To smell a rat-the sense that something is wrong in a given situation. The arousal of suspicion with a particular person or turn of events.
For time immemorial Rats have brought out the worst of our human fears. They have frequently been associated with dirt, grime, and the un-clean and are creatures to be feared through the perception that they are vicious, parasitic animals that steal food and spread disease. Thus to see a Rat on the streets of London has always brought a sense of fear, disgust and trepidation. To see or hear rats in your home the feeling is tenfold, eliciting the sensation of being invaded by invisible pests. An unwanted intrusion from these ‘hounds of midnight’ intent on your cereal, rice and “pop-tarts” can be enough for anyone to up sticks and move out. To smell a rat, though, now that is different.
This idiom evokes suspicion. Something is clearly not right: you smell a rat. You are so close to your feelings of doubt and suspicion that you can actually smell it. This does not mean that you have to get ‘up close and personal’ with our furry, four-footed friend. Most Italians, therefore, find this a rather strange expression, not to mention your average Neapolitan…”ma perche isse vule addurà o’ zoccola“, or why does he want to smell a rat?!! As in the case with all of the most explicit of idioms they regularly evoke the senses and thus even a smell can be manifest in real physicality: in this case the rat, or as the dreaded black rat is known, Rattus Rattus.
These dark associations we have with Rats ultimately derive from that bleak chapter in European history, the Black death or Bubonic plague. This 14th century pandemic saw a human ‘cull’ of almost 60% of the European population, a total that would have made most modern English foxes rub their hands with glee and scream “retribution”! The plague itself was not actually inherent to the rats themselves, more the fleas they carried aboard their backs as they journeyed from China along the Silk road to enter Medieval Europe via the Crimea . A similar, although much smaller, outbreak occurred in 17th century London which was only fully wiped out by the famous fire of 1666. Rats have long since lingered in the memory as creatures to be feared and also avoided. In fact in 19th century London the disdain for these furry scavengers saw Queen Victoria appoint Jack Black the official Royal Rat-catcher due to his skill and trade throughout the city’s grimy streets [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Black_(rat_catcher) ].
Imagine my unease then upon hearing the mother-in-law enter the house after a days shopping with the words “Hanno vist’ le zoccole cosi grande comm coniglie!“, or a literal translation “Rats as big as rabbits”. She was referring, of course, to a conversation she had overheard on the bus while journeying home. A rat, or as it is called in Neapolitan “o’ zoccola“, had been seen on a rubbish pile on a street corner which was quite a large size, although whether it was actually as big as a rabbit is debatable! Yet in many ways such a description is not all that surprising.
Following on from the pizza power discussed in an earlier entry, it is apt here to point out that the Rubbish problem in Naples has still not been solved, but whether that has something to do with Gino Sorbillo not being elected Mayor I don’t know. It does have a lot to do with politics, however. Enter our rats again, stage left…..
The problems with rubbish or ‘Munezz’ as it is known in Neapolitan are now, unfortunately, old news. The problems or issues of waste or “munezz” in Campania go so profoundly deep into the political, cultural and social spheres that it merits a book or a full study of its own right. In fact, the film Gomorra based on the book by Roberto Saviano set out to do just that and as a result he has had to flee to the North of Italy to live under a false name with armed bodyguards to watch over him. The reasons for this severe response to the book are due to the fact that Saviano unfortunately chose to piss off arguably, exactly the wrong kinds of people anyone in Campania would want to piss off: the Camorra. The Camorra is the Neapolitan name for the organised crime clans which are usually referred to outside of Italy by the universal word “Mafia”.
In fact the word “Mafia” in an Italian context refers only to the equivalent in Sicily, but due to its glamorization in Hollywood films, such as The Godfather, it has been universally applied to any such criminal group. There is in fact a separate name for each of the regional groups in the Italian south. Campania has the Camorra, Sicily the Mafia, but less well-known outside Italy is the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria which is said to have become even more powerful than its Neapolitan and Sicilian counterparts during the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Then in Puglia is the Sacra corona unita a clan which is no less powerful and due to its geographic position is linked to the Albanian mafia.
