DIY Strike

24 Sep

Dear Rome,

Dear, dear, adopted city of mine. You know I love you. But lately I must say, you are really testing my patience. Is this a sort of seven-year itch that happens to expats? I’m trying to be patient. You know that I hardly ever complain when I run into problems with the bureaucracy, rudeness, inefficiency. But lately, at least since about the beginning of this year, it seems like your systems, your citizens, and quality of life in general for residents here is taking a bit of a prolonged nose dive. Yes, we have the Notte Bianca, grazie mille Sindaco Veltroni. I’m sure it’s lots of fun for those of us who don’t live downtown and don’t actually purposely plan to be out of the city (like I did this year, after four years of total mayhem) in order to avoid the chaos. But what about public services? Is this what it’s come to for simple day-to-day tasks?

Let me tell you what some of your city’s residents were up to last Friday, while I, bewildered straniera, gazed on as a sad spectator and unwilling victim.

You see, I had the simple mission of taking a bus to Subiaco, about a 1.5 hr. ride outside of your city walls. You probably know that Cotral has a bus service that runs one bus every 15 minutes to Subiaco from the Ponte Mammolo metro stop, no? When I arrived, the platform was already overcrowded and bulging over with people waiting. When the double-decker bus arrived after about 20 minutes or so, the stampede to get on was so massive and out of control that I was left without a seat, and decided to wait for the next bus. No big deal. I’ve seen worse stampedes at buffet-style dining here in Italy (the whole no-line concept, I have grown to accept it), and figured I just needed to be faster and more furba, so I’d get a slice of pizza and just wait the 15 minutes for the next bus. This time I’d perch on the edge of the cement island in order to be one of the first people on board.

My plan was going fine, even though after about 10 minutes people were steadily breathing down my neck and nearly pushing me off the cement island, even though no bus was in sight. It’s OK. Like I said, I don’t get picky about personal space anymore or total lack of manners in crowded situations. I’m over it. So, when the announcement came over the loudspeaker that the 3 pm bus was cancelled without any explanation as to why, I didn’t even complain like everyone else. I didn’t shout “Vaffanc***!!!” like that man waiting next to me. I just looked at my watch and pulled out a copy of Time Magazine to keep me occupied while I balanced on the curb for the next half-hour.

Here’s where things get interesting. About 10 minutes into my wait, some man comes over to our platform (you know how there are like 10 platforms at that bus depot) and tells us all that we shouldn’t take this kind of poor service anymore, always canceling buses at the last minute, and if we all went over and stood at the exit to the freeway, we could block the buses from leaving the bus depot and finally get some results. We could make them call the police and everything would change. Come on! Are you with me?! Everyone together!

You saw how a few of the 60 or so people waiting on my platform joined the guy? And how about 20 people from other platforms decided to give him a hand in his plan? I kind of rolled my eyes and kept reading my magazine, unwilling to believe that they were serious. Our bus showed up at about 3:45, and yes, I will admit that this was the first time I ever had to actually scream at people around me to let me pass… but did you see how they almost walked over me? Kind of scary. I might have been dragged to Subiaco underneath the bus instead of on board. But that’s OK, you see, because living here has taught me to not be afraid to scream in stampeding crowds when the occasion (and my personal safety) calls for it. My real problem, the reason I’m writing you today, was once I got on the bus and wondered why we weren’t leaving.

Mr. “Let’s Make Some Change” (blue shirt on the far left, in case you want to give him a stern talking-to) and his willing helpers really were standing at the entrance to the freeway and not letting the buses pass. Argh. Not funny.

Yes, I know, police were called, and after about an hour, and after the “strikers” decided to stand in front of our buses too,

the police finally managed to make the crowd disperse and board the buses like the rest of us (albeit kicking and screaming). But that wasn’t before some enraged woman climbed aboard our bus and said we were all ridiculous for not standing in front of the buses like the rest of them, because if we didn’t do that, how would we ever send the message to Cotral that their service is horrible? And if we too stood in front of the buses, she screamed, we could get the telegiornale and giornalisti (news crews) to come out and film us! What the heck were we doing sitting on the bus??!

I was mildly surprised to hear the woman behind me yell back that “Signora, don’t you remember that we all staged this same tactic 10 days ago and look what results it got us?”

But Rome, dear Rome, really… when she and that man in the suit in the front seat got into a high-decibel shouting match in front of the whole busload of tired, sweaty people, did you see me cover my ears? I mean, come on. The man next to me said he’d been up since 4 am, he takes this bus every day to work in Rome and just wanted to get back home.

