“The only way you know you’re not in Italy, not in Venice, when you’re at The Venetian hotel [in Las Vegas]? Easy. The water is blue, not that muddy brown green of Venice, and the Gondoliers are black.”
In Padua they call Luca the “Americano”, because his girlfriend is from California. He is 25, from Treviso originally, part of the new generation of Italians who speak more than one language. A political science student, he’s finishing on the “Six Day War,” sometime soon. “It’s sad when I study to think that my subject is 40 years old now, and still there is no change there in the Middle East, there’s just no desire for a settlement, and the worst thing, the people who fought then, they’re gone, now you have new generations who are born and grow up to hate.”
It’s raining again, and Padua’s [now] famous reluctance to brave a few splashes is once again on show. “Stay at home and watch a movie, that’s what we do,” Luca says. But it is more than that, one key demographic is absent: like Tom I have missed the students, in August they are away; in term time they dominate the Piazza delle h’erbe. “Especially Wednesdays,” Lucia says – she’s a sociologist. “On Wednesdays they go mad, drinking in the streets, smoking, drugs, music. There are plans to move the students out: there’s a group of bars down by the river, the “residents” here would like to see the students moved out of the ancient part of the town and kept to the outskirts.”
“That’s the thing about the central square, it’s never really the students, nor the old people who drink here: it’s the rich. Walk around these tables on a sunny evening and you’ll see billfolds and portfolios with hundreds of Euros in them. I call these people the filli di Papa, you understand? Sons of rich fathers. They come here to show off, to be seen, to talk to other filli di Papa. That’s why there’s nobody around tonight, they’re all frightened of getting their Versace shirts a little wet.”
I tell Lucia about a scene from via Altina, two hours ago: a young woman sitting in the driving seat of a Mercedes 4×4 doing her nails whilst – inside a cosmetics shop – her boyfriend is buying goods. “Yes, that’s them,” Lucia says. “It’s a conservative town, and this is what you get for that.”
But Padua also has a radical reputation: its university is famous for politicized students. “A few months ago there were new arrests,” Luca says. “Another generation of our Red Brigade,” he shrugs. “If things are too easy then people react…”
One of the effects of cafÈ culture, I realize, is that it solidifies status: it is hard to meet anyone sitting at a table unless you approach another, and – Italians in general, certainly on this trip – are stand-offish. Now I understand the social make-up of my crowd, wealthy, pampered, a little smug (all cities in the world have them, of course) I see the problems not just for an equally pampered traveller like me, but much more importantly, for the hosts of newcomers to Italy, trying to make their way. Trying to integrate.
With the rain comes standing in the courtyard, what is now called “smirting” in London – smoking and starting conversations outside. Here we are always outside, but the rain pulls everyone together under the porticoes. It’s interesting that when I start taking to Luca or to Lucia, other Italians are listening; laugh at the jokes. Appreciate that I know who Gattuso is, or Nesta. Football: the great global leveler. But they don’t join in.
“The difference in ten years is amazing,” Luca says. “When I was at school, maybe one or two in each class were not born in Italy. Today it is like eight or nine, and many of them can’t speak English. It’s a real problem. And it’s only going to get worse.” And in Padua, otherness is more invisible than in the towns I’ve traveled through, as if – like the students – Padua’s authorities would rather keep its minorities out of sight and mind. I can’t say this is true, but it seems that way. Close to the railway station in the morning I meet a Moroccan taking the train to Verona, he shows me the way. In French he says: “They look down on us, we have our way, we still have a King. But they don’t want to know. I think they will have to learn that Europe is about, how do you say, ‘moving’?” Mobility? “Yes, if you want to make money, to live a life, you have to move to find it sometimes. At times like this. I could live in Morocco, but to do what? Work for tourists, from Italy?”
