Homeless Chic: Europe’s Punkabbestia Subculture

Punk indeed
Punk indeed

I used to think that the punkabbestia — dubiously dubbed “gutter punk” in English — were an Italian phenomenon. Strolling across Ponte Sisto, one of Rome’s most attractive old bridges, I would lament their occupation of the bridge (occupation is the perfect word in many ways) and its subsequent transformation into a kennel.

They were everywhere in Rome, and if one asked you for a euro and you didn’t hand it over, the first word to slip past the pierced lower lip was nearly always stronzo, or Fascist (at least ideologically). To not support their cause — inasmuch as there was one —was to be the automatic enemy, the political other, the bourgeois-Fascist so despised by the radical European left.

(Note: If Wikipedia is to be believed, there is even a debate over the etymology of the term punkabbestia, basically over whether or not the “bestia” in question is a reference to their pets or just some Tuscan slang meaning “superpunk.” There is nothing really punk about them, however, in the sense that I or anyone who has ever read Lester Bangs understands as “punk.” There isn’t even the slightest intellectual pretense about these punks, and Sontagism was key to the original formation of what became punk in the mid-70s. I bet none of these ardent young radicals has ever read “Notes on Camp,” or even Rimbaud.)

Rather, the punkabbestia resembled the Deadheads, an aesthetic relic of something that lost its sense long ago, a throwback to some vague, perpetual revolution that never was more than a flash in the pan of popular culture.

I think what bothered me most about them, however, wasn’t their self-inflicted griminess or even their rottener-than-thou snottitude. I was a retro-punk once, too. I understood that stuff, and I understood that most healthy people grow out of it after the brief flirt fizzles out. Even Johnny Rotten became John Lydon again within a year of the Sex Pistols’ first — and only — album.

What bothered me most about them were their dogs: starved, lactating and working on shabbos. Animals without which nobody would fork over a thin dime to these angry street youths, all of who probably had families and a clean pillow on which to lay their heads. They may have been slumming, but their animals were suffering acute humiliation and degradation. Where were the animal rights activists on Ponte Sisto?

The truth is that, after six years, they had become as much a part of my Roman landscape as the Pantheon. I hardly even noticed them anymore. Until I went to Spain, that is.

The Spanish city of Granada, in Andalusia, is heavy punkabbestia stomping ground. In fact, it’s difficult to enjoy the delights of the Albayzin — Granada’s historic Moorish quarter facing the Alhambra — without running into hoards of dreadlocked street musicians plucking out chords for change. The plazas after dark are strewn with groups huddled together on the pavement, their dogs humping and whining. You have to step over them, as if they were cadavers after a massacre. The graffiti is so thick that my wife quipped, “I feel like we’re in the Bronx.”

One Moroccan restaurateur told us that he is moving his restaurant to another part of the city because he has lost most of his business. He said that the tourist board of Granada tells the city’s visitors that the Albayzin is dangerous. “No one wants to come through here at night. The restaurants are all suffering.” The punkabbestia have taken over.

Even our trusty guidebook had this to say about the caves of Sacromonte, near the Albayzin: “…a few [Gypsies] still live here, as do a number of cave-squatters whose bohemian lifestyle is legendary in the city. The zone is now UNESCO protected…and law requires that all caves must be fit to live in.”

Does this mean that the squatters and their “bohemian lifestyle” are actually protected by law? No wonder they proliferate. I remember reading, back in the mid-1990s, of the squatter wars on New York’s Lower East Side. The city was trying very hard to root them out of the old tenements that they had turned into illegal outposts, complete with water and electricity that no one was willing to pay for. Today, in Granada, they are state-funded.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to suggest these good-natured young people should be rooted out of our beautiful European cities. But I do question the sagacity of such laissez-faire. There is real homelessness in the world, so why bend over backwards to accommodate such homeless-chic? Does the choice to live like a bum really constitute an “alternative lifestyle?”

If they wish for independence, they should know it has a price tag. If you want your freedom, you must pay for it. Most of us work and pay rent (or a mutuo), which isn’t exactly an illustrious lifestyle by punkabbestia standards. Nobody will hire you with piercings covering most available lobes and orifices, and unwashed hair grown knotty with time. But those are the breaks, kids. You can’t live off free beer forever.

The sobering conclusion is that this is, at the very least, a pan-European phenomenon. Many of us are quick to blame Italy as a kind of “capital of the Third World,” but for all I know similar phenomena exist in far-away places like Japan and Israel. A recent film, “Someone to Run With,” opens a window on Jerusalem’s punkabbestia subculture. We may not like them much, but they are here to stay. I just wish someone would take care of their dogs.

