Keeping it Clean

A car passes by on the street below our house. The driver has the window open and he has stuck one arm out as far as possible. Hanging by the tips of two fingers is a little bag from the Despar supermarket with trash. He slows down but does not stop, drops the bag near the containers but practically in the middle of the street, and leaves.

This describes best the complex relationship that Italians have with their own trash. It’s a true story and an everyday occurrence. Trash is dirty, trash bags have no place in the home or in the car and you will also try to keep them as far away from your clothing as is humanly possible, lest you ruin your designer jeans or your carefully pressed shirt. But once you’re outside you can pretty much dump it anywhere you like.

And so the driver does not even get out of his car. It may involve lifting the small trash bag up to the edge of the container and resting your fine, Italian-made, fashionable and impeccably spotless shoes on the foot lever to open the lid. There’s just too many chances here of ruining an otherwise perfect outfit. Not to mention the stench coming out of a metal trash container in the midday heat. Or the chance that some dust kicked up by the lid settles in your hair.

Italians will invariably tell you proudly about the stunning beauty of their country. And rightfully so – it’s all mountains and valleys and beaches and islands and blue seas and picturesque villages and grand monuments. And trash. In containers which are not emptied; next to empty, smelly containers with the lid propped open by a piece of wood or cardboard; along the roads and streets; on the beaches; in the rivers; in the mouths of stray dogs and cats – everywhere.

The students upstairs run the vacuum cleaner every night. The people across the street sweep the kitchen floor every day. And our house, too, is a lot cleaner than I think is necessary. Italians are clean people – personal and domestic hygiene is highly important. But trash is below the dignity of an Italian. Taking care of the trash here means throwing it out in whatever way possible so that lesser people than yourself – those, for example, who work for sanitation companies – can come clean it up for you.

But it’s impossible to keep up.

An average day on our street

An average day on our street



  1. More or less the same around here (Island of La Palma, Spain) and I see in the picture that the Spar supermarket is doing good business in southern Italy as well.

  2. Despar sounds a lot like despa(i)r…

    To be fair, recycling just came in a big way to our town and people have jumped on the bandwagon. My wife reproached me last night for not separating the paper correctly.

    Of course, somebody smart is doing things the Italian way: they gave out very stylish recycling containers, with a different colour for each category of waste. They really brighten up the street in the morning.

  3. We have those too, but not everywhere. And not everyone cares. There is a difference between living in a village where people watch each other, and living in what amounts to a suburb of a provincial capital. With lots of students – about half the population – who do not pay taxes to the city because they officially live with their parents.

  4. What you need is some artists to come over there and create landfill sculptures out of that stuff. Public art! I know a lady that makes cockroach tiles.

  5. Oh well. My dad, hailing froim Northern Italy, used to tell me never to travel farther south then Rome, as from there on people would be mostly Greeks and Arabs, and you know what that means. People in Southern Italy have the same habits as people in Tunesia, Morocco and Algeria: inside their houses one could safely perform complicated heart surgery, as all the trash is just outside the house. Italy is really divided in two, as far as thrash is concerned. In the Northern half, especially in Piemont, Lombardy, Emilia Romagna, the Veneto and Venezia Giulia people generally have more German or if you like that better, Dutch habits as far as cleanliness is concerned.

  6. Is this an ugly, uninformed and unjustified generalisation of national characteristics with an implied slur on people who are Greek and Arab or a fair summing up of differing attitudes to public cleanliness?

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