Day 85-XI, from Sperlonga to Gaeta, 14 km.
Gaeta, January 31
The deserted town of Sperlonga is a fairytale. I conceded myself a long walk through the winding alleys down to the fort before going to sleep on the grand seaside balcony. But tonight the dreamy atmosphere was interrupted by a very unpleasant surprise. I slept through it, but I heard all the details this morning.
At around four, fire crackers were set off in our camp, and one of the tents was cut by an unidentified sharp object. We discussed it this morning in our internal assembly. It could well be another warning. And I was amazed with the reaction. Fear for the fascists spread fast, even though there wasn’t any reason for it. But this time, when there is a real motive for concern, people are pretty relaxed. We decided to install a night watch, but apart from that, we continue as usual.
The march today wasn’t as nice as it was yesterday, when I could follow the beach. Because of the rocky coast we have to follow the road, and the road had four tunnels to be crossed. We received an escort by the carabinieri, and under a hazy sky we arrived in Gaeta.
Gaeta has been a strategic port for centuries. It still is. Nato maintains a naval base here, and a giant grey war vessel was one of the first things whe noticed when we descended the boulevard of the town. On the steps of the town hall we had installed our field kitchen, and we chose this day and place to make polenta, a typical North-Italian dish made of maise flower. It makes for excellent nutrition, but after tasting it I was pretty sure that any person from the southern slopes of the Alps would have reported us to the authorities for offending their culinary heritage.
We are about to enter the former kingdom of Naples. Now, to put modern Italian differences into perspective I will give you a very brief overview of their historical dimension.
More or less since the year thousand up to the unification of Italy in the 1860s, the country has been divided into three.
The North was a collection of city states and regions, dedicated to trade, industry and banking.
The centre was what we would call a ‘third world nation’, under direct domain of the pope.
The south was a feudal state dominated by the nobility from Naples.
And all together, Italy has long been a battle ground where various European powers have exercised their influence. Mainly France, Austria and Spain.
Whereas the North was divided into warring cities and villages, whose rivalries have survived until the present day, the South has been a single state ever since it was united by the Vikings in the middle ages. When the Spanish from Aragón inherited the kingdom, they divided the country into giant estates, just like the Castilians were doing in Spain and Latin America. Local paesants were exploited for the greater glory of the nobles, and they continued to be exploited until about half a century ago. But road connections were bad and the estates were isolated one from another. It made no sense for the nobles to accumulate wealth without being able to show off among their peers. So most of the time the nobles didn’t live on their lands. They left the exploitation to their henchmen, and they built their family palaces in Naples.
These henchmen who represented the law in the absence of the official rulers are generally regarded to be at the root of the contemporary criminal sindicats which are popularly known as ‘the mafia’.
Day 84-X, from Terracina to Sperlonga, 15 km.
Sperlonga, January 30
This morning the mayor offered breakfast to all of us in the bar of the cathedral square. It was the perfect closure of our two day stay in Terracina.
Yesterday we held another popular assembly, something which the marchers hardly ever did before arriving in Rome. In this sense, the march is gaining more political meaning. Two of the locals who attended were activists of the ‘Five Star Movement’, which bears a lot of similarity with the movement of the indignados.
The Five Star Movement was inspired by Italian comedian Beppe Grillo, who has been mocking politics and politicians left and right for years in his live shows and on his daily blog. The way he exposes politicians and their petty corruption is hilareous, but for him it’s only a way to express his indignation, and that of many other people.
He famously predicted the collapse of Parmalat, a couple of years ago. Before becoming a comedian he was an accountant, and as such he already knew that the company was going down. After it happened he received a visit by the Guardia di Finanza. They wanted to know how he knew.
“Simply by looking at the numbers.” Everybody who wanted to know, could see it coming. But obviously no-one wanted to know.
