Rome: The far-right and the mafia

Fascist election candidate Luca Marsella (right) arm in arm and shoulder to shoulder with mafia clan boss Roberto Spada.

The singer Manu Chao once said of the connection between organised crime and politics:

‘The worst enemy of democracy in the 21st century is not military dictatorships, but mafia dictatorships, and military dictatorships will seem really light in comparison. It’s already happening in Russia and in Mexico, but it’s coming up everywhere, and it’s very very very very dangerous. More and more and places I go, and I have the chance to travel a lot, the mafia is in control.’

This theme feels close to home for two reasons. One is that just down the road in Ostia an apparent alliance between a mafia clan and a far-right organisation looks set to be the decisive element in a local election. The area was partly the setting for the film and subsequent Netflix series ‘Suburra‘, a slightly lurid take on the events which culminated in the Partito Democratico-controlled local council being dissolved for mafia infiltration in 2015 as part of a response to a scandal known as Mafia Capitale. Among many other eye-popping examples of corruption in and around Rome, there were revelations of mafia groups making huge amounts of money from the management of immigrant detention centres.

The far-right organisation known as Casapound is a gang of fascist street thugs. Although their name has erudite connotations (it’s a reference to the Mussolini-supporting poet Ezra Pound), their propaganda consists of the standard racist clichés dressed up in the pretentious but intellectually derisory rhetoric of all Italian fascists. They have a particular focus on ‘heroes’. A recent poster stuck up on a bridge near our flat called refugees, by contrast, cowards. As it happens, Casapound have contempt for actual heroes of Italian history, calling Second World War partisans ‘rapists‘. Nonetheless, their visibility and influence has been steadlily growing, partly because in some of the most deprived areas of the city,  such as Nuova Ostia, they have been running food banks and other essential social services, taking over from the State in the wake of the huge public spending cuts of the last decade. In run-down areas of Ostia they got 20% of the vote, and the 8% they got overall means they may well hold the balance of power after the second round of voting.

They’ve also been active around the issue of housing. Distribution of ‘case popolari’ (council houses) is a hugely sensitive issue and thus easy pickings for those whose aim is to divide the poor against each other. They have demonstrated against immigrants or Italians of foreign origin moving into apartments allocated to them. Perhaps sensing an affinity, in the elections this month one local mafia group known as Spada gave open support to Casapound; it was when the brother of the rumoured leader was asked by a journalist about these connections that things took a violent turn. Of course, Casapound spokespeople have since tried to distance themselves from organised criminals, but given that they also deny (among other things) l’Olocausto, such statements should be taken with un pizzico di sale.

The violent contempt which both the far-right and the mafia have for a free and independent media brings me to the second reason these events strike a chord with me. In 2015-2016 my wife and I lived in Mexico, where I had daily cause to marvel at the incredible bravery of reporters who, despite constant threats and regular assasinations of their colleagues, reported on atrocities and the links between the culprits and those in power. Although the far-right is not present in the same way in Mexican politics, it’s not really necessary given how extreme the mainstream parties are; nevertheless, it does have a presence in the army and may have influenced the impunity granted to members of the military in the wake of (one can safely presume) their massacre of left-wing students in Iguala.

The mafia relies upon silence, (omertà), which means that anyone investigating it is taking a huge risk. Mexico is not the only dangerous place to be a reporter. Donald Trumps’s new Best Dictator Friend in the Philippines once remarked that ‘Just because you’re a journalist, you’re not exempted from assassination’; this week, in the company of and to the apparent amusement of Trump (who rumours have linked to the mafia for decades), Duterte openly referred to journalists as ‘spies’. There have been an increasing number of reminders over the last few months that the global infrastructure of human rights was a response to the horrors of uniformed fascism: General John Kelly’s recommendation to Trump that he use a sword he’d been presented with on journalists carried many chilling and probably deliberate echoes. Truimp’s attuitude to political power is very reminiscent of that of any number of notorious Mexican political figures. As I wrote in December last year:

‘We don’t have to stretch our powers of speculation to imagine what a world run by and for Trump would look like. Basta ver what has happened over the last few years in the State of Veracruz: massive corruption and abuse of power backed up by the murder of anyone who investigates or speaks out.’

Of course, the fact of the relationship between fascists and the mafia will be no revelation to anyone who is from Italy or who follows its politics. In the decades after the fall of Mussolini’s regime, the far-right Propaganda Due (P2) masonic lodge, which allegedly included Silvio Berlusconi, was involved in targetted assasinations, huge financial scandals and attempts to manipulate the political situation to the advantage of far-right elites. Journalists were very often targetted for intimidation and murder. We recently went to an exhibition in Rome of photographs by the phenomenally courageous Sicilian photographer Letizia Battaglia, who documented several decades of violence in Palermo against anyone who trod on the toes of the mafia or annoyed their political servants. There are echoes of this period in the writer Roberto Saviano’s reaction to events in Ostia. He puts them in the context of the long history of the relationship between fascists and the mafia from the 1920s onwards. Few are better placed to understand what goes on behind the headlines – he has lived in hiding for the last eleven years because of his work exposing the neapolitan Camorra.