The diverse activites of all these groups warrants its own study and so I wont delve too deeply into them here. Instead the focus is on the Camorra and Naples for they have played a large role in the waste problems which have struck the area. The book and subsequent film Gomorra show how these clans have systematically hidden large quantities of toxic waste from chemical plants under the fields and along the roadsides in rural areas of Campania. This has had disastrous effects on the argicultural produce and foodstuffs of the region, while simulataneously a highly lucrative business. The disposal of this toxic waste, coming from the Northern chemical companies, by the Camorra is by definition illegal and, since it started sometime in the 1970’s, has resulted in an area that has come to be called the “triangolo della morte” or “triangle of death” between the hinterland areas of Nola, Acerra and Marigliano. The toxic waste has been linked with an increase in cancer cases in the triangolo della morte and there have been many health scares, especially those connected to the Buffalo Mozzarella of Campania, as the Buffalo feed on the grass which in some places overlies the secret stashes of toxic waste.
These activities have a further illegal component and one of implicit collaboration. The film Gomorra shows quite clearly that the lorries bringing this material into the rural areas are driven by immigrants, who are in need of some quick cash. The implicit suggestion that these are also illegal immigrants allows the disposal of the material to go further undetected. The risk of going to the police to denounce these activites is likely to met with deportation. Why? Because the police are also in on the game. Not only the police but the influnece of greed and money and the ability to cover-up illegal activities goes way further up the food chain. Enter the Bustarella….
The Bustarella is what we call in English as a ‘backhander’ and this small, or large, brown envelope can be universally understood. It is the badge or sema for corruption. This has been placed into the hands or onto the desks of Judges, Lawyers, Police, Detectives, Politicians and any other figure who can grease the wheels of progress and turn a blind-eye to shady dealings in the region. Although not directly implicated in any activity so far, it would be extremely unsuprising if these envelopes had not been found on the desk of certain members of the current goverment. (For “Eureka” here we read instead “Bunga, Bunga“).
It is no wonder then why Saviano is now under a witness protection program. He has brought into the public eye the layers of corruption in regional and local politics. Sketching the problems in brief, from 1994 serious problems started to emerge with waste management in the region of Campania. These issues had long been brewing under the surface for many years, like a sleeping Vesuvius, but in late 2007 things that once simmered finally came to a boil. The companies responsible for collecting the rubbish in the Comune di Napoli refused to continue due to the landfill sites being in a state of literal overflow. This led to one of the sites being closed by the then government. Unfortunately, this occurred during the christmas period and the munezz that accumulated during this time was of immense proportions. With sporadic and fragmented rubbish collections the change of government in 2008 saw the new Premio Romano Prodi attempt a reform. He appointed an ex-police chief as commisioner for waste disposal and promised new landfill sites in peripheral areas of the city.
This initial enthusiasm and potential waned, however, firstly as his plans for new landfill sites were met with mass demonstrations from the communities of these outlying areas, and secondly when Prodi’s left-centre coalition failed and he was replaced by an ascendant (again) Silvio Burlesconi. He posited himself as a kind of “Messiah della Munezz” and promised to resolve the crisis. To give him his due he did clear up the matter within a few months, even though he too was met by large demonstrations. By sending the munezz to Hamburg, or rather by paying the German goverment to dispose of the Campanian rubbish Burlesconi had by September 2008 been able to declare that “The streets are clean again” and the problem appeared solved. At least it did to the outside world….
Word on the street instead held that this problem had been Silvio’s doing from the start. Talking to many Neapolitans, apparently Dear Silvio had long held the ability to solve this issue due to the local and regional government at that time being under his own “Forza Italia” party. But having been displaced by Prodi he was reluctant to assist a socialist oriented government and one could argue deliberately ignored the calls for assistance. This enabled him to pass on the political hot potatoe to Sig. Prodi and his public ineptitude here was one of the factors which allowed Silvio to regain office. A coincidence then that Silvio was able to clear up swiftly what was for Prodi an insurmountable task, or shall we put it down to skill?
