It was very difficult to write down these thoughts. Especially on a sunny and happy day like today. They have been playing at the back of my mind for weeks now and I had promised myself that I will sit down, put them in readable order and post them here. Still, actually doing it was a lot harder than I thought.
For delving beneath the shiny surface is never a pleasant task. Seeing people experiencing problems that you can’t really do anything about leaves you feeling helpless and makes you face up to reality as it is: gritty and exhausting, often overwhelming and very difficult to deal with.
You know, living in Italy is such a blessing. The weather is sunny and even when it rains, you know it won’t be for long. The food tastes wonderful and you know that it hasn’t spent thousands of miles on the road to reach your table. And when you have roof over your head and some stability in your daily life, it is easy to have a happy heart. It is also easy to create a little bubble around yourself, a comforting little blanket which keeps the dark thoughts away.
Yet back in February my little bubble burst in a spectacular way. I don’t know if that was because it was winter and the cold season always makes me feel a bit overwhelmed and down. One day everything was fine and then the day after that I felt aimless and tired to the point of exhaustion. I spent most of the month simply watching episodes of Dexter back to back and listlessly performing my tasks when I couldn’t postpone them any more. It was not fun being around me, so I am forever thankful to my family for supporting me all the way through.
I don’t know if this was due to a vitamin D deficiency, something that has plagued me for many years during my life in the UK where the sun doesn’t make that many regular appearances, or it was simply because I had spent so much time this winter reading the daily news and simply despairing at the current state of the world.
The important thing was that one day I woke up, switched off Dexter forever and started making small amends to try and feel livelier and happier again.
It is a curious thing that when you are feeling down and when you are under the spell of dark thoughts, often all you can think about is yourself. It is like you shut yourself within yourself and the world can’t really break it through to you. It is only when you are ready to get up and give yourself a chance to be happy again that slowly, slowly you start to re-engage with people, to re-connect with them.
And then it hits you that they too have problems, often of a magnitude much bigger than yours. And you feel stranded because you don’t know how to help them while simultaneously you experience this very sobering realisation that the world is this big place and that you with your perceived issues and imperfections are just a small cog in it and there is no need, honestly there is no need to suffer in silence or beat yourself up over something which is only in your head.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have to look far to see people experiencing problems far bigger than what I could ever help them with. You know, Italy is this beautiful fabled place which most people adore and/or dream of visiting. Yet, Italy as a country has some very serious problems. And when you live here sooner or later you come face to face with them. In their rawest, most human form.
We often pop into a small shop on the way home. It is owned by one of the big supermarket brands here, but it has a real corner shop feel to it. One of the people who work there – a young chap – is always smiling and very welcoming. That’s it until one evening to our innocuous question ‘Come stai?‘ he actually told us that he wasn’t that well after all, as the company hadn’t paid his salary three months in a row.
Of course, we have heard and read about the difficult labour market in Italy where the level of unemployment is very high and young people don’t have many work opportunities once they leave college. We have heard of companies not paying their employees and shutting doors overnight. Yet, it was all dry percentages and far removed from us news. And it felt completely different to realise that these things we only read about actually happen to people we know. And there is not much we can do, but to offer an ear and to say ‘I am really sorry!’, no matter how cliched this may sound.
And, yet, there were times when I couldn’t do even this. I was just an observer, a random person in front of whom a small daily tragedy took place.
I remember taking my little daughter to this playground in Vicenza which was often used by the kids from a nearby orphanage. They would arrive with the women taking care of them and the kids would play and run around. Some would be boisterous and the carers would tell them off, sometimes quietly with a concern in their voice, and sometimes it would be a shrill ‘Stop doing this or that’, shouted from the other end of the playground.
And once this young and beautiful woman, a carer of the children from the orphanage, grabbed this four- or five-years old girl and slapped her several times across the buttocks for a small transgression the child had made. I was so shocked, we never went back to that playground again.
I am from a generation which was slapped and even beaten up by their parents. I can recall being slapped once or twice for a big fat lie I had told. And our mothers were big on threatening us with physical violence, like: ‘Come down that tree immediately or I will give you a hard slap!’
This was over thirty years ago. These days to see a small girl, no matter what her attitude issues may be, slapped hard by the person who was supposed to care for her and for this to happen in the open at the playground in front of other children and their carers and mums, this still breaks my heart.