In between one joke and another, Grillo speaks of all the existing alternatives which could turn our society into a sustainable one. He presented a hydrogen-car in one of his shows, and he spoke about the cannabis car which was developed by Henry Ford in the 1930s. ‘Don’t you think it’s amazing? This car is completely sustainable. It’s made from cannabis, and it goes on cannabis oil. And when it’s broke, you don’t throw it away. You just smoke it!’
Grillo and his ‘proto-indignados’ have organised various ‘V-day’s’ (Vaffanculo, or: Fuck off! days), directed against all politicians with a criminal record in public functions, and against Italian political culture in general. Two years ago he gave life to his own five star political movement.
The movement is locally based and horizontal. It connects people through the internet. The political program is created by the citizens, who bring in proposals and vote on it. The five stars represent transport, development, connectability, environment and publically owned water.
A handful of local councillor’s got elected in traditionally leftist cities like Bologna and Reggio Emilia. Their job is to promote the program that was decided on by the citizens. It’s a first attempt to turn popular indignation into e-democracy.
So this morning after breakfast we walk. When you leave the gates of Terracina, you can already see the houses of Sperlonga growing from the hills, fifteen kilometres down the coast. Most people take the road, I take a wonderful walk, all the way over the desolate beach.
One of the ugliest aspects of Italian tourism is the privatisation of the beaches. In summertime, each of the beach resorts puts up colourful batallions of beach chairs which you are supposed to rent at crazy prices. The remaining public beaches are often small, dirty pieces of sand. So maybe this summer it would be a good idea to camp here, to make fire, and reclaim all of the beaches for the people…
Sperlonga is the kind of town you see in the drawings of Maurits Cornelis Escher. White houses one on top of the other, stairs, balconies, gates and angles. And cats. This is the typical town for cats. We camp as always on the central square. The view is fabulous, but not everyone is able to enjoy it. Two of the marchers were shocked today when a car pulled up and someone stepped out wielding a Kalashnikov.
The Italians in our march try to give an explanation to what happened. “It was a warning. We left the territory of the fascists. Now we have entered the territory of the mafia.”
To be exact, this is territory of the camorra, the neapolitan mafia. But I don’t think we have anything to fear, as long as they don’t have anything to fear from us.
Day 82-VIII, from Pontinia to Terracina, 25 km.
Day 83-IX, rest.
Terracina, January 29
It was already dark when we reached the sea. We could hear the waves from a distance. The last few kilometres we walked along the shore line, and except for a few local fishermen, the beach was empty.
I like the seaside towns in the winter. Most bars and restaurants are closed. There are no tourists. Only locals strolling up and down the boulevard.
From the modern building blocks along the water front we walk up to the old centre of Terracina. The ancient stones of the Via Appia are still visible on the cathedral square where we have pitched our tents. It’s a marvellous place, and once again we were received with love and care. A local restaurant brought pasta with shrimps and white wine for all. It was the best. The hospitality of the people here in the south makes me proud to be Italian.
Then daytime comes. I walk along the beach, I sniff the salty air. I look at the parents walking by, holding their young children by the hand. There are a thousand stories I could tell about Italy and the Italians, and still I wouldn’t reach the core of the question. But that’s no reason not to try.
It’s one of the things I noticed in the years that I spent here. The almost irrational way that parents treat their children. They keep them on a very short leash. It goes far beyond the natural concern of parents for their offspring’s wellbeing. They almost seem to think children are some kind of lemmings who go jumping off balconies or running under cars and trains whenever they are not under surveillance. Parents panick when their children are not near.
A natural result of this is that children grow up with a lot of stress. And when they reach the age of 16 or 17, they have but one desire. Escape, rebel, and do everything that their parents ever forbade them. So they go to Amsterdam.
For Italian youngsters a trip to Amsterdam is like an initiation into adulthood. They go there with friends, they waste themselves on drugs, alcohol and prostitutes, and when they get back they are ready to face the boring dailyness of the rest of their lives, nurturing the sweet memories of freedom. But just as often they don’t remember anything at all. A friend of mine once told me about his trip up to Holland. When he regained consciousness he was in Zurich, and he had no idea how he got there.
