Follow-up note: As of today, March 23rd, the trash has been cleared from the streets!
The Trash in Naples is Back: It's time I say a few words about the trash in Naples. I've received quite a few emails inquiries about this topic and, of course, trash in Naples has been an on-going discussion within the national, European, and international press.
When I talk to Neapolitans, I find that trash is a topic of great embarrassment. Trash, after all, holds connotations of people being dirty and environments being unsanitary, if not toxic. So when outsiders discuss trash in Naples, a cultural sensitivity has been hit upon. And perhaps rightly so. What city or country doesn't have its problems that are an embarrassment to its inhabitants?
But to the best of my ability, I will try to comment on what I have observed about the trash problem in Naples over the last two years. Someone once told me that ever since the seventies, the old adage has been: "You come to Rome to see Italy, you come to Naples to smell it." This would have us believe that trash has been an on-going problem for decades.
Many explain that the trash problem is bound up with the stronghold that the local mafia has on the region. While nothing can ever be pinned down to exact facts, I've noticed two things:
First, when a trash crisis happens, the city of Caserta about thirty miles north of Naples and the city of Salerno area about thirty miles south of Naples continue to have trash collection and the streets are clean.
Second, when I lived here two years ago during the high-point of another trash crisis, the Italian military came to clean away the mess in order that Italy wouldn't be fined exorbitant amounts by the European Union. I then left for a week to New York City. There, I saw quite a bit of trash lying around the streets during the height of the humid summer. Asking around, local folklore maintained that decades ago, certain Neapolitan families immigrated to New York City and they set up a business -- that happened to be in the sanitation industry. Interesting.
Perhaps -- and only perhaps -- some aspects of the problem of trash collection is bound up with the culture. An article written two years ago in L'Espresso (the popular Italian political magazine) asked people what defines someone as 'Italian'. Most Italians said it wasn't a collective language or geography, but rather their art and history. The article went on to show that a very high number of Italians feel the largest problem in their country is a lack of civic mindedness.
The culture prides itself on maintaining strong family bonds, especially in Naples where children often never leave their hometown and remain in close proximity to their family, coming together almost by ritual each Sunday for a large lunch. While you take the good with the bad, these admirable family ties also mean that people outside this circle can often be treated as less important. Other drivers on the road or other people waiting in line are less important because they are strangers. As a consequence -- some say -- you can sometimes see people throwing trash out their car window (it's not, after all, their own house which usually is kept extremely pristine). The city can also face massive shut downs due to strikers who not only effect the businesses they are protesting, but also have a definitive effect on all the other citizens around them.
Today, as I write this, heapfuls of trash lie on the streets in Naples as well as the surrounding suburbs. Trash collection has stopped due to a strike by sanitation workers disgruntled because they aren't getting paid. We don't know when the crisis will end or if it will get worse before it gets better. When tourists come here, the first thing they notice is the trash. But the Neapolitans are always adamant -- and end up being right: when summer comes, the trash crisis always ends.
Lest my generalizations about civic consciousness go too far, the people of Naples and Italy are dialoguing about the trash problem in the media, instead of ignoring it. They want to make changes. And I would ask that for the sake of cultural sensitivity, outsiders try to relate these problems to many of their own local problems. If anything, rather than complain and criticize, we expats, tourists, and lovers of Italy would do well to come up with creative ways to be small or big parts of the solution.
Could a large group of Americans and Italians together take to the streets to protest? Could we write letters to various officials asking for legislation that bans the striking of sanitation workers? Could we press the city to deliberately contract out sanitation collection to a company located outside of Campania? Or throughout this crisis, could grass roots associations organize on weekends to collect and transport trash to landfills themselves?
What may be some of your ideas to help solve this on-going crisis?
I would like to leave this post with my translation of a letter published on March 16th in Il Mattino:
Do Tell Il Mattino: I return to Aversa and we are again submersed in trash
Aversa (15 March) -- Yesterday evening I returned to Aversa, a town in the province of Caserta where I have lived for more than ten years, from a weekend in the mountains where my family and I had the good fortune of evading the gross accumulation of trash on the streets, and in the background the gigantic placards of the regional election campaigns. Leafing through the local newspapers, I read that the new trash emergency is the cause of a collection strike due to a lack of payments of their salaries.
Whatever the cause, we are again in the middle of trash for which we can do nothing. I have two children that attend the elementary school and who have lived in an unsanitary environment for years. What can I do? The only idea that comes to my mind is to escape as soon as possible this almost unbearable reality.
The thing that affects me the most is to see how in spite of everything, life continues, people continue to busy themselves as if nothing is happening, and those who lament, come to the annoying deduction that we are used to all this trash.
I won't vote in the next regional elections because I believe that everything is futile. I hope only to leave as soon as possible from a land that has taken away all hope for the future.
P.S. Every evening for years, at dusk onwards, in Aversa and the neighboring zones one smells a strong stink of burning trash. Could it be the trash of factories? Who knows?
For today's pictures of Naples trash in Il Mattino click here.