Little House on the Prairie
That’s what I imagined, as Steve and I were in the Comune signing up for a Casa di Legno (little wooden house). Anyone who is now homeless must register their need for a temporary home. (If you live in L’Aquila, a town smashed less than a decade ago by an earthquake, ‘temporary’ is a little laughable as people are still not back in their houses – doesn’t give anyone now much confidence at all, to be honest).
But, I am trying to be positive.
Hanging baskets full of geraniums swinging in the gentle breeze, me calling across to my neighbours and sweeping the porch with my hound lying in the spring sunshine. This could be OK. We could manage this for a few months, until our real house was ready. In the Casa di Legno by mid-spring and out again before the next harsh winter. Just another life challenge.
As I keep saying, this area has been hit by a long-running natural disaster and I wanted to be accepting, thankful for help. Especially as our situation is simply nowhere near as bad as many, many others.
Sometimes we are called gli sfollati (the displaced) and sometimes i terremotati (literally, the ‘earthquaked’). Way back after the first giant strike last August, the State made us a promise. We would all get temporary homes and several hundred houses would be ready for before the winter, before Christmas. One of quite a few empty promises.
So, while Steve was in another office discussing with an official about when we might expect to be able to even begin planning the work on home, I embarked on a Kafka-like conversation with a council woman about these temporary homes. I was told that ‘the list’ for applications for a home would close that very afternoon. Then the Comune would count how many people were on it. Then they would tell the government in Rome. Then the government would decide how many houses to order. Then they would decide where, in each area, these houses would be positioned … and on and on it went. At that rate Steve and I would need a place in a Casa di Riposo (Old People’s Home) before we needed a Casa di Legno.
I was dumbstruck, angry. ‘What do you mean you are waiting to count the total … you already know that there are 900 (NINE HUNDRED) homeless people in Sarnano alone (total population 3,500). The first of the four behemoth quakes struck FIVE months ago – what’s to bloody count? The region has thousands and thousands and thousands of homeless people – why on earth didn’t you START ordering them back then? Why isn’t there are a sort of ‘standing army of houses’ at the ready – earthquakes are not exactly infrequent here. The 45,000 we’ve had since August is unheard of but ….’
The woman interrupted me. To tell me I would get a house. I would most probably get it this coming October/November (seven or eight months away). Oh, and the house might not actually be a house – within the strict and commonly understood definition. It would probably be a container. A container. Do I look like a tin of beans?
My jaw went slack and my temper rose. I felt a rage rising. For me, yes, but more for those people with kids, or old and sick parents who are – as I write – stuck in hotels and hostels, having been shunted off to the coast, huge distances away from where they belong, in the mountains. Away from their work. Away from friends. A 12-year old with reading difficulties would have made a better fist of the post-earthquake planning than the people running the show now.
My politics live quite some distance to the left of centre and make no mistake, I am no fan of Benito Mussolini, but about 80 years ago he managed to build an entire city, Sabaudia (south of Rome) out of mosquito-infested swampy marshland. No mean feat at all. And he did this is 253 days. Start to finish. Our current lot can’t manage a few pop-up ramshackle hamlets in half that time.
I then suggested to the council woman that the State might be taking advantage of the fact that we are all so exhausted, so distressed, so lacking in certainty, that for the most part people simply do not have the energy left to stand up and make a fuss, to protest.
Steve walked into the room and could see the situation would most likely end badly. He coaxed me out of the woman’s office, no doubt feeling he had narrowly averted my arrest on a fairly serious Public Order charge.
So, I went in search of a Container Village. I wanted to get an idea of what might lie ahead.
This blog shows you what I found.
I drove for half an hour to a town called Tolentino. It’s like Sarnano but much bigger. I used to teach English there so I know it well. It suffered a lot of damage.
I got there just after dawn on a Saturday morning.
In Italy kids go to school on Saturdays so I had thought I’d find a lot of parents packing their children off, checking rucksacks and zipping up coats. I also thought I’d find a lot of people getting ready to go to work … mostly here, the working day for everyone starts at around 8.00 am.
It was cold and it was gloomy. Still, I can’t help but think that even if the sun had shone it would never have looked or felt good, this unfriendly collection of gray containers. Bleak.
I pushed open the institutional fire-door and the first thing I saw was this,
I wasn’t getting a warm, fuzzy feeling about this place.
There were lots of signs admonishing residents about pretty much everything.
A smiling woman in a Protezione Civile uniform approached me. I asked her if I could wander around, take photographs and chat to anyone who was willing. She was charming and told me to come and sit in the office, while she phoned her boss to get permission. He wasn’t answering. Probably wasn’t even out of bed. I waited a bit with her, while she explained that the Protezione Civile managed the place – working, living and sleeping here for 5 days rotas.
The keys struck something within me. It can never feel like a home if a total stranger has access to your – putative – front door. I understand why it is so, but I would not like it.
We sat for a while more but there was still no answer or a return call from the boss, for my permission to roam free. I went outside for a cigarette and met this man, on his way to work.
Not difficult to understand why. When I went back inside I managed to get one or two pictures without being seen, careful not to show faces – or at least not too clearly. This was what it looked like, one corridor just like the next.
There were a lot of people shuffling around in their pyjamas and slippers. I didn’t take pictures of them simply because it would have been rude. These people have scant privacy as it is. I had not realised that they all – the 250 of them – share toilets and bathrooms. For some reason I had thought each ‘home’ would have its own.
I went back to the Office to see if I had got my permission yet – I especially wanted to get pictures of the interiors of the rooms. As we waited, I was shown a map of the camp.
There are no cooking facilities in the rooms, and here the woman was pointing out the 3 long canteens where meals are provided. Everything is free: food, loo roll, soap … everything.
She said that this particular camp had a preponderance of non-Italians living there. This was because the foreigners in Tolentino tended to rent low quality housing which was more likely to be damaged in an earthquake, plus they mostly had jobs on or near the industrial estate alongside which the camp was built. This ethnic imbalance, she said, led to tension.
Her two colleagues then turned up and the four of us went outside. It was stifling hot inside and cold outside. Lose lose.
They briefly showed me around the exterior
Each one of these ‘modules’ represents a home.
There is a bed for each person, a small table with chairs and a wardrobe. There are two sizes: small for families of up to three people and slightly less small for larger families. If you want to watch TV you have to go to a communal recreation room.
My permission to take pictures and talk to people never materialised. I could feel there was not going to be much more to see, in any event, so I said my goodbyes and left.
It was grim. Safe and clean but grim. No privacy. Thin walls. Bereft of spirit or hope. I once filmed in a large London prison and it had more warmth and sense of community than this place. I am not being flippant.
The thing I found absolutely intolerable was unexpected.
The place is earthquake-proof and to achieve this, the walls, floors and ceilings have to move – ever so slightly – but they do move. So a footfall, a door closing, a small child running makes a noise which is exactly the same as when an earthquake draws in its deep breath, and prepares to unleash its worst. The woman officer kept laughing as I stood up, frozen with alarm, about every 3 minutes. My neck was tight and my hands were clenched. I must have looked like some manic cockatoo, head tilted, eyes wide open trying to assess the danger. I could not have lived with that. It would have made me ill.
For Italians – whose language sees no distinction between the word for ‘home’ and the word for ‘house’ – a place like this Container Village is a misery.