After losing their wild hairs, Italian children return to the nest, and they live at home until far into their thirties. On the one side because their mothers insist on it and this way they don’t have to worry about cooking and cleaning, and on the other side because they hardly have opportunities to start a career and pay their own appartment.
The problem is that the older generations in Italy don’t want to make way. They don’t want to give any responsability to the youth, as if they don’t trust their own children, even when they are thirty or forty years old. It makes for a static society, where you are forced to adapt, and where you can get by pretty well if you don’t have any illusions. Only the real adventurers, and the brightest among the youngsters succeed in breaking free. They emigrate to places where they don’t need ‘recommendations’ from influential people to find a job, places where they can deploy their talents and be appreciated for all that they are capable of.
Day 81-VII, from Sezze to Pontinia, 14 km.
Pontinia, January 27
We have finally descended into the former Pontine swamps, and after a short stroll through the polder we arrived in the new town of Pontinia.
It’s interesting. For me it’s like walking through Pompeii. The fascist era has lasted little over twenty years and it has left various architectonical testimonies. The most famous are probably the railway station Santa Maria Novella in Florence, the Sapienza university in Rome, and most of all the E.U.R. quarter of the capital, built for the world exposition of 1942 which was supposed to celebrate 20 years of fascism, but which was never held because of the war. Many architectural remains are big neo-roman marbles, square and ugly. But here in Pontinia there is something more. This place gives you an idea of fascist city planning.
The town was founded in 1935, the third of the new towns in this area. Obviously it’s inspired by the straight city grids of the ancient Roman towns, but it has its own peculiarities.
There are two main roads. The North-South axis is the ‘civil’ road, dominated by the town hall on the south side. The East-West axis is the ‘religious’ road, dominated by the church on the west side. The two don’t cross in the middle. They cross on the central square in front of the town hall, and their angulations are exact. When I arrived today at noon, the sun was directly behind the tower of the town hall.
The marble sign on the façade is still the original one. It proudly tells how this town was founded when the country was under ‘economical siege’ by the rest of the world, which ‘owed so much to Italy’ in terms of civilization.
In 1935 Italy had invaded the ancient christian empire of Abessinia, modern day Ethiopia, one of only two independent nations in Africa. The fascists wanted their ‘rightful place under the sun’. So they came to bring ‘civilization to the negroes’, and they did so with bombers and poison gas. The League of Nations, whose member states had colonised almost the entire remainder of the continent at the time, hypocritically imposed economical sanctions on Italy. It was oil on the fire of Italian nationalism. Mussolini’s economical philosophy was based on national self sufficiency, and the economic sanctions would prove that Italy could do without the rest of the world.
In retrospect, it was the high point of Italian fascism. When Ethiopia was conquered the Italian king was proclaimed emperor of Abessinia, and Mussolini’s voice over the radio could proudly declare that the empire was restored an that Italians “from the Alps to the Indian Ocean” were united by a single battle cry. “Duce!”
After that, Mussolini came under increasing influence of Hitler, and in 1938 the axis Rome-Berlin was formed. When war broke out, fascism fell apart like a house of straw. The Italian war effort was a joke. Mussolini’s legions were beaten on all fronts, even by the Greeks.
What’s left are towns like this, where some of the very old people on the square still remember those days with a melancholic smile. But in the Italian psyche fascism is still alive. Not as a kind of hereditary sin, like nazism in Germany. It’s alive in the sense that many people still believe in it, and many more people still fear it and feel the need to fight it.
It’s crazy. Fascism, just like communism, was a product of its time. Now it’s dead and buried. It will never come back. But because people are still obsessed by it, they don’t see that there are different, but equally dangerous ideologies which have taken its place, and which need to be resisted, right here, right now. In particular berlusconism, the mixture of populism, disrespect for the rule of law, and the celebration of cultural trash, which has slowly poisoned Italian society for twenty years running.
