Thursday, July 23, 2009

I live in a Renaissance toilet

Dear Readers,

Now, I don't like to complain... but yesterday morning as I was parking my bike in its usual spot near work, I saw--and unfortunately, smelled--two generous piles of human excrement by the curb. One pile even had a wad of soiled toilet paper next to it (since when, I wondered, is a street-defecator so fastidious about personal hygiene??).

I pretty much can't think of a worse way to start the day.

Mind you, in this little corner of Florence--spitting distance from the glorious Duomo--I normally have to skirt stagnant puddles of urine, broken beer bottles, and trash strewn about and decomposing forlornly--so my skin is fairly thick when it comes to urban blight. But this was the shit that broke the camel's back.

In a lather, I stormed into the shop raving about the degradation of the city. I told my bosses they ought to call the vigili and tell them that this corner of the city is turning into an open sewer. (I figured that coming from small-business owners, the complaint might carry more weight). They merely shrugged it off and called the quadrifoglio instead (the people who come and clean up after the horse-drawn carriages) and presently a man came and blasted the whole area with soapy water. I watched from the window, a-stew in impotent rage, and formulating an angry letter to the city's new mayor.

Of course, the larger issue here is one of civic pride. I can't help but ask myself why a Houston or Milwaukee or Cleveland suburb--places with the architectural interest of a port-a-potty--are kept in pristine condition (manicured lawns, gleaming paint, not a wanton wrapper or stray cigarette butt to be seen), while Italian art cities that are bursting with architectural and historical treasures grow shabbier and more tawdry as the years roll by.

Not too long ago, the ex-Mayor of Florence, in a Rudy Giuliani-like move, banned the squeegee guys from the intersections, saying they detracted from the overall quality of life. Oddly, he and everybody else turn a blind eye to the relentless graffitti that tattoos over virtually every surface of the city--even such monuments as the Accademia and Duomo are not immune to this scurvy. And everywhere you look, paint is dingy and peeling, the streets are filthy, the trash bins inadequate and overflowing, dog-poop peppers the sidewalk, even the backside of the Duomo is covered in black grime (the fa├žade, strangely enough, is kept in mint condition--that is, after all, where all the tourists gather and where important civic events are held). I have heard many visiting Americans and Brits comment on the shockingly slovenly state of cities like Florence and Rome. When this happens, I feel rather sorry for my adopted city--like I would perhaps for a once-lovely pin-up star who now goes around in dingy underwear with dirt under her fingernails.

Why don't more Florentines care about their city?

I am truly puzzled by this. Florentine orgoglio floweth over--their pride in their Medieval and Renaissance past is unbounded. The glory of their statesmen, artists and thinkers is cause for much strutting, even to this day. Yet--yet--many Florentines do not go to the Uffizi or to the Accademia, they do not stroll the Boboli gardens, or gaze at the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel. A great many Florentines no longer live in--nor do they ever go--downtown, to the historic center. To the cradle of all this Renaissance wonder, as it were. So, my theory is, they simply do not care very much what happens there. It is not the Florence that they live on a daily basis. (However, I must say that the state of cleanliness in the peripheral neighborhoods is perhaps only marginally better).

Downtown Florence is almost entirely abandoned to gawking tourists, foreigners and students who can afford to pay the exhorbitant rents and live there, or poorer immigrants who live in ancient squalid flats that haven't been updated since the time of the Medici. (There is a smattering of adamantly ancient Florentine widows who hang on to their apartments with every decaying fibre of their being. You see them shopping at Pegna and defiantly letting their dogs crap and pee all over the pavement. They tend to wear turbans of the silent film-star variety). Many tourists treat the city as a rollicking Renaissance Disneyworld, leaving a trail of empty water bottles and gelato cups in their wake. Other abusers are the Florentine (and American college) youth, who come downtown to hit the discos and get drunk in the pubs--their piss, vomit and vandalism are all over the place. I think, paradoxically enough, it is the foreign permanent residents that show some of the greatest respect to this city. For instance, recently, a group of foreign residents formed a "Clean Up the Mugnone [riverbank] Committee" and did just that.

And then there are the gypsies. Now, I'm sure there are some fine, upstanding gypsies out there--there must be. But I have to say that the ones I see--the ones that prey upon tourists in the historic center--are little more than human barnacles. They come to Italy in droves, are granted medical care and free daycare and school lunches for their kids, they don't pay taxes--and the ones I'm talking about paint their faces white like mimes and dress in white Klan-like robes and mercilessly buzz round the poor out-of-towners like pesky flies. They gather next to the bookshop and guzzle beer from great brown bottles, then smash the glass for fun. Their attitude is one of entitlement and disrespect--I even get the sense they jeer at their host country, and harbor the kind of resentment that comes from accepting begrugded charity. As an immigrant myself, I'm all for making room for others, but come on.

So who, then, was responsible for the brazen b.m.? Your average born-and-bred Florentine might shrug and say, "Who cares?" and abandon the potentially beautiful historic center to the uncouth masses.

But I, dear Readers, know who was responsible: Indifference.



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