And then, a few weeks ago, as I was getting back home walking slowly in the early evening warmth, I saw this man about fifty-sixty metres ahead of me. I recognised him immediately. He inhabits the large foyer of a nearby shopping centre. He is homeless. I first saw him some months ago during a carnival event staged for the local kids in the same mall. It was a raucous celebration with kids dressed up as pirates and princesses, with confetti strewn all over the place and several music and dance acts entertaining us all afternoon.
Just then, behind a large billboard advertising the weekly deals of the nearby supermarket I suddenly spotted this person. He was very thin, a shadow of a man. With a turban on his head, a heavy coat and shoes which were torn off. The contrast with the happy crowd filling up the shopping centre to the brim was so drastic, I couldn’t help it, I looked away.
And now, in the balmy early evening I saw the same man walking ahead of me up the street. He stopped at the water tap in the small local park, washed his hands and his face and drank water. Then he went on his way. It seemed like he was in a world of his own. In a country where the charitable feeling is incredibly strong, where in each church there is a basket for donations for people experiencing difficulties, where ordinary Italians often give food and money to people on the street, this man seemed to exist beyond human reach.
I don’t know who he is or what choices he has made for himself and his life. Still, I was shocked to see (or perhaps to make it up all in my mind) how a person can fall through the gaps of society and simply exist, just exist.
Also a few weeks ago, as I was rushing to catch a bus, I came across a curious sight. People carrying flags and posters were gathering in front of the local railway station. A gaggle of news reporters and cameramen were standing nearby. Policemen were stopping the traffic and guiding the now large group from where to pass.
I asked a passer-by what was going on and he told me that a local bank had gone bankrupt and these people had lost their life savings. So they were protesting. I stopped in my tracks. I read some of the posters. These were small-time business owners and private individuals. They wanted those responsible for the bank’s downfall to be prosecuted.
Coming from a country where hundreds and thousands of people had lost their savings and their livelihoods in the last quarter of a century, I could feel the pain and the indignation of these Italians only too strong.
A pain and an indignation I felt again when I saw the window of my favourite jeweller in town smashed. I often pass by his shop and last year I even recommended it as one of my ten insider tips for things you will love in Vicenza. Not because I can actually afford his jewellery, but because it is so artistic, so beautiful, I can’t help it but stop and spend some time just admiring his amazing display every time I pass by his shop.
So it looks like someone tried to burgle the place. They tried to smash the window, leaving an ugly cobweb of cracks on the face of it. In reply the jeweller turned the damaged window into an art installation. A rectangle of thick glass secures the cobweb, large signs ‘Guarda Sindaco!‘ (Look, Mayor!) have been affixed to the window and a cutting from the Italian newspaper ‘Corriere della Sera’ tells the full story.
Apparently, the street on which the jeweller’s shop is located used to be one of the liveliest in town until two years ago when the street was included in the restricted traffic zone of Vicenza’s old town. Since then the footfall there had dramatically decreased leading to shops shutting down and to a sharp increase in criminal activity.
The ‘Guarda, Sindaco!‘ signs and the cobwebbed glass are a sharp scream that attention is needed to the problems this splendid street in the heart of old Vicenza experiences.
And as I walk through the streets of Vicenza, as I see life for what it is – difficult, overwhelming and gritty no matter where you are – I think of something which happened only a couple of days ago. We were at a kids’ event in a large park in a nearby town. It was sunny, hot and it was fun. Dozen or so huge bouncy castles had been set up. Children were running up and down, climbing up to the top of these inflatable structures, sliding down, jumping high in the air and simply having a wonderful time.
And then all of a sudden the bouncy castles deflated and their turrets and other inflatable shapes and forms folded one on top of another. For whatever reason the electricity had stopped and within seconds the bouncy castles were a pile of cloth on the floor.
The people manning them and parents threw themselves forward and plucked the children from underneath the folds going soft. The children all looked shaken, but thankfully, this was the worst of it.
And I have been thinking how much like a bouncy castle life is. All full of vigour, of opportunities, providing both entertainment and an ideal point to propel yourself up in the air and feel like you are achieving your potential before gently (or not so) tumbling back down on the bouncy base.
And then, one day, woosh, and it is all gone.
So, even though I cannot directly help the people I told you about above, even though I am slowly coming to terms with my own issues, I can write about them, I can jot down their stories and my own fears and take it from there. I also realise that when we feel broken and attacked, we need to make something out of it, we need to show where we are standing and do it in the most outright, open and artistic way. Otherwise, we will simply be like a deflated balloon, when we could have reached new heights.
What do you think? Would you make a stand if life was testing you hard? Let me know in the Comments section below.