In 2011, Saviano shared the Olof Palme Prize with the Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho ‘for their tireless, selfless and often lonely work in support of their ideals and for human rights’. Such bravery made me feel guilty that after a while in Mexico I stopped reading the newspapers every day. Although La Jornada was mostly in black and white, the accounts of mass killings around the country were just as shocking as the lurid front pages of the more sensationalist publications, with their blood and gore and the neverending telenovela of El Chapo. Of course, the bogeymen identified in the press or on TV may not tell you all that much about how power operates behind the scenes.

As it happens, the poet, theatre and film director Pier Paolo Pasolini was murdered in Ostia, in an apparently mafia-style killing in November 1975. Although his last film, ‘Salò, or the 120 days of Sodom‘, with its almost unwatchable scenes of human brutality, was set during the final collapsing orgy of fascist rule, it wasn’t a historical document about the barbarities of the Second World War, but rather an analogy to something deep within the Italian State. It was, in a sense, a film in which Silvio Berlusconi was a central character; tales of his underage bunga bunga orgies recalled the scenes in which venally corrupt businessmen cavorted with uniformed sadists. Last week the newly politically-revitalised Berlusconi announced the cabinet he hopes to appoint after the general elections next year, with a prominent role for the openly anti-immigrant ‘centrodestra’ figure Giorgia Meloni and the position of Minister of the Interior reserved for the up-and-coming fascist demagogue Matteo Salvini. It’s starting to feel like there could well be a Salò Part 2.

*The term ‘centre-right’ is a ubiquitous euphemism in Italian politics, and speaking of ubiquity, anyone wanting to understand why Italian society sees regular outbursts of repugnant anti-immigrant sentiment needs to take into account the fact that Meloni and Salvini are never, ever, not even for a second, off the fucking TV.

A trip to Venice

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Photo “courtesy of” The Daily Telegraph

It’s always sad, upon leaving Venice, to see your first car for however many days. Despite the city’s constant floods of both (fellow) tourists and the sea itself, and the fact that every nook and cranny has been filmed, photographed and fetishised thousands upon thousands of times, every time I step out of the station and see the thoroughfare being plied not by cars but by boats, it fills me with joy. Venice encapsulates another way of being.

That opening paragraph has itself probably been written many thousands of times. Henry James wrote of Venice that ‘There is notoriously nothing more to be said on the subject.’ Marco Polo, or at least Italo Calvino’s version of him, described dozens of impossible cities in the attempt to capture something of his hometown*. In his essay ‘Contre Venice’, Regis Debray described it as ‘constructed more by writers than masons, more by painters than architects, more of words than of bricks’. It would be impossible to compete with Jan Morris’ description: ‘Venice is a cheek-by-jowl, back-of-the-hand, under-the-counter, higgledy-piggledy, anecdotal city, and she is rich in piquant wrinkled things, like an assortment of bric-a-brac in the house of a wayward connoisseur, or parasites on an oyster-shell.’

Having nothing new to say about the city where I, my wife Chiara and our nine-month-old baby recently spent a weekend, I’ll just write, solo per un cambiamento, about me instead. Or, at least, refer instead to something I wrote about Mexico City, in which I treated it as a piece of immersive theatre, one with an oversupply of extras. Venice presents a similarly intricate and elaborate set, but for this performance the organisers have sold far too many tickets. There is an excess of spectators but not enough actors: the population of actual ‘Venetians’ has now fallen to 56,000, and the set is falling to pieces. The catering is also famously below par considering the prices**, but you can also sleep on the set, although doing so will cost you – like Punchdrunk itself, the elite tickets, with their special privileged access, don’t come cheap. Our train from Rome pulled in next to the latest iteration of the Orient Express, of which I later read that ‘the service is intended not as an ordinary rail service, but as a leisure event with five-star dining included’. Apparently if you pay an extra special premium there’s a chance your murder will be investigated by Mr. Hercule Poirot himself.

It was not my first visit to Venice. In September 2009 I walked around and visited as much of that year’s Art Biennale as I could without my legs giving way and my brain exploding. I’ve since lost my notes, which were mostly sun-addled reflections on art, cities and the art of getting lost in cities. I stayed in Cannaregio in a hostel with a curfew of 10pm, so my hopes of spending my nights doing coke with Ai Wei Wei ended up in the canal***. Some of the time I hung out in Campo Santa Margarita. I’d read about this slightly-out-of the-way square in this book by Sophie Watson, in which she writes:

‘This is a public space which is irregular, haphazard and ordinary. Its ten entrances/exists invite random paths to be taken, its benches, scattered across the square, lure the old and young to pause for a while, its lack of cars entices kids to play and chase the pigeons, its market stalls bring locals to shop, its calm and bustle, light and shade, mark it as a place to gaze, chat and rub along with others with ease.’

