Religion in Italy, or: how did that crucifix end up on the wall?

Just recently, many Italian bloggers and users of social networks — especially Facebook — have been writing angry posts and creating groups against Roman Apostolic Catholicism (for brevity, I will henceforth refer to it as Catholicism, or Catholic Church). I am going to try and explain what triggered this; it is not a matter quickly covered, so make a cup of your favorite tea before you keep reading.

First of all, though, a clarification: I am an atheist. My point of view will inevitably be biased, but then again: isn’t anyone’s point of view biased when it comes to these topics? Moreover, I consider myself fairly liberal; all my life, I’ve never voted to the right. That’s not because the Italian left is great (really, it’s barely a name on a piece of paper; they don’t even constitute any real opposition party), but rather because the alternative was giving my preference to that right, something I can’t stand. Read on and you’ll see why, at least in part.

Do you like history? I hope so, because I’m going to quickly tell you how the current religious situation in Italy came to be.

Italy is a very young country, younger than the United States of America. Unification didn’t happen until 1861, and it was a long and painful process. Before that, the boot-shaped peninsula was split in many different smaller states, usually under foreign domination and constantly at war with one another.

This map shows was it was like in 1494. I want you to pay attention to the size of the Papal State (Stato pontificio in Italian). Pretty big, isn’t it? The point is that the Pope — the Catholic Church in general, for that matter — was not strictly working for the souls. On the contrary: their interests were quite worldly. As many of my readers probably know, by the 16th century the Catholic Church had deviated so much from the original teachings of Jesus that the second big schism of Christianity (the first being the one between Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy). A thorough list of how Catholicism differed from the New Testament as time went by can be found on this page. Note that the Bible has been translated many times, and is being revised right now. There are websites (such as Utopia, in Italian) that point out how the same passage can be dampened or entirely rewritten with every revision, in order to better fit not only the historical moment in which it is published, but also and especially the target it is intended for. Think of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Bible, for instance: all references to the word God have been replaced with Jehovah, among other things. I strongly suggest this comparison experiment to anyone; the internet makes it extremely quick, easy and cheap to do, and it provides a very interesting example of how subtle changes allow to tell the same anecdotes in different ways. (This is not to say the Bible is any less interesting; it should be taken for what it is: a series of books written by men who lived in different parts of the world and at different moment in history, and who spoke and wrote different languages.)

As I was saying, the Catholic Church was not behaving exactly as Jesus wanted. The sale of indulgences, the enforcement of Latin at a time in which Latin was not spoken anymore, the Inquisition, the not-so-secret sons and daughters of priests and cardinals… and the taxes. Many taxes were collected by the Papal state, be them in ready cash or in produce. A famous tax was called the decima: everyone was expected to pay at least one tenth (hence the name) of their total income to the state. Monks, however, were exempted: keep this in mind. Such kind of privileges didn’t end with the Middle Ages.

Foreign dominations constantly changed the political map of the Italian peninsula during the decades, and shaped the languages and the thought of its inhabitants. The long road that led to unification began in the early 1800s, but the first two wars of independence were not enough to be done with it: Pope Pius IX refused to recognize the Italian Kingdom even after it had been constituted in 1861 and Victor Emmanuel II of Savoy (Vittorio Emanuele II di Savoia) proclaimed king. Historians call this the Roman Question, since Rome could not be made capital of the Kingdom as it belonged to the Papal state. It is interesting to note that the outer borders of the new kingdom were quite different from what they are today.

In 1870, Rome had to be seized by military force. On September 20th, the Aurelian Walls were breached at Porta Pia (breccia di Porta Pia) and the Bersaglieri marched on Rome. Pius IX still refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of Italy, and declared himself a political prisoner in the Vatican.

A few decades later, shortly after the end of the Great War, a man called Benito Mussolini progressively took power in Italy, paving the way for his dictatorship. Fascism, like many modern organized crime groups in Italy (mafia, camorra, ‘ndrangheta) have a close relationship with Catholicism. The Church is effectively everywhere, and it is a fact that people from southern Italy have a higher rate of belief, so to speak, than people from the north (even though the Catholic beliefs can become entangled in ancestral pagan cults: just like the Romans integrated their culture with that of the peoples they conquered, so they did with their religions and cults; a prime example of that is the Serpari festival in Cocullo).

Mussolini signed the Lateran Treaty (Patti Lateranensi) in 1929, which created the modern State of Vatican City (usually called Città del Vaticano in Italian), defined a financial settlement for the territorial losses of the Papal state (to be paid yearly by Italy), and defined an agreement between the Italian state and the Holy See about religious matters (Concordato); the latter is what we are mostly interested in.

Such agreement involved, most importantly, the institution of Catholicism as a state religion. What that means is that the Italian state officially endorsed Catholicism, and made the Catholic Church exempt from paying taxes for its buildings and activities on the Italian territory. It is fundamental to remember that at this point the Vatican is another state, albeit geographically an Italian enclave.

In 1984, the Concordato was revised. The most important change was the introduction of a new Italian tax called otto per mille (8‰) to sustain the Catholic Church. Internet blog posts and articles pointed out the inner workings of such tax, which is only in theory voluntary: those who decide not to assign their own otto per mille will effectively give it to the Catholic Church. In 2004, only 34.5% actively signed to deliver their part to the Catholic Church, but the Catholic Church got 87.2% of the total fund. In 2000, the most recent information available, such part amounted to a billion euro.
Note that tax exemptions remained; one that was recently talked about by many people is the ICI exemption, a local tax about real estate property. Such tax was cancelled for estate property where citizens dwell by the current Berlusconi-IV government, causing protests by cities since that was the main source of local income (additional houses and properties do require payment). Someone playfully pointed out that at least this put an end to such a privilege to the Church.

