Italian journalism is like a secret Club – it’s hard to get into, your initiation period is long and foreigners usually fall at the first hurdle. Once you are in, membership is for life, renewable by a daily subscription to your chosen newspaper. But for the news novice, there is failure and humiliation lurking at every stage of your membership application. The good news is, you are not alone.
The first obstacle is the labyrinth of affiliations. You are what you read. Forza Italia rules Il Giornale; center-left La Repubblica jostles in the ranks with Il Corriere della Sera and pink means sport not communism or finance. Thus, with due attention to both provenance and financing, a centre-right Juventino would only be seen dead under a copy of ‘Tutto Sport’. Your first step as a subscriber is to frisk your political conscience and align any hidden leanings or stock assets with the editorial bias of choice. You must remember that an unwise purchase is like wearing an Arsenal scarf in Houston on a Saturday afternoon: a red rag to a bull.
Having settled yourself with political complacency in the ante-chamber of the Club, you are ready for the next challenge: the headlines. One glance and you realise you left the password of the day on the dresser along with the will to live. Acronyms abound: UIL, CDL, A.N. other. bravely you press on only to come slap up against the wall of the journalist’s personality. Far from being embedded, he is wearing a feather in his hat and is in vaselined close-up going for a Pulizter and you are only on the first paragraph. This is nothing. Soon he will begin speaking in tongues: references to daisies and donkeys slide across your eyes like glaucoma. He wears his press credentials like a mason his leather apron. Anxiously you realize that column space is finite and that you are heading for the coitus interruptus of ‘continued on page 12, column 3’.
It is time for your physical: a brief aerobics session with the broadsheet in a breeze, TV guide plastered to your face before you half-nelson it to page 12. It is now you get an insight into why all the other foreigners around you are wielding airport fiction.
Page 12 and references are being made to club minutes and in-jokes of 20 years ago, but you really had to have been there. Since you weren’t, you are reduced to scanning for witnesses to your wallflower status. How will you ever catch up or on? There are no summaries, no explanations of terms, people, parties or nicknames. Like a mean algebra teacher, the paper reproaches you for not paying attention and mitigating circumstances like ‘I wasn’t born then’ or ‘I only just moved here’ carry the same weight as the dog ate my homework.
From now on, conscious of the myriad ways this club has for excluding undesirables and with self esteem at ocean-floor level, you have a choice. Give up and resign yourself to evenings of smiling stiffness while your Italian friends chew the political fat, or gird up your loins and counterattack. When in Rome. after all. There must have been a moment in each of these local lives when they took up a paper for the first time and were Baffled of Bologna. You can imitate the learning curve: watch the news (weather, sick grannies, holiday traffic), learn the jingo, make a mental dictionary of terms and may be, over the course of many years you too might reach a rubicon of understanding.
Is it worth it? I honestly couldn’t tell you. After 18 years of initiation I have not yet passed Go or collected my 200 euros. But I am getting there. I now know my Freedoms (‘House of’ and ‘Daisy-democracy is’), the difference between CGIL and CSIL and, on a clear day, my RC from my elbow.
PAPER TRAIL Victoria Mabbs
April 2nd 2005