Our first taste of Italy was in Venice. Seriously, everything and everyone were caricatures of themselves. The tanned gondoliers in their red-striped shirts, the over-make-up’ed women waiting to be picked up by water-taxi next to the canals with their Louis Vuitton luggage, the Roma with their long skirts and dark braids begging outside of Chanel, the bushy-eyebrowed, aproned men selling Gelati. It was like Disneyland, only way, way more fun.
I was pretty sure that Venice was an anomaly- that Italy wouldn’t really be that Italian once we left for other pastures.
Boy, was I wrong. It started to become apparent that there really is an Italian “feel” while on the train to Rimini, a city that boasts of beautiful beaches, Fellini (who once lived here) and Roman ruins. There is a lot of gesturing while speaking, a lot of tanned, svelte bodies and gorgeous and almond-shaped eyes. But, as I quickly found out, there’s a lot more.
We spent our first night in Rimini attending a Nigerian dinner hosted in the countryside by Nigerian and Somalian immigrants. Sure, there was Italian wine, and we had driven by fields and fields of sunflowers, but the meal itself had nothing to do with Italy. The proceeds were, however, being donated by the immigrants to earthquake victims as a way to help out the country they were hoping they would soon be able to call their long-term home.
The event happened to fall on the night of one of the Euro championship football games, which meant dinner-goers- Europeans and Africans alike- would often disappear inside to catch some of the action by the bar on TV.
When we were recently in Switzerland watching one of the games with family, a cousin of ours told us that he hoped Italy would lose. He said that Italians are, on a whole, known for being racist, and that they had gone as far as to boo Mario Balotelli, a star player who happens to be black. He said he couldn’t support Italy because of the country’s racism. Indeed, the morning of the Italy/England game, Balotelli was depicted as King Kong in a cartoon found in Gazzetta, an Italian newspaper. Not cool. Not cool at all.
Yet countries all over Europe have been found guilty of bad fan-behavior during football games. Croatia, France, Russia, each of them have had some shitty, shitty fans.
So why is it Italy that gets the bad rap? Certainly the Pact of Steel that Italy had with Germany during World War II isn’t hovering in the back of people’s minds? Is fascism still an issue? Yes, unfortunately, it is still popular among people on the far right. Yet progressive Italians are the first to complain about their current government. Even with Berlusconi gone, they’re mad, hopping mad. Nearly every conversation we overheard involved, in some way, politics. The people of Italy are completely tapped in to what is happening in their country. Indeed, they also keep up with global politics. More than one Italian asked me my thoughts about Obama.
But perhaps there is another side. A darker side? It was, after all, only a few years ago that Paolo di Canio, a self-proclaimed Fascist who looks up to Mussolini, played ball for various Italian teams (and one in England). Christian Abbiati is, today, another fascist baller. And then, of course, is Gianluigi Buffon, who, while never professing publicly, once wore a shirt bearing the fascist slogan, “Death to cowards,” and chose (he said accidentally) the neo-Nazi-associated number 88 to wear on his jersey. Yikes.
I’ll agree that fascist-footballers is, well, troubling, but in my mind, it’s impossible not to note some other troubling things about all the countries we’ve visited, including our own country… People who work menial jobs are often not white. Fast food employees are, more often than not, black. Racism clearly extends into economics. And not just in Italy. In the States, whites have, on average, a net worth of 20 times more than blacks, and 18 times more than that of Hispanics. Pretty appalling. Also, in the States, racist crimes are rampant. Take, for example, the recent shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. Or the fact that the KKK is still an active group (WTF!). This is something I want my kid to be aware of. Neo-fascism might be a label most-often extended to Italians, but the nationalistic, racist side of it is global. It extends into world politics and divides the haves with the have nots.
Yes, many Italians “look” Italian. But we also met an Italian woman who was half-black. And certainly, the Nigerian and Somalian immigrants who were calling Italy home were breathing new life into Times are changing. Doors are opening. Looks can, as we quickly saw, be deceiving. Italy, which looks very Italian, has many faces.
During the Nigerian dinner, when Italy won the game, Africans, Europeans, and yes, even us couple of New Yorkers, cheered like crazy. There was whooping, hollering, a little drum-playing. It was a wonderful way to begin our Italy adventure, with the feeling that even there in Rimini, which was a city integrated with 2000-year-old Roman ruins, we were at one with the world. Fascist footballers, none of us at the dinner approved of your politics, but many of us cheered for the way you play an international sport. I think that there are a few amongst you who should be removed from your teams. I think that you are bad examples to the world-at-large. I think that the fact you remain on your teams is disgusting. I don’t blame those who don’t cheer for you simply because they are too put off of your racism to be able to support your team. But for this game, watched with a group of people from all over the world, it was fun to cheer for the sense of community your playing helped create. What a great lesson for my kid.
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