Most Italians are officially Catholics. That’s because they are baptized as young children (usually at a few months of age) as it is an established tradition, and will usually go through the first few Sacraments (up to Confirmation) before their adolescence begins. After that, most will lose interest in religion and will turn their spirituality into a Catholic hybrid, not confessing their sins to a priest anymore and seldom going to Church. They will almost invariably define themselves as cattolici non praticanti (non-practicing Catholics); such a thing is in stark contrast with Commandment #3 clearly states that the holy day should be honored. Some will dedicate their spirituality to specific saints, others to the Virgin Mary (the Madonna). As I said before, this is increasingly common while going southward. Some will also stop believing altogether, but will still claim to be Catholics. Save rare exceptions, most parents will end up baptizing their children as soon as possible; that is not out of a real fear of eternal damnation due to the Original Sin (let’s face it: with modern medical cures, it’s unlikely that a kid will die during his first few months of life), but rather out of tradition.
In Italian, the word religione is pretty much a perfect synonym for Catholic Church, unless otherwise clearly and explicitly specified.

This results in the statistics being completely skewed. A 2006 survey reveals that 87.8% of Italians claim to be Catholics, but only 36.8% say to be practicing Catholics. Interestingly, 74% believe that there is “some God”.
Such high official figure causes a huge conflict of interest between the Vatican and the Italian political scene. The latter certainly can’t afford to lose the powerful support of the former (and who knows what else; to whet your appetite, please refer to the IOR scandals), which in turn is able to push its own agenda unto the whole Italian population.

Especially with the right-wing governments of the last few years, Italy has lagged behind when it comes to medical improvement. Just a few examples: few women are even aware of the existence of epidural anesthesia; artificial insemination procedures are extremely crippled (no pun intended), putting women’s own health at risk by forcing them to accept insemination even when pre-procedure examination proved that the resulting fetus would be malformed; many doctors not only refuse to perform abortion surgeries (therefore forcing women to resort to illicit and insecure procedures), they also refuse to prescribe contraceptives and after day pills (and even if they get prescribed, finding a pharmacist that will actually sell them can be extremely difficult); there is acknowledgement for the so-called “biological testament”, that is the right to have feeding and therapy suspended for terminally ill patients and for patients in vegetative state or irreversible coma (refer to the stories of Eluana Englaro and Piergiorgio Welby); any attempts to give some kind of legal recognition to same-sex couples have been constantly brought down; and so on.

It is interesting to note that the Catholic Church strongly opposed divorce, which was introduced in Italy only in 1974. It is even more interesting to note that most right-wing politicians who claim to be devout Catholics and took part to a rally in defense of the “values of the traditional family” a couple of years ago, are divorced and remarried: Silvio Berlusconi (divorced, remarried, separated), Pier Ferdinando Casini (divorced, remarried), Ignazio La Russa (divorced, lives with another woman), Roberto Calderoli (divorced, remarried with a celtic ritual), Gianfranco Fini (divorced, had a daughter from a divorced woman), Marco Follini (divorced), Franco Frattini (separated), Letizia Moratti (divorced, remarried with a divorced man), and the list could go on and on…

That is one of the reasons for the anger that many Italian atheists — and some Catholics too — direct to the Vatican and the Catholic Church. One would expect the ecclesiastical hierarchies to complain, yet no member of the clergy ever said anything about it.

Another reason is the cover-up of pedophilia among the clergy. Many cases have been discovered, but the news seldom mention anything like that and the offenders aren’t even reported to the Italian police. The Church prefers to wash its own clothes, so to speak, and such offenders are merely transferred to another parish, and oftentimes they keep teaching catechism to kids.

It is also quite difficult for atheists to accept that people who cannot marry (and are not supposed to have sex or children) insist in knowing what’s good and what’s bad about having and running a family, and about the pleasures of the flesh.
It is however enraging that the Italian political class of Italy lets another State’s absolute monarch rule the ethical agenda that will affect millions of citizens, for instance preventing same-sex couples from being recognized as such. Picture two men (or two women) living together for decades; one of them dies, and the surviving partner has no right to anything, because they were complete strangers for the law. The same thing applies to heterosexual couples that cannot, or just don’t want to marry: take for example the case of two widows who enjoy their elderly age together, but feel too old to marry again, or just don’t feel like doing it; when one dies, the other will have absolutely no part in anything, and who cares if he/she had been changing her/his diapers three times a day for five years.

It is also extremely difficult to accept that such an organization encourages people to help the poor, but gives no example whatsoever. It is simply disgusting to see the Pope talk about poverty while wearing specially-crafted Prada robes and unique and very expensive jewelry. Incidentally, when the tax season comes, TV channels are flooded by dramatic commercials about priests going all over the world helping the poor, apparently thanks to the otto per mille money. Official figures show that about 8% of all the money raised is used for that; almost 45% is used for “cult needs” (which include building new churches) and 35% are to pay the clergy.

The point is that religion pays big money. It’s a fact. Italy, with its plethora of saints and dubious relics (there are some people worshipping the alleged foreskin of Jesus Christ — yes, we’re talking about Jesus’s penis… isn’t that a bit blasphemous?), has many people traveling great distances to go to sanctuaries and churches. Religious tourism is an industry that will never see any crisis whatsoever, and while I can’t talk about miraculous healings (that have apparently happened), it is encouraged through debatable means.

Padre Pio, now known as San Pio, was a friar who died in the 1960s and who apparently had stigmata. It was found out that he secretly had a pharmacist give him carbolic acid to self-inflict the wounds. That did not stop the beatification process and he was appointed a saint a few years ago. A grandiose church was built in his hometown, with common people paying to finance even customized bricks bearing their names on the sides of the entrance… only to find out that it was a fraud and no names were engraved anywhere: the construction company that had such idea had mysteriously disappeared with the money.

The recent wave of anticlericalism was however caused by a verdict of the European Court about the bearing of a crucifix in public schools (the complete text of the verdict can be read here), or rather by the political response it sparked. A Finnish woman (therefore a European citizen with full rights) living in Italy asked her children’s school’s principal to remove such symbols, because she felt that they were an imposition of a given religion on her children. Effectively, the Italian Constitution says that “all citizens […] are equal under the law, with no distinction of gender, race, language, religion, political opinion […]” (art. #3), and that “all religions are equal under the law; religions other than the Catholic are free to organize themselves according to their own regulations, as long as they are not against the Italian law; their relationship with the State are defined by specific agreements” (art. #8); “everybody has the right to follow his/her religious faith in any form […]” (art. #19); “religious associations and institutions cannot be the cause of special legal limitations […]” (art. #20). The European Court based its decision upon the fact that public schools should be as neutral as possible, because the State itself is neutral about religions (art. #8 of the Constitution). Nothing more, nothing less.