Sigh. What can I tell you? Are we really to the point where from one minute to the next, your residents are so incredibly exasperated on so many levels that they will stand in front of multi-ton buses in a “sciopero improvvisato”?

Yes, Rome, I still love you. I love your gelato, your pasta arrabbiata, your monuments, your history, your lifestyle, your language, your spirit. But my patience is growing very thin for what is looking more and more like a progressive breakdown in the system on many different levels. I know, I know. “That’s the way it is.” Maybe it is a seven-year itch. Maybe I’ll never completely accept that things here just don’t work the way they should. I know, I did choose to live here and I know, if I don’t like it, I can just “go back to the States”… I promise, it’s not that I’m really complaining, I’ve learned not to in order to make my daily life here more liveable. It’s just …sigh.

If there’s any way you might possibly get public services to function better, public employees to take responsibility for problems, and if there’s any way you might find to make people’s day-to-day life just a *tad* less stressful by making the system work a bit smoother… well, I would be much, much obliged.

Yours truly,


21 Responses to “DIY Strike”

  1. kataroma September 24, 2007 at 3:30 pm #

    Shelley – I know exactly how you feel. Living here can do that to you at times. 😦

    I really hope you’re having a better day today.

  2. Shelley, At Home in Rome September 24, 2007 at 4:02 pm #

    Thanks Kataroma! Really, I’m used to the day to day annoying things and generally take it in stride, so it’s not that it bothers me that much…. but what struck me about this in particular was the level of exasperation reached and that people were actually willing to stage an improvised strike and make things worse. I mean, have you ever seen anything like that before? I haven’t been here THAT long, six years, but still, this was a first for me.

    Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like the aggression and frustration level of city residents is getting worse this year. I think it has to do a lot with the economy.

  3. nyc/caribbean ragazza September 24, 2007 at 4:25 pm #

    Shelley, poverina! We all know how much you love Rome…clearly you were pushed to the edge. 🙂

    I’ve had those days when I lived in NYC sometimes (and pretty much every day in Los Angeles because some stronzo driver has cut me off while on his cell phone or the city thinks it’s good idea to do road construction in the middle of the damn day).

    I surprised fisticuffs didn’t break out. What a frustrating day.

    I hope the rest of your week gets better.


  4. kataroma September 24, 2007 at 4:42 pm #

    nyc/caribbean ragazza – I lived in NYC for 17 years of my life and I have never seen anything there on the level of what we experience pretty much daily here in Rome (and the first 14 of those years in NY were in the 70s/80s when NY was not “disneyfied” as it is now.) This is not road rage which comes not from one bad driver (because who isn’t a bad driver here?) but rather nihilistic/suicidal rage against the entire corrupt, stagnant system.

    Shelley – my night in the ER at Policlinico came pretty close to what you are describing – but it was helpless, old sick people rather than fit young people driven to desperation. I’ve written about this enough times on the net but what I saw there that night was shocking and should not happen in a rich first world country which supposedly has the 2nd best healthcare system in the world.

  5. Enrico September 24, 2007 at 6:10 pm #

    Shelley, I think you hit the nail on the head with your comment about the economy. I think people are really tired of the depressing job market and the combination of low wages+higher cost of life.
    In the past people were willing to put up with the disservices, the disorganization of the Pubblica Amministrazione etc as long as everyone had a good job and could lead a fairly decent life. Every generation had a better standard of living than their parents, which is not true anymore.
    I’m not the greatest optimist alive, but this situation may prove a good thing, if it helps us waking up from our apathy and do something about it.

    PS sono un tuo nuovo fan!

  6. elizabeth September 24, 2007 at 6:18 pm #

    Hi Shelley — sounds to me like a true “cultural moment”! I am writing from Trento where things just “work” and it feels sooooo good, but back to Rome tomorrow (in time for Villa TAverna) and into daily chaos. It does get wearing…
    Enrico — you are right, people are getting to a breaking point. I can feel it too. But “street parties” (like the protest Shelley describes) are so futile. It will take organized planning and long-term thinking to enact real change, not just momentary hot-headed action. Depressing, even for optimists!

  7. Shelley, At Home in Rome September 24, 2007 at 6:38 pm #

    Thanks all, for your comments and thoughts.

