The sea in Southern Italy deserves its own story. It is breathtaking. Raw. Its jewel-toned azure hits you hard in the chest, even more impressive against the stark limestone cliffs and the bright white light of the Mediterranean sun. From below the surface, it doesn’t shatter the sunlight so much as cut it in a million different directions, so that the rays look like they are coming from the deep instead of from the sky above.
But the sea won’t find its story told here. Because though my time in Calabria and Sicily has been filled with sun-drenched days, it has also reminded me that it is too easy to gloss over the grittier parts of a place – to ignore the problems that exist in every paradise – in favor of the beauty. It happens all the time in Hawai‘i, where visitors view our culture through a framework closed in on all sides by the idea of “aloha” and the image of a smiling hula girl. In Italy I was tempted to do the same, to pick and choose images of the vivacious Italian family that has taken me in here, the pasta they have fed me, and the vineyards that have lined the roads of my travels. But Italy deserves more than that, and Southern Italy especially. It deserves to be seen not just for its stunning landscapes and passionate people, but for the furrowed brows of young fathers in search of work, the revolutionary graffiti scrawled on the streets of Catania, and the eyes of young people asking, hesitantly, what I think of their country so far.
Italy is struggling through a severe economic crisis that has hit young people especially hard. Youth unemployment hovers at 30 percent, and in 2009, 79 percent of jobs lost were to people between 18 and 29. The family values that Italy is famous for have taken on an uglier side: The percentage of Italians aged 30-34 living with their parents has tripled since the ’80s, as more young adults have become economically dependent on their families. Young Italians are leaving their country to seek work not only in Northern Europe or North America, but increasingly, in less prosperous countries all over the world. And these already shocking statistics mask a huge North-South inequality within Italy. In the past decade, more than 580,000 people have been driven out of Southern Italy by the financial decline and poverty. This spring, the youth unemployment rate was reported a staggering 47 percent. The people here say that Italy is really two countries, the Center and North together, and then the South, on its own.
The air here in the summer is hot, smelling vaguely of dried grass and ash, because of the brushfires that so often rage in the sun parched hillsides. The people are colored by the sun, their skin like tanned leather, and their hands of course, always moving to the up and down intonation of their speech. Their loyalty to the South is strong; on my first day in Calabria, a woman said, upon hearing that my great-grandparents had left the region over a century ago, “The blood of the South never leaves you.” Historically poorer, and often looked down on by the rest of Italy, the South is feeling the Eurozone crisis even more than the rest of their country.
This is part of the reason, perhaps, that so much of my time with new friends in the South was spattered with talk of politics. The young people here have little faith in the old, rich men who run their country and rob their pockets. One night some friends took me to a beach bar near the southernmost point in Sicily. In the midst of dancing and laughter, I caught one of our group talking passionately, yelling almost, to the bartender. I couldn’t understand her rapid-fire Italian, but someone translated, “She just convinced the bartender not to vote in the next election. She says that we are in a crisis and none of the politicians have our interests in mind; they are only serving themselves, and the young people shouldn’t give them our support.”
In Italy, this isn’t apathy; it is a deliberate rejection of a government that has failed too many times to honor its commitment to the next generation. The young people here have grown up in the era of Silvio Burlesconi, a businessman/media mogul/elderly playboy who has dominated Italian politics and media since 1994, and only recently stepped down in the face of Italy’s failing economy to allow a temporary technocratic administration to step in. They have grown up under an “old man government” where the politicians are known for taking from the people and where the media is notoriously not “free.” They are victims of a two-tiered labor market that has protected their parent’s generation but has left them vulnerable and unable to find steady work. They are a generation struggling with a xenophobic legacy in an era of increasing multiculturalism. They are losers in a job market that runs too exclusively off of clientelism and “who you know.” In the South especially, they are witnesses to the destructive power of the mafia, and all over the country, they are now watching their fate being decided by a technocraticgovernment, made up mostly by bankers and business elites touting sweeping austerity measures.