With the revision of the Concordato in 1984 and the removal of any State religion in Italy, any obligation to display a crucifix in public offices was also removed. It seems only fair, in today’s multicultural and multiethnic reality (albeit some political parties are founded on racism and xenophobia and a specific politician said that Italy is not and should not be multiethnic), that people with a different or no religion shouldn’t be forced to see a symbol that doesn’t belong to them; or at least, other symbols should be added as needed, albeit that would prove quite impractical. Moreover, since Italy is a secular State with no State religion, the crucifix could simply be removed, rendering classrooms’ walls as neutral as possible.

Such verdict from the European Court caused all sorts of angry responses by the political side that’s closest to the Vatican hierarchies (you guessed it: the same family value defenders who, quite aptly, have lots of experience since they have more than one family). The secretary of defense, Ignazio La Russa, said: “They can all die; the crucifix will stay where it’s always been”. Prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, roamed the earthquake-torn city of L’Aquila in an impromptu procession bearing a crucifix bigger than he is. Deputy Paola Binetti (inexplicably part of the left-wing Democratic Party, proud member of the Opus Day and outspoken wearer of the cilice to provide herself with constant pain to feel closer to Christ’s passion — I swear I’m not making this up) claimed that the crucifix is an Italian tradition and should not be touched; I admit I would like to see a pizza and an Arlecchino action figure on classrooms’ walls too, because those are two other important Italian traditions. Someone else, whose name or face escape me, managed to produce the most creative response ever: the crucifix, he said, is not a religious symbol (what is it, then?)

Faith is faith, it just cannot be explained. I don’t have it, but I respect those who do, whichever religion it is. I respect Catholics; most of them are good people. The problem is that Italian politicians are faux Catholics, and those are the worst, because they affect me and my rights until I leave this country. I have nothing against Islam either; I actually feel sorry for Muslims, who are all considered terrorists on the basis of their religion (especially in Italy), just because some fundamentalist blows himself up in the name of Allah. While I haven’t read it in full, I’m sure the Qur’an is not any worse than the Old Testament in terms of violence (there is a passage, in Deuteronomy, that says that one should throw stones at adulterers; that’s quite far from the modern concept of Christian forgiveness, to say the least), and Christians – most notably Catholics — weren’t much better: the crusades, the Inquisition, and so on.

Religion, or lack thereof, is an intimate trait of one’s personality. Forcing it upon students simply shouldn’t happen, just like the other things I mentioned in this post shouldn’t happen in what is supposed to be a secular State. There should be a clear separation between State and Church, and the State should only work with the Vatican for what it is: a foreign country.

In this country, though, such things are a hopeless utopia. Mutual and dubious interests pillage religion of the purely spiritual connotation it should have. When the shepherd uses sheep to merely obtain more land, you know there is a problem.


The “Romanian issue” in Italy

Writing about the current state of things in Italy is no easy task. At the very least, the risk is not being taken seriously. Indeed, it is certainly difficult for people from other countries to believe how things work (or not) here.
Writing about Italy is also difficult because the events that led to the current situation are numerous, convoluted and – frankly – somewhat ironic.

For the sake of simplification, whenever I say “Italians” I mean Italian citizens of Italian origins living in Italy.

For a long series of reasons that I am going to talk about in subsequent posts on this blog, Italians have developed a strong sense of racism. Such feelings are widespread and have an ancestral vibe, as if they were an instinct. It is indeed curious, to say the least, that although Italians are divided upon pretty much everything and are often taking out xenophobic feelings against one another, they seem to be united against the “invader”.

Italians have always needed a scapegoat, and what makes a better scapegoat than “the foreigner?”
This can be easily noticed, as there are remnants of rivalry between nearby cities that often results in senseless hatred. Football (soccer) is frequently used as a catalyst and an excuse to let all of this out, with clashes – at times resulting in casualties – being extremely frequent.

One may wonder how dwellers of a nearby town can be considered “foreigners.” A peek at the history of the country reveals that Italy is a very young country: unification was only achieved in the 1860s, and the borders kept changing until the end of World War II (see here).
Before that, the Italian peninsula was sparkling with states of varying size, with unsteady borders and a huge ego. War was routinely waged, and the frequent foreign invasions did not help the matter; some historians claim that Italy’s internal instability made the states an easy prey for foreign dominators.

After the unification of Italy, the King was based in the north-west region Piemonte because, at this point, Rome still belonged to the Papal State, and ultimately had to be seized with a military operation that took a decade to organize. Geopolitically, in any case, the situation was desperate at best: as some patriots put it, Italy was made… but Italians were yet to be made. It took the Great War to sparkle some sense of nationalism in the majority of people, and it took the spread of television in the 1960s to join the different dialects that were spoken into a superset that might be considered a national language. I will talk about this specific topic in another post.

After World War II, which brought its own share of racism and xenophobia, Italy came full circle several times: the late 1940s were difficult, as the war had left behind severe damages; the 50s and the 60s brought an economic “boom”; the 70s saw the rise of political terrorism (“Years of Lead”) and an economic catastrophe (austerity); the 80s were generally positive; the 90s were welcomed by mafia terrorist attacks against judges and by Tangentopoli, an extensive network of bribery that effectively tore down the political class of the time.