Regardless of the wagging of fingers this prompts we also have the extra layer that both Prodi and Burlesconi faced demonstrations by the local communities who had been earmarked as new landfill sites. But word on the street offers an alternate take on this too. Most Neapolitans feel that this was not a result of locals grouping together to express concern of an open-landfill site near their homes. These landfill sites would have created jobs for an already under-employed southern workforce who regularly lament the lack of opportunities in the South. No instead, the Neapolitan on the street will tell you that these riots, demonstrations and clashes with the police had been organised by the Camorra. Why? Because they didnt want the authorities to discover the dumps of toxic waste that they themselves had buried under the proposed landfill sites themselves some years before!
Linked to this there is an element of collusion which must be traced back to some unplaceable bustarella on a desk, namely the fact that toxic waste has also been found within public landfill sites! How did they get there? I think even the rats have noticed the smell at this point.
The problems have literally continued every year since 2007 with each year noted for mountains and a distinct lack of rubbish at different periods. There have been instances when the army has also been sent in to remove the rubbish due to the local services refusing to oblige. Surely the army wouldve been better served to remove Silvio, the Camorra and other such “Human munezz” but unfortunately, again a bustarella of sizeable proportions would be needed for that problem. Even Barack Obama and Bob the Builder would find it hard to answer their “Can we do/fix it?” question here…..
With the change of local government there were again clear problems again in 2010 and in October of the same year Silvio Berlusconi decreed he would clear the rubbish off the streets within three days: http://www.libero-news.it/news/519750/Berlusconi-Rifiuti-a-Napoli-spariranno-in-3-giorni.html Everyone smelt a rat at that point. The reason was due to the local and regional goverment now being of the left and obviously Silvio didnt want it to seem as though they were able to solve any political task and so had let the problem stagnate until it was suitable for him “the Messiah of the Munezz” to intervene and take all the credit.
Traditionally the main way to clear rubbish off the streets was the almost-ritual burning of the vast mountains of ‘munezz’ every New Years Eve or “Capo d’anno”, when the fireworks (for which Naples is equally infamous), especially the notorious ‘Bombe Maradona’ (or bombs of Maradona) are aimed at the mountains of rubbish with the intent to burn them down. Edward Woodward would have felt much trepidation walking the streets looking for Rowan on such a day.
The current stage is that we have a change of Mayor (or Sindaco). De Magistris as he is called is of the IDV party (Italia Della Valore), and as a result is neither of the right or the left. The streets are currently clear and it remains to be seen whether this will be the case for the rest of the year. We awaited christmas with baited breath. The streets were far from clear earlier this year as the images above show and it only takes one form of disagreement between various forms of government for the whole thing to stagnate again.
So most of the fingers are thus wagged at the Camorra, Burlesconi and the Northern factories who have contrived to illegally dispose of toxic waste and block political process to remove the public waste from the streets. But there is another layer to this. This time the rats are a little closer to home….
The role of Neapolitans in this problem cannot be discounted, their general lack of pride in their city and in its continued upkeep and maintenance is manifest in the vast mountains of rubbish that accumulate on every street each time the refuse problem stagnates higher up the political sphere. This adds to what is already a serious problem. But a lack of respect for their city and the very essence of being Neapolitan is a contradiction in terms: Neapolitans are renowned for being proud to be Neapolitan. There is a chain shops in Naples called “Napoli-Mania” (see link) [ http://www.napolimania.com/ ] which on first sight may appear to be merely for tourists. It sells a myriad of paraphernalia on aspects of Neapolitan culture of which the below is an example.
