Rome and its Roma

Rome is surely such a beautiful city. And this is a given. A ‘Statement’ with a capital S. No need to bring fresh evidence: Rome’s charm has been celebrated in so many books, songs, articles, poems, movies, documentaries and any possible form of art and artistic expression. Exalting Rome for its beauty is such an easy endeavour as themes simply abound: impressive Colosseum, incredible Piazza Venezia and its surroundings, simply breath-taking Fontana di Trevi, elegant Piazza Navona, graceful Piazza Spagna, small corners and historical buildings that would attracts masses of tourists were they be placed anywhere else in the World, but remain unnoticed here in Rome, over-crowded by far more famous spots. If Rome was a beauty contest, that would be so competitive! And emotion would play such an important role in this beauty contest. A couple arrives at Piazza Venezia, after passing Piazza del Popolo, Fontana di Trevi and few other attractions, and they feel so elated by all that beauty. But is it ‘only’ that amazing beauty or is it the beauty and the added delight for seeing it through togetherness, that gives the additional heart beat that leads to an unforgettable moment that will outlive the years and maybe the couple itself? 

For such fusions of tangibles and intangibles, emotion and art, the beautiful city of Rome attracts millions of tourists in search for elation and euphoria. A nation of travellers that cross oceans, seas, mountains, rivers; arriving ‘en mass’, by low-cost or expensive flights, at the Fiumicino airport. Some of these are occasional travellers, as this was perhaps their one and only international flight ever. Or maybe 10 years ago they visited Madrid and in 10 years from now they will go to Paris. Or maybe they are frequent travellers, taking city-breaks as often as they can. A small fraction of them are temporary nomads and Rome is a stop on their 1-year (or more) world tour.

Travellers and, among them, particularly nomads seem to be extremely important for Rome and its administration. The tourists arriving in Rome come in the middle of a fierce local electoral campaign, fought to the last discursive bullet. Big billboards all over the city obsessively inform us that Alemanno (one of the two remaining candidates) will clean the city of the nomads’ illegal camps. Sure thing, the city is literally invaded every year by hordes of foreigners hungry and thirsty to taste the city’s goodies, trotting all around, leaving garbage all places, producing hundreds of tons of waste in the middle of such delicate and ancient statues. So one can only be happy that the local administration is giving this matter due attention. Since Bell invented his curve, we do know for sure that in any group that behaves there are a few individuals who don’t. And if this group is counted by the millions, than those exceptions add up to unsustainability. So let the prospective mayor clean the city of these unwanted exceptions. Rome resisted centuries and ages and what a shame for our century would it be if it came down for Bell’s (curve) fault!

Sarcasm and irony help us to entangle this story but only to a certain point. Alemanno’s illegal nomadic camps are not those produced by an out-grown touristic industry. And what Alemanno wants to fight by claws and teeth is not the unrestrained travellers who might well abuse the city at times. What he wants to fight are the Roma migrants. Coming from Romania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Albania and many other countries, they are in Rome to seek legitimate or illegitimate economic opportunities. A Roma lady from Kosovo explains to me that Roma might well share the name and some traditions, but they are all different: there are those who are clean and those who are dirty; those who cherish their children dearly and those who exploit them; those who are honest and work very hard and those who cheat and steal; those who never tell a lie and those who tell only lies; those who have a trade and stick to it and those who despise work and live off petty crimes. ‘But we are all Roma’, I insist. ‘Yes, we are all Roma, but we are all different’ and she goes explaining patiently the differences once again. ‘United in diversity’ is what ironically comes to mind – the EU slogan invented some while ago to justify the building of the Union.

But for the local administration, Roma are not at all different. They are all the same and they are all ‘nomads’ – something that most Roma are actually not. As everybody know, ‘nomads’ live in ‘camps’, so this is what the local administration provides. There are three types of ‘nomad camps’: tolerated, equipped and illegal. The tolerated camps (tollerati in Italian) are camps which are known by the local authorities and might have some facilities and amenities, but not necessarily. They are tolerated in the sense that the local authorities do not harass the inhabitants and do not talk about plans to destroy the containers or the shanties people built for themselves. The illegal camps are places – often close to a river, under a bridge, in an old unused building – where various families or individuals built shanties for themselves to live in. The equipped camps are places where containers, connected to a sewage system and electricity, are placed to host several hundreds of people who are known to the local authorities.

Rome has 4 such equipped camps and the biggest of them – Castel Romano – is hosting more or less 1200 people on a space the size of an average Italian supermarket. Containers – more or less modern, more or less uncomfortable – are placed in ordered rows.

If you are an adult in these camps your life is tough. The camps are far away from the city (15-25 km), usually very close to a highway on which cars drive at 100+ km / h. A bus used to stop close to the camp in Castel Romano, but the locals protested when Roma started to use it, so that the local community removed the bus stop. Another camp is 2-3 km away from the main road and somebody charges 2 euros for a round trip to the main road where a bus will stop sometimes. You are trapped in the camp, when the 2 euros are not available or when nobody in your family or among your friends can take you to the city. If you have a job in the city, commuting is probably taking more than 3-4 hours and if you finish work late you will probably need to take a taxi or walk for many kilometres. The meagre salary you can take goes for paying for your transport, but you are still happy you can work, as this way you can bring something at home. Most probably you will recycle things, which is a rather dirty and dangerous job, as you use your bare hands to sort all sorts of things that other people are happy to throw away. Maybe you grow tired of this pitiful survival exercises and you learn how to cheat and steal. Or maybe you already know how to do this and you strive for growing your network and business opportunities.

