To Get to the Other Side

A journey through Europe and its anarchist movements

A Good Day (part 2)

Lunedi, 19 Marzo

Ca Favale was a little village in the mountains east of Genova. It was abandoned thirty years ago, and now going on five years a group of anarchists lived here, restoring the crumbling buildings of stacked stone. The village sat on about fifteen acres of land. There was a quartet of chickens, two beehives, dogs, a wriggling pile of newborn puppies, a hillside of olive trees, grapevines, a couple orange and lemon trees built into a microclimate on the south side of a stone wall, terraced gardens, and about eight residents; though the number climbs as high as twenty in the summer. Most of them are Italians and German-speaking Swiss in their twenties or fifties. One of the older people there had been in the struggle for decades. At the end of the ’70s, early ’80s, her partner was locked up for belonging to an armed anarchist group. He died in prison, when their son was four.

There were an indeterminate number of buildings in Ca Favale, with perhaps twenty rooms between them, though half of these were under renovation, and some even lacked roofs and floors. The architecture bespoke an organic collectivity, with a common kitchen, one compost toilet, many bedrooms, and buildings built very much into one another. The ambiguity between passageways, halls, and courtyards even tested the separation between inside and outside.

The people of Ca Favale were mostly involved with construction and renovation, building roofs and the like. My first full day we hauled thirty years worth of mud from the spring-fed pond that served as their reservoir, then rebuilt the little dam and reinstalled the pipes that carried water down the hill. Others were also expanding the gardens. This work took up most of their typical day. Afterwards they would gather for a hearty meal and long, involved conversations, emptying a two-gallon jug of wine in the course of the evening.

Here they countenanced no dichotomy between destroying capitalism and building a replacement. Though the work of the village kept them busy, they tried to stay involved in the struggles in the cities, and their idyllic situation was no doubt a summer haven for city activists. Several of them also translated anarchist books into Italian.

My second full day there, 20 Marzo, was a day for lying in bed with a book or a lover listening to the wind howl. Fortunately I had a book, Notes of a Native Son, another gift from a friend, but outside of the sleeping bag my hands got too cold to enjoy the arrangement. After having my fill of lying around I went out to turn soil for a new garden on a terrace below the houses, along with two others. The rain began to freeze and bounce off us in white balls, but this too felt good in a way, so we worked until it was too dark to see. I asked “What is the difference between work, labor, and play?” We laughed at the primitivists who said that agriculture was inherently alienated; that farming was necessarily work in the negative sense. We were enjoying ourselves there on the mountaintop terrace—the exertion, the assault of the cold wind, the sense of accomplishment, the anticipation of watching the growth of delicious vegetables. Then I got a blister and said: “if I turn one more shovel-full it will become labor,” so we stopped and went inside for supper.

At Ca Favale I felt they had really created libertarian communism. There was plenty of work to do, and some days it was exhausting, but you invented the curious tendency to do it willingly and happily. You could sit around all day if you wanted—if you were feeling sick or low it was encouraged—but before too long you felt moved to get up and participate in an act of creation. There was no separation between work and leisure, and the pace of activity, whether resting or working, was relaxed and self-guided. Certain days brought a burst of energy to finish some project, and those involved worked fast and hard, but the next day would happen to be a rainy day and we would do nothing but talk and cook or nap under warm blankets. There was no system of inducements, no rewards and punishments, and if you had a problem working with someone else you talked about it as a group, argued a little, laughed and resolved it. Or, I heard, personal dramas would grow and deepen, and maybe they would go away in time, or maybe somebody would leave. This wasn’t paradise. Some of the folks in the collective got sick of one another, and they often had to work hard to communicate well or find common ground. But it was great to see in practice how people need no wage or fear of punishment as long as they are living for themselves, not working for someone else.

Martedi, 21 Marzo was a glorious sunny day in the mountains. Three of us turned more soil, preparing gardens for planting, talking in capering Italiano or the knock-kneed singsong of Schwitz-Dutch. Later we split wood. Around noon I sat on sun-warmed slate and wrote a letter to L, the puppies napping around my feet or nibbling my toes. Only then did I realize it was the first day of spring. This would be a good year, I decided. I sensed there was some tribulation waiting in the wings; not an easy year, but a good one nonetheless.

rage and love, our strengths A postcard made by Italian anarchists in support of the prisoners.

rage and love, our strengths A postcard made by Italian anarchists in support of the prisoners.

