Rome: Pilgrims in an Unholy Land

I remember thinking that all along the route from Livorno to Rome the train stations had a down and out vibe, as if Biff Tannen had been elected mayor 10 years ago and had run uncontested ever since. As I spun on the ball of my foot to get a full view of our stop, I observed two children giggling and scampering about underfoot, blissfully indifferent to the bits of trash swirling around in the wind and the countless frowning faces passing over their heads like storm clouds. “Now, how is this happy playtime?” I wondered.

Our only solid plan in Rome was to attend a trade union demonstration on Saturday. We had arrived on Tuesday. We had gambled a bit by coming to the city without any solid contact with anyone in advance. Despite never budgeting for it, we had reserved a hostel near the train station. We hoped to organize some better accommodations later. For the moment it would be nice to just get the bags off of our backs and go see some of the sights in this historic city while it was light out.

As we trekked in the general direction of our hostel, it became clear that we were passing through an immigrant neighborhood. The first giveaway was that it showed all of the symptoms of neglect on the part of the officialdom of the city, from the potholes in the streets to the boards across what once had been shop windows. This district was apparently populated by people from Southeast Asia. All of the signs where written in what to my untrained eye appeared to be Hindi or perhaps Nepali. It may as well all have been written in Cuneiform because I can read that just as well. People noticed us right away. It would have been hard not to. We may not have been the only travelers but we were certainly the only light-skinned people around that were not wearing police uniforms.

If David Lynch had wanted to film a scene in an opium den, the hostel we had booked would have provided an excellent ready-made set. The light bulb in the hallway flickered in such a way as to suggest that a gust of wind might bring total darkness to the place if there actually was any ventilation. The lighting in the room would have been perfect if we had intended to develop photographs. Dingy fabrics slung lazily from the ceiling provided a curtain-like illusion between each of the beds, all of which had clearly been lifted from an abandoned children’s hospital. I assumed that the 45 Euros they expected us to pay included a meal of some sort, though the grayish film on the floors had me wondering if I’d be willing to take off my boots in this place, let alone eat. It took all of 2 minutes for us to decide to move on. We’d almost certainly find another hostel before too long.

At one point during the many hours we spent searching for new accommodations, I briefly entertained the notion that we had made a mistake in not staying at the first hostel. I kept it to myself though because I knew that we would eventually find something better, like a sinkhole or perhaps a pile of tires. At least the guy working that front desk had not been farting constantly throughout the entire conversation. The man who pointed us to our eventual destination at his hostel’s other location could not say the same.

Sadly, we weren’t able to enjoy the fresh air outside for too long before we realized that we had wandered into what appeared to be the fascist district. At first I was certain that the posters on the wall had something to do with a theatrical interpretation about the fascist period in Italy. Standing alone, the occasional spray painted swastikas would only have made the place look like a truck stop bathroom in the United States. Slogans like “Viva Il Fascismo” on the other hand, made the whole thing seem a bit too real. There were posters depicting angry young men alongside slogans against immigrants and Romani people. There were countless vile slogans, calls to arms, and various symbols known the world over as white supremacist in nature. All of it appeared to have gone unopposed. “My boy, we’re pilgrims in an unholy land,” I said hoping to bring some levity to our situation.

We breathed a little easier as we discovered our hostel wasn’t on a street decorated with white-power crosses. Neither did the clerk here force us to hold our breath as his colleague had done. All the same, our spirits were quite dampened by all we had seen in Rome so far. Our Livornese friends had told us to be careful talking politics here and it was plain to see that they weren’t joking around.

For our first 24 hours in Rome, a metaphorical cloud hung over our heads. The immigrant neighborhood was astonishingly poor while the other poor neighborhood was astonishingly anti-immigrant, at least from what we could tell by what was written on so many of the walls. Our first hostel would have been an even bigger nightmare to stay in than our second hostel was to actually locate. Luckily the rain started after we checked in. It rained so heavily that for nearly all of the next day we could do little else but stay indoors and wonder just how fascist this place really was.

We had been told by a friend in Greece of a meeting nearby which would feature a speaker from SYRIZA. The neighborhood had even undergone something of a makeover during the night. Posters promoting the meeting we sought had gone up again. Someone armed with red spray paint had gone and scribbled over the pro-fascist graffiti. The little swastikas had been covered. The name of one group, “Blocco Studentesco” (Student Bloc) had been changed to “Blocco Intestinale” (Blocked Intestine). It would seem that rather than an outright fascist neighborhood, we were in some kind of contested area. This realization by itself was enough to lift our spirits.

As we headed to a left-wing meeting in what we had assumed was right-wing territory, I wondered if the factional war of words had a physical side.

– Jason

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