As it happens, the (excellent) hotel I booked online this time turned out to be right in the square, which as Chiara remarked has quite a Spanish (or, erm, Catalan) feel to it. Although gentrification has had its effects in the fifteen or so years since Sophie Watson was there, with little in the way of local shops and an abundance of tourist-oriented cafes, compared to the alleys near Rialto and St Mark’s Square there is a sense of character, one which reminded us of Genoa‘s caruggi***. I don’t know how ‘real’ it is****, or how many of the fabled 56,000 live nearby, but there’s a supporting cast of rowdy students keeping things lively on Friday and Saturday night. Staying in a hotel with a baby turned out to be once again problematic, but I think I’d feel a bit guilty staying in an Airbnb while walking round all day denouncing gentrification. Between Tripadvisor, Airbnb, Uber and Google, the internet has had a flattening effect on tourists’ experience of place, with so many of our interactions with a city and its people mediated via a screen. At least Venice is resistent to Uber, and Google Maps is not much use when the blue dot which supposedly represents you and your family keeps leaping around the jumble of tiny alleyways with the boundless energy of a nine-month-old baby overexcited by the rare privilege of cosleeping between two utterly exhausted parents.

Although the white sands and turquoise seas of Azumel on the Cancunian coast are some distance away,  the huge tourists cruise ships and the tens of thousands they spill out every day have a similarly deleterious environmental impact. Many seem to come not just in pursuit of the cultural capital which the Venice brand affords, but also on the hunt for Louis Vuitton handbags, Jimmy Choo sunglasses, and all the other high-grade symbols of post-modern Konsomterror fascism. Such devotion to the acquistion and spending of ostentatious social capital is in keeping with tradition. Writing about Venice at the turn of the 20th century, Thomas Pynchon described it as a site for European elite pleasures, principally spas and gambling. Nowadays being seen takes the form of uploading one’s instantaneous images and gestures of superconsumption to Instagram. For tourists in the age and image of Trump, as in Calvino’s city of Tamara, things seem to be ‘valuable not in themselves but as signs of other things’.

There have been two referenda recently in Veneto (the region around Venice), and the first was actually useful. In June, locals voted to ban huge cruise ships from docking in the lagoon (although oddly enough, despite the fact that it’s an issue that inspires great anger, we only saw two small no navi flags hanging from windows). The other was over regional autonomy. Paul Mason, displaying the typical excitability of the British Left in the Guardian, optimistically talked it up of it as another laudable example of the desire for popular self-determination. In fact, the cause was promoted by the far-right Lega Nord (Northern League), which has led a long-running campaign of chauvinism against parisitic southerners. On the Sunday, elections took place in Sicily, and Berlusconi’s party took power with the aid of the same far-right party. The ubiquitous term ‘centrodestra‘ (centre-right) often appears to be a euphemism, given how ready its acolytes are to side with the ultradestra, aka the fascists. On the same day, local elections on the coast near Rome, in the area where we often go to the beach in the summer, gave the balance of power to the openly fascist Casapound. The area around Venice is famously traditionally conservative, but fortunately by no means everyone from Veneto is a right-wing stronzetto. We also came across a poster for a show THAT! VERY! NIGHT! by one of my favourite comedians, Natalino Balasso, whose work is so uproariously entertaining and and genuinely daring that it is well worth learning Italian (and the odd word of veneto) for. Unfortunately, before I could get my hopes up too high, Chiara reminded me that trying to find an impromptu babysitter in a city populated almost exclusively by tourists would not be an easy prospect.

Given that this is an odd-numbered year, there’s currently another level on which to experience Venice: the Art Biennale. Like so much else about the Venice experience, it proved too hard to take in much of it, especially with a pushchair in tow. We managed to take a look at the Iraqi pavilion, in which I came across a typically brave piece by one of my favourite artists, the Mexico City-based Francis Alÿs, who presented a video in which he paints and erases on a handheld board images of fluttering flags on Iraqi tanks just a few feet away. Nadime Hattom was showing images from her own family history, captioned photographs capturing landmark moments in the lives of relatives, with the people themselves erased. It was a deeply haunting experience, one later echoed in the pavilion of the Syrian Arab Republic, an eerie space whose ostensive theme is the ruins of Palmyra. Blood red is the predominate colour on collages produced by Syrian and Italian artists. It might make for some awkward reflections, but luckily the baby decided to stage some sort of screaming protest against war and/or in favour of milky-wilky, and we were forced to gratefully abandon the building. She did subsequently show some interest in the joint exhibition at the Prada Foundation by Thomas Demand and two other German artists. Its apocalyptic title (‘The boat is leaking. The captain lied’) comes from the lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s morbid classic ‘Everybody Knows’, and its scope and intensity defy my powers of description. I’ve always found something intriguing and unsettling about Demand’s photographs of cardboard recreations of photographs of bland bureaucratic environments, and here, in the midst of rooms and rooms of material addressing in one way or another global collapse, he presents an enormous photograph of some sort of vast control room which he has also recreated in cardboard and blank paper. The room, on even cursory inception, proves to be a simulation, a mere illusion. No one is in control*****.

