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Not everyone is living la dolce vita

Jim Withers


Demonstrators from Rome’s Southeast Asian community make their way through the city centre while denouncing racism and xenophobic government policies, underscoring the reality that not everything is beautiful and harmonious in the Eternal City.

Among the delightful images that will long stay with me after a month in Rome is one that had a disquieting feel, and I wasn’t alone in finding it so.

Two black men on their hands and knees near the curb of a busy street were doing some sort of work – smoothing out fresh cement, I think – while being overseen by a young white guy who was standing over them and smirking.

Fleeting glimpses of anything can be misleading, so maybe there was nothing untoward going on, but this three-man tableau had an unsettling master-slave quality about it.

“They weren’t even wearing gloves,” my wife said of the black men, whom we surmised might have been newly arrived African migrants in desperate need of work, even if overseen by a bombastic-looking supervisor.

Italy, sadly, has its share of nativism and xenophobia, which has not been made better by the election of right-wing populist Giorgia Meloni. The country’s first female prime minister, who minimizes her neo-fascist political past, is an anti-feminist, opposed to same-sex marriage and adoptions by gay parents. And, when it comes to migrants and immigration – not an easy issue to deal with, let’s face it – Meloni is no Angela Merkel, Germany’s enlightened, compassionate first female chancellor.

Unfortunately, bigots can always find an outlet for their hate, and in Italy it can take the guise of soccer fans using sport as a platform for tribalism. Often these fake fans take their shameful behaviour on the road, as happened when we were in Rome.

While attending a game in Munich, a gang of supports of Lazio, one of Rome’s two main teams, made Fascist salutes and chanted “Duce” (hailing Benito Mussolini) while in the same beer hall where Hitler launched the Nazi Party in 1920. Not to be outdone, “ultras” supporting Roma, Rome’s other main club, went viral with their racist, anti-Semitic chants on their return from a match in Monza.

Rome Sports Chief Alessandro Onorato and real Lazio and Roma fans condemned the actions of the “ultras,” but there never seems to be an end to this sullying of the world’s most popular sport. …

Another unsettling image of our Rome sojourn lingers.

It occurred while we found ourselves among a throng of other sightseers streaming past the ancient ruins of the Forum below us. A dishevelled, middle-aged man in our midst had clambered over a protective fence and was precariously reaching out onto a brick column. He was attempting to retrieve coins that had been tossed there by visitors, presumably because, as at Trevi Fountain, they thought it might bring them good luck. This man clearly thought it was worth risking serious injury or worse to get his hands on those few euros.

As with every big city – my hometown of Montréal included – poverty and misery are evident in Rome. Panhandlers reach out to you, and you don’t go far without seeing homeless people sleeping on slabs of cardboard on the street or under bridges. Unless you are able to avert your eyes, you are reminded that not everyone in this enchanting city is living la dolce vita.


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