If you are a young good-looking woman you will probably be encouraged to take up prostitution or maybe you will be happy to find a job as a cleaner. But who hires you for such a high-trusting job – Roma have such a bad reputation so who would give you the keys of their house? You are happy if you have a client a week, which means 15-20 euros per week and part of that needs to go for transport. If you are really smart, maybe an NGO or the local authority will hire you as a cultural mediator – this will ensure you will get a modest monthly payment, but you start being pressured by all those around you.

If you are a child… if you are child you will be happy if you can go to school every day. Maybe you are a very smart kid and understand that school is your only chance. But maybe your family does not get that, so maybe they will not encourage you to listen to your instinct. Maybe you drop out after a while, having in mind all the difficulties. There is a bus collecting 10-15 kids your age from the camp, but the bus takes the kids to 10-15 different schools. This is the school policy: never more than 1-2 Roma kids per school, otherwise the parents of the ‘normal’ kids protest. And actually this is not a bad idea for those who advocate integration, but the devil is in the details. Someone will always be late in class, and somebody will always have to leave class early because the bus needs to tour so many schools and the driver is not there the whole day to wait for you. After a while the other kids start laughing at you, saying that gypsies can never play by the rule. You swallow it day after day and year after year or you just drop out.

If you are a teenager there is little chance you can date somebody outside the camp. You live in the middle of nowhere, in a very particular situation and there is no way you can bring your sweetheart home. Unless she is someone like you, who does not find the situation embarrassing. You are a success story if you can find some temporary job outside of the camp. You live your teenage life waiting for a phone call – maybe the small restaurant will need you again one of these days. In the meantime you give a hand for scrape metal collection, hang around, get bored, hoping that one day someone will give you a job as you are not very sure what you can do to actively look for one. Your big dream is that… well, yeah, that someone will give you a job one day.

Italian summers can be so hot. People in the city have air conditioning, swimming pools and the famous Roman fountains. But in the camp you just bake under the sun and the container tin gets so hot – it feels like being in the oven 24 hours a day. Winters are not excessively cold, but some heating wouldn’t hurt when temperatures drop a little bit under zero: too bad the ‘equipped’ camps are not equipped with heating systems. But maybe you can afford an electric stove. Just maybe.

If you happen to have some artistic talent you may want to take a few snapshots of your life. In a first snapshot you have several tattooed men, big bellies, strongly built, complaining to the camp visitors about their horrific conditions. Fully-grown adults, sitting around in the middle of the day, drinking some beers, taking some drugs, smoking some cigarettes, playing some cards, complaining that nobody comes here to repair a plug damaged by a recent fire in the camp. These men, perfectly able to tune a car and its audio system so that loud music can cover the other noises of the camp, claim not to be able to fix it themselves. In a second snapshot, you see the broken windows of several containers, things, including a few toys, thrown around, a few pieces of clothing and a few pair of old shoes in front of a container. In a third snapshot, several boys playing football and a few girls and toddlers coming to meet the visitor that you are, curious to know your name and wanting to tell you about their achievements. In one of the camps, kids are taken to do sports by a local association and some girls show you their medals. The visitor asks what she thinks is a safe question to Natalia, that cute girl with a nostalgic smile who gave her such a hearty squeeze. ‘Where is your mum?’. ‘In prison’. Oh my, visitors are so naïve. As naïve are those well-meaning people who want to help. They fail or simply do not want to see how their help is sometimes abused or misused.

Or maybe you are not into photographic art. Maybe you want to shoot a video. To understand more. Plenty of action here. Almost like they have been waiting for you. Four days before the election day. One ‘nomad camp’ hosting more than 100 people in an old printing house. A big hall dividing the families by sliding panels. Visual privacy ensured to a certain extent, but you can surely hear your neighbours not only snore or talk, but also breathe and think. A baby was born today to a family in this ‘camp’. She will come ‘home’ in a few days and when she will cry like little babies do, she will annoy more than 100 people. But she was also conceived here, so maybe there are things me and you can not understand and know about daily details like this one. Weren’t ancient Japanese – with their paper walls – trained from a very early age not to hear about what was happening in their neighbours’ homes? But maybe this will not be her ‘home’ any longer. The local authorities want to move the people from this ‘camp’ in a different ‘camp’. Everything was prepared for this operation, but it seems people can not be moved. At the other ‘camp’ there is a protest: the local community there does not want the newcomers to arrive. The local authorities there invited the inhabitants to ‘resist’ this decision. The buses have arrived to take the people to the new camp. People have their luggage ready. They disposed of those things that can not be carried. The local authorities here has dismantled the cooking stoves. Everything is ready, but nothing is ready. People are told they can not leave today. Or maybe they will a bit later: the President of the Municipality has just arrived to make sure that the ‘nomads’ leave. He is annoyed about the protest in the other municipality and he is now busy making phone call after phone call: he is working hard to convince his friends and ‘collaborators’ to help him stage a counter-protest. Two police cars are now arriving and a few journalists are already taking photos, hoping this will deteriorate in a good story to sell to the press in these lucrative days before voting. Cherry on the cake, at the camp gates a few families with small children hope to make it inside: they have been living on the streets and they are tired of this, they hope they will be taken on board in these moments of doubt. A man in a yellow shirt is releasing an interview in front of the building, on a busy street, with cars passing by at high speed, he explains his plight, he takes off his shirt and shows his chest and belly covered by knife marks. Self-inflicted injures and a different type of protest.

The sun is above us all: the tourists, the voters, the candidates, the Roma. Just four days left to the election day, but such a long summer ahead. Lucky the touristic who can refresh at Fontana di Trevi. Lucky the voters who see this campaign over and start planning their vacation. Lucky the candidates who will win or loose these elections that require such low tactics. But most lucky: lucky the Roma who have some trees in their camp.


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