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 That ethnic group has been replaced by Pakistanis and Romanians, especially since Romania recently joined the EU).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)?