What Brexit means for me

I am still reeling from the shock of Brexit but now feel the need to put some thoughts and feelings into words.

The referendum was always going to be a close call, but deep down I was certain that at the end of the day if not the sense of collective responsibility then pragmatism and the spirit of self-preservation would prevail.

Tragically, that was not to be the case.

And my anger and frustration have only been compounded by the fact that, as a British citizen who has been non UK-resident for more than 15 years, I could have no say in the result.

My initial reaction was one of bitter disappointment and a profound sense of betrayal.

Betrayal by the very country and people that first shaped my sense of what it means to be European.

I went on my first school trip to Europe – Italy, in fact – at the tender age of ten, but only after family holidays to Greece, Portugal and, most significantly, Berlin.

That was in 1985, four years before the Wall came down.

During our trip we were able to cross from West to East via Checkpoint Charlie and visit the museum there. The stories of the fugitives who risked – and often lost – their lives to escape from East Berlin made a huge impression on me, instilling an early sense of the values of freedom and justice that are at the heart of the albeit profoundly flawed European project.

Other holidays and school exchange visits to numerous European countries followed.

Then in my post-school gap year I spent four months working as an au pair in France before going on to read two European languages – French and Italian – at university and spending the third year of my degree course working as an English language assistant at a state secondary school in Rome.

All this would have been more difficult – and in some cases impossible – if Britain had not been a member of the European Union.

And so on Friday morning it felt as if the rug had been pulled from under my feet.

It was as if suddenly I was being told that my world view – the world view that Britain helped to foster – and the choices that I have made on the basis of that view – including the decision to make my life in another European country – were no longer acceptable or valid.

It didn’t help my sense of disorientation to learn that one of the people most instrumental in shaping my education voted Leave.

I ask you, what was the point of it all?

Much attention has been given by the Italian media to the effects of Brexit on Italians living in the UK. But what about Britons living here, or in other EU member states? When the UK eventually disentangles itself from the EU we will presumably lose our European citizenship rights and hence also the legal basis for being here or elsewhere – unless, that is, we are already also citizens of our ‘adopted’ EU countries.

That is a destabilising prospect.

Before Brexit I found that my British and European identities sat comfortably together, but now that Britain has voted to leave the EU the feelings has changed.

Suddenly those identities have come into collision course and over the coming months and years I anticipate a conflict of loyalties that may be difficult and painful to negotiate.

Sooner or later I may have to make a choice.

But perhaps in applying for Italian citizenship earlier this year I was already making one without fully realising it.

With any luck I should be awarded Italian citizenship and fully restored to my European identity by early 2018, before Britain goes drifting off into the Atlantic.


Bilal, a story of modern-day heroism

Every once in a while a book can have a profound impact on the way you see the world.

For me, this has been the case with ‘Bilal. Viaggiare, lavorare, morire da clandestini’ (BUR Rizzoli, 2007) by L’Espresso journalist Fabrizio Gatti, one of the most powerful eye-openers I have read in recent years.

In it, the prizewinning undercover reporter chronicles the long and hazardous journey made by tens of thousands of African migrants each year in search of work and a better life in Europe, and what awaits them in Italy if and when they eventually arrive.

Sadly, we have become all too familiar with the images of boatloads of desperate and exhausted migrants being brought ashore in southern Italian ports.

But how much do we really know about the journey that got them there in the first place? About the perilous crossing of the Sahara in unforgiving temperatures and at the mercy of ruthless people smugglers and unscrupulous soldiers who extract payment at every roadblock, leaving their victims stranded? Or about the conditions in the migrant detention centre on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, the first – and often the only – port of call in Italy for those who make the sea crossing alive? Or about the slavery-like conditions reserved for migrant farm labourers in the tomato plantations around Foggia in the southern Puglia region?

In his book Gatti sets out to find out, and he does so by pretending to be one of them.

“Only by sharing the same spaces and the same hardship is it possible to break down the barriers of skin and enter into confidence,” Gatti explains to his Nigerian travelling companions as they await departure from Agadez in central Niger for Libya via the Dirkou oasis on the traditional slave route.

