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Taming globalisation? Kebabs, mini-skirts and meth - part II

By Ilaria Sala - posted Thursday, 27 May 2010


No matter where one goes in the world, a trace of Italy - pizza parlours, high-fashion labels and brewing espressos and cappuccinos - is never far. From San Francisco to Tokyo, aesthetics made popular by the Renaissance still influence much global urbanism and architecture. Stretch back into the ancient past, and one might see a hint of what created modern Italy in the now international Roman script, crafted on the shores of the Italian peninsula when imperial Rome was the most cosmopolitan place in the world. Counted among innovations from ancient Rome that spread rapidly around the world are aqueducts, fast-curing cement, umbrellas and scissors.

Today, though, Italy seems to fear the fierce energy and exchange of ideas that characterised its old cosmopolitan self, barricading itself behind “traditions”, including relatively recent ones, like a protective charm. Amid growing antipathy towards immigrants and “foreigners”, ethnic food, language and attire have emerged as handy targets for politicians professing to defend tradition.

Part of Italy’s population, nervous over globalisation, keeps electing into power a political class that often shows an anachronistic inclination for trying to block incoming cultural influences, lest they permanently change a familiar landscape. Many voters belong to either the right-wing party called the Northern League, which advocates splitting the country into a confederation of semi-autonomous states along the lines of present-day Italian regions, or the political party of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the People for Liberty. Sporadically, politicians from the opposition support the trend, too, in a rare show of Italian unity.

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Not that the national government is too hands-on, leaving the matter mostly to more parochial city governments. These seem unstoppable in their dedication to churning out a number of striking laws and ordinances that have chosen food as the terrain of greatest danger for Italian identity.

The Roman Empire built its culinary tradition on imported black pepper from India, and modern Italian cuisine cannot be conceived without tomatoes introduced from the New World. But in January last year an Italian city - Lucca in Tuscany - shot to global prominence with a bizarre form of food protectionism. The municipal government announced a ban on kebab shops opening inside the city walls, the area of town commonly referred to as the “historical centre”. After vigorous debate the motion passed with a large majority.

The rationale for such an unusual measure was “to protect [our] culinary tradition and the architectural, structural, cultural, historic and decorative characteristics” from “food and beverage establishments whose activity could be sourced to other ethnic groups”.

In subsequent elucidations on the measure, kebab shops and Chinese fast-food outlets were singled out as prime spoilers of the city’s ancient beauty. The ban became the talk of the country. As the media covered every angle of the groundbreaking decision and its consequences, Facebook groups rapidly formed, both pro and against kebab shops in ancient towns. People updated their profiles, either exhorting friends to go and eat a kebab, preferably downtown, or praising protection of true “Italianity” against interlopers. Soon, other municipalities followed Lucca’s lead, prompting an anti-kebab backlash from Rome to Venice and Milan to Pisa.

But that was not the end of it. In April of this year, the city of Florence decided that it, too, would no longer grant permits for “cheap eateries” to open in the areas of town best known for their artistic beauty. Another alien cuisine came under municipalities’ watchful eye: curries. With these deemed threatening to Italian culture, Indian restaurants face hurdles in gaining licenses to open in city centres.

This attack against the corrupting influence of exotic gastronomy is not limited to what can be easily purchased from restaurants and shops. Less than two years ago, Mayor Gianni Alemanno of Rome announced that public preschools and primary schools would no longer be allowed to serve couscous or Chinese fried rice, which had to be substituted with “regional cuisine dishes”.

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Some called it “gastronomic patriotism” and while part of the press scorned the measure, the most conservative municipalities in Italy hurried to adopt the ban for themselves. The latest version comes from the northern city of Cremona, where administrators announced this April that the daily 3,600 meals served by public schools to young children would no longer include couscous, substituting local dishes like polenta - made out of corn, an import from the Americas, not that the gastro-patriots seem to mind - or pasta, the origins of which, though disputed, could be ancient Persia or China. Because of high demand, some Italian pasta is made with imported wheat.

Increasing cultural disquiet has delivered electoral success to a growing number of populists, who spew forth with outlandish ideas on how to protect the identities of Italian cities. The zealots no longer limit themselves to “gastro patriotism”, frowning on classrooms with more than 30 per cent non-Italian students and shop signs in languages not from the European Union.

Posting shop signs without an Italian translation is already a finable offence, with penalties ranging from €25 to €500, but in the latest round of parliamentary discussions on regulating shops and commerce, a parliament member belonging to the Northern League proposed a law that would limit shop signs to Italian, EU languages or local Italian dialects. Discussion centred on Chinese, Arabic, Urdu and Albanian shops, suggesting the signs violated the character of Italian streetscapes. Since defeated in parliament, Silvana Comaroli has vowed to take the proposal to the individual municipalities, which under Italian law can decide locally on matters of this nature.

More attrition is shown over another parliamentary discussion: The Italian parliament is mulling a ban on wearing the full Islamic veil in public, similar to the controversial measure adopted in France. Other points of conflict over the years range from opposition to construction of mosques to the requirement of a crucifix in every classroom and hospital ward, even though Italy does not have an official religion. On the crucifix mandate, Italy has already been reprimanded once by the European Court in Strasbourg - which will rule on Italy’s appeal on the matter in June.

Italy prepares to celebrate its 150th anniversary of reunification next year. But the nation, long a country of emigrants, has still not accustomed itself to its modern role as a wealthy nation, capable of attracting hundreds of thousands of badly needed immigrant workers yearly. Already, more than 5 million recent immigrants - the greatest numbers coming from Romania, Albania, Morocco and China - call Italy home. Struggling to adjust to this change and fearful about losing what’s already a shaky sense of identity, some Italians have gone from grumbling about McDonalds in city centres, sulkily accepted in recent decades, to legislating against kebab shops and couscous in school canteens. Globalisation unexpectedly means more than Americanisation.

Yet, this agonising over newly arrived ethnic food versus traditional cuisine remains a distraction from Italy’s pressing issues, in particular a difficult economy. High blue-collar unemployment goes hand in hand with a dearth of local workers willing or capable to work as hospital nurses, domestic help and other needed employees, while a burdensome bureaucracy and an excessively regulated labor market severely limit economic dynamism. Unable to address some of the more structural flaws of its system, Italy adopts controversial anti-foreign measures in a futile attempt to prevent change and assuage its own anxiety.

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Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online (www.yaleglobal.yale.edu). Copyright 2010, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University.



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About the Author

Ilaria Maria Sala is a writer based in Hong Kong.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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