“Padua’s racist, sure,” Lucia says. “Look at these squares, old people live here, they think about their history, they don’t want anything new.” In fact there are laws: what I’ve thought of as a “scholarly” discretion with music, and entertainment in general, is on the statute books. “The ‘syndicatto’, the local government, they try to stop everything. That’s why there are no umbrellas, that’s why little music, that’s why everything finishes very early. We must be closed by 12, it’s the law.” Almost five hundred years ago Henry VIII’s “people” used the law faculty here to discover how legal their King’s divorces might be: Padua was the centre of what these days might be called “International Law.” It trained two centuries of diplomats, and it gave us not just Galilei, but the master-pieces of Giotto in the Scrovegni chapel; Donatello’s sculptures, late Renaissance riots in support of the “rational”. Today, without its Rabelesian students (I’m guessing) and with many of its inhabitants on holiday (in Morocco?) it sits Betwixt not just its seasonal rhythms but its social mix. And while around the corner in the Observatory and its modern faculty building next door some are still looking at the stars, we’re all – literally – in the gutter making something of our evening with the braver of the filli di papa.
Atalanta has a big Afro haircut. She works in a store in town: she has good English because she took an exchange year in Yorkshire. “It was horrible to start with,” she says. “I’d go to the pub and get out my book, pretend to be an intellectual, and I’d watch these men drink pint after pint. I was in a town, Tewksbury: I didn’t understand anything. Then I got it: beer, beer, beer.” Atalanta says going to London for a week – she was in Yorkshire for 15 months – “was like coming home to Padua, suddenly there was culture, and people were alive.” Perhaps that is all I am experiencing: an inevitable non-cosmopolitan zeitgeist away from the big cities: it’s as true in England or Germany or France. Or America. “I like San Francisco,” Luca says. “It’s – you know – European. New York as well. But in the middle…”
Atalanta likes to practice her English, “I’m not like most Paduans, they’re shy or too proud or arrogant to talk to strangers. But I’m half black; I have this hair. I’m different, I like to met new people.” Is that hard? “Yes, often, but I’m used to it now.”
What do young people do after midnight? “They drive out, go to some dancing place. Or else to someone’s house. That’s the way here.”
Lucia has studied sociology in Venice for five years now. “It’s the greatest city, “ she says, “but you must get away from the tourists. And from the idea of going somewhere. Just imagine what you want and start walking, that way Venice is yours. Go to the fisherman’s quarter, if you can, sit in one of their cafes: that is heaven. But don’t look for Venetians, they are gone: moved to Mestre, or just on long vacation.”
I finish another Campari-spritzer. “You know we invented this drink in the Veneto,” Luca says. “Some like it sweet, others bitter. But the big thing is that it is fashionable now. A decade ago, Campari was for old people. Now everyone drinks it, 15 years old to 70. It’s our invention. I took two bottles of the spritz to my girlfriend’s mother in California, she thought it was so sophisticated, so European.”
“I don’t know why people are so reserved,” Luca says, “I think often it’s just fear of the new. Italy is still a very old-fashioned country.” I wonder how many of us can say something different? What is for sure is that remaining “old fashioned” is increasingly a recipe for social disaster: a walling in, a “gating” of society. A claim, increasingly tenuous to sustain, that we would rather not look through the telescope thanks, we don’t know what we might see.
“I made my aboad in Padua three whole daies, Tuesday being the eleventh of June, Wednesday and Thursday, and went away hence in a Barke down the river Brenta the twenty fourth of June being Friday, about seven of the clocke in the morning, and came to Venice about two of the clocke in the afternoon. Betwixt Padua and Venice it is five and twenty miles. This River Brenta is very commodious for the citizens of Padua. For they may passÈ forth and backe in a Barke downe the river from Padua to Venice, and from Venice again to Padua very easily in the space of foure and twenty houres. When they go to Venice they passÈ downe the River secundo cursu; when they return they go adverso flumine, their Barke being drawn with horses all the way betwixt Lucie Fesina and Padua, which is twenty miles.
When I passed downe the River to Venice I saw many goodly faire houses and Palaces of pleasure on both sides of the River Brenta, which belong to the Gentlemen of Venice.
When I came to the forsaid Lucie Fessina, I saw Venice, and not before, which yeeldeth the most glorious and heavenly shew upon the water that ever any mortal eye beheld, such a shew as did even ravish me both with delight and admiration. This Lucie Fesina is at the uttermost point and edge of the lande, being five miles this side Venice. There the fresh and salt water would meete and be confounded together, were it not kept asunder by a sluce that is made for the same purpose, over which sluce the Barkes that go forth and backe betwixt Venice and Padua, are lifted up by a certaine crane. At this Lucie Fesina, I went out of my barke, and tooke a Gondola which brought me to Venice. Of these Gondolas I will write hereafter in my description of Venice.”