Wednesday, 12 July 2017

The Italians: more in common than I thought

One of the many features that I like about the job I’ve been in since last November is that it takes me to Italy from time to time.

While my roots are unquestionably English, I was born in Italy – specifically in Rome – and spent my first thirteen years there. Each time I return therefore feels like a homecoming. That’s true even when, as on my latest trip, I travel to Milan.

The trouble with Milan is that it isn’t really in Italy. That’s a proposition vehemently denied by most of its inhabitants when I put it to them, but since it’s not unusual for them to assure me earnestly that “Africa starts at Rome” (one told me on this occasion, “a long way north of Rome”), I try to impress on them in turn that Milan is, essentially, in southern Austria. It’s far better organised than most of Italy, cleaner and wealthier, but also – in my experience – just a tad more standoffish and sure of its superiority.

The Milan Duomo: fabulous but just a touch Austrian?
Romans, by contrast, have more of a devil-may-care attitude about them. “Yep,” they seem to say whenever they do something egregiously inappropriate, whether it’s do a U-turn in heavy traffic or litter the streets, “in another, better life I might not do that, but I’m a mere mortal and have none of the purity or the remoteness of the angels.”

Still, as I begin to get to know the Milanese better, I’m beginning to enjoy being with them more. Not that I haven’t enjoyed Milanese company in the past, I hasten to add. My wife and I have a good friend from the city who first introduced herself to us as a ball-breaker, because at the time she was doing life sciences research which involved crushing mouse testicles (not usually while they were still attached to a living mouse, as I understand it). With such a beginning, how could the relationship be anything but a warm and close one? And these days I have an excellent Milanese colleague who always contrives to make visits rewarding and cordial.

What was new on this visit was that I also had some good contacts with complete strangers. One was in the taxi that took me to the airport, which was particularly gratifying as my first encounter with a Milanese taxi driver ended with badly because, as I explained that I needed to get to a hotel near the airport, he decided it was all too much a bore for him to deal with, made a gesture of impatience and drove away leaving me at an empty taxi stand in the middle of the night.

On the latest occasion, on the other hand, we had a perfectly cordial explanation. He explained to me that he wanted to catch up with a friend and colleague of his who was at the airport, but at the part that deals with private planes. I assured him that I was taking a scheduled flight.

“Oh, I knew that, from the start of the trip,” he assured me, and then broke off, clearly concerned that he might be offending me.

I decided that he didn’t mean his statement that way. That, if anything, his comparison between me and most private plane users was likely to be favourable towards me rather than the contrary.

“The private plane types tend to be a bit arrogant?” I asked.

“Exactly right,” he told me. “Why, I had to drive one to a meeting 70 kilometres away. He decided to stop on the way for a meal, and left me kicking my heels in the car park while he had his excellent lunch.”

I made some appropriately sympathetic response.

“The worst of it,” he went on, “is that he was from a bank which we’re baling out of trouble right now. My money. Flowing to a bank which is being rewarded with public funds for running itself into the ground. And the money I’m paying allows a man like him to keep eating fine meals while keeping people like me waiting for him the car park. It sometimes makes me wonder why IX bother to vote.”

A man after my own heart. I too feel upset at the privileged existence of people who see themselves as entitled, and are perfectly happy to have us finance their entitlement for them. It’s reassuring, though not surprising, that at the opposite ends of Europe, ordinary people face the same problems and react to them with the same resentments.

What saddens me is that though we should be making common cause against the arrogance that abuses its power this way, we in Britain have decided that we should cut our ties with those like my Milanese taxi driver. “Bring back control” our Brexiters say, but we’re simply reinforcing the control over our lives of the people who cause this injustice, in England as in Italy. United we might stand a better chance against them; by separating ourselves off, we make the task far harder.

Ah well. We all have our problems. In Italy, it’s to know where Austria ends and Africa begins. In Britain, it seems to be an inability to decide that we’re not a global power – and that illusion is far more dangerous.

1 comment:

Awoogamuffin said...

Yeah, it's one of the most infuriating things about Brexiteers. What makes them think that the idiots at Whitehall have any greater concerns for their wellbeing than those at Brussels? If anything, the EU has been a wonderful influence at fighting monopolies (for example fining Google in June) and at least trying to keep banks in line. I doubt London cares about that kind of thing.