When in Rome…or at least when in Lucca

Racism, snobbery or preserving authenticity?

Splashed all over the evening news in Germany for the last few days is this story about Lucca, a town in Italy, that has outlawed the opening of new kebab and other ‘ethnic’ eateries within the old city walls. The official reasons were to protect local cuisine against foreign food that is apparently encroaching upon the local palette. These ethnic places, often of the cheap, fast food variety, are also suspected of importing substandard ingredients of questionable origin that may be unhealthy, and definitely don’t contribute to local agriculture. They are also blamed for the growing trash problem that is defacing the old portion of town, presumably harming the tourist trade. Most affected appears to be the Turkish kebab places (I haven’t heard of any Pizza Huts or KFCs getting run out on a rail).

Many are calling this very thinly veiled racism. Anyone who would flat out deny that this had something to do with the decision would earn a raised eyebrow from me. I would consider it an eyesore to walk into an ancient portion of town and see a chain store has been chiseled into a building several hundred years old. It would seem out of place and inappropriate if in such an area the only kind of food I couldn’t find was Italian. To walk a street that has existed for many centuries and be kicking aside paper cups and wrappers is distasteful. But I’m not sure you can pin all that that on small ethnic restaurants (and frankly this problem is everywhere in every old European town).

I haven’t spent much time in Italy yet and know nothing about Lucca, but I’m not convinced that these kebab places are so much the problem for the town leaders as the people who are running them. The reasons for outlawing more kebab houses could all be applied to chains like KFC, Subway and above all to McDonald’s, but there hasn’t been any mention of the damage, trash and disruption caused by fast food chains to local cuisine, culture and ancient architecture. (Walking through the heart of old Bratislava ten years ago and stumbling upon a brand-spanking-new-soon-to-open TGI Friday’s wasn’t pretty by any stretch of the imagination.) I think part of the reason chains haven’t been targeted by this law is that when you walk into these, they’re more likely to be Italian-owned with Italians behind the counter. Walk into the kebab house and you’ll find an immigrant with a thick accent, broken vocabulary and very little that’s Italian. The pollution that the town leaders are indirectly trying to solve, but not talking about, are the non-Italian immigrants, specifically, the Turks.

Scapegoating foreigners for bringing in filth and dilluting local culture and overall causing a nuisance? Sounds so darn familiar… Way to go Berlusconi.


2 responses to “When in Rome…or at least when in Lucca

  1. a fascinating (if not rather frightening) topic. In my experience, many small town residents in Germany feel the same way. The big difference here is that many Germans do indeed recognize that their cuisine is “well complimented” by the occasional consumption of delicacies from other countries. The Italians, on the other hand, would happily eat their (quite delicious, i must admit) food exclusively forever. So the excuse is right at hand…

  2. Yes, I agree the prejudice is also here in Germany, even in the big cities. There’s still work to be done here, but at least they haven’t made Döner illegal. That said, no German would ever go so far as to try and outlaw food, especially meat.

    Maybe tofu…

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