Stet by Ria Bacon

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Little Odessa

Rome is not as cosmopolitan a city as London or Paris, and almost the only obviously non-Italians in public view are windscreen cleaners, newspaper sellers and informal Prada sales reps, ever ready to scoop up their street wares in a sheet and leg it when the lookout signals police approaching. Yet Italy is the main gateway for European immigration: most move on further north, but many stay and take up the low-profile, low-status work most Italians would prefer not to do - cleaning, pumping gas and looking after their elderly parents, for example.

On Sundays, however, the parks and open spaces of Rome that tourists don't visit, fill with immigrant groups, each national or ethnic group claiming its own territory to recreate something of the homeland for an afternoon. Walk around the Termini station district and you will first pass a group of Moroccans, then Albanians, Senegalese, Peruvian, Filipinos, and so on - round the world in an hour or two.

[Eastern Europeans probably make up the largest immigrant group in Italy, particularly Albanians and Romanians. There is a particular antipathy among Italians towards Slavs - geographical proximity breeds contempt, perhaps. My friend Petar was once introduced by his Italian neighbours to another Italian couple thus: "He's Croat ... but it's OK because his wife is British." This was said without any hint of irony. Such prejudice is commonplace and banal.]

My own neighbourhood is host to the Ukrainian community of Rome. There is no particular reason why they meet here, but the force of their Sunday presence has begun to take more permanent status as phone centres open on Via Ostiense, advertising the lowest call rates to Ukraine. A Ukrainian couple has bought the café by the bus station at Piramide. When I went to pick up my sister last Friday at 5 a.m., it was already (still?) open, a warm glow in the dark, blasting out songs from the homeland for the early shift workers.

Ukrainian fish for sale in RomeRoman supermarket label in UkrainianBaltika Strong Beer
In the supermarket at Ostiense station, the manager has expanded his market niche from selling cheap beer to the drunks in the station carpark, to stocking Ukrainian speciality products, putting up signs in the supermarket in both Ukrainian and Italian. It's the only supermarket open on Sunday morning and is chocka with people getting last minute items for their Sunday picnic in the park. Most of the men just buy beer, Italian beer rather than the more expensive Baltika imports. The atmosphere is happy and relaxed in the anticipation of free time with friends (very different from Vit's experience in Portugal).

Built for comfort, I ain't built for speedWhen the shopping's done, they move on to the park opposite our house, and spread their picnics out on the benches. They stand in small groups, talking, eating and drinking for hours, occasionally breaking off to form impromptu choirs singing traditional folk songs and hymns. You can also get a haircut from one of the open-air hairdressers who has set up shop on a stone bench.

Towards the end of the afternoon, the alchohol begins to take its effect as mothers turn teary at the thought of their families back home, while young people turn up their car stereos and dance in the Post Office carpark to that Кгаzў Яосk 'л' Яоll мцzўkа.