On the theme of simulation, it turns out that Dubai (like LA, London, etc) is to get its very own Venice. That might ease some of the pressure on the original; or, like roadsigns advertising soon-to-open car parks, it may only increase the tourist traffic. Venice is a simulacrum, an aging Disneyland pastiche of itself, but it’s one that it would be impossible to truly create elsewhere.

* I wrote about my own hometown here.
** Although just for the record, thanks to judicious timing we ate very well in Tripadvisor’s top-recommended restaurant over in Giudecca.
*** This was before the Soros dollars started to roll in.
*** Reminds me and my wife, that is. I’m not sure about the baby.
**** I love the use of the capital letters and the quotation marks here.
***** The exhibition also features a 
new poem by my old new favourite poet Ben Lerner, but luckily the baby had a total meltdown before I could digest any of its typically brain-aching connotations.

10 tips for staying in a hotel with a baby

1. Never, ever stay in a hotel with a baby.

2. Have you, nonetheless, found yourself in a hotel with a baby? (Are you, by any chance, in Venice, of whose labyrinthine layout of abruptly-terminating alleyways connected by thousands of pushchair-defying bridges Google Maps understands less than your 9-month-year old pride and joy, and which has worn you all out to the point where even this simple sentence is making your brain hurt and your eyes feel heavy, even if you’re not in Venice and don’t have any children?) Has no amount of lullabying and milky-wilky and shush-patting and promises to stop insisting that she eat bulgur done any good? Is your desperate 2am googling now being soundtracked by the sound of that selfsame caterwalling infant? Are you worried that not only will you, your partner and the baby itself get no sleep but also that you will incur the wrath of your fellow guests and the hotelier, meaning furious looks in your direction at breakfast, if you even survive that long? If so, here is the second tip: look away from your phone and think hard. What was the name of the car park/airport/train station you arrived at? Will it still be open? If so, pack your things immediately and head back in that direction. If not, invent a time machine and get a flat through Airbnb instead.

3. Is your baby upset because you forgot to ask the hotel for a cot? Call reception NOW and demand they bring you a cot. If necessary, threaten to put on Tripadvisor that the hotel belongs to Harvey Weinstein. Should that not work, go to reception and start screaming and screaming like a 9-month old baby until they get you a cot from somewhere. 

4. Is your baby still crying? Have you already toyed with the idea of throwing him/her out of the window/into the nearest canal, only to be overruled by your partner? Dang. Here’s something that might work, but it relies upon your being incredibly rich and having a huge amount of cash about your person: simply buy the hotel and have the other guests thrown out onto the street. It may also be a good idea to have them removed from the city/off the island itself for the duration of your stay, so as to avoid any awkward encounters which might spoil your holiday. (This also serves as the answer to the question #whatwouldtrumpdo?)

5. “Go on a boat trip or something”. That’s a suggestion from my partner, who to be fair hasn’t slept very well. The idea comes from the fact that we are now on a boat trip. The baby is in her pushchair; she’s asleep. Behind is there is the sound of another baby, whose voice is exactly like our child’s, having a total f*cking meltdown. Welcome to Venice!

6. There is no number 6.

7. Just having a look at Venice. Jesus I’m exhausted. Might get another coffee soon.

9. Where’s number 8?

8. Ah, there it is.

10. Take the baby out into the corridor to calm her down? Go outside for a walk at 3am? Mind you, I did try both of those things, they don’t work. Best stick with number 1. Oh look, Murano. Let’s see what effect her screaming has on a huge variety of very expensive glass products of differing shades and textures. Maybe number 1) should have just been never, ever take a baby to Venice. I wonder if there’s an Italian equivalent of Centerparcs?

Here’s why we WON’T be taking our daughter to be vaccinated

Last month a couple in Turin, Italy, almost lost their 7-year-old daughter to tetanus. Questioned as to why they hadn’t had her vaccinated against the disease, they said that they were blameless; information they’d encountered in the media had convinced them it would do more harm than good.

I live in Italy, so I know it’s not the newspapers and TV that are at fault, but rather social media and the internet. One blog in particular has been called Europe’s main source of fake news: that of Beppe Grillo, stand-up comedian turned political leader. The movement he created (the ‘5 Star Movement’) now runs both Turin and Rome, and if there were a general election tomorrow would probably win the most parliamentary seats. It has mostly been built up online on the basis of a truly populist progamme, principally against corruption and the ‘casta’ (political establishment). Although it resembles the left-wing party Podemos in Spain, it’s by no means progressive, particularly in relation to immigration.

