A good number of photos I’ve taken in Italy and in particular, Rome, had me looking up, straining my neck or contorting my torso to capture an impression of the ornate, over-the-top, and gilded ceilings and domes of the city’s churches. There are so many of them that it has all become a blur of rich hues and gold. It’s understandable to be awestruck. Rome and the Catholic Church were built to project power, wealth and empire. But all this looking up has made me look down for grounding, for reality.
The Italy tourists like me see or choose to see is historic, monumental, romantic. We come with our guidebooks and lists of places from friends who have preceded us. We come to consume something different from our day-to-day lives, so we flock to the sites and stare at art which we have been told are essential to a grand tour. But we tend not to look around us, to see the reality about us.
The South Asian men providing selfie sticks and appearing with umbrellas as soon as rain falls. The African men demonstrating how a flat piece of wood opens up to form a basket. The Eastern European women serving pasta and pizza in several languages. The Chinese merchants making sure tchotchkes are in abundance. The Filipino nannies tending plump fair-skinned babies and picking up the shit of pedigreed pets.
Over four million immigrants from Romania, Morocco, Albania, China, Ukraine, the Philippines, India and other countries live in Italy. The Instituto Nazionale di Statistica reports that in 2013, 7.4 percent (4,387,721) of the country’s population was foreign born or native born children of immigrants (15 percent of all births). This statistic does not include the clandestini or undocumented immigrants.
And there are the native Italians going about their business, living as we do back home: commuting, eking out a living, caring for families, albeit precariously. The European Parliament Directorate General for Internal Policies reports that in 2012, 29.9 percent of people living in Italy were at risk of poverty or social exclusion. In January 2014, the youth unemployment rate was a staggering 42.4 percent.
Italy today has very little resemblance to the Roman Empire. Its people go about quotidian lives amid all the ruins, museums and churches. They’re really no different from us. I suppose that’s why we look up.
Check out erwindeleon on Instagram for pictures looking up.