The need for a scapegoat reached ridiculous new levels in the mid-90s, when a political movement born in the industrial North – called Lega Nord (North League) – began to seek the secession of the north-most regions (collectively called “Padania”). As a demonstration of their determination, they publicly burned the Italian flag in spite. However, as years went by and the political situation changed with the rise of Silvio Berlusconi, they lowered their claims and swiftly moved to seek some sort federalism that would give every region broader autonomy.
The concept of Padania is, however, still cherished. The Lega Nord developed a “national” color (green), a “national” flag (a green stylized encircled sun on a white background), a “national” anthem (the “Va’ Pensiero” chorus, from Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco). Only the informal parliament in Mantua has been dropped.
Many members of the party still currently sit in the Italian Parliament, earning a conspicuous paycheck and enjoying remarkable benefits. At the same time, though, these people express their dislike for the country by saying “Roma ladrona”: Rome, they claim, is a “big thief” because most of the countries wealth comes from the north, and such wealth should not be shared with less industrious areas.

Such a concept has a strong grip on public opinion: as we have seen, Italians have always been in need of a scapegoat. This has led to a race to the gain an ever more instinctive pleasure from finding such scapegoats and keep going at them, to prove one’s strength.
Understanding, cooperation and reason have been pushed out of the picture; all that matters is paving the way for one’s own needs, even at cost of inconsistency. In the middle of the secession dream, Umberto Bossi kept calling Silvio Berlusconi a mafioso. Nowadays, as has already been said, the Lega Nord is one of the main political allies of Berlusconi’s PDL.
The tension between Padania and the rest of Italy has also subsided, only to be replaced with strong xenophobia. This strategy again proved to be proficuous, especially as the sense of safety, legality and ultimately honesty went downhill.

While Italians’ general feeling about immigration is negative – something that is fairly ironic by itself, given the countless numbers of Italian migrants scattered throughout the world –, whole populations have been routinely used as scapegoats; thanks to the powerful control over the media system by Berlusconi and his family and friends (more on that in subsequent posts), spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt is a trivial task.

In different moments, different ethnic groups have been labeled as criminals. The general perception has shifted from a member of a foreign ethnic group committing felonies to the whole foreign ethnic group being dedicated exclusively to felonies. This might seem impossible to most non-Italians , but reading the news here has always been dedicated to who person X, citizen of country Y, has done this or that. That, coupled with the aforementioned fear and dislike of anything foreign, does the rest.
That is how Kosovars were considered a plague just before the turn of the century, only to be replaced by Albanians a few years later. The innate disdain for strangers was crystallized by the word “albanese” beginning to be used as an insult, to imply dishonesty.

More recently, the focus has shifted to – albeit perchance a better word would be “against” – Romanians. This requires, once again, a short historical premise.
Several western European countries have been the destination of the Romani, an ethnic group whose history has been characterized by a long-standing diaspora. Their presence has been constant, but their culture is usually much different than that of the countries they settle in. They often congregate in squatter communities and in some cases actively refuse integration. This, coupled with a higher crime rate and traditions such as having children marrying other children, has made natives uneasy about them.
Legends started to circulate: it is said that they steal children from natives to sell them, and that they mark houses with signs that only they know, to tell other Romani whether it is a good objective or not. As clearly impossible some of these claims are – why would any thief share such information with other thieves? – it is not uncommon for youths to believe them.
Moreover, albeit the Roma traditions might be questionable by “westerners”, that alone does not make all of the Roma criminals.

Romani (or Roma; simply “Rom” in Italian) is not synonym of “Romanian”, though. It is true that Romania is home to a wide Roma community, but this does not make any Romanian a member of the Roma group. This is a very important point and it bears repeating: the Roma have “unusual” traditions and urban legends have been circulating about the Roma for decades. The Roma are not Romanians and Romanians and not necessarily Roma, albeit Roma might be Romanian citizen.
Such a distinction, however, is supposedly too complex for Italians to handle. A simplification is allegedly needed, and the general perception at this point is that Romanians “steal” children (not kidnap – the word used is “stealing”), rape women, mark houses and simply commit all sorts of felonies.
It doesn’t take much to start a witch hunt in Italy and that is exactly what has been going on, fueled by both the economic crisis (which triggers the usual mantra: “they steal jobs from natives”) and some unfortunate events such as rapes.

In May 2008, an Italian woman from Naples claimed that a Romanian (Roma? it was never clarified) 16-year-old girl had attempted to “steal” her six-month-old daughter. The baby’s mother and grandfather screamed and caught the attention of neighbors, who stopped the girl and let the police seize her. The girl was then jailed, albeit only upon the mother’s accusation. Considering how often actual proofs are dismissed, it is somewhat curious how a single accusation can send anyone to jail. Moreover, the probatory reconstruction is flaky at best: the mother changed her version several times, and many people who witnessed the trial shared the impression that someone innocent had just been convicted.
However, the alleged kidnapping of the baby triggered an extremely violent reaction. Several “campi Rom” around Naples, squatting communities where the Roma gather, have been literally attacked by angry Italians. Some of them have been set on fire, threatening the life of many people. Even though many photos clearly show the faces of those who participated to the raid, nobody was indicted.

Hatred against Romanians – or Roma, not that it matters anymore – has been escalating since then, with Romanians being blamed for most crimes that take place in Italy, especially rapes. It is very common for crimes committed by foreigners to stay in the headlines for days, clearly stating the country of origin. It is also very common to pinpoint that the victim is Italian.
Immigrates, on the other hand, have been the victims of racism in a very concrete way: for instance, in February an Indian man has been burned alive by three Italian minors in the outskirts of Rome.

To fight this, the Italian government has essentially gave in and is currently working to legalize “citizens’ patrols”: groups of private citizens, upon authorization, will be able to gather on patrols to allegedly prevent felonies from happening. How groups of untrained and hopefully unarmed people shall fight crime is left to be seen, but many (yours truly included) are afraid that such a thing will simply lead to more legalized violent outbursts of xenophobia and racism.

In the meantime, Romanian newspaper Gazeta Românească published an interesting front page on March 7th. Here is a translation of the leading article, written by the director of the publication.

