Fascism Can Be as Glittery as the Tyrrhenian Sea
December, 2019
Dhvani Ramanujam, Blog Correspondent
Last summer I visited the Amalfi Coast in Italy, the last leg of my first real vacation to Europe. Time didn’t seem to move in Amalfi. I did nothing but gorge myself on pizza and pasta, and roast in the sun on a different beach each afternoon. I turned five shades darker in the span of five days. I ate pistachio gelato until I was sick. I learned there is nothing better than the luxury of swimming in gloriously warm water without worrying about anything else to do. I would swim out very far from the shore, farther than almost anyone else except for old Italian men whose bodies were built for the sea. Once I would get far enough, I would float on my back and look up at the painted houses, a kaleidoscope of colours perched so perfectly on the cliffside that they didn’t seem real. On that trip I indulged in the pleasure of suspended time. As soon as I stepped foot back in Toronto, the fantasy that was Italy evaporated instantly, like a thin wisp of a dream. I returned to real-time, with schedules and deadlines, unflinching routine.
Italy is very attractive to travelers because it seems to offer everything, with its beaches and warm weather, its history, architecture, and food. Its atmosphere and its collection of sites coalesce into the perfect set of holiday Instagram posts. But the appeal of its facade makes it easier, I think, to hide unpleasant facts. Fascism is a plague that descends upon Western Europe once more (or perhaps it never really left). It has different strains, but it is a particularly ugly strain that infects Italy. I can’t—and won’t— pretend to be an expert on the intricacies of Italian politics or its complex social and political history. But I can’t pretend that what I read about and see in the news doesn’t frighten me, either. The rise of Matteo Salvini and anti-immigrant rhetoric matched by equally brutal policies; the announcement of Steve Bannon’s next alt-right passion project, the setting up of an academy near Rome to “defend” Western culture; the hollowness of international obligations laid bare as the government refuses boats filled with desperate migrants; the recycled imagery and reality of dead brown bodies washing up on the shores of the Mediterranean, time and time again.

It all paints a very ugly picture, but a picture that escapes the logic of the casual traveler’s presentation of events on social media. The touristic gaze is a sanitizing one: the violence of poverty, of xenophobia, recedes into the background, as do certain bodies; bodies relegated to the margins of the tourist’s photos, videos, and ultimate worldview. The tourist, though, can’t always ignore this ugliness, especially if one is a person of colour in a land simmering in racism. It seeps into interactions, into words that may be foreign but follow looks—stares— that are perfectly perceptible. Hostility is a universal language.

There were times I felt–whether we were walking around town, or down to the beach–that I was attracting attention that wasn’t friendly. But that was easy enough to ignore; dirty looks dissolve after all, in a second. Our hostel in Sorrento was almost exclusively white. There were maybe four or five people of colour staying there in total, myself included. But most of the staff, the cleaning and cooking staff, were Tamilian. I noticed my interactions with the staff shared a friendliness that was missing in their interactions with the rest of the white people staying there. The familiarity with which they spoke to me was both inviting and discomforting, for reasons I can’t quite explain.

Perhaps the discomfort came because though this was a small thing among other small things, it reminded me of the existence of the racial landscape. It was almost as though I thought that if I could observe this landscape politely from a distance, I could prevent myself from becoming entangled within it. After all, a vacation connotes escapism. I came to Amalfi to escape things like depression and loneliness, as if they were ghosts that could chase my existence only as far as the edge of the Atlantic. But I also came to indulge in fantasy. There in Italy against the most idyllic of backdrops, I could pretend to be rich and glamorous. What I didn’t realize—and what I should have, of course—is that no matter the extent to which I could construct and live out certain fantasies, I couldn’t indulge in the fantasy—and escapism—of whiteness.

A tense, almost-confrontation in the Tyrrehenian sea reminded me both of not only the color of my skin, but also of my political privileges. An afternoon one day at the beach in Positano: I swam out far again, ready to float once more when an old, sunburnt Italian man swam over to me. He had been staring in my direction for a while, but I had chosen to ignore it, until he suddenly appeared in front of me. Without so much as a hello, he said, “You’re from New Delhi.” It wasn’t a question but a statement (and rather unpleasant in tone.) I laughed nervously and said that I was from India originally, but not from New Delhi, to which he responded abruptly, “I knew that.” He then proceeded to ask me where I was from, and how long I was staying. The tone of his voice suggested that he wouldn’t have appreciated if I in fact, lived in Italy. I felt uncomfortable—maybe because this was all happening in the water, far from the shore—but I told him I was from Canada and that I was just on vacation. He nodded, and without another word, he swam away from me. I spent the rest of the afternoon uncomfortable and unnerved.

I don’t know why I thought I owed this man any answer, why I felt that I had to satisfy him. Our conversation had been fraught with tension that I find hard to explain. But when I spoke to him there was a promise of confrontation in the air that was only dispelled once I revealed my Canadian identity. It was as if I needed to reassure him I wasn’t like the Indian or South Asian workers living there, that my stay was only temporary. I thought back to the sweet young Tamil girl cleaning the rooms at the hostel. She was probably my age or even younger; I imagined her swimming in this water, encountering this man. How different the ‘conversation’ might have gone.

My citizenship was my escape from the conversation, and I felt relieved, and then ashamed, at the fact. I had the privilege to leave such confrontations and return to a prism of placid multiculturalism. If Italy was a place to escape to, I could also just as easily choose to escape its first signs of xenophobia with the right passport. There might be a bit of guilt, even discomfort at having the ability to easily leave. Liberal guilt of any kind though, can quickly resolve itself, disappearing comfortably into a glass of Limoncello at sunset. And what good is discomfort if it invites no further action, beyond a slightly troubling dinner party anecdote?

My citizenship was my escape from the conversation, and I felt relieved, and then ashamed[.]

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