Monday, February 17, 2003

When in Rome

People have sort of taken a liking to demonstrating. This is the second time three million people hit Rome. I particularly like Repubblica's photos, and in particular I love this.

Sunday, February 16, 2003


They appeared slowly, tiptoeing into the urban landscape in days of luminous cold, one by one. One of the first ones was this. I don't remember when it was that I saw it first. Then two others blossomed together in my own street, tied to the omnipresent railings. I stopped and looked at them in something like recognition. Then it was its turn. From that day on I walked with my nose in the air, looking at them, feeling for the first time in the almost twenty years I've lived in this city not only affection but kinship.

Sometime later, at the beginning of January one freezing and most bright Sunday we went out to get drunk on the sharpness of the light, and to stamp on the iced pools, and we bought one.

I don't know how many of them there are all told in this town. It seems there are a million of them in Italy, and Padua is one of the most flag-ridden town in Italy. Even the Town Hall has one, exposed with the approval of one of the majority's councillors, an ex-helicopter pilot in Bosnia. They keep cropping up and sometimes you say, "Oh, look, that's a new one. That one wasn't there last time." They call out to each other and encourage each other. Some of them were taken down and paraded, often with the ribbons to tie them down still on, in the small but very colorful demonstration of the 4,000 Padua citizens who didn't go to Rome with the 40 coaches or the special trains.

They are silent. They are made from a thin, silky fabric, and when the wind blows mine up against the window it becomes a veil for a moment, but a dazzingly colorful one. They are difficult to pin down, especially if you don't have a railing, and often end up furled up against the sill. They flap merrily at the tiniest breeze. They ripple when pinned by the four corners to railings, they snap and furl and unfurl from the few flagpoles. Some houses here still have the flagpole stand on the balcony from whence you were, once upon a time (as my grandmother told me, showing me the corresponding Monarchist flag) obliged to fly the national flag on holidays. But few have the pole, and most just use a broom handle and stick it somewhere among the railings.

They peek from upper stories windows. They hang demurely over Padua's many canals. They are trapped by rolling blinds, or hang by clothspins from clotheslines. I even spotted one, and stamped on the brake to jump down and take a shot, hanging inside the local Apple shop.

They are silent and cheerful. This winter, so unremarkably normal, so uncommonly clear, with its string of clear, bright, cold days, has been kind to them. This town, with its two or three stories houses, encourages them. The Italian soul is partial to them: they have, undeniably, a pretty design - much prettier, in fact, than the national flag.

I don't know what kind of people, inside those windows, fly them. It is tempting to imagine them close to me in feelings and convictions. I know that many of them are moved by religious conviction, this is very much a Catholic province, and the archbishop has encouraged their pacifism. But they are still close to me, in this vain act of minuscle courage, in standing up to be counted by all.

I don't know what their motives are or what their degree of pacifims is. I don't know if they ever mourned the loss of Mantegna's first fresco, bombed by mistake in the effort to get a Germans' depot, if they were ever touched by the bronze shield sent by King George with apologies. Or if they ever paused before the shelter, hit by a stray bomb, where among too many of Padua's citizen died the wife and child of the local Resistance commander. I don't know if they look at the sky in disquiet, in fear or in guilt because no torrent of fire and iron will fall on us from there. I don't know if they have read Love Thy Neighbour - that's difficult, because it's not translated - or Chomski, or maybe Joe Haldeman. They can't tell me because the flags are silent but for a very faint swish-swish, and their message simple.

There are lots of them. Lots and lots, and when I walk through my streets I walk in a silent, flapping, rippling, cheerful, peeking, furling, waving, snapping, thin and silky chorus of like-minded people.