A Holy Hell

Yesterday, the Catholic Church celebrated the sainthood of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II at the Vatican.

Was I in Piazza San Pietro?  Absolutely not; I wouldn’t consider dragging my 15-month-old son into a crowd that size – and even without him, I wouldn’t have attempted it.  In my opinion, there’s nothing “holy” about being squashed between 800,000 tired, hungry pilgrims.  That scenario actually sounds more like a “holy hell,” if I’ve ever heard of one – that is, unless your idea of a religious experience is an exercise in masochism.

I also wasn’t as inclined to participate since, in my mind, it would be hard to top the experience I had in 2005 during Pope John Paul II’s last days.  I was living right down the street from the Vatican and was there in the piazza through it all: the days leading to his passing, attending his funeral, seeing the billowing white smoke and running to witness the announcement of Ratzinger as his successor.  That was an incredible time of intense beauty and emotion, as true pilgrims began to pour into the city in droves, inspired solely by a need to be close to a person in his last moments whom they held so dear.  Everyone – even the most fervent of unbelievers – can identify with that feeling.  There was no buildup to a big event, no flags or jumbotrons – just quiet song and prayer by candlelight.  No sensationalism, just a simple outpouring of love.  Those were sensations I’ll never forget.

Regardless, SL&N did have representatives in the field on Sunday who confirmed all suspicions: apparently people had to arrive at 4am just to be able to have a chance to get a standing position in the piazza, which means they stood for six hours waiting for the mass to begin (or froze their bums on the cold, bumpy San Pietrini).  The press is reporting that throughout the duration of the event, emergency services had to intervene something like one-hundred twenty times.  And as in any crowd of that size, at a certain point people started pushing, shoving, and arguing, which is a bit disheartening considering the setting.  A friend told me she was actually forced to yell at a group of nuns who would not stop pushing from behind, causing her mother to lose her balance and fall.  And, of course, when it was all over the entire neighborhood of Prati looked like a bomb had dropped.

Also as expected, the opportunists had quite a field day.  Vendors capitalized on the occasion by selling €15 cans of Coke, and when it started to drizzle, €20 umbrellas.  Not like you could blame them – after all, they weren’t the ones being declared saints, right?

Undoubtedly, the images of people singing and rejoicing in the streets were touching, and a comforting reminder that there are many people in this world still moved and inspired by the examples of humanity’s most devout leaders.  The intentions of so many were certainly good – but as often happens in this world, good intentions are infiltrated and scarred by greed, negligence, anger, weakness…  In other words, by human nature.

Everything would just be so much easier if we were all saints.  Oh, the irony.

Image

The aftermath of sainthood.
© Roma fa schifo

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10 Things I Hate About Italy

Anyone who knows me, knows how much I love Italy. But admiration alone doesn’t guarantee life as an expat will be an endless smorgasbord of pleasure and delight (well, literally it might, but not figuratively).  Oh no, you’ve gotta earn every drop of that mouth-watering gastronomic goodness; you pay for it with your blood, sweat, and tears, amico mio.  No matter how well I’ve assimilated to life here , there are certainly still times I view this country from a foreigner’s perspective – and if I concentrate on it too long, I realize there are a whole lot of things that can really girarmi i coglioni.

I’m typically someone who refrains from making conclusive statements before evaluating all sides of a situation (unlike those ignoramuses I detest who come back from a brief vacation abroad and are suddenly cultural experts on a place, making sweeping observations and statements like, “In Italy, everyone…”).  Generalizations are exactly that – but I’ll allow myself to indulge for a moment.  After five years here I think I’ve earned the right to make a few generic, open-ended, (dare I say) judgmental statements.

Hate is a strong word – but hey, life can’t always be a love fest, no matter where you are.  So, here they are, 10 things I hate about Italy:

1. Daily driving, which is absolute anarchy (in Rome, at least).  Imagine the chaos that would ensue if  traffic laws were virtually non-existent, and those which did exist were barely enforced.  Wait a sec, you don’t have to imagine it – just come to Rome.  The concept of getting pulled over essentially doesn’t exist here because of a lack of police presence on the streets, which makes the roadways a complete free-for-all.  You are literally at the mercy of your fellow motorists, which is not at all a good thing, since most of them are either in a hurry, in a tizzy, or just straight up stronzi (jerks, to put it lightly).

2. The post office. I’m pretty sure it was the tenth circle of hell in Dante ‘s “Inferno” – and if he didn’t include it, he should have.  I detest the place so much in fact that I haven’t physically mailed anything in at least four years.  People take a half-day off from work to accomplish something at the Italian post office.  In true useless bureaucratic style, a simple task is made difficult.  It’s probable you’ll leave with an acute hypertension problem.  Thank God I happen to live here in the age of online purchases and gifts sent directly through Amazon, otherwise I’d be a wreck.

