Italy: Italy’s Shame – The Not So Bella Italia
A derelict train pulled up at Naples station, clambering to a choked halt a few minutes behind schedule. A group of young Australians threw their backpacks onto their sun burnt shoulders, as an elderly Neapolitan couple sprung to their feet shuffling towards the moving train. Groups of people had suddenly formed, as each traveller tried to foresee where the carriage doors would fling open. They nudged one another from all sides, until the engine died down to a soft hum and the victorious stood in front line awaiting the doors to open, a glint of self-satisfaction evident in their gleaming eyes and smugly curled lips.
The crowd eagerly muddled on and I was surprised to find an empty place at the front of the carriage. A large wobbly man sat wide legged in front of me, frantically masticating a piece of gum which visibly flew from one corner of his open ruminating mouth to the other. I shuffled uncomfortably in my hard plastic seat.
The train’s final destination was Sorrento, a picturesque town in the bay of Naples which serves as a transport hub to the nearby affluent island of Capri and to the world famous Amalfi Coast. This is one the country’s most spectacular coastlines, and one which attracts thousands of foreign tourists every year.
Verdant crops spread east towards Mount Vesuvius, which stood imposingly over the coastal towns that lay in the distance. The volcanic area here is highly prized for its exceptionally fertile soil which produces some of the world’s finest wines. A cluster of clouds enveloped the crater, wrapping it like clotted cream over a chocolate cake. It was unusually cold for May, and a cold wind sharply blew.
Yet, as our dated train – an obsolete locomotive from the 80’s with crumbling interiors and hard seats – chugged along, the view was not quite what I had imagined. High crumbling palazzi faced the railway lines, each balcony lined with rows of washing. On the second floor, an elderly lady hunched over to secure her fresh white linens which flapped continuously in the sea breeze. Below, a sea of plastic bags, pizza cartons, paper, cardboard and glass bottles littered the ground. An empty packet of crisps flew around. My eyes followed the yellow foil until it hit a building wall, pausing for a fraction of a second before fluttering towards the ground. As the train slowed down to pull into the following station, a glimpse of marine blue sea glittered among the dilapidated buildings, contrasting sharply with its bleaker surrounds.
The mounds of rubbish grew worse as the train pulled along. A white layer of waste covered the ground. The sight was so shocking I wondered whether those who lived here flung their rubbish directly out into their backyard, which gave onto the clangorous railway line.
As we pulled into each of the coastal stations, I looked around in horror. Graffiti plastered the walls in a rainbow of distaste that grew more and more pronounced as the train pulled on towards our final destination. The writing overtook entire walls and even ceilings, with graffiti-ists fighting for space. The names of the stations were now mostly illegible, spray cans having left their pronounced mark. Writings carelessly juxtaposed one another on what could have been a disorderly and rebellious nursery school table. The message portrayed seemed to become stronger and more violent – quasi innocent love messages ‘I – heart – Giusi – forever’ suddenly morphed into ‘faccia di merda’ (fuck face) and ‘stronzo chi legge’ (whoever is reading is an asshole).
Being half Italian and feeling much pride in the beauty of the country I was brought up in for many years, I felt truly repulsed at the state of the place, not least given that this is one of Italy’s prime tourist destinations. Surely this wouldn’t make tourists rush back any time soon?
When abroad all Italians long for their homeland, the Bella Italia, and more often than not languish in a homesick reverie. They lament the absence of quality food and long for the beauty of their land. I remembered, years ago, an Italian friend pulling out a packet of Barilla spaghetti from her suitcase on a four day holiday in Prague for New Year’s. She dared try Czech food only once, before plunging into a flurry of complaints which would plague us for our entire stay. Only when we reached the Italian border did I see a genuine smile on her face, as she sighed: “Eh, l’Italia!” Yet, is this the Bella Italia she longed for?
Disappointed and hurt at such an eyesore, I no longer desired to look outside, and let my eyes rest in the interior of the train. I soon noticed the screen above displayed the incorrect names of the stations. I wondered how tourists could possibly know at which station to alight. I shook my head in despair and knew not where to look. The Portuguese couple next to me silently looked outside, nervously fingering a paper guide to Pompeii. I dared not ask them what they thought of such a pitiful sight.