Italy Diary-IV: Bolzano, a city of cyclists and pedestrians

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By Pradip Phanjoubam

(This is the last of four articles the author wrote 11 years ago after a 10-day visit to Italy to study conflict resolution mechanisms in practice in the country`™s north where ethnic Germans had once raised the banner of revolt against the State of Italy)

Although South Tyrol`™s autonomy model has been exemplarily successful in resolving a vexing conflict situation involving the nationalistic aspirations of the minority ethnic German Italian citizens, some nagging problems remain to be sorted out. Among the two most immediate of these are: The positive discrimination mechanisms factored into the model to appease the minority German sentiment has resulted in creating other situational minorities. The Italians in South Tyrol province have ended up with a feeling of marginalisation, and there has been a natural tendency for Italians in the province to incline towards radical rightwing nationalist politics, threatening to undo all the overt weightages and institutional incentives given to the minorities in the autonomy experiment. Much like I suppose the rise of rightwing Hindu nationalist politics in India in recent times, fed on the fears, real or imaginary, of the majority Hindus getting marginalised. The resounding success of a recent book by Italian author Oriana Fallaci that championed the reassertion of majority rights and justified suspicion of immigrant population is a reflection of this trend. I have not read the book, but a rather uncharitable review of it by Christopher Dickey in the American magazine, `Newsweek` and more interestingly the letters to the editor subsequently in the October 11 edition of the magazine, most of which came out in fervent defence of the author and attacks against the reviewer. The problem, it is also apparent, is not restricted to Italy, but spread to almost the entire Europe.

There is another problem. Of all the 137 measures for ensuring autonomy, it was the ethnic based reservation system, in jobs and other benefits of the establishment, that is drawing unexpected flaks from another quarter `“ children of mixed marriages who were at a loss trying to classify themselves into any of the ethnic categories. These problems are now being sought to be resolved through the establishment of a number of `open` institutions that are ethnicity neutral. The establishment of a Free University, in which courses are offered in both Italian and German is just one example of this effort. Ethnicity neutral non government organisations such as the European Academy, are still some more.

Reservation and other incentives are also multi-layered. For example, the largest circulated German language newspaper in South Tyrol, `Dolomiten` is treated as a minority newspaper and gets a handsome government annual incentive, but so does the local Italian newspaper, `Alto Adige` because the Italian speaking community is a minority in the local context of South Tyrol. (Encouraging language medium is very much a clause of the autonomy structure)

The volume of the incentive depends on the circulation of the newspaper, and the `Dolomiten` which does about 75,000 copies daily on weekdays and nearly double that on Sundays on account of the numerous suppliments and magazines it adds on the day, gets and annual grant of 1.5 million Euros (About Rs 7 crores) from the Italian government. Because the media is considered an important part of the autonomy structure, journalists in the local media are a privileged class of professionals. The entry level salary of a reporter in the `Dolomiten` for instance is about 1,500 Euros. Even journalists in Italy`™s national media is not as priveleged.

What is it that makes South Tyrol rich?

South Tyrol`™s money spinning resources are basically tourism with the ski resorts uphills in the Alps as the major attraction, wine, horticulture and agriculture. It came as quite a surprise to see not a square feet of arable land, as you travel across the district and beyond into Italy`™s other less prosperous regions, lying fallow. Vineyards, fruit orchards, and maize fields in that order of acerage seem to carpet all of the flatlands and all other bits of land with the semblance of a topsoil cover. There apparently is also a prosperous meat industry. An executive from the European Academy, the institute that hosted our conference, traveling on a field trip to the Brennero/Brenner Pass on the Alps told us the maize is basically meant for consumption by the pork industry and very little of it will make it to the South Tyrolean kitchen. Much like, I suppose, the Japanese feeding fish that would have made coveted dinners in poorer countries, to the Tunas in their fish farms for their own more luxurious dinners.

Along the route we had lunch at a mountain village called Selva, inhabited by the Ladins, the other national minority of Italy. Do not equate the image of the village that we generally have with this one or with any of the villages in this part of the globe. These are villages only because their population is small and they are far away from the major commercial centers. All comparisons should end there. Five stars restaurants and bars, high speed internet, extremely expensive, specklessly clean hotels and lodges for big spending tourists are what these villages boast of. It is difficult to imagine that a village like Selva alone sold 3.5 lakh night stays to tourists last year, which is about a sixth of all of the tourists Nepal received in the same period. Tourism is indeed a booming industry in these dolomite mountains. Tourist flock here for the pleasant climate and the scenery in the summers and in the winters for snow sports. The only worry of the industry here is the receding snowline on account of global warming.

