International Writers Magazine:
Denmark to Greece
In the last town,
this question prompted the formation of a small debating society amongst
the old men who rule the streets from their rusted chairs and eroded stoops.
My ears are overwhelmed by a flurry of Italian. "Back in 56
I drove that road every day
its 18 to Scalo."
Bicycles & Italian Politics on the Adriatic Coast
Thomas P. Coppock
During the summer
of 2006, my college friend, Mats, and I rode our bikes from Copenhagen
to Thessaloniki, Greece. We had plenty of adventures, but one night
on Italys Adriatic Coast, just south of the spur of the Italian
boot stands out
world grows dark as the lights of Manfredonia fade into memory.
The coastal road is flat and lined with swampy rushes. Somewhere
out here there is a campground, but were not sure how far.
"That was before the Lido Bridge. I have a nephew, worked on the
Flamingo. Its no more than 12 to Scalo
"Yeah, but that camping closed ten years ago. Theyre gonna
have to go all the way to Zapponeta
"What about that new place outside Lido? He has some spots out back."
"Youre gonna send em to stay with some cold, northern
might as well go sleep in the swamp. Ma dai."
This last comment comes from an old man who can only be described as cute.
Someone has carefully draped a cranberry sweater over his withered shoulders
and the toes of his leather shoes lightly kiss the cobblestones as his
childlike legs mark the passage of time for some internal clock. He is
the picture of serenity, a graceful passenger on the end of the mortal
ride, until an outburst like this provides a brief glimpse of the fiery
personality that must have characterized his youth. The sweater falls
from its perch and the legs cease their perpetual swinging. None of the
other debaters take any notice of this sudden change. It is over almost
as soon as it starts. The sweater returns to its impeccable repose and
the illusion of detachment returns to his body.
The content of his outburst, however, is not as surprising as its physical
manifestations. It is no secret that Southern Italians have little love
for their countrymen in the North. For a multitude of historical reasons,
industrialization was well under way in Italys northern cities by
the turn of the twentieth century, while much of southern Italy remained
in a quasi-feudal state until after the Second World War. This economic
disparity only further exacerbated the pre-existing cultural differences
between these two regions. Whereas, since Charlemagne first subdued the
Lombards in 774, Northern Italy has always been more closely tied to Northern
Europe through trade and culture, the South has historically been more
a part of the Mediterranean world. While Venice, Genoa and Pisa were building
great trading empires, the rulers of Naples, Sicily and even the Pope
in Rome stubbornly persisted in regarding the meager surpluses produced
by peasants on their vast estates as the only reliable source of wealth.
The North, which was, at least nominally, a part of the German Holy Roman
Empire could not escape the political intrigue of the rest of the continent.
The various city-states there were constantly in and out of alliances
with other European powers, invading and invaded. Savoy, particularly,
had a storied reputation for its role in French politics. Northern Italy
and Western Europe were so interconnected that when the English King Edward
III was defeated in his wars with France, it caused an economic disaster
in Florence, as he was unable to pay back the fortune he had borrowed
from that citys renowned bankers.
The South, however, remained largely a pawn and not a player in this political
and economic world. History witnessed a succession of invasions by the
Greeks, Arabs, Normans and Spanish who never gave their conquered populations
the opportunity to develop independently like their cousins in the North.
There was no justice system to protect the fruits of hard labor from grasping
landlords, so why work hard? In a world with no justice families need
to be close. Who else will protect you? Thus, the term "Italian Renaissance"
is misleading. It did not take place all over Italy; Italy didnt
exist. It took place in the city-states of Florence, Milan, Genoa, Siena
and Venice (to name a few) on the northern half of the Italian peninsula.
In the nineteenth century, when the French-speaking King of Piedmont decided
it was time to re-unite all of Italy, no one had the guts to tell him
that Italy was just a geographical term for a Southern European peninsula,
that even during the Roman Empire it hadnt had its own identity,
that the people had little in common, so he went ahead and did it. Then,
he ordered the creation of an Italian language, initiated a massive public
education campaign to teach it to all his subjects, and died under the
illusion that he was leaving his successors a marvelous new country, finally
content to be united once more.
As a result of this sudden conflation of peoples from vastly different
backgrounds, Northern Italians have come to regard people from the South
as backwards and lazy. Many Northerners feel burdened by what they see
as an economic system that heavily taxes wealth created in Northern Italy
and throws it away on the impossibly corrupt and Mafia-ridden South. In
fact, in recent years, this sense of Northern resentment has coalesced
into a separatist political party (Lega Nord) with considerable popular
support (Lega Nord received 10.1% of the popular vote in the 1996 general
Southern Italians, in turn, often view Northerners as cold, greedy snobs
who neglect the more important things in life, like family and hospitality
in their headlong pursuit of wealth. Thus, it comes as no surprise that
our debating society members do not want us patronizing the business of
some transplant from the North.
Realizing that these old men do not, and possibly never have, shared our
sense of urgency, we thank them and briefly lean our bikes to the side
so we can lift our stiff legs over the bar. They wont let us get
away so easily. We are a blessing, a miracle, angels sent by the Lord
to save them from monotony. Its not every day that a new topic of
conversation rides up in orange and blue spandex. In the end theyll
say were crazy, but theres always that seed of doubt. There
must be something that possesses those boys to do that to themselves.