But again, their frustration should not be mistaken for apathy. Because while economists like Bill Emmot, author of Good Italy, Bad Italy, are quick to point out that Italy’s failures can be attributed to “individual and clannish selfishness,” the young people I have encountered here have challenged that mentality. As I became more interested in the passion that I saw in them, I began to find that there are remarkable stories of young people doing incredible things outside of the system that has so blatantly neglected them. The centri sociali in Rome for example are made up of abandoned buildings that young people have transformed into centers for political thought where commuters can build bikes for free, or immigrants can take free Italian lessons.
Most impressive, perhaps, is the story behind the list of businesses posted in my hostel in Catania that had refused to pay pizzo, or protection money, to the mafia. The first one of its kind was compiled by a group of 20-somethings in Palermo. They had wanted to open a bar but realized that if they did, they would likely be approached to pay pizzo, and that if they refused, they may be threatened or physically harmed.
Just five years before, an elderly storeowner in Palermo had been gunned down in the street after he took a public stand against protection payments. Rather than give in, the would-be bar owners launched a clandestine campaign, plastering the city by night with stickers that read, “Un inter popoplo che page il pizzo e un popolo senza dignita” or “A community that pays protection money is a community without dignity”. In a year, they created enough momentum to launch an organization called Addiopizzo(Goodbye, Protection Money) with a list of 3,500 Palermo residents who pledged to support businesses that refused to pay. They used the list to convince a hundred businesses to make the commitment. Since then, the list has grown by approximately 100 businesses a year, and likeminded organizations, like the one I encountered in Catania, have found similar success.
Though the mafia is a real problem here, what is most notable about the story of the Addiopizzo is the drive of the seven friends, all between the ages of 25 and 30, who challenged it. While crime syndicates ‘Ndgrangheta in Calabria and the Cosa Nostra in Sicily have devastating ramifications for Italy, the Italians I spoke to seemed to feel far more betrayed by their government, which all too often is just as guilty of corruption. My host in Solarino, a small town in Sicily, said, “We are supposed to be a democracy, but when we are forced to find work outside of Italy while our politicians control our media and give their call-girls ministerial posts, we know that we are not really free.”
Many of the 20-somethings I’ve met here have chosen to go to school to study political science or law, and even the ones that didn’t seemed to be much more invested in their country’s politics than their counterparts in the United States. It is a direct reflection of their desire to insert themselves into the decision-making processes that will decide their future. Whereas in the US, young people vested all their hope in Obama in 2008 and then fell to the wayside when their expectations were met with disappointment, Italian youth have learned to look to their government as a whole with a critical eye. They understand perhaps, that their struggles cannot be attributed to one prime minister or administration, but belong to the entire political system.
This wariness empowers them, really, in that it leaves them without the luxury of sitting idly by in hopes that the next guy who comes along will do a better job. It leaves them only with the alternative to take matters into their own hands, to fight for their future, whether it means risking their lives to undermine the mafia, rioting in the streets in protest of rising tuitions that are a fraction of what we pay in the US, or leaving Italy in search of a better life elsewhere.
Italy still has a remarkably high standard of living for a country that has been struggling for so long. Here in Tortora, the small Calabrian town that has somehow become my home away from home, I have enjoyed that standard of living, and I’ve fallen in love with the slow, steady pace of each day. But could I really say I love Tortora if I ignored the story of Rocco, a hardworking father who owns a gym here in town, who has decided to move his family to Canada, because as he says that he “can’t raise my family in a place that is moving backwards instead of forwards”? Could I really say I love Italy if I brushed aside the worries of the young people in Catania, Solarino, Reggio and Tortora, who have been so kind and welcoming to me?
In such an alluring country, it is easy to depoliticize. It is easy because injustice and struggle can be hard to bear, and there is so much beauty to fall in love with. It isn’t always a bad thing, falling in love with what is beautiful. But the danger in that is missing out on the strength of a people and the ways in which they deal with their hardships. And unexpectedly, I think that is what I have come to love the most about Italy.