Posted by: 4initalia | May 22, 2009

Getting Perspective

Now that it’s warm, I use our sleek Italian solar dryer, otherwise known as a clothesline. There are several on the roof, and Modena is lovely from on high. I hang out the clothes, check out the other rooftops, and get some sun.

From the roof, the city looks like a Lionel train set from the 1940s. Before WWII, this part of Modena was a patchwork of farm fields. After the war, apartment houses and homes replaced the plots. None of the streets are linear, and neither are the buildings. The streets swerve and sway, and the houses crouch near them, but they didn’t settle down parallel to the road, they’re oddly askew. There are uneven angles even in the lines of the buildings, as if the city planners held a giant Musical Chairs game, and they cut off the music before the concrete had set.

Our roof is on the eighth floor, which overlooks many smaller buildings. From my aerie I can see balconies overgrown into lush gardens, and always, the flutter of clothes hung out to dry. For weeks I ogled a rooftop patio just across the way.It has chest-high walls, saturated in paint the color of a lingering sunset. There’s a comfy chaise lounge for tanning and napping, with a protective face shade, just like the lounges at the beach.

In the early spring the patio was empty. But last week a pair of pants was draped over the wall. And hello, here comes the guy who apparently does wear the pants in that family. And he is in his underwear. Fortunately our roof is enclosed by a tall metal fence, or I would have fallen off; he’s Fabioesque in a good way, which means he’s perfect as long as he doesn’t say anything.

The next time I hung out the clothes, Fabio was back. And so was his front. I saw a lot of it, because he was wearing only a bathing suit, and lying on a chaise lounge; does anyone hear cheesy repetitive music? People who are not middle-aged should not be allowed to wander around looking like that, where middle-aged people can see them. I try not to look, but you know how hard it is to control high-definition binoculars. I wonder if the kids want a telescope?

The roof is also a place to observe Modena unobserved. One day I was enjoying some sun when I heard a ruckus from the road far below. It was a one-person screaming match. I leaned over to see what was going on. The municipal cops set up shop in the traffic circle fairly often. They stop drivers, ask for identification, maybe discourage them from running over pedestrians. On this day cops on motorcycles pulled over a motorcyclist and gave him a citation, probably for driving like a lunatic.

The rider was furious at being stopped, and started screaming at the police. In the United States, this kind of behavior would end badly. An American can’t yell at a cop, we have learned to use an inside voice or be arrested for resisting an officer. If a man were yelling this loud at Denver cops he’d be shocked with a taser, handcuffed, possibly beaten. We’d know all that from the video on the evening news. But these cops took the tantrum completely in stride.

The raging man surged toward the officers, throwing his arms up and digging his hands into the sky. They didn’t bother to hand him the ticket, they just left the citation on a clipboard on their motorcycle. He pounded on the papers, screamed some more, lunged at them, then beat his fists against the motorcyle seat. American cops would have arrested him for threatening behavior, then arrested him for resisting arrest, then tacked on some felonies for attacking the clip board, never mind the motorcycle. Or maybe as soon as he bolted at them, they would have shot him.

These cops stood back and waited as the man raged in smaller and quieter circles. They didn’t arrest him for being mad, and they didn’t assume that when he was flailing at them, screaming murderously, that he presented any danger. They didn’t frisk him, they didn’t even touch him, and they didn’t call for backup. It was a guy, and a speeding ticket, and his rage. From the volume of the yelling, it was an expensive mistake for the motorcyclist. But it wasn’t one he would pay for with his life, or the life of a cop, or thousands of tax dollars in police response costs.

Italy has plenty of cops who go postal, and America has many officers who keep neighborhoods safe and sane. So this is not a good cop/bad cop thing. Italian cops, just like American ones, have every reason to fear that an angry man will shoot off more than his mouth: Italians have guns, they organized crime. So the range of behavior tolerated by the Italian police shocked me, and I realized that in America, the line between civil and disobedience is being erased. I never expected to see American justice from the perspective of an Italian traffic stop.

Sometimes an unexpected angle makes all the difference. And I am definitely looking into buying a telescope. I have a lot to learn about Italy.


  1. Italian cops also have a habit of following American women as they walk their dogs. They stop in cross walks to speak to these American women, who pass by without a word, but a jamming Ipod, flashing nothing but a smile.

    I’m sure someday they’ll discover that J-walking is a felony in Italy, but until then, I will continue my leisurely strolls past the Polizia…

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