By Alberto Schiavone
Alberto Schiavone, a young Italian author, writes about Via Padova, a street extending through an immigrant neighborhood in Milan, and where the tensions between ethnic groups sometimes turn into street fights. Old and young residents of the city are struggling to cope with the demographic changes brought about by the waves of immigrants from foreign countries. Immigration is a recent phenomenon in Italy, a country that for more than a century exported labor. Via Padova represents the changing mosaics of Italy’s cities, and the tension that arises through urban transformation.
The lady on the bus says she feels like she’s not even in Italy. She glances around, trying to drag my gaze along with hers. I give up, it's my stop.
I knew that I lived in an area full of immigrants. Mostly, in that neighborhood, North Africans. Being born and raised in Turin, the proximity to the Maghreb did not scare me. On the other hand, I was not attracted to it, to tell the truth. I didn’t feel the exotic attraction often felt by my peers to hang out in neighborhoods pungent with spices. Besides, I never felt silenced by a sense of racist guilt, and was basically never bothered by it. But on to my story.
All that was breathing around me was, in any case, a fact. Nothing more. I had read something about Via Padova and its surroundings, because there had been a sort of collective brawl (called by journalists "revolt"), followed by a fight between two people that ended badly, with the death of an Egyptian boy. This event was discussed at length, with the usual and profuse spreading of investigations, interviews, pamphlets, banality. However, in Via Padova I felt at home, despite the voice of Laura Pausini coming from too many windows. I tried the Moroccan barber in front of the house. I bought the beers from the Pakistani. Sometimes I drank Chinese coffee. I smoked American cigarettes. The thing that bothered me in that apartment, however, was (in addition to sharing it, which I could not abide) the fact of having the window above a garage. It was nothing horrible, if it weren’t for one guy (Italian) whose car was particularly noisy with its exuberant muffler. He would hang out talking to his girlfriend, leaving the car idling. And then both would yell conversations into their phones. I do not know with whom. Every night. He was a guy that would brook no discussion of these matters, so given my decision to stay in Milan, I looked for another flat, this time alone. By chance I found one fifteen hundred meters from the old one. A one bedroom apartment. Cute, small, perhaps too small. Two days after I moved in, new neighbors arrived, three boys who were always listening to loud punk Neapolitan music, and always arguing with each other. With them, as well, there was not much to discuss, so I talked with the owner, who also told me that with those guys there was not much to discuss. At that time I did two things for the first time: use earplugs, and go out on the landing at six in the morning in my underwear, brandishing a hammer to silence the neighbors. I also left this second apartment in Milan.
By pure chance I found a home seven hundred meters away. In fact, I moved in a radius of a few kilometers , taking a zig zag . Now I live again beside Via Padova , still farther from the city center than I was initially. Here is a middle ground, and there is no ethnic group that prevails. The bars certainly are Chinese. Slot machines grinding money seem to be a business of the Italian underworld. A dentist is Romanian. The Pakistanis have the store for Pakistanis. The intercoms are Slav. The restaurants are South American. A kebab shop every now and then (one of which will not see me again because they fed me reheated leftovers). The tavern is Sardinian. The newspapers stands are all Italian, which is not easy to explain. Just like it’s not easy to explain why the Italians here are mostly elderly, or fat, or both, an observation made by my Croatian friend, and of which I have been keenly aware ever since.
Of course we speak of the Italians who live in the outskirts, because when you go downtown you can find trim Italians using their iPads and some are even reading a book.
Now I can call myself a denizen of Via Padova , even though my piece of it is actually called Ponte Nuovo, or Martesana , or even the North East for the less curious. I have taken a taxi to come home, and have found myself making jokes with the driver about the neighborhood. Taxi drivers belong to the discontent, those who look and say they don’t feel like they are in Italy any longer. When I lived in Madrid, a taxi driver asked me if he could masturbate, because I aroused him. So taxis never troubled me much. But we can discuss this elsewhere... I meet so many people, especially young people, that are all enthusiastic about the idea of living in Via Padova, but in the meantime they adapt to any place as long as it’s not Via Padova. Because the contradiction is there to live every day. Like the stereotype. The kebabs stink, the whores show off their miniskirts, the Slavs drink too much. And the Italians are fat. Rarely in Via Padova will you happen upon a celebrity, whose picture you will want to post on Facebook. Here roam just a few hipsters. No models. There are no Fair Trade store windows.
The Martesana Canal has been closed for months, drained and dry, for cleaning. Or as I was told by an old guy a few days ago, because they are still looking for Aldo Moro. Last Sunday I went to buy a pistol for applying silicon sealant, because my toilet was leaking, and only the Chinese supermarket was open. For only two euro and fifty I brought it home. It broke after two pushes, and my toilet continued to leak.
When I go downtown sometimes I take the bus 56, which runs all the way along Via Padova. Slowly, like a beast of burden. But it is the best way to observe Via Padova , provided that you do not want to trudge the four or five kilometres on foot (which I recommend anyway). Then in Piazzale Loreto you hit the subway stop, and then you start to see slim Italians and clean sidewalks. And if you keep going straight you arrive at Porta Venezia, where Italians begin to grow in stature as well; straight and further still and we are in the fashion district, where men are two meters high. We then arrive at La Scala, the Opera Theatre, where a few weeks ago they held a concert in honor of Claudio Abbado. The theatre was empty, only the orchestra was inside. And from the speakers outside, Beethoven’s funeral march flowed into the square. All present were silent, a magnificent moment . While we were dispersing, a lady (Italian and Milanese) told me that she felt like she was in such a civilized country, just as it should be. I thought I'd ask her if she felt like she was in Italy. But it didn’t seem like the right place to discuss it, so I 'm back in Via Padova.
Alberto Schiavone is a young Italian author living in Milan. He published two novels, La Mischia and La Libreria dell’ Armadillo.