That night we welcomed spring with religious abandon: seizing the ever present jug of wine I introduced the rip-roaring game, “The Way Things Used to Be.” All you need is wine in a jug (so you can drink it like the old-timers do, with one hand, propped up on your shoulder), a circle of friends to pass it around, and enough creativity or at least shamelessness so that everyone, when it’s their turn, can tell a story, beginning: “Ya wanna hear how things used to be?” Though a hallmark of Appalachian culture, the game translated well, the main change being that the irrepressible Italians found cause to argue with one another’s stories. And they really do use all those stereotypical hand gestures; even the Swiss said they started doing it too after a few months. I think Italians would die if you cut their hands off. Most people would, without proper medical attention.


Domenica, 25 Marzo

Yesterday I left Ca Favale, got to Torino by 3:00 in the afternoon, and found my way to El Paso Occupato, the squat recommended to me as far away as Athena. When I finally found some occupants, they said I could stay a few days, no problem, and showed me to the guest room, an attic-like chamber lined with homemade bunkbeds where the members of the bands were also sleeping that first night. Naturally there was a hardcore show about to happen—every Saturday night at El Paso, in fact, and on another night of the week a film showing, as announced in their attractive monthly program. So, I put up my bags and then dodged my awkwardness in the best way I know how, by offering to help clean, and was given the meditative task of sweeping the floor. The folks there were a middle-aged crowd, all older than me, and most of them were loosely classifiable as punks. They were reasonably friendly, though few of them spoke English, and none spoke it well, so I was relying largely on the basic Spanish cognates I could pick out.

El Paso was a 19-year-running squat, a big complex in the pleasantly shabby southern part of town, walls painted with graffiti and murals, and mounted with strange, weirdly painted junk, like the dislocated shell of a VW bug. The yard inside was filled with much more junk, some useful in a contingency, some apparently decorative. It was like a small Köpi. The show that night, featuring L’Abile and a couple other bands, caused me to switch immediately back to Greece time—going to sleep at 4 in the morning—from Ca Favale time, which is farmer time and also closer to Peter time. When I finally went to sleep, something about a room full of bunk beds and loud, masculine camaraderie caused the prison dreams to start again. It had been a couple years since I had dreamed I was back in jail, though in the first few months after my release they had been an almost nightly occurrence. At their worst the dreams simply featured a faceless authority who announced they had miscalculated, I had not yet finished my full sentence, and had to turn myself in to serve one more day.

Torino was the center of the revolutionary occupied factory movement after World War I and a hotbed of antifascist resistance in World War II. After the war its Fiat Mirafiori plant became a key point of struggle in the militant labor movement that gave birth to the Red Brigades and other clandestine communist and anarchist groups that tried to foment revolution in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. In recent years Torino had been reputed to have a strong anarchist movement. But I never got a feel for anything going on. The people I met seemed content to be living in a squat and organizing shows and occasional other events. Clearly my short time there and inability to understand Italian contributed to this weak picture. But the atmosphere was nothing like Greece.

I would meet other people from the region who considered the anarchist movement through much of Italy basically dead. The major cause was no mystery: starting around 2004, police around the country launched a series of raids and found cause to imprison dozens of anarchists. Nearly two hundred more were searched. That’s a benign term; it fooled me too until I read a firsthand account. So imagine for a moment the police breaking into your house and stealing your computer, your CDs, your address book, a great many books and other printed materials, and then imagine trying to get on with your life after that. The various police operations extended from Lecce, in the boot heel, to Genova. They targeted the eco-anarchist group Il Silvestre and for now have wiped out Italy’s Anarchist Black Cross. In one instance the state arrested the members of a radical newspaper because in their house they had a communiqué mailed to them for publication from an anarchist group connected to a letter-bombing campaign in 2003. By a creative application of the laws this made them members of the group. Other anarchists were placed under house arrest.