We conducted an experiment: we slammed the Italian monster on the front page. It will show the perverse mechanism used by some Italian newspaper, that ultimately generates the [Italian] citizens’ rebellion against a whole people.
Once, just once, we are going to build a front page using the same style as the Italian press. These are real facts, however they have been scrupulously picked out of reality. The perception of Italians is filtered through the same lens that they look at us with every day: the crime news dedicated to those who kill, rape and steal.
News items, as journalism schools teach, is as relevant as itself. That is why crime news are usually printed on the last few pages of newspapers, as their meaning is almost zero. If a Romanian rapist assaults an Italian woman, that does not mean that “Romanians rape Italian women”; for the same reason, an Italian who abuses a Romanian child does not represent the “Italians who rape Romanian children.”
We encountered some difficulties in obtaining the [Italian] suspects’ names and photographs, because the Italian press did not pay importance to them. Most [Italian] newspapers does not provide the names of Italian suspects: at most they provide the initials, and photographs are even rarer. That is a correct practice, given the presumption of innocence that should be granted to anybody, in a democratic and modern state, no matter how disgusting the crime might be.
With Romanians, however, the opposite happens. They are filmed live, slammed on TV, already condemned by the press. The manipulation of public opinion has become coarse and is generally harmful.
A front page can be built in many ways. This is the worst.

Please note that this is my translation of an Italian translation of the original (and, I suppose, longer) article in Romanian, which follows:

O dată, o singură dată încercăm să facem o primă pagină în stilul de-acum consacrat al presei italiene. Italianul pedofil care violează un copil român, italianul beat şi drogat la volan care ucide un român şi fuge de la locul accidentului, italianca hoaţă capturată de doi români de bine. Toate fapte reale, dar extrase cu penseta din realitate. Imaginea italienilor într-o oglindă răsturnată în care ne reflectă zilnic: cronica neagră a italienilor care ucid, violează şi fură. Faptul divers, se învaţă la jurnalism, este închis în el însuşi, se întâmplă ceva şi gata. Nu mai continuă nimic. De aceea paginile de cronică neagră sunt deobicei la coada publicaţiilor, pentru că semnificaţia lor este zero. Dacă un violator român agresează o italiancă, nu înseamnă că “românii le violează pe italience”, aşa cum nici italanul pedofil care abuzează de un copil român nu reprezintă “italienii care violează copiii români”. Am avut probleme în a găsi însă numele autorilor şi fotografiile lor, pentru că presa italiană nu le-a dat importanţă. Majoritatea publicaţiilor trec sub tăcere numele arestaţilor, eventual se dau inişialele numelui, iar fotografiile sunt o raritate. O practică foarte corectă, având în vedere prezumţia de nevinovăţie de care beneficiază oricine, într-un stat democratic şi modern, indiferent de cât de odioasă este fapta de care este acuzat. Este vorba de presupuşi făptuitori, până când Justiţia îşi va spune cuvântul printr-o sentinţă de gradul trei.
Cu românii, am văzut, lucrurile sunt pe dos. Sunt filmaţi în direct şi “trântiţi” în prima pagină, în prim plan, condamnaţi deja de presă. Ce te faci atunci dacă Adn-ul violatorilor nu corespunde? Oricât de urâte ar avea feţele cei arestaţi, în orice haznale ale realităţii ar trăi, în condiţii de extremă promiscuitate, au dreptul să fie judecaţi pe baza unor probe, nu pe baza unor sentimente de moment, sau mai rău, pe baza etniei sau naţionalităţii. Manipularea opiniei publice a devenit grosolană şi este dăunătoare, dar din păcate nu e numai atât. Atitudinea justiţiei italiene are dublă măsură faţă de aceeaşi faptă. Daniel Dan Şerban, românul beat care a dat cu maşina peste un italian şi l-a ucis, a scăpat de linşajul unei mulţimi furioase şi a ajuns la închisoare. Italianul Valentino Gavetta, beat şi drogat la volan, a ucis cu maşina un român, dar n-a stat nici 5 minute după gratii, ba chiar dă interviuri în presă încercând să impună o versiune a faptelor. Prima pagină poate fi făcută în multe feluri. Acesta este cel mai greşit mod.

This was triggered by the umpteenth incident of this kind: last week, an young Italian woman was raped. She recognized two Romanians as her rapists, and the two men were quickly imprisoned. Forensic investigation quickly proved that the DNA traces found on the victim did not match and effectively cleared the suspects, but prosecutors refused to release the two men.
Should that have happened to Italians abroad, a riot would have bursted immediately. Instead, they are kept in because they might “help the actual criminals escape”. Incidentally, prosecutors are claiming that the felony might have been committed by two Albanians. The line of investigation is very simple: the victim claimed that the rapists spoke Italian with a strong Eastern-European accent.

History, it seems, is like a broken record.

(If you enjoyed this article, please share, subscribe and possibly leave a comment. My schedule is busy, but if you are interested in knowing more about what Italy is really like, I will reserve some time to write.)

The pointless, stubborn treatment on Davide (translation)

This is my translation of an article that was published by the Bari local edition of La Repubblica. The original, in Italian, can be found here. Any mistakes in the translation are to be attributed to me only. I claim no credit to the original article.

“The pointless, stubborn treatment on David”
By Francesca Savino, translation by Daniele Nicolucci

The doctors wanted to cure him as much as they could to make him live as long as he could. The parents wanted him to be cured, without getting to heroic treatment [stubbornly administering therapies when it’s clear that there is no hope for any improvement]. The court first suspended the parents’ parental authority, then returned it provided that they followed the doctors’ orders. Davide, struck down by Potter’s’s syndrome, slowly and relentleslly worsened to the point that not even doctors could do anything more. He died on July 18th, at the Bari general hospital. Today, his mother explains the reasons for their fight against heroic treatment.

Maria Rita Vigilante isn’t left just with the sorrow for the loss of a son. The mother of Davide, born without kidneys and ureter because of a very rare illness called Potter’s’s syndrome, a week from the child’s death still wants to fight: «so that this doesn’t happen again». “This” is the eighty days of life spent by Davide, fed alternately by a tube and by a bottle, between seven-hour dialysis almost every day, and crises that forced him to resort to artificial ventilation. In the meantime, a court took and returned parental authority to his parents, admist controversy and public petitions.