The hard working `peasants` have also converted every inch of flat land in the non mountainous region of the province into cash yielding arable fields. As you travel in a bus or train, what you see are miles after miles of fields carpeted by vineyard, peaches and nectarine orchards, and maize.

There is one thing that is common to both the South Tyrolean Germans and the rest of Italy. Ninety five percent of them are Catholic by faith. While the conflict of interest between the Italians and the ethnic Germans exists despite this shared space, there is an interesting indirect outcome that would answer why and how Catholic charitable organisations such as the Caritas, with bases all over the world, are so rich? To many in India, particularly those who are not informed of this background, this abundance of resources of Christian missionaries have always been a matter of suspicion. I had the fortune to be educated on how this money is raised, at least in Italy after a visit to the Caritas regional office. Almost all of the money in the hands of Italian Catholic missionaries come from government encouraged donations from the public. Italy`™s income tax law says that tax payers are allowed to divert 0.8 percent of his annual income tax dues to a religious charitable organisation belonging to a government recognized religion. The tax payers do not have to, but if they do not, the 0.8 percent would go to the government coffer. Most do divert this percentage of their income tax, and most of it go to Catholic organisations, the predominant religion of the nation. There can be no question about it that 0.8 percent of the national income tax of a developed Western country would be more than just respectable.

The first thing that strikes a first time visitor at Bolzano/Bozen is the prosperity of the population and the cleanliness of the city. The atmosphere is that of a hill station, although it is located at the foot of the Alps. Life`™s pace is not at a rush as in the other cities, but definitely not stagnant either. You do not need to worry when you cross the streets, for the cars slow down, and even halt and wait for you, especially if the drivers in them see you are a foreigner and is having difficulty with the traffic. The basic driving courtesy is admirable and simply astounding.

The air is cool and crisp, the streets and pedestrian walkways are dustless. The cobblestones that line them in definite and pleasing patterns have acquired a dull metallic glint through constant contact with the rubber tyres of vehicles or else soles of the shoes of pedestrians. By August middle, the deciduous trees along the avenues and city parks have begun shedding leaves, but this rather than mess up lends texture and warmth to the place. The leaves are also cleared regularly and do not stay to rot.

As you walk into the commercial streets, flanked by well lit showrooms and shops, be prepared to be surprised by pleasant aromas that give you a feeling of homely warmth. At a turn of the street, it may be of oven hot cookies, at another of brand new leather and at still others the fragrance of seasonal flowers etc. As to whether these were from artificial perfumes or from original sources, I did not find out.

Much of the aroma could actually be coming from the numerous eating joints and bars dotting the streets, many of which have signs inscribed in Haettenschweiler type face on wooden boards, and interior decors that give them prominently very Alpine and German looks.

Within the city heart, bicycle is a very popular mode of transport, next only to walking. Indeed, everybody seems to be either on bicycles or else walking, from grandmothers to grandchildren, company executives to housewives. Even company heads come to office on bicycles. Only on out of city travels, people seem to use their cars. I never imagined that the sight of sturdy mountain bicycles in mass use can lend such a health conscious look to the entire town. Nobody messes up the streets either. Middle aged ladies coming out for evening walks with their little dogs carry with them special tissue papers to clean up and carry away night soil that their dogs may decide to drop in public places, dogs being dogs everywhere.

Everything seems to be made of stainless steel too, from the street lamp posts to the railings on the sidewalks, adding to the aura of clean lustre of the place. Every 50 meters there are public telephones `“ near the walls, at a street corners, on the side of the pedestrian walkways, near the bus shed etc. All of them have the stainless steel finish with glass hoods looping over them.

From my hotel room balcony every morning I watched Blozano/Bozen wake up. The hotel maids in specklessly white aprons are the first to be up and about, mopping the floor of the verandas and staircases of the hotel. In the street down below, a young man in denim and white T-shirt, white working gloves, and bright orange working helmet, gets off from his pickup van, collects loads the garbage cans outside the hotel and dumping them into his truck drives away. The dignity of labour, even of the menial variety, is a natural thing here.

Very soon the warm, pleasant sunshine fills up the streets. By 8.30 am, people young and old are pacing the streets on the way to their offices even as the resonance a church bell floats in, riding the cool breeze coming from the direction of the dark and silent Alps in the background announcing another day in the life of Bolzano city.

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