Torino was also mauled by the 2006 Olympics. The great games were used as always as an excuse for gentrification and repression. Half of Torino’s squats were evicted, especially those downtown. Poor people and people of color were forced out of the center, and millions of euros flooded the city to improve its image, subsidizing the conversion of housing and shops for working class people into expensive apartments, fashion boutiques, chain stores, and businesses catering to tourists and the elite. As far as I saw, the fashionable downtown accomplished that idiotic distinction it aimed for, making Torino “the Paris of Italy,” which I suppose makes Paris the Wal-Mart of France. Passion lives here proclaim the banners in expressive script along all the better avenues. Translating the language of advertising, we understand the banners are getting directly to the truth in the only way advertisements can: “Boredom shops here.” But sadly, much of the city really was beautiful—the renaissance buildings, the synagogue, the Parco del Valentino along the river Po, the avenue of claw-like plane trees gripping the air, Alps on the western horizon like monstrous shattered ice cubes.


Martedi, 27 Marzo

At the time, there was a major popular movement against the construction of the Treno Alta Velocita (TAV), a high velocity train line that would destroy a large chunk of the mountains and several villages around a valley near Torino and Genova. Basically the socialists were going ahead with a construction project they had originally backed, and then pretended to oppose while the neofascist Berlusconi was in charge. Now that they had ridden popular dissent back into power, they showed their true colors and lined up again behind the TAV. How lucky the politicians are that so many people suffer from amnesia. They are scam artists who need never invent new tricks, because the same one works again and again.

Le Heure de la Revolte

Fortunately, not everyone bowed to the ballot box. There was strong popular opposition to the TAV, and upwards of 50,000 people regularly gathered in the mountains to protest against it. Beyond protesting, they were occupying the site, sabotaging equipment, resisting attempts by the police to push them out, and making construction impossible. Everyone I met at Ca Favale and in Torino was talking about the protests. I could have stayed longer to participate more—I would have had to learn Italian—but that would have left me little time to go to Spain. Since Spanish would prove far more useful back in the States than Italian my choice was simple. I thought I would be going back to the US in another three months, and I also wanted to have some time to go back to Nederland to be with L.

So on Tuesday I hiked down to the on-ramp for the autostrada to Savona, held out my sign, and waited. Maybe 7,000 cars drove by, and not a single one stopped. Some people stared like it was novel, many people looked away, like it was uncomfortable. Some people smiled, like it was romantic, some people laughed like it was ridiculous. Some people squirmed, like it was frightening. A few gave the thumbs up, like it was appreciated, vicariously, and some wagged their fingers, like it was forbidden. All drove by in their climate-controlled bubbles, isolated on their way to work or leisure, consuming or producing, unable to enjoy any other way of relating to their world. I was amazed to learn again how many people are scared, self-defeating assholes. That’s all we’re meant to be in this world.

Well, ask and it shall be given. If not, take it. After four and a half hours of waiting fruitlessly in wind and sometimes rain, I gave up, shouldered my bags, walked to Lingotto station, and hopped a train. For shy people, hopping passenger trains can be more stressful than the prolonged misery of hitchhiking because you’re just waiting for the inevitable confrontation when you have to tell the controller that nope, you don’t have a ticket. The fear can drive you to hide in the bathroom or pretend, when they finally catch you, that you bought a ticket but somehow lost it. No troubles this time, though. Just two hours to Savona and another two, right along the Ligurian Sea, to Ventimiglia and the French border. An hour before midnight an Italian gent took me a few kilometers to a big truck stop at the autostrada entrance, but it was the time when all the truckers were boozing up and getting a few hours sleep before heading out at the buttcrack of dawn. The “all-night” restaurant wasn’t—it closed in the early a.m., so I had to stay out in the cold. I planted my gear at the exit of the parking lot, where all the truckers would have to drive by on their departure, and tried napping a little on a concrete curb against the wall where I wouldn’t get run over should I fall asleep. Soon I took to pacing to keep the blood flowing.

After eight and a half hours a French truckdriver stopped for me quite unexpectedly.