Did you know anything about the illness before April 28th, the day Davide was born?
«No, the diagnosis only came four days later from the United Hospitals in Foggia. We have long been encouraged to set our minds at rest, but at one point dr. Magaldi asked for our authoritazion to have Davide undergo dialysis. We asked to be allowed to think for a day, and he dragged the judiciary in: he has been dishonorable.»

Davide was then moved to the Giovanni XXIII hospital in Bari, following a court’s decision. How did you feel about having your parental authority taken away?
«We felt violated. Our son was taken away from us while we were trying to understand what was better for him. Then it took weeks before we could be heard by a judge. Heard, not understood.»

The authority has been returned to you after twenty days.
«It was a decision that forced us to follow the directions ordered by the doctors, under the threat of a new suspension [of the authority]. A humiliation: the top clinician, dr. De Palo, ordered me to stay at the hospital 24 hours a day, but our two other sons were with my husband and I in Bari. For several days the oldest of them, who is 6 years old, ate in the ward on a small table covered with medicines.»

Davide was the first child affected by Potter’s’s syndrome to live more than 39 days. For him, people not only spoke about heroic treatment, but also about a “miracle”.
«I don’t believe in miracles. If God existed and wanted to work a miracle, he wouldn’t have been born like that. There is no medical evidence, among the 400 children with Potter’s syndrome, of any successful case. Forcing a newborn child to undergo invasive treatment, knowing that it never worked, is simply fierceness.»

Didn’t you feel the need to endeavor the impossible?
«We restlessly researched the topic, we listened to many opinions. My son was born with a conviction upon him: the prognosis for his illness is “constantly inauspicious”. He underwent tremendous surgeries. They applied a cathether to his navel, then another one to his jugular which Davide removed on his own, then to his groin. The cures were supposed to have him feel better, not increase his pain.»

Looking back, would you have ever agreed to dialysis?
«Dialysis wasn’t even supposed to begin: it doesn’t make sense to have children with Potter’s syndrome undergo dialysis. All researches agree with that, and the WHO itself gives precise indications about not reviving children with this syndrome. Medicine is fobased upon experience, but in the case of Davide nobody took documented experience into consideration. Once dialysis had begun, however, it was impossible to suspend it.»

For some time, there has been debate about heroic treatment also for the case of Eluana Englaro [a woman who has been in a vegetative state for 16 years, and had clearly asked her parents not to prolong her life, should she ever find herself in such a state]. What do you think about the fight run by her father to stop feeding her?
«I hope he wins it, and I am close to him. My sensitivity and the experience I lived reinforce my being against heroic treatment and against the [catholic] Church’s intervention about these topics. I am thinking about what Luca Volontè [a member of parliament known of the Union of Christian Democrats party] wrote against us on “Liberal”: he wrote that we are cynical, that we wanted to kill our son, sacrificing him as in the ancient times, just because he was not perfect. He hurt us, and I’m still angry about it. Nobody can step onto others in order to state his own alleged truth.»

Did anyone help you through that time?
«Many, most of whom were strangers: the over two thousand people who signed the petition to have our son returned to us, Mina Welby [widow of Piergiorgio Welby, who was forced to depend on machines to live and fought a battle for euthanasia], lawyer dr. Vaira, dr. Zingariello, senators Poretti, Marino and Cappato, the Luca Coscioni association, the mayor of Bari, enterpreneur dr. Maizzi who paid for the transportation of the body from Bari to Foggia. I also have to thank the moving humanity of dr. Giordano and dr. Messina from the Giovanni XXIII hospital, and professors Laforgia and Rizzo and their teams at the general hospital, including the nurses who treated Davide with the love and cures that they would have had for their own son. And I thank Michele Farina and his wife Chiara of Agebeo, who hosted us in Bari: their association gives a concrete help to those in need.»

During these months, did you get in touch with other parents who had similar experiences?
«Yes, and lately we have been contacted by a worker who lost two sons to Potter’s syndrome. He asked us whether we are vegetarians, and when we said no he felt relieved: his wife and he had been accused of causing the illness through that. These superstitions probably serve to hide other things. My husband is a worker too, and works at the Fiat plant in Melfi. We know about several cases of severe malformations among the sons of the plant’s workers.»

Do you think that there is a link?
«I am unable to claim that there is a cause and effect relationship, but it’s a coincidence that makes me wonder.»

Poste Italiane

Yesterday I received a call from a store I had ordered some items from; I placed the order almost a month ago, but they what I needed was out of stock and it took this long also due to the truck drivers’ strike of last week that pretty much paralysed Italy.

On the phone, they told me that they had shipped the items and gave me a tracking number for Poste Italiane’s tracking service. The service name is PaccoCelere1Plus, which would be translated as QuickPackage1Plus. “1” means next-day delivery, and Plus means that the price has gone up because they added origin pick-up service which is only available in a handful of towns. So, anyway, I paid 12 euros for this kind of shipment (instead of the usual 15.30, but that’s probably because this store buys pre-paid batches of forms, so they pay less).

All of yesterday the tracking code wasn’t working. No surprise there: “real time” is an optimistic phrase at best. This morning I tried it again and it said that the package was last seen in Pescara (less than 20 km from where I live) and it was out for delivery. Great! That courier’s trucks usually come to my part of town in the afternoon; a month ago they came here at 4 pm, more or less.

At around 3:30 I left the house, but before leaving I saw the truck passing by. It didn’t stop, but I didn’t worry as it probably had something else to deliver farther away, and I thought it would stop here on its way back. After a while I got a call from my mother (whom I had asked to keep an eye on that) informing me that it did indeed go back, but didn’t stop.