His mission involves crossing the impervious Téneré desert region in north eastern Niger by crammed lorry or pick-up truck no less than four times, secretly jumping off cliffs on Lampedusa and then posing as a migrant from Iraqi Kurdistan – the Bilal of the book’s title – when rescued in order to gain access to the local migrant detention centre and spend a week there, and getting himself hired by a caporale, or gang master, to pick tomatoes in Puglia’s lawless ‘triangle of slavery’ between Orta Nova, Stornara and Stornarella.

The result is a page-turner that is a great lesson in both journalism and humanity, as with perspicacity and skill Gatti treads the fine line between personal conviction, objective observation and profound compassion.

The book also has the important merit of blurring the ‘moral’ distinction between so-called economic migrants and refugees. Most of the migrants Gatti encounters and befriends on his journey are travelling in order to secure a better future for themselves and their families – parents, wife, children – back home. They are, in his opinion, undertaking an act of heroism and, given the huge risks they run and hardship they bear along the way, who can say he’s wrong?

The tragedy is that all too many of these modern-day heroes do not make it to journey’s end, and those that do often feel so betrayed by the reception they are given that they end up wanting to go home.


Becoming an Italian citizen / 6

Today has been by far the most disheartening day so far on my road to Italian citizenship.

Shortly after filing my on-line application in February I received a summons (see photo) from the interior ministry to present the original copy of my birth certificate and sworn translation for verification at the Rome prefecture between 9 am and 11.30 am this morning.

I breezed in at 9.20 am assuming it would take only a few minutes, only to leave over two and a half hours later with an appointment to return next week to present ‘missing’ documentation.

The trouble started before I had even reached the citizenship office on the first floor of the labyrinthine building on Via Ostiense.

I stepped out of the lift to find myself in a long, low-ceilinged and untidy corridor containing two lines of people, one for the citizenship office and the other for immigration.

The queues were being ‘policed’ by a badly dressed and extremely unpleasant man in his late 30s who I later discovered to be a plainclothes policeman. He was wearing trousers that were too tight and too short, sneakers and no socks (it was Fabrizio Gatti in his journalistic masterpiece Bilal who alerted me to the importance of checking for socks) and he was treating the citizenship applicants – particularly the non-European ones – with shameful disrespect.

He handed me a number and directed me to a packed, windowless room at the end of the corridor, where I sat down to wait; there was not the usual digital display unit showing the turn being called, but rather the clerks came out of the office in person to bark out the numbers above the din.

An hour and a half and about 15 numbers into the wait I learned that I would be required to present a print copy of the completed on-line application form for signing before the clerk.

There had been no mention of this in the summons, which said the only document I needed to present was my birth certificate. Looking around, however, I noticed that the walls of the waiting room were plastered with hand-written notices informing applicants of this additional requirement – a bit late for those of us who had already arrived.

I quickly learned that there is a place just down the road that does a roaring trade in last-minute print-outs for €5 a shot. However, I failed to register the directions and ended up in the nearby drama faculty of Roma Tre university, where I asked a friendly-looking student if I could have access to a computer and printer. Mercifully, he said yes. At that point I was able to log on to the interior ministry website and print out the required form…. Half an hour later I was back in the queue with still three numbers to go.

When I eventually took my seat before a standoffish young clerk another problem arose: my ID. I was carrying my British passport, which I have just had renewed and which consequently did not match the copy of the passport I submitted with my application. Signora, lei ha una fotocopia del nuovo documento? No, I didn’t. Thankfully the clerk took pity on me and made a copy himself.

He then asked to see all the supporting documentation – not just my birth certificate, but also my police certificate, €16 tax stamp and receipt of payment of the €200 application fee. This I didn’t have, since I made the payment on line and converted the receipt directly into a pdf file for upload without also printing a copy.

Moral of the story: make sure you take a copy of everything to the prefecture, over and above what you think you need to present.

This ‘oversight’ cost me an entire morning as I now have to go back to the prefecture next Tuesday to present the ‘missing’ documentation. The clerk made a point of telling me he was meeting me halfway by giving me this ‘chance’.

