms, starting with the left, which says that the real root of the problem aren’t the “poor” window washers (some take in up to 70 euros per day while others are forced to bring home up to 100 euros) but the racket which runs them. In Rome alone up to 80% are controlled by the Romanian mob (n.b. the phenomenon had started more than 10 years ago with the Poles who had flocked to Rome because of their fellow compatriot, Pope JPII. They were eventually supplanted by the Albanians. That ethnic group has been replaced by Pakistanis and Romanians, especially since Romania recently joined the EU).

There are up to 600 window washers working in Milan and nearly 1,000 in Naples. My own personal experience with them in Rome? Oh, on many occasions I would have wanted to be James Bond in his sleek Austin Martin: press a button on my dashboard and BOOM! They disappear behind a tiny rocket. One memorable incident occurred near the FAO building (the U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organisation). A gypsy girl insisted on washing my windshield. I caved in and said ok. I ended up giving her a few cents, perhaps 50. She looked at them and not being enough, threw them right back into the car! I think, atrocious as it may sound, I uttered the word “Dachau” as she walked away…

And they’ll use all sorts of techniques to wash your windows. You activate your windshield wipers? They’ll wash the one in the back! And it’s even worse if you happen to be a woman alone in the car. Some of the window washers come from countries where the woman doesn’t count for much. That means that several NOs! just go in one ear and out the other, so the poor female drivers have to cave in and dish out the money. For me standing at 1m90 (or roughly 6’2”) and weighing some 103 kilos (or about 227 pounds), well, when I say NO! it usually means no (especially for the poor Pakistani or gypsy kid who is half my height and weighs 1/3 of what I weigh!).

The other annoying thing in Rome are gas stations, the self-service ones, which are open all night. You pull up and there sitting on a chair will be an (illegal) immigrant reading the “Islamabad Daily” who for 50 cents will fill up your car. They're not as pushy as the window washers and if you don't want them to fill up your tank, you just do it yourself (one idiot that did end up filling my tank once actually did it while smoking a cigarette! When I told him that he’d blow up along with me and my car, he immediately threw the ciggie away!).

Other fun and annoying things also regard illegal car valets. Yes, if you go to an evening show or even to the hospital to see a friend or relative, you’ll get some moron approaching you and asking you something for a “coffee”. And if you refuse to pay? Well, when you go back to your car you may find your radio antenna broken, or your side view mirror cracked, or perhaps even a tire slashed (or in extreme cases, your car won’t be there when you get back!). Kids in Rome who go out on the town and to discos once complained on a radio talk show that the cops don’t do enough as those who do refuse to pay the valets find their cars quite often destroyed. I call them “mosquitoes” because they can be very, very annoying, especially when you’re parking your car on public and not private property. Again, where’s Clint Eastwood when you need him…

And how are things in tiny Udine? Well, much better I must say: no window washers at the traffic lights, no hookers on the streets and no illegal valets as you go to the Stadio Friuli to see your beloved Udinese (my cousin has been going for about 35 years to the stadium to see Udinese. If someone were to touch his beloved BMW or ask him for money, I think he’d make Bin Laden look like a boy scout. He’d literally go ballistic!).

And what is the irony in this new law that many other Italian cities want to copy from the Florentine example? That court hearings will now be swamped with window washers who have been arrested and in many cases, these same window washers won't even bother showing up for such a "petty" crime (Italy's judicial system and the zillion cases it contains is in a rather disastrous situation. The main tribunal in Rome has been defined a “suk” by lawyers!). I personally find it extremely difficult that several thousand illegal window washers will be tried in Italian courts. I mean, if there are many politicians with much more serious offences on their hands that sit quietly in Rome’s parliament (instead of being locked up in jail), are they really going to throw a 19 year-old gypsy girl in jail for 3 months. I mean, really, in Italy?

No doubt the sudden impact of the new law in Florence has had a positive effect: the window washers have completely disappeared (one town has resolved the problem by dismantling 30 traffic lights and replacing them with convenient roundabouts!). Alas, like many things in Italy, once a law is passed, things will go back to being “normal”, and drivers will be again bothered with window washers. An example? Awhile ago, the government under Berlusconi came up with the point system for one’s driver's license. You drive while talking on your mobile phone and you get points deducted (everyone starts with 20 points). Ditto if you drive without your seat belt and other offences. Well, want to know just how many Italians (even in tiny and law-abiding Udine) still drive while talking on their mobile phones (and sometimes right under the noses of the cops)?

