Friday, November 6, 2009

Grocery Store Revelations

In my last post I wrote about the “next stage” of being a tourist and the things you find out after being in a place for awhile. Here’s another instance of that. Normally we do most of our shopping at an all-purpose grocery store called the COOP (pronounced like the “coop” in cooper), but every once in awhile I’ll stop at a small shop that sells a little of this, a little of that: sausage, cheese, various canned goods. Since the owner has to slice everything by hand it takes awhile to get served. It’s a good place to go to get practice listening to Italian, but you have to be in the mood to hang around there for a good twenty minutes.

The other customers were a woman in her seventies and two young woman who were police officers. They looked very official in a swinging sixties sort of way with white vinyl holsters holding their pistols. I think they just go around the city issuing parking tickets, but their ensembles always make me think of Diana Rigg in the Avengers. Anyway, the woman did what a lot of people do when they find themselves in social situations with police officers. She started talking about crime and things that were bothering her in the city. At a certain point she starting listing all the minorities who have recently moved into Bologna. She started with the Africans from Tunisia, and made her way through to the Chinese, Philipinos and Romanians. For good measure she threw in the Jews. As many of you know I do have a Certificate of Participation now from an Italian language school, so I have been honing my comprehension abilities. It wasn’t just that the woman made sweeping generalizations about each group. She took things a step further by describing pros and cons of each. It sounded almost like somebody going through the lineup of a baseball team and listing each player’s strengths and weaknesses. As she made her general statements about the influx of foreigners(not a good thing in her opinion) I interupted her flow and said I was an American at which point she did a kind of switcheroo and talked about how racist Americans were. This was about ten seconds after her denigration of various groups. Yep she was a slick one all right. I have to hand it to her though, she did try to bring me into the discussion by badmouthing Jews—surely even an American could get behind that. I told her I was Jewish. There are about 100 Jews left in Bologna and the former Jewish ghetto forms a parallel city just minutes from the University. For various reasons, including getting sent to concentration camps, there aren’t many Jews left in the city. So, I figured I might be the first actual Jew this woman had ever seen and I thought maybe she’d like to take a good look at me.

Well, the upside was she didn’t seem to want to take me out and shoot me. Nor did the policewomen although they were obviously equipped to do so with their groovy holsters. But the really disturbing part wasn’t so much the ravings of this particular woman, but the nodding of heads by the two policewoman. Yes, they were quite ready to blame every problem that Bologna faces on foreigners. And they were young, which is especially upsetting. We passed on to other subjects like travel and the weather. Everyone made their purchases and wished everyone else a nice day. ( They usually just say arrivederci. There really isn’t an Italian version of “have a nice day.”)

So there you are then. A part of Italy that doesn’t make it into Fodor’s. Part of the fallout from learning a language well enough to understand the people around you. For me, it’s hard to view this submerged hostility at the same time as the beauty. It’s like that optical illusion of two profiles that interlock with a silhouette of a table lamp; you can see one image or the other but not both. And that’s where I find myself right now, at times astonished by the beauty of this city and at other times deeply saddened by the ugliness.

1 comment:

Eric Riback said...

It's an old story: fear born of ignorance. Happens in Westchester too.

When I was going to marry an Italian Catholic girl, a WASP client of my prospective mother-in-law said to her, "He's a Jew, Maria? How can you let her marry him." That's here in America, where Jews aren't as scarce as in Bologna, less than 40 years ago.