However, it is not so much the time wasted as the total lack of respect for applicants that so upset me; lack of respect shown by the failure to provide correct and complete information on what documentation would be required, in the full knowledge that many applicants travel from outside Rome and so that to make a return journey would be both time-consuming and costly; but also by the scornful arrogance of the prefecture staff who clearly see what applicants consider to be a right as little more than a bureaucratic concession, to be issued on a whim. It was frustrating and humiliating to be treated in that way and it was even more frustrating and angering to see other future Italian citizens from non-European countries being treated even worse simply – dare I say it – because of the colour of their skin.



The pope’s visit to Lesbos and the invitation to the Great Mosque in Rome

Today the Vatican announced that Pope Francis is to visit Lesbos on 16 April in a gesture of solidarity towards asylum seekers and refugees there.

The announcement came just two days after initial reports of a possible trip to the Greek island which, like Italy’s Lampedusa, finds itself on the front line in efforts to handle the huge influx of men, women and children from Africa, the Middle East and Asia seeking international protection in Europe.

The joint visit with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I would appear to have been organised in record time.

It is fantastic that Pope Francis is putting such effort into highlighting the terrible plight of migrants and refugees.

His first official visit as pope in 2013 was precisely to the tiny island of Lampedusa that is closer to North Africa than it is to mainland Sicily, and which has seen a staggering 400,000 migrants pass through its ‘doors’ in the last 20 years.

Last September, after European consciences were stirred briefly by the harrowing photographs of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up dead on a Turkish beach, Francis invited all Catholic parishes to take in refugees.

Most recently, he chose to hold the Holy Thursday feet-washing rite at a reception centre for asylum seekers (CARA) in Castelnuovo di Porto, just down the road from Monterotondo.

However, as I read the news of the upcoming Lesbos visit I found myself wondering why the pope couldn’t put the same zeal into arranging an equally important and long-awaited visit to the Great Mosque in Rome.

He received a formal invitation from the Islamic Cultural Centre of Italy, which houses Europe’s largest (and extremely beautiful) Muslim house of prayer, on 20 January.

The invitation came in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks by Islamic fundamentalists in Paris, even though both sides were said to have been working on the visit for around ten months.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said at the time that the invitation had been accepted ”with gratitude and it will be considered. The Pope will see what to do.”

He also urged caution in speculation about a date, though qualified sources told ANSA that the parties were “working towards 10 April”, a Sunday.

Since then, with the exception of a couple of reports that Francis will visit the mosque “shortly”, there has been total silence.

This is a shame considering that Europe’s refugee crisis and fundamentalist Islamic terrorism are in many respects two sides of the same coin, and also that the vast majority of refugees and asylum seekers entering Europe right now are Muslim.


Understanding Italy’s 17 April oil drilling referendum

I have been trying to get to grips with the 17 April referendum on offshore drilling in Italy for the purposes of a short news piece for Wanted in Rome.

However, reading around the subject in both English and Italian has left me totally befuddled.

There is a huge amount of information available but little of it seems to clarify what is actually at stake, and the wording of the referendum question doesn’t exactly help matters either (see photo below).

The question makes specific reference to two existing laws (the first on environmental protection dating to 2006 and the second the 2016 budget law, approved definitively by parliament at the end of last year) but without entering into the merits of the cited provisions, making an on-line search for the full texts unavoidable.

However, this immediately threw me into even greater confusion since the part of the 2006 law implicated in the referendum (the third sentence of the 17th paragraph of article 6) doesn’t appear to exist.

No matter: reading on it becomes clear that this missing sentence has in fact been substituted by a clause in the 2016 budget law establishing that existing licences for off-shore oil and gas prospecting and drilling are exempt from a ban on hydrocarbon exploration and production activities in Italy within 12 nautical miles of the coast for the useful life of the fields and in compliance with safety and environmental standards.

Put more simply, under the terms of the 2016 budget operating oilfields in territorial waters can have their concessions extended until the exhaustion of gas or oil.

So the main theme of the 17 April referendum is not whether oil companies should be allowed to drill in territorial waters – this is already banned for new projects – but rather how long existing concessions should last.

To paraphrase the referendum question, Italians are being asked if they want the exemption clause to be repealed so oilfields operating within 12 nautical miles of the coast are closed once their concessions expire, even if there are still resources in the subsoil.

They are not being asked to make an outright stand against oil drilling, and they are certainly not being asked to address the (crucial) issue of renewable energy as an alternative to fossil fuels.