Monday, August 20, 2007

Will Italy ever be a “normal” country?

For my Italian friends out there: a letter from a gentleman (an Italian) in La Repubblica’s letters’ section (19/08/07). You get a good feel of the country by reading the many letters that average Italian citizens send to their local and national papers. You arrive at the conclusion (at least I did years ago) that while Italy may be a “beautiful” country it is by far a “great" country.

“Ageeb tra tutti I paesi preferisce l’Italia…”

Qualche giorno fa, sulla spiaggia dello stabilimento balneare dove trascorro le vacanze, ho fatto la conoscenza di Ageeb, un simpatico venditore ambulante senegalese. Vedendolo abbastanza provato da caldo e fatica, l'ho invitato a sedersi per prendere fiato. E ho ascoltato la sua storia. Ho così scoperto che Ageeb e' un migrante di lungo corso che oltre il senegalese parla decentemente 4 lingue e che nella vita ha viaggiato molto vivendo in tanti paesi.

Alla mia domanda su quale paese l’avesse accolto meglio ha risposto senza esitazioni: l'Italia. Così, sulle prime, ho pensato che forse siamo un popolo più tollerante di quanto sembri, memori di un paese di santi, poeti, navigatori e migranti, e mi sono prematuramente inorgoglito. In realtà Ageeb mi ha spiegato che si trovava più a suo agio nel nostro bel paese perché i controlli fatti nei suoi confronti sono molto meno "asfissianti", "la merce raramente gli viene sequestrata" e "praticamente mai gli e' capitato di vedersi consegnare il foglio di via", diversamente da quanto gli era accaduto nel resto d'Europa, dove aveva trovato forze dell'ordine che sembrano "ossessionate" dal rispetto delle regole e dal senso della legalità (my note: like Canada perhaps or England or Germany??).

E d’altra parte, cosa possiamo aspettarci? Il nostro paese e’ ammorbato da un senso di illegalità diffusa, al confronto della quale Ageeb e le sue vendite taroccata mi sembrano francamente il male minore. Come possiamo pretendere il rispetto della legalità da persone che spesso vengono nel nostro paese con "le viscere in mano", se siamo il paese dell'evasione fiscale, dei falsi bilanci, dell'assenteismo, del lavoro nero, dove spesso il peggiore esempio viene dai membri della nostra classe dirigente?

I was 16 and worked part-time in Winnipeg at the local Safeway grocery store. I was a bagger and was making a whopping 3.30 (Canadian) an hour. Those were really big bucks back then for a teenager. I had my regular pay stub with my tax and pension deductions. This was only 32 years ago. My father instead, upon arrival in Winnipeg from Italy (and with an immigrant visa in his pocket from the Canadian Consulate-General in Milan) worked as a bricklayer prior to working as a physiotherapist. He and other immigrant workers were regularly paid and all had a legal contract. This was roughly 1956, some 51 years ago.

In Italy instead, in 2007, they’re still talking about foreign labourers who work “under the table” and with absolutely no rights such as insurance and healthcare benefits. These same workers usually perish at construction sites. And soccer, Italy’s so-called “national sport”? Well, actually, it’s tax evasion the favourite pastime of millions of Italians (Italy’s highways and decrypt hospitals would be amongst the world’s finest if all “law-abiding” Italians were to pay their taxes, instead the Salerno-Reggio Calabria highway, perhaps not more than 300 kms long, is perpetually under construction and the summer-time line-ups are "Dantesque" in nature. I drove on several occasions the Trans-Canada highway from Winnipeg all the way to Montréal. We’re talking about some 2,500 kms, more or less. Never once did I see or hear about parts of the T-C under perpetual repair. And were only talking about a highway that spans the 2nd largest country in the entire world!) .

Will Italy ever be a “normal” country (like Canada perhaps or England or Germany)? I doubt it very much…