It’s the 1st of July 2020, I order a coffee at an empty restaurant terrace in Rome. The woman running the restaurant tells me that she is not open for business yet, but still brings me the cappuccino I ordered. After talking to her for about half an hour it becomes quite clear that the corona lockdown burdens weigh heavy on normally thriving Italian small businesses. The restaurant holder tells me that she had to fire her main chef who has been working and living with her for twenty years. After finishing my coffee I leave a five euro bill on the table, but almost offended the woman refuses to let me pay: “This one is on me, but believe me the rest of Rome will suck every last penny out of you”.
Rome, the vibrant and historical capital city of Italy is empty. Whereas the Northern part of Italy was severely hit by the first corona wave, in Rome not much had happened yet at that time. In summer most Italians living in Rome flee the city as high temperatures steer the inhabitants towards the close-by beaches and mountains. Normally tourists fill-up their places during the hot summer days, but this year it is all different, the city is empty. The local newspaper reported that where normally three hundred thousand tourists visit Rome everyday, now only a thousand tourists come and spend there money. Despite the almost full re-opening in June 2020, the terraces are empty or closed. When visiting the Vatican Museums it becomes even more clear that indeed there are almost no tourists in town. Most visitors seem to be Italian, and the normally long waiting line is non-existent, making it feel like entering through the wrong entrance. The tourism industry in Italy, which made up about 13 percent of Italian GDP in 2019, could have lost up to one hundred billion in 2020 estimations suggest.
In August I decide to leave my studio apartment in the city center and start living in one of the most wanted neighborhoods for Italians in the city, San Giovanni. Where the old historical city center is almost fully inhabited by tourist or expats, San Giovanni is one of the neighborhoods relatively close to the city center where there are still many Italians. When showing a Dutch friend around in the neighborhood he confidently says: “this most be one of the bad neighborhoods, right?”. His comment is telling for the uninformed Northern European perspective on Italy. In countries like Austria and the Netherlands politicians tend to portray Italy like lazy people, fueling criticism on the ERDF funding for underdeveloped, mostly Southern European, regions who benefit less from the European integration than highly educated Northern regions. Northern Europeans tend to think of Italy as holiday destination and have a distorted view on how life is for many Italian inhabitants. The reality is different, with youth unemployment rates during corona surging to around 33 percent, much higher than the 9 percent in the Netherlands.
“If the mafia earns on it, it is no problem”
Not according to plan I end up living with five low-educated hospital workers who just started working at the San Giovanni Hospital in Rome. My new flatmates, all in the end of their twenties just started living in Rome, but their stories and perspectives tell much about the insecurities many Italians have to live with. One of the first things I notice is that they tend to speak in their own rural dialect from Abruzzo, the province next to Lazio. I have a hard time to understand what they say, but as I learned many regions have their own dialect and this is one of the reasons why there seems to be such a division between the North and South of Italy, especially since Northern Italians tend to look down on “terroni”, a common referral to low class people from the South. When asking why they decided to move to Rome their answer is clear: “We used to work from four in the morning to five in the evening in the burning sun planting seeds, while getting paid fifty euros a day, the 1300 euros a month as hospital worker in the air-conditioning is not that bad”. Personally I know high-school kids who earn a higher hourly wage, which makes it even more disturbing how ignorant many people think of Italians. The real problem is not the laziness of the people, it is the failing Italian governance that is heavily undermined by mafia practices. During the summer some clubs and festivals in the South of Italy re-opened as if nothing had happened. When I asked someone about it, I got a straight but clear answer: “if the mafia earns on it, it is no problem”. However, under huge political pressure even the clubs down South closed down again at the end of August.
My flatmates did not have time nor energy to party. All of them worked every day on daily changing eight hour shifts, either in the morning, afternoon or during the night. After two weeks they started working “la lunga”, the long one, referring to their occasional seventeen hour shifts from 2 PM to 7 AM the next day. Interestingly, to save money they slept together in the same room in the same bed as two of them were nephews. This is the reason why many young Italians often stay living with their parents as living alone is unaffordable for many of them. In Northern nations the situation is much different, as certain levels of prosperity tend to be treated like a right rather than a privilege. When being accustomed to living in such circumstances, it is easy to overlook the already wretched conditions of the Italian social state. The question is how much liberal nations want to support struggling nations in their efforts to maintain a certain level of prosperity.