On a practical level, my understanding is that only three oilfields – Eni’s Guendalina and Edison’s Rospo in the Adriatic sea and Edison’s Vega in the Sicily Channel ­– are directly implicated in the outcome.

Assuming the quorum is reached (which is unlikely), and if the yes vote (to repeal the exemption to the drilling ban for the useful life of the oilfield) prevails, the concessionaires will be obliged to stop activities once their licences expire, mocking massive investment so far.

If the no vote prevails, things will carry on as normal and Italy will have wasted over 300 million euros of taxpayer money.

It seems to me to be a no-win situation.

Surely it would be better to use the referendum tool to address more urgent ethical issues facing Italy, such as same-sex marriage and adoption, end-of-life provisions and, why not, surrogate motherhood?

So far with the very vocal exception of health minister Beatrice Lorenzin (New Centre Right) the debate on this last issue has been defined almost entirely by men.

It would be interesting to know what the other half of the country thinks about it.


Le ingerenze dei genitori su WhatsApp

Qualche giorno fa sono stata coinvolta in un episodio che mi ha fatto intuire quanto possano essere deleteri i gruppi di genitori su WhatsApp.

Era un giorno freddo e piovoso, e alcuni bimbi della nostra scuola materna dovevano andare in gita a Roma (mia figlia era già andata qualche giorno prima).

La partenza era prevista per le 8 con il rientro alle 13. Il quel lasso di tempo sono stati mandati ben 113 messaggi sul gruppo di WhatsApp della nostra sezione, comprese alcune foto della scolaresca che si avviava verso il pullman, che hanno destato grande preoccupazione per il fatto che alcuni bimbi non sarebbero stati coperti adeguatamente dalle maestre prima di uscire.

Durante la mattinata, inoltre, alcune mamme hanno chiesto – sempre su WhatsApp – alla rappresentante di classe di intervenire presso le maestre per assicurare che i bimbi non fossero bagnati (nel frattempo era cominciato a piovere), e che avessero tutti la giacca abbottonata e il cappuccio tirato su.

Ora, senza voler entrare nel merito delle legittimissime preoccupazioni delle mamme per il benessere dei loro bambini, l’accaduto mi ha fatto riflettere molto su come lo strumento di WhatsApp – utilissimo per lo scambio e la circolazione di informazioni – abbia di fatto permesso al genitore una grave ingerenza non solo nella sfera di competenza delle maestre, ma anche nello spazio personale dei figli.

Le maestre sono in loco parentis, il che significa che, mentre il figlio sta a scuola, il genitore deve fare un passo indietro. E’ una questione di fiducia e di rispetto dei reciproci ruoli, e anche – si potrebbe aggiungere – dei reciproci errori (le maestre si accorgono eccome se c’è qualcosa che non va a casa, ma solo in casi eccezionali si permetterebbero di intervenire presso il genitore). Mi metto nei panni di una maestra che ha in gestione un gruppo di 25 bambini; sentirsi continuamente osservata e ripresa nello svolgimento dei suoi compiti delicati, o anche solo turbata dalla possibilità di esserlo, certo non contribuisce a creare un ambiente di apprendimento sereno che metta il bambino al centro del processo educativo. (Si potrebbe fare un’analogia con il campo della sanità, pensando alla diffusione della cosiddetta ‘medicina difensiva’ atta a prevenire cause per danni, spesso a discapito dell’interesse maggiore del paziente.) Tenere a freno questi genitori invadenti deve costarle caro in termini di tempo e energie.

A volte basta un solo messaggio per creare un ‘caso’; qui devo fare ‘mea culpa’, poiché qualche settimana fa ho sollevato un dubbio sul gruppo di WhatApp rispetto ad una scelta organizzativa operata in classe, provocando una reazione a catena tra le mamme e la risposta giustamente stizzita e risentita della maestra responsabile.

Non è da sorprendersi se in tutto questo si incrina la fondamentale collaborazione tra la scuola e le famiglie, non è un caso se le maestre cercano sempre più di tenerci alla larga.