Published in The American

Not My Father’s Rome

The Rome I live in is a very different city than the one my father left in the mid- 1960s. I am reminded of this every time I take the metro (I still prefer subway, that arcane Americanism). The trains are always full of readers, and I am a curious observer of public reading material. I am frequently struck by the sheer metropolitanness of a ride: while reviewing my weekly Hebrew lesson, a woman across from me is reading from the Koran, the man next to me is flapping a Chinese newspaper, and all around us is a Babel of incoherent voices babbling sundry languages. This is not my father’s town, by a long shot.

Some people tend to think of Rome—and to some extent Italy—as the Pope’s backyard. An Australian once remarked to me that he was shocked to find condoms on sale in the pharmacies. “But I thought this was a Catholic country,” was his lament. He seemed disappointed that his medieval fantasy had been crushed. Indeed, condoms are readily available, even in supermarkets. And so is alcohol, which will be a surprise to many Americans whose local mega-markets are still “dry” in the year 2009. In many ways, we might do well to think of  Italy as a post-Catholic country.

Another institution in crisi is marriage. Yes, you read correctly. For the record, divorce wasn’t legally established in Italy until the early 1970s. Despite the recent scandal of Berlusconi and his soon-to-be ex-wife Veronica Lario, divorce has never taken on epic proportions here as in the United States (each of my parents has been married three times, for instance). I often meet Italians who are “divorced,” a euphemism meaning “separated.” “It’s too much trouble to get divorced,” they say. “And it’s money wasted.” Better to stay married and live with other people. Or, to note a modest new trend, not to marry at all.

According to a 2007 Istat poll, children born out of wedlock were 15%, or about 80,000 a year. Once, such children were modified by adjectives like “illegitimate”, then the more politically correct “natural.” No longer.They are now simply children, born to parents, with extended biological families and hereditary rights.

Many of my friends have children, and almost none of them are married. In fact, I hardly know one Italian couple under the age of fifty who is married with children.

So the news that I am getting married comes as a surprise to many, especially those who had me pegged as anti-conformist. My answer is: can there be anything more anti-conformist than to be married with children in Italy these days?

Sadly, my father is not around to witness the legacy of these reforms and counter-reforms in his country of birth. In a way, though, he anticipated them. In a time when the traditional institution of the family was iron-clad and Italians still hung on the pope’s every syllable, my father fell in love with a Jewish-American woman from Boston. They were married at the Campidoglio in Rome in a secular ceremony. Both eschewed their family’s tradition. Both crossed the uncrossable boundaries laid before them by history.

More than forty years later I am crisscrossing the same boundaries in the same city. But I come from a different time and place. Like Bellow’s Augie March, I boast playfully, “I am an American, New England born…” I have inherited my parents’ idiosyncratic heresies, and I have found a heterodox woman with which to share them. A friend will be officiating our wedding ceremony next month at the Campidoglio, another innovative touch in a city for which the puzzling expression “everything changes but nothing changes” was coined.

But many things have changed, both in Italy and the world. I am a dual-citizen, which my father never was. He lived for twenty-three years in America as—in his words—an alien. I used to wonder why he wasn’t green. In his day, long-distance phone calls were expensive and infrequent, air travel even more so. Today I Skype my family for free. We email. We are in touch with an alarming frequency. Being a citizen of Italy I am also a citizen of the European Union. One-quarter of the developed world is my domain. This is not my father’s world.

On the eve of marriage, I wonder what kind of world our eventual children will inherit. Technology develops at Planck speed. Borders and boundaries are going up and coming down all over the globe. One of the last memories I have of my father is watching the fall of the Berlin Wall on television, an event that symbolized a new era to Europe and the world. I was fifteen. Three months later he died of a heart attack.

Our children will be heirs to the post-9/11 world, perhaps the post-American world (to quote a recent bestseller). They will be Italians and Americans and, if they choose, Israelis—assuming no walls go up in the meantime to keep them in or out. Walls could fall, too, making those distinctions meaningless. We cannot know.

In the meantime, I still need to buy a suit for the wedding. Did someone say mazel-tov?

Published in The American

Waiting to Exhale

It began with YouTube, and a video called “How To Irrigate Your Nasal Passages”. A hirsute, Allen Ginsberg stunt-double prepares a small ceramic pot with salt water, upends it and—voila’—begins to pour the water in one nostril and out the other. Feat accomplished, he repeats the exercise with black coffee, and then with single barrel bourbon, all against a trancelike chorus of “I like to hear the rain come down.” Until the whiskey comes splashing out of his nose like water from a blowhole, and despite the incongruous facial expressions suggesting pain, it seems like a pleasant experience.

