Ezra’s house

Guilford College students in Italy
We passed out olive branches for folks to take home with them.

We hosted a group of students from Guilford College at the farm last month. The group is studying a semester abroad in Northern Italy, in the castle Ezra Pound once lived in.  Pound was an American ex-pat poet and critic of US capitalism who supported Italy’s fascist regime during WWII. His Cantos, some written while in US captivity during the occupation of Italy at the end of the war, still inspire a new generation of neofascists today. I don’t think the students knew much about the history of their host family or even the war as it played out in Italy (neither did I before moving here), but their visit put him squarely in my mind.

We connected with the students because an old friend from when I lived in the anarchist community in Greensboro served as the faculty representative this year for the program. It was amazing to see Mark again after all these years, and as we showed the group around we talked a little about the history of our farm. After lunch we were joined by a group of our friends who live in La Casa della Pace (the House of Peace), a project of Italian former “peace corps” volunteers who live together in intentional community to continue the work they did building bridges abroad at home.  Their project is similar in many ways to what we hope the farm becomes, a inspiration toward our future.  One aspect of La Casa della Pace‘s work is hosting asylum seekers, so they brought 2 fellows from Pakistan along who stay with them these days.

An intercultural wood crewEverybody worked at hauling wood and planting starts in the afternoon to break the ice, then after dinner we had a discussion about living in community, the immigration situation in Italy, and how we make the transition from institutional structures (like college or a peace corps experience) to life after.  What does one do when one finishes a powerful experience abroad but that program comes to an end?  How do you keep “that spark” you feel while fully immersed in a program when its expiration date comes around?  What can we do when the Italian immigration system, built to accept a few thousand immigrants, receives over a hundred thousand in one year?

I think about Ezra, who left the US disillusioned by capitalism and Marxism and truly hellbent on finding a new way. It seems to me he was looking for new community of support when he left the US.  One could say he “fell in with the wrong crowd” as his intellectual pioneering was conveniently appropriated by the politics of the Axis powers. But supposedly he began writing some of his most inspired work on sheets of toilet paper  while locked in a US prison cage toward the end of the war, once again alone and isolated. This was a part of the war I didn’t know much about and it challenged my sense that Ezra was just the worst kind of “Americans abroad” stereotype.  He is said to have had a mental breakdown in the cage. For very understandable reasons, and this inhumane treatment by his own countrymen, “liberating” his adopted country, left an indelible mark.  Reinforcing his sense of the US’ moral corruption and his own extremist view that fascism would lead to new world order, he would return to Italy after being released from a mental institution in the States to live out his later life in the castle.

In these days of rising right wing rhetoric and renewed extremism, I think about what leads people to support fascism.  I think about the barber in the village here who casually mentioned while cutting my hair a few months back that “the gas chambers” were the only way to straighten out politics.  (I am currently using a boycott of his shop as an excuse for my disheveled appearance). We’ve seen fascism veiled in anti-immigrant rhetoric come close to tearing apart the European Union and the United States, and perhaps I think this is a good wake up call.  It’s clear that people are fed up with institutional structures as they exist right now, but we no longer know how to commit directly to one another and many want the iron fist of “The State” (not The Union) to step in and save us. We long for our castles.

In the course of our conversation with the students, someone suggested that if Ezra’s relatives were committed to starting a new chapter in the history of their family’s relationship to fascism, they could take in refugees at the castle.  What message might that send, versus hosting students from a country their ancestor forsake?

Sure enough, I’ve just gotten word that as they returned from our visit student’s introduced their hosts to Every Campus a Refuge, a project started at Guilford that encourages academic campuses to open some part of their space to refugees transitioning into permanent housing.  It makes so much sense.  Colleges or even study abroad housing are set up with dorms, cafeterias and built-in opportunities to meet other people.  It’s a new take on an institutional structure we take for granted as static or inflexible, and it’s a beautiful alternative to building walls or turning inward when we reach unfamiliar territory.

Harder to Stay than I thought

It’s not really slowed down at all here. We’ve just gotten back from a 4 day trip to Torino and surrounding areas for a series of talks. It’s a beautiful part of Italy I rarely thought about before the Olympics were here a few years back. I guess it’s been 4 years and I’m not even paying attention to the ones going on right now

There’s plenty to think about.  It’s not as easy as I thought to just wander the earth.  Turns out there is a wave of anti-immigration sentiment in this country and my place here, as blessed as I am, is challenged as a result.   There’s signs of  changing demographics all around.  Just up the road from Fede’s family’s farm, the little town of Galeata has the largest percentage of immigrants as it’s total population in all of Italy. It’s not big and not terribly strange to me as person raised in the nation of immigrants but I can tell people aren’t really advertising their diversity.   There’s folks from West Africa, Eastern Europe, Morocco and Northern Africa.  They’ve come to do much of the same work that immigrants do in the US.  Cleaning houses, manual labor, etc.  The folks up the road mostly work in a huge chicken processing plant. 

Many Italians appear to be freaking out about this.  Especially in this conservative, white Northern part of the country, many figures in politics are capitalizing on the age-old fear of change to gain political points.  The Lega Nord, one of the most extreme right parties (who flesh out the radical fringe of Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition) are reportedly famous for open support of fascism and accusations that immigrants are subhuman.  These guys have proposed succeeding from poorer, darker Southern Italy even.   

I come into this picture as a small drop in the ‘extracommunitarian’ unEuropean wave.  New legislation and widespread mistrust have made it harder and harder to get a visa to stay here.   After visiting office after office, talking to person after person who half-knows a part of increasing net of red tape, I’m really feeling a lot of sympathy for the people who really want to come here just to feed their families.  I’m white.  I’ve got options.  But if I want to stay here I have to go through a whole series of hoops that could take years.  I’d like to try but I can’t even apply from inside the country I’m learning.   What about all the other folks just looking for a break?  This country’s riches, like my own, are built on the backs of the poor. 

To add insult to injury, those folks that DO make it here, like those in the US, are increasingly subject to really bald racism.  Take this sign we came across in one of the little villages we spoke in yesterday.

We met with folks from this town and asked what they thought about their mayor posting signs like this at every entrance to their village.  They all seemed to be appalled, but apparently it’s been years they’ve been up and they’re still there. 

I didn’t get a chance to take a picture of my addition to this sign, but it felt like a bit of a hopeless gesture on my part.  Shame on them.