Rome is the city in which I’ve lived for twenty-three years: almost the whole of my adult life. I love this city, and its people.
Some of what I’ve seen this week, though, makes me think that portions of the city and its citizenry have lost their minds. The St Cecilia Conservatory — think of it as Rome’s answer to Juilliard — suspended Asian students until further notice, and required students of Asian extraction to produce clean bills of health. Newspaper reports earlier this week carried a letter from the head of the conservatory, which reads:
Dear colleagues, because of the well-known events related to the Chinese epidemic, the Oriental students (Chinese, Korean, Japanese, etc.), as well as others who come from the countries concerned, are suspended from lessons. Wednesday, February 5 at 1400 hrs, the conservatory doctor will visit them all. Only those who pass the medical examination can be readmitted to lessons. In the meantime, the absence will be considered as due to illness. Please advise them all, convoke them for February 5 at 1400, and remind them to bring their [medical history] booklet. Cordial salutations.
Signed, Roberto Giuliani
We’re talking about the coronavirus outbreak, of course, and the insane reaction to it that has brought out the worst in people everywhere, including here.
Italy’s leading dailies have been covering the story. La Repubblica quoted Giuliani as saying he’d been in touch with the Chinese embassy to Italy before sending his note. “I interfaced with the Chinese embassy’s responsible party for schools,” Repubblica quotes Giuliani as saying. That does not prove Giuliani isn’t a racist, but it does prove bureaucrats universally speak in implausible argot.
“I have teachers and students to protect,” the paper further quotes him — which is at least prosaic.
On that point, it’s worth mentioning that pupils of Asian heritage constitute about 10% of the student body, many of whom are second generation. Il Corriere della sera reports that few of the students targeted in the discriminatory act had traveled to Asia recently. One teacher reportedly did, though — an Italian, to hear the Corriere tell it — who returned from China with a high fever that did not keep the dedicated professor from teaching classes.
That wasn’t the only lunacy this week in reaction to the coronavirus. At least one business in the city center reportedly put out a sign saying it would not welcome Chinese customers. “Due to international security measures,” read the sign outside the bar in Via del lavatore — down the street and around the corner from the presidential palace and a stone’s throw from the Trevi fountain — “all people coming from China are not allowed to have access in this place.”
The proprietors were at pains to say they were sorry to have to take such a measure. “We do apologise for any inconvenient [sic],” they offered.
In the cover story for the Catholic Herald this week, I wrote about how I am “well acquainted with Italians’ breadth of mind, extraordinary generosity and heroic hospitality.” I also noted, “A kind of insensitivity that closely resembles casual racism is nevertheless deeply ingrained in the Italian forma mentis.”
“I didn’t mean you,” they’ll sometimes say when I remind them. My response is a fielder’s choice between, “I know you didn’t,” and, “Yes, you did.”
In any case, there is nothing casual about the conservatory affair or the coffee bar sign.
Then again, the scene around Largo dei Colli Albani at lunch time today was rather different, and more encouraging. Largo dei Colli Albani is a minor hub for surface transit, and a stop on the A-line of Rome’s subway system. For folks like me coming into town from way out on the Appia Nuova, it’s the transportation nexus to the rest of the city. I ate at a place on the square that’s a typical Roman bar in front and a halal chicken joint in the back.
Business looked to be about like that on any other day, with a clientele of workaday folk from several different continents. The curry stew wasn’t any great shakes, but I knew it wouldn’t be and wasn’t disappointed.
On the plaza, a group of three elderly fellows — possibly indigents — were well in their cups and boisterously cheerful. A couple of young lovers had a kiss and a cuddle as they leaned on the rail by the curb outside one of the storefronts that line one side of the place. Teenagers came and went from the McDonalds. Vendors peddled their wares and businessmen walked and talked and shoppers shopped and I did not count the languages I heard.
After lunch, I went to the bank to get some walking around money, then realized I still had an hour to kill before I could do the business I’d really come to do, which was to get a document notarized. That’s another story for another time. I whiled away the hour by riding a bus that runs on a loop that starts and ends on the square, and while I was riding I started to draft this letter.
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