Fascism ended with a country in ruins. Berlusconism on the other end didn’t end when Berlusconi (temporarily) stepped down. It has become part of Italian daily life, but as long as Italians are more concerned with the phantoms of their past, they won’t be able to address the phantoms of their present.
March to Athens
Day 79-V, Sermoneta. Rest.
Day 80-VI, from Sermoneta to Sezze, 14 km.
Sezze, January 26
We are following the old railroad line from Rome to Naples, on the border of the Lepine hills and the former Pontine swamp. Left of us, one after another, you can see the villages high up on the rocks, like balconies. Norma, Sermoneta, Sezze…
Yesterday we spent all day in a tiny fraction of Sermoneta at the foot of the hill, trying to find out why on earth we are marching, and when we plan to arrive.
It’s still too early for me to give a clear picture of this march, but I have the idea that the concept of marching is either evolving or degenerating, depending on your point of view.
The popular marches to Madrid were clearly political. People went from village to village, organising assemblies, engaging in actions and bringing the problems and complaints of the people to the capital.
The March on Brussels had a similar scope, but the distance and the different situation of the lands we crossed turned it into something which was political on the one hand, and existentialist on the other. For many reasons, and most of the time, it was chaos. And in retrospect there were only two things that kept the march going. The dates. We had to be in Paris on the 17th of September, and we had to be in Brussels on the 8th of October, even though it meant that we had to do over thirty kilometres a day. And we made it.
The March to Athens doesn’t have any dates to respect, and many people want to keep it that way. In yesterday’s assembly, people were asked to talk about their personal motives for marching, and the amount of kilometres they want to walk every day. It turns out that the majority isn’t really interested in marching at all. They want to do only a handful of kilometres, take lots of days off, and stretch the whole thing as far as possible, arriving in May or June, or whenever.
For them the march is mainly an existentialist experience, a way of life, and if there is any political meaning to it, it’s the greater good of love, peace and harmony. They were a bit dissapointed when it turned out we are only 800 kilometres from Athens, a distance that can be covered in a month. Even if we do only ten kilometres a day we will arrive in Athens in April.
Roughly the group consists of one third of Frenchmen, one third of Spaniards, one sixth of Italians, two Finns, two Poles, a Greekwoman, a Dutchman and a Belgian. We also have one handicapped person in a wheelchair who lets himself be pushed. In total about forty persons, enough for the group to split into subgroups with their own internal dynamics and external frictions.
To be perfectly honest, I have my doubts about people’s motivations. Especially about the ‘way of life’ marchers. They intend to show that it’s possible to live together in a different way. But as long as we, marchers, don’t go hunting and gathering in nature, or settle down to work the land, we are as dependent from the system as anybody else.
March to Athens
Day 78-IV, from Cisterna to Sermoneta. 16 km.
Sermoneta, January 24
Typically, the most vehement fear mongerer who led our march away from Latina, wasn’t present at Cisterna. She chose this particular day to take a rest. Well, too bad for her. She missed out on a memorable encounter.
One of the people who intervened in our assembly yesterday was a ten year old boy. He wanted to talk about the ‘football problem’. The thing is that the hole where the parking lot should have been built was used by the local boys to play football, but lately the police have closed it up. Now they play on the square, and every time the ball ends up in the bar, they don’t get it back.
So this morning, after I had already left, people took action. They opened up the building site, they put up two goals, and they baptised it the ‘Popular Football Stadium of Cisterna’. An inaugural game was played against the local youth to celebrate the event.
Last night there was also a big party of fraternisation with the ‘fascists’. It was only interrupted when one of us, pretty tipsy, started singing Bella Ciao, the trademark left wing partisan song. But instead of making trouble, the fascists showed their disapproval by using the assemblary gesture that indicates ‘offensive, racist or sexist language’…
Today’s walk led through the kiwi fields along the hills to a small fraction of the hillside village Sermoneta. We are camped outside a former railway station, which hasn’t been used for sixty years. There is almost nothing here. A bar and a couple of houses. But even in a place like this, we were received with open arms.
