CNN followed us everywhere in Italy. Being one of the only English channels we could get (aside from poorly done Lenny Kravitz interviews on MTV Italy), it was our umbilical cord to the world we’d so anxiously left behind when we decided to travel to Italy. Funny how we do that, isn’t it? More than happy to leave it all behind, but eager to “keep up” at the same time.
Each night, we’d hear about more car bombings in Israel, see strange commercials about new dialing codes to Saudi Arabia, and be marinated in the images of torture of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers.
In Florence, we were seated beside a couple of New York women on our first dinner out. The most amazing point of our conversation was the fact that we all felt trepidation about expressing our anti-U.S. viewpoint in light of the “If you’re not with us, you’re against us” Bush-ism. We talked about how unbelievable it was that in countries (the U.S. and Canada) that hold freedom of speech in such high esteem that we could feel censored, like big brother was watching, even in a little trattoria in Italy.
Now, Italy is in fact one of the “with U.S.” countries, one of the U.S. allies, helping the U.S. in their fight against…what is it? Terrorism, weapons of mass destructionâe¦ is there a new reason I’m missing?
But the poll of people we spoke to were definitely not behind the war.
Our hotel in Florence had a breakfast room wherein there hung a plasma screen on the wall, broadcasting, day and night, you guessed it: CNN. One morning, I had to ask the gentleman who served us the amazing cappuccinos, what he thought about the whole thing. “Angustiante” (Italian for depressing), he said. “There should be no war, and we certainly shouldn’t have to watch it every day,” he said solemnly. “It does something to people,” he said, going on to explain that many Italians now are on anti-depressant drugs, and that he’s sure seeing this sort of thing every day is a big part of it.
It was important to me to know on this other side of the world, so much closer to the war than we, if people really supported their government’s decision to ally with the U.S.
In our hotel room in Rome one late morning, CNN showed us two completely different pictures. It was Republic Day in Italy: a huge cause for celebration. All stores were closed and it was a national holiday. The streets next to the Coliseum were lined with skirted seats and security: the president was there along with many VIPs. Missiles were paraded down the middle of the street, along with armed soldiers and the works.
The opposite picture was one of protest. Hundreds of people holding “No War” signs paraded the streets, and were getting into heated confrontation with polizia. We realized this broadcast was coming to us from just outside our hotel room.
This is an important thing to experience if you havenâe(TM)t before: What it’s like to expect a bomb to go off, and to hit you no matter where you are — in the room or out. The reason it’s important is because this is what war really is: fear.
If you haven’t ever experienced it, how can you know if you support a war or not?
I had to go out and see for myself. We ventured out into the street, asking the concierge what he thought of the whole thing. He told us, “Today isn’t too badâe¦ it’s Friday we’re all worried about.” Friday would be June 4, when George W. Bush was coming to town. “That’s when I’m going fishing. Far away.”
Entering the street was scary. All the streets were roped off, hundreds of armed guards lined the streets, and there was a very eerie quiet — very odd for a big crowd on a parade day.
We walked towards the sound of the marching band. Even small hilltops were guarded by undercover security.
Then we heard it: Loud, aggressive music.
I was drawn to the sound. We walked over towards it to find one of the many protest sites. A large white van had just parked itself in the middle of the street, set out six huge speakers and put up anti-Bush banners. It was amazing to see the amount of support they had, and I was glad to see so much activism; a nice switch from Canada, where in our small towns we’re lucky to get maybe 10 people out.
A TV camera operator obviously had the best vantage point. I sidled up beside him and asked if he was scared at all. “Scared?” he asked, inquisitively. “Of this? No. Are you?” “Yes,” I replied. “I don’t know what will happen.”
Casey was the name of the reporter and he assured me this was a minor protest in comparison to what Friday would be. Casey was from San Francisco, and told us Italy is very activist. “Friday though,” he said. “That could be scary.”
He went on to say how great it was that as tourists we had an interest in the political workings of the country. I thought it natural: It is, after all, a war we’re all involved in.
Contrary to the three young Texan women, complete with drawl, and no knowledge of what Bush is doing. Damn. It really pisses off the PC side of me when people live up to their stereotypes. “Why is everyone so mad at Bush?” they asked. “Our whole trip through Europe we’ve seen these anti-Bush posters.” Yeah.
The protest continued, and the TV crews began to pack up. We packed up with them.
The next day was the third, and any Italian we asked said that on the fourth they were not going to be in Rome. Rome brought in an extra 10,000 police for the fourth. The night of the third they were everywhere. Even near the Spanish Steps, the ritzy part of Rome with all the Dolce & Gabbana you can take, there were five-10 police on every corner. What a horrible feeling.
The cab driver who took us to the Spanish Steps that day said he didn’t speak English, but then when I pointed to all the police and asked what’s happening, he piped up, “Bush is coming. He’s ahâe¦ how do you say? Motherfucker. I am outta here on Friday for sure.” Seemed as though politics brushed up his English skills pretty well. Turns out he lived in Philadelphia for six years. Hilarious.
But what happened on June 4 in Rome? We left from the airport in Rome under the watch of two armed guards. I heard no news about it on any of our stations here. Seems Italy — and a vibrant anti-war movement in a country that is a U.S. ally — is off the radar for news in Canada.
There was brief news elsewhere but it didn’t seem to convey the strongly-held convictions of the people we’d met in Italy.
Reuters had this up on the internet the day before: “In a sign of discontent over the situation in Iraq, several hooded mannequins were suspended on trains in Rome’s metro (subway) system on Thursday. The mannequins, apparently meant to look like the images of Iraqi prisoners abused by U.S. soldiers, were hanging by the neck and had signs accusing Bush of ‘exporting torture’.”
And about the day itself, the BBC had this to say:
“Tens of thousands of anti-war protesters have taken to the streets in Rome as U.S. President George W Bush visits the Italian capital.
“Crowds of demonstrators shouting ‘No Bush, no war’ marched through the city.
“The protest came hours after Pope John Paul II reiterated his condemnation of the U.S.-led war in Iraq in a meeting with Mr. Bush at the Vatican.
“Riot police fired some tear gas in the tense but mostly peaceful rallies, in which flares and fireworks were thrown.”