3. Those stupid, tiny napkins at every bar that don’t absorb anything.  They seem to be coated in plastic, which makes no sense.  It’s like they’re having an existential crisis: if a napkin doesn’t properly absorb liquid, then what purpose does it exactly have?

4. The privately-owned shops and boutiques.  Ever suffered an anxiety attack while shoe shopping?  You will if you dare to enter one of these stress centers.  From the moment you open the door, the sales woman pounces and tension grows.  She immediately either: a.) wants to know exactly what you’re looking for; b.) insists on showing you things you’re entirely uninterested in; or c.) stalks you around the store in silence, just close enough to freak you out.  If you do show slight interest in something by merely grazing it with your hand, she feels the immediate need to inform you the item also comes in blah-blah colors and blah-blah sizes, and follows up with a brisk, “Can I wrap it up for you?”  Ten minutes in, and you’re ready to throw money at her and beg for mercy as you run for the door.

5. General obsession with health issues.  Everyone is always ready to self-diagnose or diagnose your symptoms (and most Italians are annoyingly proficient in anatomy).  Only in this country could you hear someone say in normal conversation, “Mi fa male il fegato” (my liver hurts).  In the States, most people couldn’t even begin to tell you where their liver is, let alone whether it hurts; we tend to lump our entire torso and its contents into the all-encompassing “stomachache.”  Then, there are the all-too-frequent discussions about digestion.  TMI, italiani! (not that TMI exists here).  Even young people habitually say things normally reserved for 80-year-old women, like: ”Mi piacciono i pepperoni, ma non li posso proprio mangiare – non li digerisco” (I like peppers, but I just can’t eat them – I can’t digest them).  I always thought it was just my immigrant grandmother who was freakishly in tune with her body (she would complain of  joint pain when it was about to rain), then I found out the whole damn country is one big pseudo-clinic of hypochondriacs.

6. Total wimpiness when it comes to the weather.  As soon as the temperature drops below 60 degrees in the fall, everyone begins to fret about the cambio di stagione they have to do at home (switching of summer/winter clothes), and they start dressing as if they lived in the Arctic Circle.  Please, people, I grew up in Ohio – your light rain and chilly temps are our Spring Break.  Then there’s the simultaneous widespread fear of the menacing colpo d’aria (cold blast of air), which, if caught without a scarf, can send you al letto (to bed) for days.  And the worst part?  I have also succumbed to this fainthearted fate, and never ever forget my scarf.  Disastro!

7. Complete lack of political correctness.  I once saw a job announcement posted in a store window advertising a position for girls with a “bella presenza, età massima di 28,” (good-looking, maximum age of 28). Seriously, they can actually get away with that?  Yes, for some reason they can – and it’s ridiculous and infuriating.

8. You always have to worry about having change on you everywhere you go.  Whenever you buy anything, every cashier, merchant, and place of business asks if you have exact change.  For example, if your bill comes to €15.62, they ask if you have thirty-eight cents.  Seriously, who has thirty-eight cents on them, all the time?  I don’t, and I certainly don’t want to have to worry about having it.  But yet I have to; it’s another thought I’m forced to squeeze into my limited brain space before going anywhere.  Otherwise, I will undoubtedly be haunted by the panicked, “Do I have any coins?” thought whenever I’m lucky enough to actually find a parking spot, or need a tip for the nice Indian guy who pumps my gas after hours.

9. The fact that the employment situation is so dire that people actually have to invent jobs that don’t exist.  No job to be found?  No problem!  Just park yourself at the nearest traffic light, parking lot, or gas station and become an honorary employee.  No, I don’t need a lighter that doubles as a laser pointer, or yet another pack of cheap tissues, grazie.  It’s a sad reflection on the state of the Italian economy when you feel obligated to pay someone for a service you really didn’t need or ask for in the first place.

10. Overly predictable people, and an awkwardly regimented society in general.  In Italy, there aren’t many people with complex identities: you are what you eat, wear, and do. Usually, what you see is what you get, without many surprises or exceptions to the rule.  From the perspective of an American used to a diverse society, that’s a strange concept.  It’s almost too easy to pinpoint a person’s social status, political beliefs, or even profession by appearance alone.  Also, much of the overall structure of society is based on the Italian eating schedule (which incidentally I’ve fully adopted, since I think it’s one of the few structural things they get right).  But I must admit it’s strange that in a country of more than 60 million people, you can actually plan your day around this schedule to avoid traffic.  For example, grocery shopping on a Sunday is a nightmare just around noon, but you can bet it’ll be a breeze from 1-3pm when everyone (and I mean everyone) is at home eating lunch. Honestly, it’s almost creepy.

That makes ten, but I think I feel a series coming on…

Check out the opposing viewpoint written on a happier day: 15 Reasons to Love Italy