1. Sirens. Many Italians are, believe it or not, painfully aware of their shortcomings as a people/race/nation/culture ( a lot of the difficulties arise precisely from the impossibility of defining what is meant by an “Italian”, but more of that some other time). But here’s one they miss, and I’d like to start my list of 100 negatives here:
Oh, they get annoyed to see scoundrels from Parliament and the thousands of work-shy mini-dignitaries being whipped around the centres of their cities in auto blu (state limousines), flashers and sirens going. But it’s the venial and utterly useless creature in the suit behind the tinted windows that gets their goat more than the sirens themselves. Perhaps a nation that invented the rasping and farting sound of the Vespa (which means wasp) and then allowed them to fill streets filled with hard cobbles and close-together reverberating buildings has a different relationship with noise to the rest of us (though who “we” are in this case is a moot point, on which more some other time, maybe).
Here’s a theory. Until Italians get their sirens under control, they will never get their public finances in order. (No that’s not a link, I’m underlining for effect, like I was using an old typewriter).
I am perfectly serious about this, for there is nothing so perfectly unserious as the sound of Italian sirens. The problem is their frequency, by which I am not referring to the pattern of sound waves they emit – the pitch of the sirens themselves is standard-annoying , perhaps a bit on the mournful and self-pitying side. Frequency as in oftenness. Sit in a park in downtown Rome or Milan and try to count to 10 without hearing a siren. It cannot be done. In Naples – well, just find a park for a start… And yet other cities elsewhere in the world manage minutes of siren-free air. What this suggests is that Italians like to make a lot of noise indicating deadly emergency when nothing much is really the matter. And then they wonder why the financial markets get nervy about their bonds. Sirens confirm the old saw that things in Italy are always in a crisis, but never serious.
The sirens come from the Finance Guards, the Municipal Police, the Carabinieri, the Polizia di Stato, the Fire brigade, the Forestry Service, the Prison Guards, the Blood Transfusion Service, the Organ Transportation Service, the tinpot bureaucrat transportation service and, oh, yeah, the ambulances. Lots and lots of ambulances. Natural in a country with the second eldest population in the world, a country convinced that a light breeze on the back of the neck will kill you (that merits a separate discussion – q.v.). All those sirens are screaming out messages of disproportion, chaos, disorganisation, strife, confusion and competition between fiefdoms of the state. It’s part of the tourist’s (and the filmmaker’s) enduring memory of Italy. The soundscape as memorable as the landmarks. These are the tourists who return to their tranquil Dutch, German, English, French, Irish, Finnish, Swedish and Austrian neighbourhoods and then very quietly vote for increasingly radical parties that promise not to give any more money to the childishly chaotic southerners.