Blue wheels

You haven’t seen comedy until you’ve seen Italian policemen rolling by on Segways. The moment I caught sight of them at Bologna train station I wanted to take a picture so badly, yet didn’t for uncertainty over what they might take offense at. Committing a crime is one thing, but embarrassing and personally getting on the bad side of a policeman is another! Especially in a foreign country. Two weeks later at Florence train station I came across a sight that made me realise that I needn’t have worried: a pair of policemen sitting up straight in their little indoor police cart, the driver with his hands held just so on the sides of the steering wheel, both their faces held in a pleasant yet commanding expression and torsos angled to face the tourist who like all true tourists, seemed to require an inordinate amount of time to get to the point of button-pressing. What a blow! Not only could I have safely gotten my very own photograph of Italian policemen on Segways, but there had even existed the possibility of having them pose for me! Scheisse. The tough lessons you have to learn in life eh?

It appears to me then that a key characteristic of the Italian police (at the very least the city Italian police) is their eagerness to please the tourists, demonstrated not only through their posing skills but through the amount of time they are willing to spend explaining directions with a smile. The rest of this post covers another thing I’ve observed about them. Looking at a general scene in which the police are present, you can see that there is some intention behind having them there. Looking at the individual police officers in the scene, they themselves don’t appear to be engaged in much besides spending time with each other. Maybe this outcome is inevitable given that they only seem to be allowed to leave the station if they have enough passengers to take up all the free places of the vehicle.

Here are two moments to give a bit more of an idea of what I mean:

I had walked past the side of the Uffizi museum in Florence, through a passageway lined with statues of historical figures (I particularly recommend looking for Machiavelli, who was sculpted to have the look of as pure a wicked and gleeful schemer as you could get) and crossed the small street to stand and look out over the river. With my head turned to regard Ponte Vecchio on the right, the corner of my eye suddenly picked up some scuffling and flurrying a short distance away. When I had a look back across the street to the end of the passageway I saw that fake goods – big name womens’ bags and pointless novelty toys – were being swallowed up into bulging white bundles, the African men who had been peddling them having grabbed together the corners of the sheets that the wares had been laid upon. ‘Hmmm, where are the police?’ I wondered. I looked around for what seemed a very long time before spotting that ‘Oh!’ they were cruising slowly by on the small street between me and the peddlers, directly in front of us all! I thought to myself that things were going to get tense, these guys hadn’t spotted the police early enough and had no time to get away. And the car was crammed full with 5 policemen, you could see the guys at the sides of the backseat squashing up against the doors.

The African guys knew that they had messed up and were floundering, trying to keep their sheet bundles secure, glancing furtively here and there for the best escape route, some making a disjointed start while still not feeling confident enough to leg it full speed without looking back; the slower ones standing around trying to look casual, still working on the question of whether they should simply walk away from their goods, perhaps meaning an abandonment of their employment too. It was clear that on the whole they were really not sure whether it would be safer to make a break for it late as it was, or whether they should accept their fate seeing as they had been so blatantly caught out. It was a real sight to see them so lost, with the circumstances of their work I would have supposed them to have slicker instincts.

So what happened next???

The police car cra-aa-aawwwled on by……. the law enforcers staring out their windows in the general direction of the peddlers, the expression on their faces combining haughty boredom with a kind of cursory interest in ‘that world outside of us’.

Time seemed to be suspended as the African men stood there, some in open air, some slipped behind columns… everyone frozen by some inexplicable other force as the police car crawled on by, crawled on by, crawled on by…… and then kept driving on by.

The African guys couldn’t believe their luck or whatever it was this event could be attributed to. They looked around at each other, coughed up little laughs of disbelief and instantly relaxed into wide smiles and lowered shoulders. Then they strolled back to their spots and set up their sheets, resuming their work as cogs in the machine of counterfeit.

The other moment had less intrigue but struck me visually, and goes back to Bologna.

Walking around one morning I came across a snubby hatchback of a police car parked right up against the side of a church, cutting across the small lane to leave a gap big enough for one person to walk through. It looked like he had crashed into it backwards, it was that close to the wall and jutting out so conspicuously.

He sat there. Just sat there. Something of a hostile expression in his eyes. Guess I can’t blame him, I wonder how long it takes to get in and out of that sort of parking. Moreover this is possibly only a minor annoyance in comparison to the hours of mindless vigilance promised to him.

I will be fair and fill this picture out a little more. A stage and many rows of chairs had been set up in front of the church, where there was also a van filled with policemen chilling out and chatting.

They hadn’t cordoned off the area. Were they “securing the perimeter”? (A very small perimeter.) Protecting the chairs and sound equipment? Do so many policemen need to be on hand for that? Maybe there was concern over a terrorist threat? Perhaps this was an extra-significant landmark of Bologna that I had stumbled upon, as the really famous sites naturally tend to be guarded around the clock.

I don’t know what the story was. And I don’t know why if it really was so vital to protect, why there would be 8 policemen “guarding” the front and 1 guarding the side…

The Italian police force certainly aroused a kind of leisured curiosity in me. Perhaps the nature of my reaction to them was the result of osmosis of the nature of their work ethic. Now, I don’t want to simply trade in stereotypes, as I’m sure some of you reading this might be thinking ‘well duh, that is obviously how I had imagined Italian policemen to be!’ What I really mean to demonstrate with this post is the puzzlement that would come over me whenever I observed the policemen. My mind was probably making contrasts with the Spanish police in Basque Country, who always seemed to be in some state of action or else if they were standing around guarding something, looked very tensely engaged in their duty. My memories of the police in New Zealand meanwhile is that they tend to be walking around or patrolling city streets, or else by their cars as they stop drivers on the road. And that they spend a fair amount of time helping or arresting drunk people. Which is not to say that they have a better work ethic than the Italian police. At approximately 2pm one Sunday afternoon a police car pulled me over as I was driving in a quiet, well-to-do suburb in Christchurch. I had been driving completely normally and the street was totally empty. There was nothing wrong with the car, a respectable sedan owned by my mother. So he asked to see my license, saw that it was fine, and yup, that’s it. Nice way to fill your monthly quota for performing such checks… do it when you’re at absolutely no risk of actually encountering trouble! Lazy policeman.

As opposed to the charge of laziness that I feel comfortable laying on that policeman in NZ with whom I did have a face-to-face encounter, I don’t feel so free to claim that the Italian police are lazy or clueless, or that they get direction from superiors who are lazy or clueless. What I am saying is… compared to the police of other countries, I find it very hard to divine the reason behind their activities. Watching them, you don’t really know what they are doing. Maybe this is the mark of a skillful police force? Having the ability to camouflage their serious intent through the appearance of taking it easy and socialising with each other. It’s just that I’m more inclined to wonder… what is the point if you can’t actually tell that they are working, and working in a useful way? I do have to make a final note though that obviously the hardest work will not be so readily seen in public. Maybe the hardcore branch of the police force do a really good job.

As a final treat, or maybe I will leave that up to you to judge, I have done some drawings of what my mind thought of after seeing those policemen on the Segways. Fortunately there is only one person who knows just how long it took me to do these drawings…

Blue wheels

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