One of Grillo’s pet bugbears is ‘big pharma’, a euphemism for those transnational pharmaceutical companies which profit from the sale of vaccines. The fake link between the MMR vaccine and autism was first ‘discovered’ by then medical researcher (now disgraced former medical researcher and Trump cheerleader) Andrew Wakefield in 1998. ‘Anti-vaxx’ sentiment has been particularly influential in Italy, with compulsory immunisation programmes leading to large numbers of parents who have read online or been convinced by friends that vaccines cause disease withdrawing their children from school altogether. This presents a huge problem for society – not only are such parents putting their own offspring at risk of illness and death, they also jeopardise the ‘herd effect’ – when a certain percentage of a population has been vaccinated, the chain of infection is broken and the risk of any member of that group becoming infected is vastly reduced.

So far our 8-month-old daughter has had two sets of vaccinations, including tetanus, polio, and meningitus. We’re due to take her again on Dec 28th, but we’ve decided we just can’t go through with it this time. Why? Well, it’s very simple: we’ll be away on that date, visiting family in the UK for Christmas. We’re going to postpone her appointment until we get back the following week.

We’re not fucking stupid.

Italy has a terrorism problem – but it’s not what you might expect

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I’ve been living in Italy now for a year, and on the whole I’ve been made to feel very welcome. No one has put pressure me to go back to my own country or suggested that I’m exploiting essential services that should be reserved for locals, even though during that time my wife and I have smuggled into the country a basically infirm member of our family, one who has no concept whatsoever of hard work, has made no apparent progress in learning the language and appears to have who does nothing but use up vital resources. If it wasn’t for the amount of panolini our baby daughter gets through, Rome’s garbage disposal crisis could be solved at a stroke.

The kind treatment afforded to my family might be considered odd, given that Italy is currently undergoing a wave of xenophobic fervour, one that (for me) recalls the deeply unpleasant events in late 1990s Ireland. Within a few months from around late 1997 onwards, as a result of tabloid campaigns aimed at the small numbers of refugee claimants then starting to arrive (sample headline from The Irish Independent: ‘Asylum scroungers fake ‘torture’!’), black people were getting screamed at in supermarkets and bus queues. Thankfully, nearly a generation later, Ireland appears to have comprehensively pushed back such attempts to turn it into a famously unwelcoming country.

In neither Ireland nor Italy have I, as an immigrant, faced similar treatment. Did I happen to mention that I’m white? Of course, most Italians would not knowingly discriminate against people on the basis of their skin colour. Like Ireland, Italy has a long history of emigration, a history of ethnic diversity going back to the Roman Empire and also a more recent one of massive internal migration. But brutal discrimination against people of apparently different backgrounds does exist, and it is coming from somewhere.

That discrimination partly manifests itself in relation to housing. In my time here there have been at least two front-page stories from my adopted city (Rome) in which locals have (apparently) refused to let people with black skin live in their midst. A few months ago an Italian-Moroccan family, one which has been based in Italy for several years, was prevented from taking up public housing assigned to them. Today, Repubblica reports on the plight of an Italian-Ethiopian family, similarly stopped from moving into their new home by a mob of angry ‘locals’ and a certain number of increasingly familiar faces egging them on.

There is a context for these events, specifically in terms of the numbers of recent arrivals. Italy and Greece are being used as corridors by the EU, much like the ones overcrowded hospitals will stick patients in when there’s no more space in the wards. As it happens, there’s lots of space in Europe for newcomers, but, with the odd noble exception, there has been a lack of political will to point that fact out. The human cost of recent waves of migration is not actually borne by Italians, but by the migrants themselves, prevented by the authorities from settling down and by other EU countries from moving on. (A very detailed and moving account of this is given in the 2015 film ‘Mediterranea’.) Many newcomers would like to reach the UK, where, owing partly to the history of the British Empire, they have personal connections and/or can speak the language, which would make it easier for them to continue their lives. The refusal of the British to accept our historical and moral responsibility is utterly shameful. However, the fact that my own country has a history of racism doesn’t mean that I can’t condemn it wherever I happen to be living now.

The conflicts increasingly taking place in Italy are not motivated by the newcomers themselves, but by political forces determined to misrepresent reality in order to provoke division so as to gain power. Racist politicians like Meloni and Salvini are never off the TV, spreading outright lies about the benefits paid to recent arrivals. The country’s leading opposition political figure, Beppe Grillo, makes common cause with the far-right, responding to criticism by claiming that ‘anti-fascism is not my concern‘. But its not those individuals who turn up wherever there’s an opportunity for aggro. Any visitor to Rome will notice the hateful posters of the openly nazi group Forza Nuova, whose thugs were behind yesterday’s racist protest in Rome. Another group which openly boasts of terrorising immigrants and their supporters occupies a substantial building in the centre of Rome. Above the entrance the name of the organisation is engraved in a pathetic pastiche of Mussolini-era iconography.  Just like their counterparts in the US, the UK and Germany, such groups hate their ‘own’ country. One of their piccolo fuhrers is even on record as calling the anti-fascist partisans of the Second World War ‘rapists’. Their objective is the same as that of Isis: to divide people using violence and the threat of violence in order to gain power. It behoves all immigrants, regardless of our status or the colour of our skin, to speak out against them just as we condemn other forms of terrorism. Italy is, in the words of Cesare Balbo, “a multiracial community composed of successive waves of immigrants”, with “one of the most mixed bloodlines, one of the most eclectic civilisations and cultures which there has ever been”. For all the absurd pretensions of Forza Nuova and Casapound, it is not and never again will be a fascist country – alle fine, è il nostro paese, non il loro.