Cosa dire poi dell’ingerenza nella vita dei figli consentita da un uso smoderato di WhatsApp? Lo scambio di foto dei bimbi in gita mi ha messo a grande disagio, come se noi genitori avessimo invaso il loro territorio. La gita doveva essere la loro, non la nostra. Inoltre, intervenire presso le maestre per farle fare quello che almeno i bimbi più grandi avrebbero potuto fare da soli ha significato in qualche modo deresponsabilizzarli.

L’episodio mi ha fatto interrogare anche sul tipo di rapporto che voglio avere io con questo mezzo così ansiogeno e invadente, che serve per rimanere nel flusso delle informazioni ma troppo spesso distoglie l’attenzione da quello che si ha davanti. Non vorrei diventare una di quelle mamme che si vedono spesso al parco, che spingono il figlio sull’altalena con una mano mentre digitano compulsivamente la tastiera del cellulare con l’altra… Non lo voglio per me, e non lo voglio soprattutto per i miei figli.

Alle 13.26, dopo che i bimbi erano rientrati a scuola sani e salvi, ho scritto sul gruppo chiedendo se con i ‘ben oltre’ 100 messaggi scambiati dall’inizio della giornata non avessimo forse un po’ esagerato. Non l’avessi mai fatto! Alla fine è intervenuta la rappresentante di classe per mediare, ricordandoci giustamente che leggere poi non è così faticoso, e si può scegliere anche di non farlo.

Non mi sono sentita di avere altra opzione che abbandonare il gruppo.

L’8 marzo e la violenza sulle donne

Pubblico di seguito un pezzo che ho scritto lo scorso mese per un neonascente periodico locale incentrato sulle tematiche femminili, il cui primo numero sarebbe dovuto uscire proprio oggi ma purtroppo è stato rimandato per causa di forza maggiore.

Violenza sulle le donne senza fine. Tra il 31 gennaio e il 2 febbraio – tre giorni qualsiasi che hanno coinciso casualmente con l’inizio della stesura di questo giornale – si sono verificati tre casi eclatanti di donne ferite gravemente o uccise dai loro compagni o ex.

Una 38enne all’ottavo mese di gravidanza lottava per la vita nel reparto grandi ustionati dell’ospedale Cardarelli di Napoli dopo che il compagno le aveva dato fuoco davanti alla loro casa a Pozzuoli. La bimba, nata con un taglio cesareo, sembra stia bene.

A Misterbianco, nel catanese, una donna di 41 anni, madre di tre figli, è stata strangolata dal suo ex dopo una lite; l’uomo era già stato condannato per omicidio passionale e nel 2012 era stato messo agli arresti domiciliari in seguito ad una denuncia (poi ritirata) presentata dalla ex compagna per lesioni personali.

A Brescia, un uomo ha sgozzato la moglie 56enne per poi suicidarsi schiantandosi in auto contromano.

Che le statistiche diano i femminicidi in diminuzione (127 donne uccise nel 2015 secondo i dati del ministero dell’interno, contro le 152 nel 2014 e le 179 nel 2013, riportate dall’istituto di ricerca Eures) è una magra consolazione, se si pensa che in sette casi su dieci il nemico è ‘in casa’: marito, compagno o ex, amante, fidanzato. Secondo Eures, il principale movente degli omicidi compiuti per mano del partner è quello del ‘possesso’, spesso come reazione alla decisione più o meno formalizzata della donna di interrompere o chiudere un legame.

Negli ultimi anni l’Italia ha preso maggiore coscienza del fenomeno emanando una serie di leggi specifiche, tra cui la ratifica nel 2013 della Convenzione di Istanbul di 2011 sulla violenza di genere (i cui provvedimenti hanno trovato spazio anche nella contestata legge sulla Buona Scuola, nella parte che riguarda “l’educazione alla parità tra i sessi, la prevenzione della violenza di genere e di tutte le discriminazioni”) e la relativa legge del 2013 contro il femminicidio, che rende più incisivi gli strumenti della repressione penale dei maltrattamenti in famiglia, violenza sessuale e atti persecutori (stalking).