    NYC: I know that living in a big city has its drawbacks and I often try to remind myself that the stress levels are higher in a city and produce a lot more “outbursts” than a country or suburban setting. You will definitely have no trouble dealing with Rome, although I have to agree with Kataroma, I think you’ll find that the type of problems you’ll deal with here are on an entirely different level with respect to LA and NYC. But, you know that. And dealing with the LA film industry I’m sure has been a good training ground. 🙂 So no worries.

    Kata: OMG. OMG. OMG. Don’t get me started on Policlinico. One day over a nice glass of wine we’ll chat. I had a horrible family tragedy here and for a brief period it involved Policlinico, where I was SHOCKED, and I am not exaggerating, the level of care was frightful, shameful, third world. What we saw there convinced me and my husband to take out private health insurance. Not all Rome hospitals are Policlinico, but, that place is to be avoided like the plague (which probably is lurking in the hallways there as well).

    Enrico: Benvenuto! Thanks for your comments. What you are saying reflects many, many conversations I’ve had so far this year with Italian friends. I was thinking it was just me noticing an increase in tension regarding the system, the economy, etc. but I am more convinced daily that it’s not just me… it’s the reality. I have noticed other indicators such as people taking out more loans, buying things on credit which used to be virtually unheard of, and the resulting debt. In the States we have a huge credit/debt problem, but the difference between the debt crisis in the States is that *generally* people can find work to keep their heads above water and pay the debt. The problem here is that people are taking out loans and buying on credit now for necessities that they can’t afford on their salaries (housing costs, anyone? Most people I know spend 50% or more of monthly household income on rent or mortgage payments)…and what is happening then is that people are getting trapped in debt and don’t have the means to keep up. Not to mention the cost of living here and the economy overall (recently rated the worst in the EU). Sigh. I feel like we are heading towards a breaking point eventually…

    Which brings me your comment, Elizabeth, and I’m glad I’m not the only one who sees and feels it, esp. because of your valuable perspective based on nearly 30 years of observation and experience in this city, as well as your professional background in cultural sensitivity training and cross-cultural issues. You bring up a very good point about the futility of these improvised strike. One man was yelling at the woman trying to get everyone to “strike” that she needed to go through the proper channels, ie, filing a formal police complaint at the origin in Subiaco, then not going to work as a result because of the broken down service. I agree with him on principle, but the root problem in my opinion is the people’s total lack of faith in the ability or desire of the authorities and proper channels to make things better or respond to problems. And that is probably what is causing such exasperation. People feel they have no where else to turn now. It’s sad.

  8. roinrome September 24, 2007 at 7:22 pm #

    Great post Shelley. you have perfectly summed what daily life in rome is like. i’ve seen a drastic change in life here int he past 10 years or so. people have become bitter, disgruntled, miserable, unhappy & are at the end of their ropes because we are living in a city that offers 3rd world services BUT we are paying 1st world prices for everything from housing to taxes. this fact has really “ruined” the italian people (in the south at least) because they see no hope and have no real means to make concrete, constructive changes. i do tend to write complaint letters and file reports but in all honesty, i doubt it helps, i usually just get the same ol’ response “thanks for letting us know, we’ll look into it”. and as we know, that is VERY unlikely.

  9. Kataroma September 24, 2007 at 7:37 pm #

    Shelley – we’ll have to compare hospital experiences over a nice glass of wine. I’m about to write you an email re the GTG.

    I actually had a pretty decent weekend which involved seeing “The Simpsons Movie” (in English – yay!), having dinner and watching rugby with some Italian friends and various other things. But the reality just hits you, doesn’t it, whenever you have to deal with the public sector from the machines not working in the metro stations (ok in the metro station near me they installed new, gleaming ticket machines in August and already two out of four are “fuori servizio”) to filthy hospitals and inept bureaucrats who go home at 1pm every day despite the lines of desperate people who need their attention.

  10. finnyknits September 24, 2007 at 8:38 pm #

    You’re so level headed and realistic with the situations you face in Rome. It’s pretty impressive. I know that you want to lash out and kill everyone (you must, right? I’m sure I’d lose it.) but you don’t, which is good. So strong. Don’t give in!

    Maybe you’re getting to the point where you need a little respite in the US?

    Meanwhile I’ve been fighting with the Dr’s office/insurance company/credit bureau over a bill that was misfiled and mismanaged by everyone EXCEPT ME over a year ago. Even in the US it appears that people don’t give a rats ass.

    Where will we go for salvation?

  11. Enrico September 24, 2007 at 10:22 pm #

    Elizabeth: true, fai da te strikes are useless.
    Still, something’s “moving”, and we can feel it beacause we know it happened before. History always repeats itself: after a period of relative calm, a crisis follows, and change ensues. Not that changes are always for the better, but peggio di così!!