A trip to Genoa

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I’ve thought of Genoa as a Portuguese city ever since, in Dublin in summer 2000, I drunkenly butted into a late-night bus conversation in what I thought was some unusual variety of that language, only to find that the two people were speaking zenese, or genovese, which just happens to share some of the cadences and vocabulary of continental Portuguese.  The latter may not be entirely as a coincidence – history doesn’t record which languages were spoken on Columbus’s expeditions, but as he was born in or near Genoa, prepared his voyages in Lisbon and set off from Spain it must have been a mishmash. The cities thus share a history of maritime expansion, and now live in the shadow of those former glories. Genoa feels to me not so much a city I’ve never visited before as a city I’ve never got round to living in, because back in another Golden Age of Overseas Discovery, that of TEFL, when the mere accident of having been born into an English-speaking environment meant that you could, at the drop of a derisory month-long course, emigrate and earn a decent living pretending to teach English, it was spectacular images of Portugal’s second city, Porto, which drew me there. If the Guardian travel section had instead featured Genoa, I could just have easily ended up in north-east Italy. I might even have ended up marrying an Italian woman*.

Arriving in a new city involves, Marco Polo-style, recalibrating one’s impressions of all the other cities one has visited or might visit. Thus, in keeping with my assumptions, Genoa does indeed strike me as a version of Portugal’s two main cities, which are both port cities with hilltop palaces descending rapidly to medina-style alleyways. In Genoa those alleyways are called caruggi. They’re immediately reminiscent of the steep, twisting warrens of Lisbon’s Alfama or Porto’s Ribeira – and, funnily enough, they also resemble other parts of Italy, for example, the Barrio Spagnolo in Napoli, but without all the vespas which render that area so unpleasant to walk around. The fact that we arrive just before what looks like an incoming squall puts me in mind of when, in 2009, I got to Trieste, another city I’d long longed to visit. I found it to be windblown, sombre, and not all that welcoming, albeit in a way that was sort of interesting in terms of reflecting on its complex history and just what it was that James Joyce found so compelling about the place. In Genoa, after we leave the station, despite Google’s claiming that our accommodation is only 1.3 miles away, the taxi takes us on an apparently unavoidable detour through winding tunnels, and takes me back to that macabre Mexican masterpiece of Guanajuato. There is a connection, in that some of the silver adorning the palaces and cathedrals is sure to have been siphoned from the veins of the new world, as is also the case from Sevilla to Syracuse. Strolling around Genoa, it does feel a bit like a greatest hits of the best bits of large southern European cities. While some areas recall Sant Pere and Barrio Gótico, with their tiny shops that are also bars and tiny bars which are also shops, others are a little like Rome but without all the bloody tourists, with their segways, their Trump hats and their incessant f*cking pointing.

I’ve always been fond of the Spanish word accidentado (uneven, bumpy)*, which describes the layout of Genoa pretty well. Its endless hilly detours make it enjoyable to get lost in. Losing my bearings happens to be my preferred mode of getting to know a city; however, it turns out that things are different when you’re in charge of a pram. Sudden stunning vistas, cutaways though ginormous 18th century buildings right down to the sea are all very breathtaking, but the prospect of another flight of stairs is less enticing. With the skies still threatening to Do A Houston, I’m excited to see a poster advertising a showing of ‘Eraserhead’ serendipitously starting in just four minutes time; however, it proves impossible to find an impromptu babysitter among the passers-by. Later, when we find a nice, quiet place to eat, our daughter starts to behave like the proverbial drunken sailor on shore leave. She soon manages to cover herself in so much pesto genovese she’s almost indistinguishable from Kermit, but with the personality traits of a young Miss Piggy. When, about 20 minutes into this mortifyingly messy and noisy farce, another couple-with-baby arrive, the proprietor quietly sends them back out into the pouring rain, claiming that he’s all booked up for the next month and a half. Then he disappears, possibly to shoot himself in the head.

The following day we explore the Museum of Maritime History, which is so huge and detailed it’s like standing and reading a six-volume series of books, each with 800 pages for each year of the city’s existence. After two hours we’ve managed to cover two of the five floors and are too exhausted to tackle the part about immigration, which is the bit that drew us there in the first place. The captions employ a curious Verfremdungseffekt, in that they present PhD levels of historical analysis written in often purple prose presented in the kind of lighting more appropriate for sending a baby to sleep, which thankfully, eventually, it does. By the time we head off in search of gelati and fasciatoi we’re left in no doubt whatsoever that a) being a galley slave was really not very much fun at all and b) Christopher Columbus definitely did come from Genoa and not, as some have claimed, just outside Swansea.