Tuttavia, non è solo un problema di sicurezza, ma anche sociale e culturale. “Fino a quando non saremo capaci di superare una concezione e un linguaggio che ci relegano in una posizione sostanzialmente marginale – ha detto Lorena La Spina, segretario nazionale dei Funzionari di Polizia, a Repubblica in occasione della Festa dell’8 marzo 2015 – continueremo a costituire una minoranza che necessita ancora di specifiche forme di protezione ed ha bisogno di una festa con cui ricordare a tutti che la violenza contro le donne è un abominio, che deve essere fermato e che ci costringe a dubitare del livello di civiltà del nostro Paese”.


Becoming an Italian citizen / 5

The Sportello Amico at my local post office wasn’t as ‘friendly’ as I’d hoped; the clerk on duty told me the service is not set up to dispense residency histories, and that in any case he had never managed to extract a certificate of any nature from the system.

So there was nothing for it but to jump in the car and head into Rome, to the registry office of the municipio where I was last resident. There I queued for just under an hour, and in the end I got what I needed.

At that point, completing the application was child’s play. I did get it in by lunchtime, after all.

It now remains to be seen how long the prefecture takes to process the request. By law it has a maximum of 730 days to accept or reject my application, after which I can claim my entitlement before a judge. But I trust it will not come to that.

Becoming an Italian citizen / 4

On Friday I collected my sworn translations (traduzioni giurate – apparently the only acceptable level of legalisation for citizenship applications in Italy) from an agency that curiously specialises in translations from Romanian to Italian, for the modest sum of €135,70… and so I was all set to make the on-line application – or so I thought!

I logged into the Department of Civil Liberties and Immigration (DLCI) section of the interior ministry website and clicked on Cittadinanza and then Compila e invia domanda in the left-hand menu bar.

I immediately ran into the first problem: deciding the grounds for my application, residency or marriage to an Italian.

By law as an EU citizen resident in Italy for at least four years (in my case 17) and married to an Italian for at least two I could have gone for either option, although I felt applying on grounds of residency (so-called ‘naturalisation’) better reflected the personal journey that has brought me to this point in the first place.

However, in the end pragmatism carried the day: citizenship through marriage is considered a right providing certain conditions are met, while ‘naturalisation’ is granted on a discretionary basis, so I plumped for the first option, reckoning it would be the quickest and easiest way to go.

And thank goodness I did: after clicking on the relevant application form I discovered that I would ‘only’ have to go through 17 steps, rather than 23!

However, it soon became clear that I would have to provide a lot more information than had been specified in the introductory section on the ministry website. Specifically, I was expected to give a full residency history, including dates, from the age of 14, and also my migration history with respect to Italy, including the details of my very old and fading green permesso di soggiorno (which I applied for in 1998 and had renewed indefinitely in 2003, and which miraculously I still have).

At step 15 I was asked to provide the details of a marca da bollo telematico (official revenue stamp) which had only been given passing mention in the introductory blurb, and which I had naively assumed to be the €200 application fee (see Becoming an Italian citizen / 1) – but no! The instructions manual that accompanies the on-line application form shed no light on the problem, and it was only by searching on internet that I discovered I also needed to buy a separate revenue stamp for €16.

At that point I gave up in frustration.

The following morning I went to the Monterotondo registry office to see if I could access my residency history for Italy. I naively hoped my local public administration might ‘talk’ to the one in Rome, where I was resident at no fewer than three (possibly five – who can remember?) different addresses over the course of 11 years. Of course it does not. The clerk told me smugly that he could give me the information for Monterotondo, but that for my Rome residency history I would have to go to the central registry office in Rome. Ugh.

So I then set about exploring the possibility of accessing the information on-line, via the Roma Capitale website. Having established that residency history is indeed among the certificates available on internet I applied for the official credentials needed to log into the system, only then to discover that the service is available exclusively to people who are resident in Rome.

Not to be fazed (17 years in Italy must surely count for something!), I called Poste italiane to see if their Sportello Amico service designed to simplify dealings with the public administration might provide such a certificate. Apparently, it does!

So tomorrow I will go to the post office first thing in a final bid to avoid the traipse into Rome.

If I am successful, I may even get my application in by lunchtime!

My only consolation is that had I made the application on grounds of naturalisation I would also have had to provide a record of my declared personal income and that of my husband for the last three years, as well as details of property ownership in Italy and the UK.

For Becoming an Italian citizen / 1 click here

For Becoming an Italian citizen / 2 click here

For Becoming an Italian citizen / 3 click here