August 18, 2009

L'Aquila, before April

On my way back from my recent adventure in the mountains, I took a train to L’Aquila, the capital of the Abruzzo region. You might remember the name from the news — it’s the medieval town that was devastated by an earthquake on April 6 of this year. Before the earthquake, it had a population of about 100,000, but more than half of that number became homeless due to the disaster. More than 300 people were killed, and as many as 11,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. I figured I would spend a couple hours there, walking the streets and checking out the impact of the earthquake, and then find a place for lunch before returning to Rome. I liked the idea of supporting whatever restaurants or businesses remained open.

At noon, I arrived at the dismal train station, which is situated west of town, a bit too far to walk. There were a dozen or so people hanging around. As I entered the station, the woman working the ticket window dropped the shade and closed down. I stood outside for a while. From my vantage, I could see that the stone walls of the medieval city had collapsed in places and were supported by temporary structures of 2x4s in other spots. The way into town was guarded by a pair of police, a man and a woman, standing in front of a road-closed sign. The woman from the ticket window exited from the side door, and I caught her attention and asked, in my limited Italian, if there were any taxis available. She laughed, shaking her head. How about buses? She shrugged and asked where I was trying to go. I named the town’s main piazza, the Duomo, and the woman laughed again while ducking into her car, then drove away.

I leaned against the station wall for half an hour, considering what to do. A pick-up stopped at the police barricade and the driver started arguing with the cops, which quickly escalated into one of the most emotionally charged scenes I’ve ever witnessed. No exaggeration. The man in the truck was screaming at the cops in a rising voice, almost operatic, on the verge of a meltdown, angrier than I’d ever heard a person. He crawled halfway out the window of his tiny truck, threateningly shaking a fist in the cops’ faces. He seemed to have snapped, to have really gone mad. Another car stopped and a guy rushed over to try to calm the pick-up driver before things got worse. But the man couldn’t be controlled. Finally the male cop lost his patience and screamed back, which only incensed the guy further. He threw his truck into gear and stared doing doughnuts, all the while shrieking out his window. It was such a surreal moment that it actually crossed my mind that I wouldn’t have been surprised if the cops opened fire on him. That seemed to be the logical progression of the scene. But finally the man tore back through the barricade in his pick-up, returning to the forbidden side, and peeled away, still screaming out his high-pitched rage. I couldn’t comprehend what they were shouting about, but the devastated walls of the town were a fitting backdrop for a display such raw and untamed emotion.

I waited a few minutes before approaching the cops. Trains don’t run directly from L’Aquila to Rome, but there are frequent buses, so I knew that if I could get to the bus station, I could find my way home pretty easily. The problem was, the station was about a mile or so up the road that the cops guarded. They did allow a few cars through, mostly work trucks, so I shouldered my pack and headed in their direction, figuring that I would try to walk to the bus station and maybe find a chance to check out the town along the way. The male cop had a kind and tired face — gray stubble, sunken eyes, bald head. He was surprisingly tranquil, even after the episode with the pick-up. I told him I needed to get to the bus station. He said I could only get there by circling L’Aquila in the other direction, which would be a walk of several miles. I asked about the town itself, and he told me that it was closed. Not just damaged, not just under construction, but completely closed. “There is nothing,” he said, gently slicing his hand through the air. “Niente.”

I took a last look at the crumbling walls, then returned to the tracks and caught the next train back to Sulmona, from where I could transfer to a Rome-bound train.

Since I didn’t make it into the city, here are some press photos from after the earthquake:

L'Aquila rubble

family in L'Aquila

State Funeral for L'Aquila victims

When I first arrived in Rome in July, Obama was touring Italy. The G8 summit started that day in L’Aquila. I stepped off my plane and saw photographs and footage in all the international press of Obama touring the rubble with Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Obama and Berlusconi

Obama and Berlusconi 2

Tens of thousands of people are still living in tent villages outside L’Aquila. The billionaire Berlusconi incited protests when he had a let-them-eat-cake moment during an interview with a German TV station: “They have everything they need, they have medical care, hot food… Of course, their current lodgings are a bit temporary. But they should see it like a weekend of camping…. Head to the beach. It’s Easter. Take a break. We’re paying for it, you’ll be well looked after.”

When Obama visited in July, the refugees erected this sign of protest, reminding the world that they were still homeless after three months.

"Yes we camp" in L'Aquila


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