I live in a small town near Milan, in the north of Italy where my Italian husband was born and from which, he fled when he was 19. Five years ago, we returned together.
Ours is a relatively quiet little town that rises to relevance every now and then. Last year, that happened when the Pope arrived and held a million people mass in the local park. A few months later, the same park hosted concerts by Radiohead, Linkin’ Park and Justin Bieber on different days. Every September, we are home to the historic Italian Grand Prix F1 race.
On all other days, nothing much happens in my town. Yet, there are at least three daily printed newspapers and 10 online news websites and chat groups for this town of 150,000 people and its neighbouring villages. A friend, who is a local journalist, is always ‘very busy’. It’s difficult to set up a time to meet with him. There’s a lot of work, he says. What are the reporters working on till late hours of the night? How does Il Cittadino fill up over 30 pages everyday?
There are usual stories about car accidents, road closures, small thefts in grocery stores, a surprisingly high number of pedestrians getting hit by cars while crossing roads, local theatre reviews, and lists of markets, festivals and exhibitions coming up in the week. There is detailed coverage of the local government, and the papers closely follow the mayor’s footsteps. There are sometimes stories of young passengers not buying their train tickets, or fights breaking out at the train station and then the not-so-rare stories of domestic violence. On a slow news day, there could be an odd story about a 90-year-old woman driving her car to a halt outside the Royal Villa because she forgot where she was going. Or the frequently appearing, more intriguing, stories of parked cars catching fire.
Nobody ever really follows up on the how and why, but every few weeks, some parked car in and around my town, suddenly bursts into flames. Perhaps, to keep the papers interesting. Perhaps, to keep the town interesting.
While this deep interest with the local is a reflection of how insular my town is — and in general, Italy — it also enhances a greater sense of belonging. I wonder how much stronger our sense of community would be if we had, say, a daily paper about Gulshan-e-Iqbal or Clifton. It makes neighbours and shared issues accessible, and gives the town its own identity — which is a touchy subject for us since we are only 14 kilometres from Milan and refuse to be called a suburb.
People in my town are hugely invested in it. Our local council meetings discuss crime, lighting up dark streets at night and checking cars for drugs. But once they also talked about a bulb that needs fixing on the traffic signal on my street. It took them a few months, but I am happy to report that the green walking man lights up now as I cross the street. The point is, people have access to the local government. There is a political process. Most of my family here are active members of political parties. They attend conferences, talks and meetings to discuss local issues. They vote. Basically, they take active interest in their governance.
I was still adjusting to my new home when Italy last went to vote for a new government in 2013. The biggest issue then was the economy. With the country in recession there were stories about Italian families cutting down on the quality and quantity of food purchases. And there were suicides. Middle-aged men from various parts of the country were killing themselves — burning themselves alive, or by hanging in their offices and warehouses, or shooting themselves in the head. There were suicide notes apologising to wives and employees. Between 2012 and 2015 Italy saw over 500 “economic suicides” as they came to be called in the local press.
At that time Italians, across the country, were talking endlessly about the economy and politics and their collective distress made a perfect setting for emotionally charged conversations across Italian homes, bars and dinner tables. As was also the case in my extended Italian family, everyone sitting around a good meal would share the pessimism and the talk would begin with the recession, and move onto the incompetence and corruption of politicians. Then, they voted and nothing changed.
Until last Saturday, a day before the most recent general election, the country was still glistening beautifully from the unseasonal snow — white beaches, white domes, white gondolas and the white grounds of the Vatican where some priests also held an endearing snowball fight. These beautiful landscapes, enriching the gem that is Italy, added also to its great deception. Beneath the glorious towers and the gilded churches there lies the murky stuff. Italy is still a country battered by a growing public debt, a stagnant economy, high unemployment, rigid bureaucracy, and now, also a growing influx of refugees. Italians are frustrated, angry and desperate.
And this time, they are also weary. Disappointments take their toll on you.
I have only recently became eligible to vote and voted proudly last weekend in Italy’s general elections. My candidate and party, both lost. But it was a joy to go to the polling station and find long, unending queues. I really thought that after four different prime ministers in the last five years, and with candidates who showed no great caliber and no exciting prospects, Italians would finally give up. As a rule, Italians hate their politicians, and they find the whole business dirty and corrupt. They know campaign promises are to be broken. They know they will vote for a hung parliament for the nth time. But while they are disillusioned by the people, they never question the process. They never question democracy.
And so a turnout of 73 per cent voted last weekend, just like 75 per cent had voted in the previous election that got them nowhere. But this time, they voted with anger, leading us to an uncharted, uncertain future.