  12. Paolo September 24, 2007 at 10:54 pm #

    What do you think about Beppe Grillo then?. Do you think he’s just a comic guy who Screams and shout?
    We don’t want a revolution, just like in France or America but we are so close.

  13. Michael Kovnick September 24, 2007 at 11:43 pm #


    I feel particularly in sync with you right now. You see, I was at the Roma-Juve game yesterday. ’nuff said?

    To really get in sync, read my blog post from today:

  14. J.Doe September 25, 2007 at 5:32 am #

    Sorry to hear about your horrible day, but as an ex-expat in Italy I can fully understand…sometimes life in Italy is just too frustrating….and I didn’t even last 7 years!!!

  15. Shelley, At Home in Rome September 25, 2007 at 8:45 am #

    Paolo: As far as Beppe Grillo goes, I don’t know enough about him to have any real opinion on him as a person or as a performer, but I do see him, his actions, and the press he is getting recently as another indicator of the tension that is building. I see the fact that ever since V-Day he and his performances and comments have been featured on the nightly national news every night for, well, weeks now, as a sign that there is serious trouble brewing. Grillo made a great point when he said how ridiculous it was that Mastella was responding directly to critical comments he made on his blog, that it’s like Gordon Brown responding to Mr. Bean. It’s really kind of sad when politicians have to get into a war of words and defensive with a person who is essentially a performer and a comic (albeit political) and that becomes national nightly news for weeks. What does that say about the general state of affairs? One thing is definitely for sure: Grillo’s influence and reach is pretty incredible. It remains to be seen if his actions (and moreover the actions of the people who sign his petitions, etc.) will serve to make any real, lasting change.

    One thing I am puzzled about though… with all Grillo’s talk of too many political parties, etc… now I’m confused because what is this “Lista Civica”? Is that not another political party?

  16. Janavi September 25, 2007 at 2:15 pm #

    Shelley-I live in NYC & I have never seen anything like this.But when I was in Rome & I had to get on a bus because I just couldn’t walk anymore they were always horrendously crowded & I remember thinking how horrible it would be to have to deal with this every day-& I’m from NY!
    I actually think I almost had sex on the #64 one day (or at least foreplay), because I was jammed up against this guy,face to face, for so long.

  17. qualcosa di bello September 25, 2007 at 2:26 pm #

    shelley…thanks for perspective! i am always looking for balance so…i’ll trade you several “willing to strike on the moment” italians for some of my local “you can walk all over us, taxman, residents” & maybe we can find a happy medium! 🙂

  18. jessica September 26, 2007 at 4:23 am #

    shelley…yes, your patience is being tested. you seem to be handling it or rather, accepting it.
    not fun.

  19. Cinzia September 28, 2007 at 9:58 am #

    Shelley, my friends in Chicago claim they are stressed!! They are convinced living in Rome or Italy is relaxing. I guess they get these ideas from movies, books. They even were here visiting, but I got days off to show them Rome and I felt relaxed then.

  20. Brendan September 29, 2007 at 12:27 pm #

    London Arrival: Get off plane, bag is out in 5 minutes (I know LHR is famous for losing bags, but). Breezed through passport control in 5 minutes while admiring orderly lines, no pushing no squabbling, no people standing next to me waiting to push into the line. Terminal opens up to a plethora of cash machines, all of which are working, get cash, purchase ticket to Heathrow Express Train (center of LDN in 15 mins, every 15 mins) without waiting in line, being that they sell them everywhere in the airport. Brand new sparkling train arrives with plenty of room for luggage. No need to stamp a ticket in a broken machine. Train arrives at Paddington, no zingari, minimal down and out opportunists. Head to taxi line, a least 100 people waiting, breezed through in 5 minutes, aided by a steady line of taxis and 2 stewards telling people where to go. Was told taxi would cost £ 5 -6 and it winds up costing £ 4.20. I feel spoiled! However, the food and wine is better and cheaper in Italy.

  21. romantales October 1, 2007 at 2:26 pm #

    I hear what you say and I understand so well. I am so disappointed that Veltroni cares more about the white night and it seems to me, he couldn’t care less for so many real problems in this town. I am not American, but I am foreigner too, married to Italian d.o.c. and I love to knit! I’ll go to Lana gatto shop if they still have sale going on. If you have time let me know so we can have a cup of coffee and chat about knitting, crafts or life in Rome.

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