A local communist councillor was more than happy that we came by. He shares our goals, he knows everybody in the village, and he made sure that the we had water, electricity and the possibility to shower. When night fell, locals came by to bring us sacks of fruit and bread, and they installed a barbecue to cook pieces of meat for all of us under the starlit sky.
So yes, dear people, tonight things are just fine. From the far left to the far right, everybody loves us. The last of the group to arrive have even been invited to tea and meditation in a buddhist monastery. I hope it did them well. Because from the looks of it, the internal situation of the march will not always be as peaceful as today.
Day 77-III, from Velletri to Cisterna di Latina. 15 km.
Cisterna, January 23
I’ve witnessed this story before, in the north of France: people mongering fear for presumed ‘fascists’. They make us believe we’re entering a bullfighting arena, and we’re dressed in red.
True, we’ve arrived in the land of Mussolini. From here down to the sea this used to be a big swamp until the fascists laid it dry in the early 20th century. Before that, people died of malaria. After that, Mussolini founded five new towns in this region. ‘Littoria’ was the most important of them. The name, just like the term ‘fascism’ itself, refers to the arrows that were the symbol of imperial power in ancient Rome. At the end of WW2 the town was renamed ‘Latina’. But Mussolini is still revered as a hero by many people in this zone. In Latina there will even be held a referendum to give the city back its original name.
The fear mongerers have succeeded in deviating our route away from Latina/Littoria, but Cisterna is said to be almost as bad. Fascists bands are roaming the streets, armed with clubs, so they say.
This afternoon we arrived. Some of us waited at the city limits to hear from one of our contacts how the situation on the ground was. I thought it was ridiculous. I enter town alone.
On the central square I find some of our comrades who had staid behind in Rome for a couple of days, perfectly at ease. They are attracting everybody’s attention. But they don’t know that they are supposed to be afraid. We put up our signs and banners, and slowly, the citizenry approaches us. And once they start to understand who we are, what we are doing, and why, they embrace us all.
“Not since the end of the war, have we seen something like this in Cisterna.” We are the event of the day, the talk of the town. ‘Our house is your house’, people seem to say, and they offer us food and solidarity. The police offer their assistance: “If there is any trouble, just call us. We’re right over here.” The chief of police himself offers us moral and even financial support. One of the local journalists chuckles. “With all the trouble and the injustice in this town, his gesture is that of a sinner who goes to the church to confess.”
Then suddenly, there they are, in their black bomber jackets. The fascists.
The situation is red hot, right from the start. The fascists go down hard. On the politicians, on the banks, on the entire system. They completely agree with us. Only when it comes to solutions, they propose a different one. “We don’t need all those people to decide for us. We need just one leader.”
Our reaction is to hold an assembly. We want to decide things all together by using our collective intelligence. And so we explain how it works. The speaking turns, the signs, everything.
The fascists were a bit bewildered, but they participated. They respected the rules, they asked their turn to speak, and when it came around, they spoke. About all minor and major problems of the town and the country. About the euro, about unemployment, about corruption, and as the assembly progressed they were invited to reflect more deeply on what it is that makes us happy, as human beings. Labour not as a way to earn money to eat, but labour as self fulfillment; the importance of free time to develop your talents, to socialise and create a feeling of community, etc. It was one of the best assemblies that I witnessed for a long time. Boxes of pizza went around, offered by the local pizzeria, and in the end, the fascists thanked us for being here, for sharing our ideas and for listening to them.
It all goes to show that we should get over the old way of ‘labelling’ people and creating contradictions, because in practice, they don’t really exist.
Now it’s late at night, we’ve put up our tents on the square, and still there are locals talking with us around the fire. They illustrate all the various cases of corruption. “You see that building site? It’s a big hole, but it should have been a parking lot. It’s been there for three years. The money to finish it is gone…”
And so on. I didn’t expect it here in the South, but people want to talk, and all the people we talk to have good reason to be indignados just like us.