One more recent person of global significance that doesn’t exactly cover the city in gloria is the renowned comedian/trickster/drunk-driver Beppe Grillo, leader of the at-best-incoherent at-worst-openly-racist 5 Star Movement. His blog has been called Europe’s number one source of fake news stories, navigating us to a brave new world where nothing is true except for what’s published on certain implicitly trusted highly ideological websites. His influence helps explain why newspapers are full of stories about parents withdrawing their children from school so that they don’t get forcibly injected with chemtrails. Grillo emerged in the same decade as a more laudable local character: Fabrizio de Andre, whose classic album ‘Crêuza de mä‘ (roughly, ‘Crossing the sea’) gives the name to a beachside bar we visit in the picturesque beachside suburb of Boccadasse***. The album, with its genovese-dialect North African-influenced songs about lives lost at sea, resonates; as we walk around Genoa, we see graffiti in support of those who have more recently been forced by circumstances to seek a better life elsewhere.

Such solidarity recalls another famous episode in Genoa’s history: July 2001, when the city played host to massive anti-globalisation demonstrations focussed on the G8 summit. That spirit very much lives on in and around the carruggi. There is some remarkable anti-gentrification graffiti. One such slogan calls for the immediate expulsion of the ‘creative middle class’. There are posters for a Right to the City conference, slogans condemning the immigration authorities and opposing deportations, and graffiti referring to the recent alleged rape by carabinieri police of a young tourist. Genoa sees some cruise ships but not as many Barcelona, where tourists themselves have been the focus of furious protests. The area (called, I think, Madalena) looks a lot like a busier version of Alfama, particularly because this week I’ve been following Momus’s escapades in Lisbon, a city which some are calling ‘the new Berlin’. It reminds me that in the fifteen years since I left that area has also changed, with the arrival of new waves of tourists and gentrifiers and the settling-in of new immigrant communities****.

It’s only a few steps away from the emblematic museum-like streets with their 18th-century palaces and ‘lifestyle stores’ that we happen upon some of the more vibrant side-streets. There seems to be more variety of immigrant groups than I’ve found in similar cities, for example Bilbao. Visa services are on offer to quite a range of language speakers: Arabic, Chinese, Vietnamese, Bengali and Welsh (possibly not Welsh); Latin American sex services are available to tutti quanti. There are some African tailors’ shops which seem to come straight from the streets of Kinshasa. We come across one lively bar where there seems to be a very energetic argument going on between Columbians and Venezuelans. It’s our last night, and I never could resist the lithesome rhythms of bachata, so we quickly load up on cheap rum, sell the baby to some passing zingari, and start to make the most of what’s left of our short holiday. Tl, dr: I’ve been to Genoa, it’s good, you should go there too, adesso scappo a cambiare la bimba.

* Piuttosto che una terrona :-P.
**Apparently, unsurprisingly, the word also exists in Italian.
*** I was first introduced to the music of both Fabrizio de André and (much to my wife’s chagrin) Franco Battiato by a visiting friend of a friend around ten years ago. I’m currently passing on the favour to our seven-month-old daughter, who seems to respond positively to the particular melange of melodies, instruments and rhythms of ‘Crêuza de mar’. Or it could just be that she secretly understands
zenese. The fact that most Italians had to turn to the translations of the lyrics (included with the original album) in order to figure out what the songs were about suggests to me that genovese is, like a number of regional cosiddetti variations on Italian, not actually a dialect, but rather a language.
**** Dublin has also changed a great deal since I left.

Ecco perché Eataly non mi piace

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Wouldn’t it be great if someone could combine the range and quality of Italian food with the style and convenience of Ikea? No, it would be shit. How can I be so sure? Well, I’ve been to such a place, and I also live surrounded by images of it. Eataly is marketed rather aggressively here in Rome – entire metro stations are smothered with adverts for the place, leaflets litter the streets, and while it may be true that all roads eventually lead to Rome, in the città eterna itself around a third of the road signs direct you to Eataly Ostiense.

The founder of the company is a friend of perma-gurning Flash Harry past-but-not-future Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Oscar Farinetti is an odd character, who stresses the importance of local food culture but has also defended Coca Cola and McDonalds. His company only started in 2007 but already has 28 stores in six countries, 18 of which are in Italy. The flagship Ostiense branch occupies a huge building (a former air terminal) 170,000 square feet in size. It is an upscale food court mixed with Whole Foods or Waitrose. Farinetti was inspired by the thought that “unfortunately the world of small food shops, those small places dedicated to quality food, like Americans imagine, died many years ago”, a dubious statement but one that serves a self-serving and self-fulfilling prognosis – there would be more independent food outlets in Rome were it not for Farinetti’s mission to replicate and supercede them. Italy doesn’t have many chains but Eataly is starting to be as dominant as Starbucks is elsewhere.

