Idling and ignorant in Italy

Finding oneself on holiday without any points of social reference nicely dulls the critical faculties.


I write in a state of Jewlessness. In this small, southern seaside resort at the fag-end of the Italian national holiday season, there have been no Jews visible for over a week.

We are not talking here just about no bearded, hatted, kippah-ed, sidelocked, bewigged and Volvoed Jews. That can sometimes happen in parts of London.

We are talking about no beaks, no teeth, no Magen Davids on silver chains, no scary hairlines, no princesses. Cittagazze (let's call it that for convenience and to enhance the sense of being in another world) may indeed have a Jewish population, but I just can't see it. If it exists, it must be Jewish in a specifically local way that
I don't recognise.

So, were I entirely ignorant of Jews, and to understand them solely by my holiday experience of them, then these would be the two things with which I might judge them.

I cannot tell who is a Jew, a chav, a tart, who to approve of, who to dislike

The first attribute I would know - from reading the American journalist Janet Malcolm's pair of great essays on the '80s battle over the Sigmund Freud archives and on the profession that Freud gave birth to - is that, for some reason, the vast majority of psychoanalysts are Jews.

I would have no idea why that was the case, and might even slip into the lazy inversion of characterisation that would transform the majority of Jews into psychoanalysts.

I would be pondering this group particularity, when I hear the second thing about Jews. This is gleaned from listening to an audiobook by the crime writer, Philip Kerr, whose hero is a '30s and '40s German Marlovian detective called Bernie Gunther.

Absorbed during my morning run to the lighthouse and back, this novel tells how Gunther remembers his time on the Eastern front, and his group's liquidation of an NKVD death squad, all of whose members turn out to be Jews.

It is speculated by Gunther that Stalin turned to Jews to do much of his killing because, knowing about German massacres of their co-religionists, they had more to lose.

So Jews believe in psychoanalysis a lot more than other people and got killed a lot. In the limited context of Cittagazze no one would know why. As indeed, in the wider world they don't really know why.

But it isn't just Jews who don't seem to exist here to be judged. There aren't really any black people around either (and the evidence for this proposition is more complete). Of the five Asians
I have seen, two were servants of a local dignitary and three were selling jewellery at the evening market.

Perhaps Asians have a natural predisposition for flogging necklaces, just as Jews do for lying each other down on couches and speaking about their childhoods.

Let's go even wider than this.
I can't speak Italian, let alone any of the southern regional dialects. I can have a stab at the literal meaning of
a poster, a T-shirt slogan or an
advertisement, but I can't "read" it.

I am unable to place it in my instant class hierarchy. And the same goes for the people making the passeggiata along the main drag every evening.
I have no way of judging what kind of people they are.

Does a tattoo or a piercing connote the several things here that they do in Britain? Is a buggied child with a dummy in its mouth to be pitied or envied for its station in life?

Is this man speaking loudly into his mobile phone telling his invisible interlocutor a vulgar story full of swear words, or making an appointment to meet at the Opera House in Naples on Friday night?

I have no idea. I cannot tell who is a Jew, who is a chav, who is a tart, who is to be looked down upon, who reassured by, who to dislike almost before they have passed or opened their mouths, who to approve of.

This week I am taking a break from judging.

    Last updated: 12:25pm, September 7 2010