27 January, 2008

A good time to retire

Romano Prodi picked a good time to leave politics.

In case you haven't heard—and no one will blame you if you haven't, including most Italians—Prodi's government lost a confidence vote this week, so Prodi decided to retire. Prodi has indicated that he longs to leave politics, and play the role of nonno, grandfather. An Italian political cartoon has suggested that this will be a great disappointment to Prodi's grandchildren.

Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who thanks to plastic surgery, hair transplants, and the Italian version of Just for Men is looking younger than I do, is bouncing up and down with glee, demanding new elections to give him a new majority. The Italian center-right could barely conceal its glee at Prodi's downfall, going so far as to pop champagne bottles in the Senate. Were I a citizen of the Republic of Italy, that lack of decorum alone would be enough to make me long for Prodi's return. In a nation where politicians tend to be colorful characters, Prodi's relative colorlessness makes him seem frighteningly normal. His center-left coalition, however, was marred by constant infighting; he had already lost one confidence vote last year but put together a new coalition shortly thereafter.

In the meantime, Naples—which the residents of surrounding cities tend to regard as a giant, stinking heap of garbage, what with its corruption, its crime, and its culture of underachievement—has literally become a giant, stinking heap of garbage.

Why? The garbagemen have been on strike for a few weeks now. Why? Not because of the pay, nor because of the working conditions—not this time, anyway. This is not that big a surprise for anyone familiar with Italy. In Italy, going on strike is just a way to remind everyone else how necessary you are. The only people who don't go on strike from time to time are (a) the politicians; (b) the Mafia; and (c) those who work in nero, which is to say, without a contract. You can't protest your contract when you don't have one. This is illegal, but like most illegal things in Italy, it occurs routinely.

No, this strike is on account of the fact that the garbagemen have nowhere to take the garbage. There's no more space in the old landfill, and the new landfill... well, no one ever got around to building it. It's a little like Yucca Mountain here in the States; places were chosen, plans were made, and then political maneuvering ensured that nothing ever happened. Local towns around Naples are refusing to take in Naple's garbage, so it's collecting on the streets. The Milanese newspaper Corriere della Sera made sure to note a few nights ago that Naple's youth actually starting picking up bags of trash themselves the other day, and carried it far enough to clear out paths to the nightclubs.

This is the sort of story that you wouldn't believe if it happened anywhere other than Naples, and that you accept unquestioningly the moment you hear that it occurred in Naples. The Italian writer Eugenio Corti reported in his historical novel Gli ultimi soldati del rè that Naples was the only city in Europe to rise up against the Germans and drive them out. Why? Because the Germans tried to force them to work. I'll try to translate the relevant passage sometime over the next few days.

I remember a few garbagemen strikes in Gaeta. They happened when I was a child. A few days would pass; bags of garbage would pile up on top of the already-full trashcans, then the strike would end and I'd walk out onto the balcone one morning and eccoci qua, the trash was gone again. It's all part of life in Italy.

Don't get me wrong; I love Italy, but I'm not entirely fond of everything over there. Prodi picked a good time to retire.

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