The Eataly brand is selling lifestyle just as much as convenience. What it trades in first and foremost is the experience of being the kind of person who shops there. Hence the tone of its advertising is aspirational and (as befits any place associated with Renzi) smug. The atmosphere is anodyne, sterile, antiseptic, the kind of non-place Frederic Jameson characterised as ‘useless as a conduit of psychic energy’, an example of the nicely-packaged and air conditioned but ultimately boring future that J.G.Ballard predicted. Paradoxically, given that it has replaced a large chunk of the centre of Rome, it’s not easy to get to; as the New York Times wrote, it’s not designed for people arriving on foot. I’ve yet to get there from Piramide metro station without getting lost at least twice. Parking is a central selling point, meaning for those who live nearby, even more unsustainable levels of traffic. Rome is one of the world’s greatest walking cities, but this is a big box mall is just as remote from the pavements and piazze of Testaccio as a mall in the LA suburbs.  And given the sheer quantity of produce on offer (no reflection of the range) it is not at all clear what is quality and what not.

Rome has a dearth of food markets. The one near us is friendly but small, and the one in Testaccio, near Eataly, is pleasant and varied but under-occupied. There is a larger market near Termini station (Mercato Esquilino) which is bursting with immigrant energy and variety, but longer-standing homegrown equivalents are scarce. As it happens, the first Eataly was in Torino, also home to one of the most vibrant markets I’ve ever been to, whose atmosphere was earthy, foul-mouthed, and sometimes abrasive, the vendors not there to impress you or to sell you an image of yourself. Such a place exists because it exists, not because some tycoon with political connections decided to remake the city according to their megalomaniac vision.

The experience reminds me of the surprise I felt in 2001 when it turned out that a Portuguese student’s ‘favourite restaurant’ turned out to be in a shopping centre. Nowadays, with Giraffe and Carluccio’s and Zizzi’s and Wahaca and Las Iguanas and Viva Brasil and The Real Greek and Wagamamma and Yo! Sushi, it seems that many cities are, to recall Karl Marx, in chains (with London the most obvious example) . It can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between local and corporate, with many global cafés imitating the stylings of independent outlets. It took us a few months of living in the Condesa area of Mexico City to realise that many of the cafés and resturants were replicants of places in Polanco, a similarly safe-but-kinda-dull part of town. It was disappointing to see that the recently-revamped Cardiff Bay only offers the same eight or nine international chains one sees everywhere from Bangkok to Bangalore.

Eataly thus exists on the Uber GPS map of Rome, disembedded from the city itself. It depresses me that visitors go out of their way to come here. Rome may be messy, disorganised, inconvenient and occasionally overpriced, but it is Rome, not some branded and airbrushed simulacrum of itself. Its fascination partly lies in its being covered in remains of fallen empires; this one, sadly, is in the ascendant.

Tourism goes on as normal in Italy despite crippling drought

From the window of our Airbnb studio, we can see the wifi barge stationed down in the bay. There are apparently three such boats which arrive daily at different parts of the island and keep locals and visitors supplied with a continuous flow of pumped-in digital information.

It’s an emergency measure. According to Domenico, our host, there’s been no actual coverage for three months. I think he talked about the astronomical sum of 500,000 tonnes a year being consumed, peaking obviously in the summer, when the population of the island multiplies exponentially.

Tourists use huge amounts of wifi: to post and comment on photos on Facebook, access restaurant reviews on Tripadvisor and listen to listen to appropriately summery music on Spotify. That’s true not just for this island but for Capri, Ischia and countless other holiday destinations, which given how important tourism is to the Italian economy makes this nationwide drought of coverage particularly worrying. Luckily, in our case, Domenico has left a two-litre bottle of wifi in the fridge, and after its used up we resort to using our own supply, which we stock up on in the local shops.

Life seems to go on. Boats arrive, restaurants and cafes are busy, and everything seems more or less normal. But it’s hard to see how this set-up can be sustained. We depend on wifi in every single area of our lives, from transport to air conditioning systems to entertainment. Only the most adventurous of tourists would even dream of spending time in a place which survives on a life-support system. And as for the locals, they must be noticing the year-on-year decline in coverage, and wondering what the future has in store for their stunningly picturesque but informatically parched island. Could seawater somehow be transformed into Cloud-borne ones and zeros of a standard acceptable to international guests? What value does its abundance of natural beauty have if visitors can’t upload photos of it on Instagram? Could the recent dearth in coverage somehow be related to rumoured changes in the earth’s climate? If only they could get online consistently, they might be able to find the answers to these and other pressing questions. In the meantime, ensuring that tourists continue to have access to decent quality Netflix streaming services and more-than-sporadic Whatsapp voice and video calls conveying birthday greetings remains the number one municipal priority.