I came home at 4:30 or so and checked the tracking again: it was “awaiting delivery” in the Pescara deposit. I tried calling 803160, which is Poste Italiane’s only call center; it’s a toll-free number, at least. I dug into the menu system: 1 for postal service (Poste Italiane isn’t only about postal services; they also double as a bank and, more recently, as a mobile carrier; and none of those services are carried out properly), 1 to have information about packages, 3 to talk with an operator. I got a few seconds of Vivaldi, something that sounds extremely bad on a phone line, and a female voice on tape told me: “The number you have dialed is busy at this time, please hold the line”. I held the line, I really did, but it didn’t take much effort: after two seconds the connection dropped. I tried several more times and, not getting any farther than the destroyed Vivaldi and the tape, I decided to look for the Pescara’s SDA deposit. SDA is the name of the courier division of Poste Italiane, and I don’t even want to know what it means (perhaps “Seriously Damaged Appliances” knowing how they handle packages).

I went to and couldn’t find the number of the local deposits anywhere. I just googled for “sda pescara” and there it was. I called the number and immediately a tape asked me to dial the number of the extension I needed or just wait. It sounded to me like one of those “if anybody has anything to say against this marriage, speak up now or shut up for ever”, but I still had some faith and trust, so I waited. Some ringing tone, and another tape told me that all the operators were busy, but advised me to wait. I only pay a flat fee for landline calls, so I waited. It kept ringing, but nobody ever picked up. I gave up.

I tried to call the national SDA call center, which is a 199 number – that’s mildly expensive. The first thing I got was another tape telling me that it was a free message, but the call would cost 14.25 cents per minute (when exactly you start start paying is left as a surprise for when you get your phone bill, they like to entertain like that). I went through another menu: 2 for information and help, 0 to talk to an operator. I heard another ringing tone, and after some thirty seconds I heard a microdrop in the connection, followed by another ringing tone; the call was probably forwarded to some other office. This happened several times, at which point I got Vivaldi and the “user is busy” tape again; instead of having the call dropped, however, I got some silence, then the Vivaldi mantra again, and then another tape recorded with what sounded like a 1970 cassette recorder that welcomed me (again?) and told me that really, they were all busy, but they’d get to me at some point before the Sun will finally explode, so I should have kept waiting because otherwise I’d “lose the reached priority”. Now, I would have waited, but I was paying 14 cents per minute and at this point even the dear Vivaldi had been replaced by this very low quality recording with yet another female voice telling me to keep my priority while her esses transparently blended into an unintelligible mixture of effs, vees and some other consonant only pertaining to ancient Sanskrit.

I therefore tried calling Pescara again, and after a few more attempts I managed to get ahold of a woman with a quite annoying voice who told me that I was a customer, so I had to call the call center because they couldn’t give me any information, not even telling me whether I could go and pick it up myself. I was honestly too surprised by her answer so I didn’t think about asking her what exactly they have a phone number for, since customers can’t inquire about their own shipments.

I tried calling the call center again and again and again, giving up and retrying, always getting routed to a different tape with pretty much the same reason. Between one attempt and the other I tried the Poste Italiane number, at least to get a quick Vivaldi fix.

In the end – and mind you, all of this took place in over an hour so I was very frustrated at that point – I called Pescara again and told the same annoyingly-voiced woman that the call center wasn’t even answering. She sounded irritated by my cheek, and bitterly replied that I had to insist with them because they couldn’t tell me anything. When I asked why I had to call somebody elsewhere (who wasn’t even picking up) while I was talking with a person who works at the very same place where my package was kept in, she just said that that’s how it works. At that point, frustrated by the whole situation (I coudln’t even go and pick it up myself because it would have had to be “unlocked” first, and guess who would have to do that? right, the call center!) and by her tone, I told her that they’re a bunch of incompetents and she said… “okay, thank you”. I kid you not, she said “okay, thank you”! I managed to control myself and limit myself to a “go to…” which I self-censored as I preferred to hang up before completing the phrase.

Now you might think that I’m just exaggerating, but this happens every time. Problems with Poste Italiane happen every single day, and I will write a post with a recap of what has happened to me even just lately, and I could bring hundreds of examples of other people going through the very same. It is just not normal that, for instance, an envelope from Hong Kong takes three (3) days to arrive to Milan and then eighteen (18) days to be delivered to the end user. It is not normal that a small package from the US is handled by the customs on December 6th and I still haven’t received it. And it is just not normal that this package going from Civitanova Marche to Chieti passes through Rome, effectively doubling the distance to be covered.

What bothers me the most though is that I haven’t been able to talk with anybody about this problem: the Poste Italiane number just dropped the connection; the Pescara office refused to tell me anything; the SDA call center, for which I had to pay a hefty 14 cents per minute (I think I spent well over €3 for nothing today) led nowhere.

But it’s really just the way it works here, it’s the same with any company, really. They thrive on the fact that customers just get disheartened and give up, accepting to bow their heads and pay for services that are not even provided properly.

Oh and obviously why the truck guy didn’t stop here even though he passed my house twice is still to be unknown. Maybe he didn’t feel like stopping but had to consume some more fuel, but who cares? They’ll claim nobody was home, and I will have no way to prove that my mother was home. After all, if they didn’t stop, how could they see her?

Phone tapping

Italy’s biggest scandals as of late have a common trait: they all involve phone tapping (intercettazioni telefoniche). Many personalities, suspected of acting wrong (something that is very often much more than a suspicion), have had their phones tapped; actually, many common people have had their phones tapped, and that has been a scandal on its own.

The irony is that the people whose phones are tapped and are consequently prosecuted often complain that their privacy has been threatened.

Such is the most recent case, which involves mr. Silvio Berlusconi, construction and television tycoon turned politician. The story of his success is sparkling with darkness, more than any other Italian politician – and that is definitely something. But back to the current news.

An Italian newspaper, Repubblica, reports that mr. Berlusconi (leader of the right-wing coalition) has been trying to buy some senators’ votes to make the current government to collapse. It’s not hard, as it risks toppling whenever there is Parliament activity: the majority is very, very narrow, possibly because there have been some poll-rigging by the right-wing coalition during the elections in April 2006. But more on that in another post.

Berlusconi had some talks with an important personality inside RAI (Angelo Saccà), the public broadcaster, who wasn’t feeling at ease there and wanted to start his own production company and cooperate with a production project. A right-wing politician, mr. Urbani, advises him to have “a man of Berlusconi’s” in there, and the whole thing begins: he is asked to have a few young actresses star in some fiction, one of which is a relative of an unknown left-wing senator who “might come in handy make the government topple”.

