Archive for April 29th, 2007

National Values

April 29, 2007

It’s Sunday afternoon and until 5 minutes ago I was in bed trying hard to have a restoring afternoon sleep. I forced myself to ignore airplanes, motorcycles, tv sets and a few other background noises but as I was about to fall to the other side, the ice cream van positioned itself outside my window and blasted its signature carillon-from-hell track.
This put an end to my attempt to sleep and 5 minutes later here I am, with a cup of coffee, in front of the computer, typing the small chain of thoughts that the ice-cream-man initiated.

It was about 5 years ago that I spoke with an ice-cream-van-woman, it happened at the Italian Consulate here in London.
Visiting the Italian consulate is for me an enriching experience, it puts me in a place full of fellow Italians and all that I can appreciate that bonds us together is that we are all there to renew our passports.
It’s just people, some are funky, some are plain, some are wealthy, some are poor, some are ghastly, some are great. There at the consulate all their being Italians resolves in being in the same queue. That’s all, there are no other signs of national character can be spotted as a clue to a common identity.

In every country the Government and the media speak of national values and define this abstraction with some splendid examples of what it means to be ____________ (write here your national group). There’s always a battle to remember where soldiers were massacred but did so in good spirit, there’s some inventor of times past used to claim that all those with the same passport share his intelligence and there’s always some explorer that fulfills the role of the ambassador of our superior culture across the globe.

That day at the Italian consulate I met this ubiquitous character, the ice-cream-van-lady. Ice-creams, as you probably know, are big in Italy and when I moved to London I was surprised to see how, with these noisy, smelly and awfully decorated vans, they are also a big hit in this country. So, when proposing national values, alongside explorers and generals, please, let’s have also the ice-cream-lady/man.

This particular ice-cream-lady was a frail old woman, she sat next to me in the waiting room of the Consulate and started chatting. As Italian queues are traditionally unhurried I spent the next couple of hours listening to her.
After a few minutes I realised that she had probably already started to lose the grip on her marble as she was confiding secrets that one would only tell to a very close person that you can blindly trust.
A first feel of it came when she asked if I had any stolen goods to sell. “My husband has a junk-shop and knows some people that are always interested in helping young men in need of cash (wink)” she dropped at start of conversation.
Then she told me all about her life and it was detailed and fascinating.

Of particular interest was her ice-cream-van period and to explain the proper context of this enterprise of hers she said that “I could not get the licence for the van but then I cut a deal with the police, so they let me have the van as long as I told them everything I saw during my round”.
Since then everytime I see (or hear) the ice-cream-van I think of her. And of her trans-national values.