Touring the cultural divide

Half a world away, a familiar scene and recognizable argument—albeit in another language. Turns out that protests are protests, whether you’re in front of the federal building in Reno or walking the historic streets of Florence, Italy.

Banners, drums, chants, incendiary speeches, outrage.

On a recent visit to Italy with my parents, we ran into demonstrators in Florence. Dad, Mom and I were being tourists, avoiding politics. Dad considers me an unpatriotic whining liberal. I consider myself a patriotic whining liberal, overjoyed at the news that the Italian government planned to withdraw forces from Iraq by the year’s end. Apparently, Italians can read the graffiti on the decaying brick walls, some of which is written in English (like the bit I saw in Venice: “U.S. Army get out of Iraq").

In Florence, we’d visited the Duomo—Santa Maria del Fiore, a church that dates back to the 4th Century—and planned to walk the Via dei Calzaiuoli toward the Piazza della Signoria. The piazza is described by my Eyewitness Travel Guide as a place “at the heart of Florence’s political and social life for centuries.” As we turned down the street, we heard a male voice—loud, fast and Italian—inciting a crowd with a bullhorn.

We caught up with demonstrators just as they began to march to the famed piazza that boasts a copy of Michelangelo’s “David” and the 16th Century “Fountain of Neptune,” where the Roman sea god celebrates Tuscan naval victories amidst splashing nationalistic nymphs.

The demonstrators, flanked by police, carried signs and banners that I couldn’t read.

We paused not far from Giambologna’s sculpture, “The Rape of the Sabine Women,” to talk with an Italian man who scorned the protestors. They were, he said, all immigrants who’d come to his country to steal Italian jobs and resources.

“Our borders are open,” said Armando. “They come from everywhere to live here. They come for jobs, but we have no jobs for them.”

My parents nodded sympathetically.

“We have the same thing in the United States,” said Dad.

“Yes, with Mexico,” Armando said. “But you have Bush, and he takes care of your borders.”

Armando seemed to be explaining his son is an out-of-work lawyer—because of the immigrants. This made little sense. An unemployed attorney? I tried to clarify.

“My English is not so good,” he said, shaking our hands and bustling off.

“Wasn’t he a nice man!” Mom said.

Ahead, a woman dressed in a Muslim robe and scarf was being interviewed by what looked like a TV reporter. She didn’t talk about immigration. She carried a sign with a hand-drawn cartoon of Bush and Blair conspiring to control Middle East oil. There was a crossed-out heart symbol with the words “non cuore.”

After the cameras left, the woman still waved her sign. I asked to look at it, and she began to explain her political frustrations—in Italian.

She spoke slowly and stopped frequently to ask, “Capite?” Do you understand? Though I couldn’t have translated word for word, I discerned the basics. The American people aren’t bad, she explained, diplomatically. Just our leader. He is worse than Clinton.

Did I agree?

I waggled my hand with what I hope is the international symbol for I-dunno, maybe.

She continued: Bush has no compassion. He doesn’t consider the killing of innocents as a detriment to his cause. He doesn’t understand the impact of his policies around the world. He is like Hitler—rounding people up and putting them in prison camps.

Non cuore,” she repeated. “Capite?”

And I nodded in agreement, “Non coure, no heart.”

Capisco. I understand.