Indeed, another senator, Pietro Fuda, who was in Berlusconi’s party at first but then moved to a left-wing party, was reported to have said that “his heart keeps beating to the right[-wing side of the Parliament], even though today he is forced to stay on the left and that anyway, should they touch [Berlusconi’s] interests and things, [Berlusconi] can feel safe: [I] will help him in Parliament”.

This is what the Italian political scene is like: a bunch of people caring for their own interests and nothing else; people who claim that the public spending has to be cut and impose taxes on the populace while they make in a month what most people barely make in a year or two. It only takes 31 months in Parliament to obtain a fat life annuity: that is two years and seven months. More on the public spending in another post.

Going back to the sale and purchase of votes, the surreal Italian way appears: not only the Police has got recordings of Berlusconi’s calls made through the cell phone of one of his bodyguards where he actively tries to bribe for votes; not only a left-wing senator elected in Australia (Nino Randazzo) whom he had been trying to bribe by suggesting he’d be the Secretary of State in his next government reported it all; not only there have been open talks of overthrowing the current majority (which had been claimed as illegal because of alleged left-wing elctoral intrigues, the only case in the world where a then-minority coalition would have managed to do it without being able to control the media and the whole electoral system, are you beginning to see the pattern?), but the number one suspected has the courage to say that his privacy has been threatened.

And not only that, but he also goes to the Secretary of Justice, mr. Clemente Mastella (leader of a left-centre-right-wherever-it’s-more-convenient-to-be-in-a-given-moment party) to formally complain about it, and what the Secretary say? That he is right, that this phone tapping is getting out of hand and people are sick of it. Actually, the only people who are sick of phone tapping are those who have something to hide, which by no surprise includes most, if not all, the political chaste. After all, mr. Mastella is indicted himself for bribery and for this reason tried and succeeded in having the prosecutor who was investigating on him to be removed from his job.

In addition to the “privacy threat”, mr. Berlusconi saw it fit to pour some more gasoline on the constant fire of Italian politics, by claiming once again that there is a communist conspiracy about him, that the judges are soviet red, and a plethora of other less than elegant claims.

But then again, what can you expect from somebody who, on the very first day of European presidency (thankfully, states take turns every six months so we didn’t have time to do many long-term pan-European damages), responded this way to a German Member of the European Parliament (mr. Schultz) who had inquired him about the conflict of interest he was having benefits from: “A friend of mine is making a film about Nazi concentration camps; I shall suggest you to star as a kapo”. You can read the whole story about it on the BBC website. Great way to start the Italian semester of presidency, wasn’t it?

National healthcare

Italy, unlike the United States, does have a national healthcare system (servizio sanitario nazionale). It is funded through indirect taxes and allows citizens to obtain health assistance almost for free.

The most common example of it is the so-called base doctor (medico di base), to whom you can go to get help on minor matters and to have drugs prescribed. In case you need something more specific, he or she will refer you to a public specialist by filling a medical recipe (really! it’s called ricetta medica!) that you will hand to the public hospital to book your visit. More likely than not, you have to pay some money to the hospital for it; prices vary depending on the kind of the examination, on the region you are in, and sometimes even on the hospital. Last year, I paid €22 (around $33) for a dermatological examination, plus some €10 ($14) as an additional tax that the region had decided to impose. Not too bad, considering that if I had gone to a private specialist I would have wound up paying no less than €100 ($140).

Everything fine? Not really. The waiting lists tend to be very long, including for simple medical visits. I had to wait over a month for mine, and it’s not uncommon to wait several months either. A few weeks ago, the media briefly reported how a woman, during her 8th month of pregnancy, was told to go back to the hospital after 5-6 months to have some amniotic test done to assess the health of the soon-to-be-born baby. I cannot find any newspaper report about it right now, but I swear I’m not making this up.

However, you can have pretty much any exam and surgery for free, including organ transplants. Especially for surgeries, though, there are two things required from you: that you live long enough to be summoned for it, and that everything goes smoothly. No, I’m not talking about how your body reacts to the surgery. I’m talking about how it’s carried out: it often made the news that some people died, or otherwise felt very sick, after surgeries because the team accidentally forgot items such as scissors and gauze inside the patient. Again, I’m not making this up. Have a look at this article (in Italian): this man died after 7 months of agony following a surgery because they had forgotten a 7 x 14 cm gauze and a “piece of fabric” inside him. And you have to hope that nothing else goes wrong, because you might, say, die because the hospital undergoes an electrical black out (it happened to a 16-year-old girl last year) or for uknown causes during a routine tonsillectomy (it happened to another 16-year-old girl a few days ago, in the same hospital).

Bad hospital, you say? Yes, I don’t deny that, especially since, being in the South, it’s probably in the hand of some Mafia-like criminal organisation. However, in the biggest hospital in Rome, the “Umberto I”, patients are moved from one ward to another, and to and from surgery rooms, using underground tunnels with water leaking from asbestos pipes (absestos, amianto in Italian, has been banned because proved carcinogenic) while cute pets such as rats and giant cockroaches run through forgotten boxes of forgotten radioactive and contagious material to keep them some company and, one would hope, encourage them that they – these beasts – are nothing compared to what they might find in the surgery room. A journalist managed to get into the hospital as a medical orderly and reported it all; here is an article about it.

Funny enough, the only dental care provided by the national healthcare system is the fixing of cavity. Anything else is not covered, and you have to go to some specialist on your own and pay for it out of your own pocket, possibly after agreeing on some loan.

This is not, anyhow, to say that everything is wrong with it. There are very good professionals in the public healthcare field, and I am confident that they outnumber the unreliable ones. The main problem lies in the very deep and unbreakable bureaucracy that permeates the whole country. I will write extensively about it in future posts.

Oh, and by the way: in italian, “drugs” (droga / droghe) are illicit ones, like marijuana or cocaine. Meds are medicinale / medicinali, or in everyday speech, medicina / medicine.