THE IRON YEARS

It was one of those hot and humid mornings so typical of our Summer. With the high school exams finally behind me and a long vacation beckoning before starting college in the Autumn, I had already decamped to my parents’ country house to escape the unbearable city heat. That morning I decided to accompany my mother into town, to run some last-minute errands before my departure for London. We left the country early to make the walk around town easier, so we wouldn’t shed pounds of sweat – air conditioning hadn’t really reached our shores yet.

I remember stepping into our 6th floor flat, where the furniture was covered in white sheets and the rugs were rolled up and stashed away, even the curtains had been taken down and all the shutters were meticulously closed –  the eerie atmosphere of uninhabited homes  lingered despite our presence. The loud noise intruded unexpected, akin to thunder, but upon inspection, the sky was clear. The windows rattled but nothing else shook – no, it wasn’t an earthquake.

A few minutes later the sleepiness of that August morning was shattered by sirens –  not being the age of readily available information yet, we knew something had happened but didn’t find out what until we climbed back in our car and turned the radio on: a bomb had exploded at the train station in Bologna, at a time when people where busy coming and going from their Summer vacations. It was August 2, 1980 – 10.25 am as the permanently stuck clock reminds everyone passing through the station. 85 people died and 200 were wounded.There weren’t enough ambulances to transport the wounded who were bundled up on the plentiful buses outside. Local business owners, taxi drivers, hotel workers across the street all rushed to help pull people out of the rubble. Hospital wings had to be quickly reopened after having closed for the customary August lull.

People my age who grew up in Italy in the ’70s and ’80’s were no strangers to terrorism – those years came to be known  as the “iron years”. The public high school I attended, like every other public school, was heavily politicized – professors made no mystery of which side they were on, strikes on both the part of the student body and faculty were not uncommon. Neither was it uncommon to walk home and be engulfed in tear gas because a leftist faction was clashing with a rightist one. The Red Brigades killed unpunished, with their crown jewel the abduction of the Prime Minister and his subsequent homicide after 55 long days in captivity. Right wing factions were not shy either in having bombs explode in Brescia and Milan. I might have been a carefree teenager but I couldn’t have been immune to the daily news that was religiously watched every night, to the learning of the frequent  kidnappings of kids like me, most of them ending in death. But the train station massacre forced the entire country to stare terrorism in the face and to ask questions. Because it’s Italy, no good answers were ever forthcoming.

Only  recently  I was able to crystallize the reasons that pushed me to leave a country I love, where people are warm and fun and more enthusiastic about life than their Anglo-Saxon counterpart I chose to live among. And those reasons are still there, preventing me to embrace the idea of going back. The parties in power might have changed, their names might be different but the collusion between state and secret services at the time, between state and mafia always, the rampant corruption, the daily quid pro quo – nothing really has changed. The Italian word “Immobilismo” perfectly describes the status quo of one of the most beautiful places on earth.

I opted for a country that was seemingly at the other end of the spectrum, England – more predictable, more orderly, more sure of itself despite coming off the loss of an Empire, a deep economic crisis in the ’70’s and their Irish “problem”.  Somehow, I felt more at ease under that permanently grey slate of sky and later on, happier in the US, where everything seemed to be possible. Now, I am back where I started, steeped in a society trying to grapple a different kind of terrorism, on a bigger scale  but still built on the loss of random and innocent lives.

I saw the clock permanently stopped at 10:25 just last September, when I boarded the train to Venice. The wing of the station that was destroyed was rebuilt to resemble what was lost but for a slash of glass running through one wall  and the names of the dead forever inscribed on a plaque next to it. History is us. Our names will not be found in the books next to the events that defined our lifetimes but it’s clear to me now how our collective experience of those events contribute to their future understanding. Our choices, our shifts, our silence or our participation are all particles of what history is made of.  It’s a bigger collective burden we might have bargained for but maybe one of the reasons that might make our lives a little bit more worthwhile.

PS If you think I have gone completely mad, these reflections were brought upon an Italian movie I saw recently, “Romanzo Criminale”, that beautifully and painfully recounts those years.

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