Denial and Anger in Italy

time cover

The cover story in this week’s European edition of Time Magazine is on immigration to Southern Europe. It opens with a piece I wrote about the gap between Italy’s new ethnic reality and the perception most Italians have about their country and its citizens.

When hundreds of African immigrants rioted in the southern Italian city of Rosarno last month, the world got a glimpse of a very different Italy from the one pictured in the tourist brochures. Overturned cars, shattered shop windows and street battles are a far cry from tranquil villages on a Tuscan hillside.

Another contradiction uncovered by the violence is much more fundamental, and it has less to do with how Italy is perceived by outsiders than with how Italians themselves view their nation. As a country, Italy is becoming increasingly multiethnic, as immigrants from Africa, China, Eastern Europe and the Middle East arrive to work jobs locals refuse to take. But as a society, Italians have been slow to acknowledge the change.

Demographically, Italy is transforming faster than almost anywhere else in Europe. Last year, according to the Catholic charity Caritas, the percentage of noncitizen residents in the country — 7.2% — was greater than Britain’s. And that’s not counting the country’s illegal population, estimated at well over half a million. In a country where the native-born population is aging rapidly, 1 in 6 babies delivered in 2008 was born to a foreign-passport holder. La dolce vita is also becoming more dependent on immigrants and their labor. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that foreign workers account for 9% of Italy’s annual GDP. They pick the fruit in the country’s orchards, staff its restaurants and workshops, and look after its young and elderly. “If all the migrants just stopped working now, the Italian economic system would collapse,” says IOM spokesman Flavio Di Giacomo.

Yet the country retains an intensely prescriptive streak. Rigid codes of behavior govern everything from how to dress to the proper time of day to drink a cappuccino. Far from being a melting pot, Italy remains a three-course meal, with the pasta carefully segregated from the appetizer and main course and no place for a bowl of hummus or plate of egg rolls. “People now accept that immigrants are here,” says Giuseppe Sciortino, a sociology professor at the University of Trento. “But they’re still in denial that they are a presence that will change Italy forever.”

Read the rest here.

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