Yesterday afternoon we were sitting in the waiting room at Terontola station. There was no traffic at our usual station on the Rome-Florence line, but the Prontotreno app was telling us that there was a train trundling towards Terontola along the Perugia-Florence line.
According to the electronic display in the station, however, the strike had put paid to all trains for hours; there were no announcements other than those telling travellers to abandon hope. Five minutes before the ghost train was due, those people who had been consulting their smartphones got up – half-bewildered, half-sheepish – and made their way to platform three.
New announcements began then, warning travellers to stand back because a through train was about to rush by. More bewilderment. Dead on time, and with warning announcements still droning on, the Florence train pulled in and we got on.
You have to wonder what was going through the mind(s) of the person (people) who had programmed the through-train message. Were they strikers, furious at their scab colleagues, hoping that they could lull rail users with a glint of hope lingering in their hearts into some kind of mass amnesia, to the point where they failed to notice that a train had stopped and was waiting for them to get on?
This wasn’t our first strike-inconvenience. In Soho last Wednesday evening, meeting friends for dinner, a text arrived from Ryanair telling us that our Friday morning red-eye back to Perugia had been cancelled. Damned Ryanair we thought, cancelling everything in a fit of pique when everyone knows that a general strike in Italy doesn’t really mean anything. We booked on a BA flight from London City to Florence instead (serendipitously a friend in the same straits and on the same plane offered to take us to Perugia in her hire car to retrieve our car from there). But on Thursday BA got serious too. That flight was cancelled and we were stuck in London, for 24 hours which we really needed to spend at home. Pazienza.
I wonder if these strikes are the death-throes of Italy’s unions, the last desperate gasp of organisations which held the country in a vice for decades but have seen their power ebbing away gradually, and now face an even greater degree of emasculation thanks to PM Matteo Renzi’s attempts to drag labour laws into – well, let’s say the 20th century.
Many of Italy’s woes stem from a self-interested, self-serving political class. But the unions’ intransigent position on their interpretation of workers’ ‘rights’, coupled with the ‘I’ll give you what you want if you turn a blind eye to the iniquities of what I’m doing’ relationship between them has perhaps been more damaging than either politicos or unions alone.
Of course workers should have rights, and dignity, and security and be protected, but when their representatives are more interested in taking dogmatic stands than in really looking at where labour and employment trends and the world in general are going – or indeed at what workers really want or need – then it all degenerates into a very nasty cloud cuckoo land: lots of big trees clearly visible but very little wood.
I’ve been re-reading North and South (Elizabeth Gaskell), a very early, very simplified version of labour/employer relations, blaming a failure of each side to envisage the sufferings of the other for an intransigence that ends up being fatal to both. And reading, too, about the point Ireland has now reached in its pulling-itself-up-by-its-bootstraps struggle. I wonder what Italians would think if it was announced, from one day to the next, that to get the country out of hock they would all be taking a 30% pay cut. There would be armed insurrection.
There’s a great sense of entitlement in this country which I would put down to the effects of Catholicism but that doesn’t wash, as Ireland has that too. So the obvious culprits are those other great manipulators of the hopes and fears of the masses: the unions. Who have, you could argue, lulled the nation into a kind of mass amnesia, its sense of reality corrupted by a presumption that if you stamp your feet loudly enough, you’ll get what you want even if in the long run it’s damaging to you. (Companies’ not being able to fire anyone, ever – something which Renzi is trying to change and which is being contested in these strikes – is a case in point, with capable people unable to find employment while incompetents occupy positions until they drop dead at their posts.)
Standing in the station waiting room railing at the desolate lack of trains on an electronic notice board rather than having your wits about you, remaining vigilant and not expecting the powers that be to help you any more than you can help yourself will never get you to your destination.
Our endless rain has slackened off. My one gardening triumph of the past month or so has been the replacement of the horrible green plastic greenhouse with a rather elegant aluminium and polycarbonate number. Other than that, the grass is a mass of rotting oak and elm leaves that desperately needs raking, and my garden beds still have their matted blanket of late-summer weeds waiting to be pulled out.
Now that I could get out without getting soaked and mud-bogged, I’m rushing – to finish part of a garden beyond lake Trasimeno, to write Christmas cards, to get half-built bookshelves in the living room completed, to arrange our Christmas party next weekend, to clear out bedrooms which have become storerooms before my Australian sister and family descend tomorrow for the holidays.
For these reasons and more, being stuck in the UK for 24 unscheduled hours was not at all what I wanted or needed. (The previous 48 hours were a kind of Christmas present to ourselves, with visits to the Late Rembrandt show – wonderful, though infuriatingly packed – at the National Gallery and the Turner – fascinating and engaging – at the Tate Britain to keep us culturally stimulated.)
And, arguably, dashing off to Florence in the middle of a train strike for no other reason than to spend a night in a spectacular hotel – the Ferragamo group’s Portrait – in a room eyeball-to-eyeball with the Ponte Vecchio was a bit of an indulgence. But you need the occasional indulgence, I reckon, however irresponsible it may be.