April is the cruelest month…T.S. Eliot must’ve been suffering from hay fever when he wrote that line.  Like many Americans, I’ve been suffering allergies and all-around sinus blockage for most of my life. I’ve even had surgery to straighten a severely deviated septum, which did nothing but drain my mother’s bank account. I’ve struggled with pseudoephedrine, nasal sprays of every kind, breathing strips, Claritin…all to no avail. Every year I become more desperate. Every year I become more convinced that no solution exists except another attempt at surgery (an opinion backed up by the last doctor to stare up my nose with a flashlight), which is understandably out of the question.

Leaving New York was the first step. I really believed that not living in Metropolis would have been good for my sinuses, but I discounted the small matter that Roman air quality is not much better than that of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Rome, it’s true, has many parks which pump oxygen into the air and make the city liveable—to a degree. But it’s not as if the blanket of green were spread evenly across town. If you live near one of Rome’s huge villas (Pamphili, Ada, Borghese) you’re in luck. If you live along the Via Casilina, however, you’re more likely to see Central Park in June than any of Rome’s green wonderlands year-round.

Even so, spring time is pollen time, and pollen is in many ways more bothersome than car exhaust. In tandem, however, they are deadly. Sleeping has become almost impossible, despite a comfortable new mattress. I’m desperate for a short-term solution.

I don’t believe in miracles. Nor do I waste many words praying for them to occur. But desperation has a way of stoking the irrational in all of us. So I went to the local health food store and asked for a white ceramic pot—called a neti pot— like the one in the YouTube video. Online research had been overwhelmingly favorable, so I decided to give it a shot.

The neti pot blew into town out of nowhere a few years ago after an appearance on “Oprah.” Naturally, I braced myself for a Secret-style sham, albeit an inexpensive one (about €15). The neti has a long pedigree, however, having been used for millennia by yoga practitioners in India. After the Oprah debut, America went neti crazy, skyrocketing the little vessel from yoga-fringe obscurity to Walmart in about a week. The New York Times wrote it up, and hundreds of people uploaded themselves on YouTube with a conspicuous white nozzle stuck up their noses. I felt I’d missed some cultural watershed, like The Twist or Pokemon.

The whole thing works by creating a “subtle vacuum” for “suitable flow pressure,” in the words of Jalanetipot.com. Your head must be tilted at roughly a 45 degree angle. The water then shoots up one nostril, swishes up into your sinuses, and pours generously out the other. Often the it is followed by gobs of colored mucus, ostensibly washing away various toxins and irritants. The water must be saline, or slightly salted. Some people recommend adding baking soda, or even mouthwash.

The first time I nettied, if you will, was disastrous. Water splashed all over the bathroom mirror and dribbled down my chest. Half an hour later a second stream came oozing out of my right nostril onto my shirt.

It takes a while to get the hang of it. There is the sensation of drowning for about a second. Salty water comes trickling down your throat and out your mouth. When it’s over, there is a feeling of having loosed a tide of phlegm. Maybe you feel cleaner in your schnoz, but that’s about it.

When I began experimenting with the neti pot, I also began to broadcast the results (and lack of them) to my friends and family. I became obsessed with solving my sinus war. Suddenly, it seemed everyone I knew had a neti pot, or had used one. Some people swore by it. Friends were giving and receiving them as gifts. Almost everyone had a story: “It helps when you feel a cold coming on. It relieves allergies. It saved my life.”

I continue to neti daily. I still want to be persuaded by the majority of fellow sufferers who have found relief in this little ceramic wonderpot.  In short, I want to believe in a miracle. But three weeks after I thought I had found my own personal fountain of youth, I remain a skeptic. The neti pot has not made me sleep better. It has not unblocked my sinuses. It has not saved my life. And that’s nothing to write home about.

Published in The American

Earthquake in Rome?

Well, most people I know told me their apartments shook during the night. We felt nothing. One colleague said his stuffed animals all fell of the shelf. He thought it was the cat, up to mischief again. Then he felt the tremors in his seventh-floor abode.

This morning’s death toll in Abruzzo is 179, according to Corriere della Sera.

Things will probably get worse before they get better.

p.s. For those who wish to know all there is to know (so far), with about a gazillion links to choose from, Cricket Diane is obsessively tracking the action.