And that doubt will keep them returning to the subject and provide a welcome
distraction from the usual fare of politics, football and the exploits
of their youth. So now, they try to keep us longer, to give them more
meat to chew on, turn over and spit out. "Where are you from?"
"Stati Uniti," I reply, making a conscious effort to over-pronounce
"You came here from the United States?" they say, looking incredulously
at our loaded bicycles.
"Well, we flew to Denmark; we couldnt ride across the ocean
I explain haltingly, a grin on my face.
"Now theyve really done everything. The Americans have bicycles
that can fly. Dio mio." exclaims one man for whom, given his wing-like
tufts of ear hair, flight also seems like a possibility.
"Its true," says another "I saw them build a bridge
over the Po in two days during the war. Flying bicycles are nothing."
"What, were you building bridges as a prisoner, you fascist dog?"
"Dont be bitter, Carlo. Communism was a nice dream, but thats
all it was. It takes capitalists to build flying bicycles."
At this point, the conversation devolves into an indistinguishable storm
of voices. The usual battle lines are drawn as each man yells louder in
an attempt to reiterate his familiar political arguments in such a way
that the others will finally see the light and admit their errors. Perhaps
one of these old men does have the answer to the worlds problems,
but no one will ever hear it. Infuriated by the lies of the stronzo across
from him, the man with the sweater starts to rise from his chair, but
is stopped as the right sleeve of his sweater begins to slip from one
shoulder. He is unable to both keep it from falling and brace himself
with the armrest at the same time and after a few tries he gives up entirely
and resigns himself to a glare that would scare his granddaughter back
into the womb.
Taking advantage of the confusion, we give each other a look and a nod
and coast away down the cobblestones. As the din fades away, we hear one
final voice ask with obvious confusion, "Why do they bother taking
the roads if they can fly?"
Little do they know that in the dark we are flying. All we can see are
the stars above and a deep blackness that marks the road ahead. A slight
breeze coming off the sea provides some lift, but otherwise our flight
is smooth. Occasionally there are lights off to our left. Every light
in the distance is this legendary campground until it becomes a cement
factory or a beach bar. We know better than to hope at this point. Weve
been to a lot of campgrounds that didnt exist, plus its so
dark we may be on the wrong road entirely. But for some reason we keep
going. I can hear the whirring of Mats pedals ahead of me, guiding
me, reassuring me. Then theres the cla-dunk-dunk-dunk of a patch
of rough pavement, but its still not enough time to react and my
front tire is in one of those cracks that you always regard with detached
fear during the day. I cant turn the handlebars so theres
nothing to do but wait for it to end. Then Im back on pavement,
riding high. My throat gives out a little yee-hah that I dont remember
ordering. This is crazy, I think. This is how people die and become statistics.
I dont want to be one of those people who theyll always talk
about with phrases like "one bad decision" or "should have
"Hey Mats, we could always just camp out in these rushes. We go in
a few yards and know onell know were there
I mean, this
campground could be anywhere and its already ten, so itll
be closed anyways."
"What? I cant hear you"
Now were going over a bridge. It looks like one of those salty little
inlets that cant tell if its sea or river. Somehow I dont
summon up the effort to voice my fears again. The road is not that hard
to follow. Its darker than everything else, so as long as we follow
the darkest area ahead well be fine. Plus, why worry about dying
if youre afraid of living? Of course we could always dig our headlamps
out of our bags, but something is right here. Were both caught up
in this bond of inertia and we cant stop what were doing.
Theres an irresistible excitement to be living in a world without
measure. The breeze smells so much sweeter in the dark and theres
no resistance. Its like pedaling down a steep hill.
I feel my front tire start to wobble and the telltale sound of tires on
the sand, but I manage to hit the brake and unclip my left foot in time
to come to a standing stop. The sound of Mats wheels fade away and
I call out once. Nothing. No choice now. Im back on the road moving
again, fresh from the fear of my recent close call, but determined to
catch up, determined not to break the magic. Hes stopped up ahead.
I can see the faint reflection from his panniers.
Around the next curve, theres another light. The air is getting
cooler now and the cold sweat on my jersey makes me shiver.
"Theres a light." I say the obvious just to sound optimistic.
Optimism is the most valuable currency on this trip and the longer you
can feign it the better.
As we approach, a sign comes in to view. "Camping Johnny" it
"Unfricking-believable" I mutter with a lot less relief than
We have to walk our bikes down the gravel drive. At the gate a man is
sitting inside the reception office as if waiting for us.
"What the hell, dude? Ive never seen one open past eight oclock"
I cant believe our luck and as I walk in the office door, Im
"Are you still open?" Now Im giggling uncontrollably.
"Documenti?" the man cant help smiling a little too.
"Mats, Im gonna need your passport."
But were both laughing because were stupid and were
still alive and life is great and were the luckiest guys on the
planet and were the only ones who know it.
© Thomas P. Coppock Aug 2007
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