The printed image is a t-shirt design which shows a google search page. We have noted before the divisive cultural problems between the North and South of Italy, which from the North, the “Settentrionalisti” or Northerners are prone to exhibit in racist overtones. The resulting reply from the South, however, is often tongue-in-cheek, a timed response gauged to meet the Northern political discourse with an indifferent Southern shrug. Thus our google page shows a search for Padania, the fabricated, non-existent Nation state comprising just the Northern regions which a certain politician, Umberto Bossi has proposed to break away from the South and leave it too its own devices. This is the policy maintained by the Lega Nord Bossi’s party which is akin to Nick Griffin and the BNP in the UK and their similar distasteful policies, although arguably of a less provincial air.
The google search engine thus suggests the search may have been an error or “ha sbagliato”. It says “Forse cercavi: ‘Nebbia’ ” or fog which is one of the southern stereotypes of the Northern climate, real and also political. The two website entries it suggests both poke fun at the “Leghisti” or those Northerners who favour the Lega Nord’s policies. One of these is a fake Wikipedia page which suggests (possibly on the basis of scientific fact?) that this Northern fog/Nebbia is a meteorological phenomenon that causes “gravi disturbi cerebrali” or serious brain disorders, the other page cheekily suggests that these same Northerners have recently bought 10,000 anti-fog glasses from Neapolitan vendors, a deal sealed ‘by the nose of a senators son’….[Incidentally, the t-shirt in question is available from the website for €15]. Neapolitans are thus very proud to be Neapolitan, proud to display that regional identity and also proud to point out the difference between the North and South.
So are they also proud of their Munezz’? The irony is that while many Neapolitans dump their rubbish on these piles around the city and its environs the general attitude is one of disgust towards the situation. While on a bus returning home recently we passed a mountain of rubbish which exuded the distinct stench of rotting seafood, probably from the restaurant next door. Everyone held their noses. The heat at this time of year demands the windows are open on buses all day to avoid the stifling and suffocating air. One guy on bus was still heard to pipe up: “Ma che puzza….che vergogna questa città!” or ‘What a stink…this city is an embarrassment’. He was also a local, a Neapolitan as his accent gave him away. But this disgust has yet to manifest itself into action. Well save a few areas of the city anyway.
In Fuorigrotta, the area of Napoli close to the Stadio San Paolo (the home of football in Campania), a local group got together and with much initiative cleared up the piccoli giardini outside their palazzi. This had been the home to many immigrants from Africa and Eastern Europe sleeping rough amongst the Rhododendron bushes and unfortunately many of their activities had been of an unhygienic nature. The locals cleaned up their refuse which comprised large numbers of beer bottles, condoms and toilet waste and then persuaded the immigrants to avoid these activities in future. They trimmed the plants back so that any people squatting in the bushes would be seen and for the time being their gesture has been successful.
But the word Rat in Neapolitan also has another significance. Zoccola means prostitute, and it is also used in Naples as a swearword in a generally loose fashion, but the implication is that the particular female it is usually aimed at is a lady of loose morals. In Napoli Zoccle are unfortunately also another lucrative area of the business
In the film Taxi driver the main character Travis Bickle talks about a rain coming to clean up the streets: “All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” Unfortunately, there is a large problem of this nature in and around particular areas of the city, with the main station and its adjacent Piazza Garibaldi full of “Zoccole” of an evening. Travis would have had a field day here and it does resemble the situation which faced London’s Kings Cross area in the 1980’s. A similar clean-up is needed for Napoli for the area of Piazza Garibaldi as this is the area most tourists face when entering the city. But first the hold needs to be broken of these criminal clans on the various quarters of the city and its economic infrastructure, only then will these “dirty rats”, the camoristi and Berlusconi, who themselves are the Rattus Rattus of plague-bearing potential, the real zoccole and munezz of the city…only then will they be removed and the city returned to its once beautiful state. “Che Vergogna” our friend on the bus will undoubtedly repeat for these rats are not only as big as rabbits but they reproduce like them too….