Cabbages and Kings, I: Independence Day on the Po
September 15th, the day of liberty for Independent Padania, dawns fair and warm. I hurry into the center of Olginate--a small village, now suburbanized like so much of Lombardia--where I board a bus with the the local leghisti. My host is Giulio de Capitani, a local counselor and the nephew of my old friends, Giuditta and Giuseppe Podesta.
There are two or three "Pulman" buses just from Olginate, and we rendez-vous with the other delegations from Lecco at the Abbey of Pontida, the site of the famous Lombard "giuramento" (oath). Waiting for the stragglers, some of the young bucks leave the bus to spray paint Lega slogans on a cement wall. They have obviously done this before. While one stands with the paint can hidden in the grass, the two others split up, taking positions where they can watch for policeman, and in the 15-20 minutes it takes to complete their art work (they go over and over, always darkening and thickening the letters), the alert is given several times.
It is an impressive motorcade: dozens of buses and who knows how many automobiles, all from the province of Lecco. When we hit the autostrada, we catch sight of other motorcades headed toward their designated sites on "dio Po" outside of Cremona, a city made famous by its violin-makers. Today, another chapter in Italian history is being written, as thousands gather from all over this part of Lombardia, to celebrate the birth of Padania. The newspapers and radio are already reporting that the Festa d'Independenza is a failure: only 10,000 are said to have turned out all over the North. I don't know about other places, but here, in the mile-long space between two bridges, the fields and paths along the shore are crowded with members of the Lega Nord from one small area, the province of Lecco.
It would be easy to get lost in the crowd, but de Capitani--a successful architect and admired local figure--takes charge of the idiot foreigner, and in the course of the day I shake hands with what seem to be dozens of mayors, councilors, and even a member or two of the Italian parliament. The mayor of Colico, a town at the Northeast corner of Lago di Como, tells me that in mystical ceremonies like today's Padania is returning to its Celtic and pre-Christian roots. His statement is something of a paradox, since the mayor looks 100 % German and speaks Italian with the emphatic precision of the Italian Swiss. After discoursing on the mysteries of trees and rivers, he adds that he, like most of his friends in the Lega, is a good Catholic who would like to see the church recover its former moral, though not political authority.
The day before, a friend of mine told me, "Go down to the Po with the Lega: they'll all be eating polenta (corn meal mush) and getting drunk." I only meet one man (from Lecco) a little the worse for wine. He is very happy and tells me over and over how the government, which he denounces in terms too richly obscene for me to understand, has cheated him of his pension. When a friend tries to hush him up for fear of offending a foreigner, the old guy explains that Lombards don't engage in long, florid speeches like the Sicilians. They prefer words that are earthy: firm, round, and strong-smelling. "Like cheese?" I ask hopefully. "I was thinking of caca." I told him I preferred cheese.
We sneak off for lunch at a nearby restaurant with Alberto Maria Bosisio, member of parliament and one of the brightest and most polished leaders of the Lega I have run into. He and the other well-to-do leghisti who have filled up the restaurant are living contradiction of the story I have heard repeatedly, that the middle-classes who joined the Lega in the early 90's departed after Bossi's ribaltone that overturned the Berlusconi government. In a heated but friendly conversation with other leghisti, Bosision draws a precise line between defense of the North against the invasion of southern mafiosi, government officials, and welfare dependents, on the one hand, and a general hatred of southern Italians, on the other.
In the media there have been predictions of violence, but the nearest approach to trouble comes in the restaurant, as a group of leghisti complain about the service to the obviously Sicilian proprietor, who treats them to a tongue-lashing of an eloquence undreamed of by Lombards. Our waiter, just as obviously of Southern background, though he speaks without the accent, tells us he is sympathetic to the Lega's demand for home rule. From all that I can tell, Sicilian businessmen have nothing to fear from the Lega, and some of them would welcome any effort to drive the Mafia back to Sicily.
Back on the bank of the Po, the people are eating grilled sausages and peacefully waiting for the live hook-up with Venice, where the "leader" of the Lega Nord, Umberto Bossi, will make his solemn declaration of independence.
For the "Senatur," today has been a long time in coming. For the past two years--indeed, throughout its existence--the Lega has been demanding political reform and a deconsolidation of power. Exasperated by the slow pace--actually, no pace--of reform, and despairing of any progress toward a federal constitution, Bossi began hinting last fall that it was time to secede. In the spring, he made his threats explicit, and today--at the end of three days of symbolic demonstrations, including a mystical ceremony of carrying a vial of water from the source of the Po all the way to the mouth--the Lega is ready.
We listen to a series of speakers from other independence movements--Basques and Catalonians from Spain, a Fleming from Belgium--and the crowd has a good time with their mispronounced Italian. Finally, Bossi begins to speak in an uncharacteristically solemn voice and announces the indpendence of Padania and the Constitutional principles on which his new nation will be based. To American ears, Bossi speaks with the voice of 1787.
On the way home, after all the flags have flown, the sausages eaten, and the Grand March from Aida (the national anthem) played a dozen times, I feel a little like the hapless couple at the end of The Graduate (screenplay by longtime reader, the late Calder Willingham): After independence, what? The Press has made much of Bossi's defense force the "camicce verdi" (green shirts), but these are men of all ages, unarmed and not particularly dangerous looking. The only violence comes when, a few days later, the number two man in the party, Roberto Maroni, is beaten up by the police in his office. Maroni is a particularly strange object for police brutality: he is not only well-liked by his political enemies, but for a brief time he even served as Minister of the Interior, a post which gave him control over the national police.