Danielle (Dany) Mitzman is a British freelance journalist who has been based in the north Italian town of Bologna since 1998. Before that, she worked in London as a producer for Woman's Hour on BBC Radio 4. She makes features and documentaries for BBC World Service, BBC Radio 4, Deutsche Welle Radio and Radio Netherlands. Her reports are often rebroadcast on other networks, including NPR, CBC, ABC Australia and SABC. Her favourite areas are human interest, arts and culture and Italy's quirkiest news stories.

Hand Gel and Hula Hoops

July 2nd, 2020

The delicious excitement of the last day of school before the endless summer holidays. Three whole months here. But never before has breaking up been such a miserable anticlimax. Children in the north of Italy were the first to be hit by lockdown restrictions. They haven’t set foot in their classrooms since February 21st and still don’t know if and how they’ll be going back in mid September. Some won’t be going back at all. In the Italian system, infant school goes up to age 6, primary to 11, then middle school to 14 and finally high school. So for any child finishing one of those cycles… it’s over.

But for Isabella Conti, the mayor of the small municipality of San Lazzaro di Savena just outside Bologna, the idea that kids would miss out on their rites of passage was simply unacceptable.

Isabella is young, brilliant, and enormously popular, voted back for a second term by 81% of her 33,000 citizens. If there were Oscars for best mayor, she’d sweep the board. Her council was the first in Italy to make nursery schools free for all families, and she’d probably pick up the best housing, environment and social policy awards too.

“Since she’s been mayor, San Lazzaro’s been reborn”, says my friend Francesca. She and her husband Marco, and their 6 year old daughter Anna are among Isabella Conti’s biggest fans. During the strictest and scariest moments of the lockdown, she was, they say, “not just a mayor but a mother”. Using social networks, she stayed in constant contact with the community. She broadcast live on Facebook every evening, giving important local virus news, explaining each government decree, answering citizens’ questions and even telling people off for going jogging when it was banned. And, much to Anna’s delight, she made time to read stories to her youngest citizens two afternoons a week.

It’s been deeply upsetting for Anna not to be able to finish infant school. She’s had the same classmates and teachers for 3 years. That’s half her life! Isabella Conti was determined children like her should get their last day of school.

‘I will not allow this pandemic to deprive you of the chance to say farewell to your teachers and classmates’ she wrote, in an open letter posted on Facebook. Her simple plan would take place in San Lazzaro’s biggest park. There’d be dozens of coloured hula hoops, disinfected and placed in a large, carefully spaced-out circle on the grass beneath the trees. Every infant, primary and middle school class would get their own special moment together. A small reward for their patience, resilience and adaptability.

The reaction to her letter was ‘amazing’, she says, with mayors from all over Italy calling her to say they’d do it too. “I was really emotional while I was writing it and I think people felt it,” says Isabella, her eyes shining as she explains that people now need more than protection alone. “You have to think about humanity, relationships, emotions, creativity and hope” she says passionately. “I wanted to assure the children they’d be safe but also that they have the right to be happy and to have beautiful memories, even with all the darkness we’ve been through”. It would be different but, she promised, still meaningful.

And it was.

There was hand gel and strict protocol for entering and leaving the circle but there was poetry and music and genuine joy. And standing in their individual hula hoops, cardboard mortarboards on their heads, the children were allowed to lower their masks for their most unusual class photo ever.

10 year old Bianca was radiant in the sunshine after her class farewell: “It was just like a party, even if it was distanced and with masks. It was really strange but I felt like I was in school again with my friends and my teachers, so it felt special”. Her classmate Maeva says she was in floods of tears during their last video rehearsal for the song they sang today: “We all fell apart a bit yesterday evening – even the teachers. But today has been fantastic”, she continues, “It’s so exciting to see each other again after 3 long months.”

14 year old Tommaso tells me he actually quite enjoyed the lockdown. “It was relaxing to get up a bit later, and it was exciting to live school through a screen”. The thing he liked most was spending time with his older siblings. “It was very positive being together with my family, detached from life outside home and concentrating inward.”

But today Tommaso’s thrilled to look his schoolmates in the eye one last time. His class celebrated with flute and violin solos and then made their Italian teacher cry with a surprise recital of a poem by her favourite poet. The teacher, Corinna, also happens to be Bianca’s mum. Unlike Tommaso, the last months have exhausted her.

“I found myself caught between two fires because I had to look after my school kids and my own kids. An experience… I hope never to be repeated!” Like everyone here today though, she’s loved the festivities: the first hopeful step towards a fragile new beginning,

There is a sense life in Italy is returning to normal. If Isabella hadn’t been here, she’d have been officiating her first post-lockdown wedding. But it’s not all about celebrations. “Right now we have a risk,” she says, explaining that their priority must be economic reconstruction to defuse growing fear and anger. “The risk is that selfishness, isolation, and alienation will be part of the legacy of coronavirus and we have to fight that with all our strength.”

If the mayoral Oscars introduced a pandemic management award, she’d probably win that one too.

All photos courtesy of the Municipality of San Lazzaro di Savena

June 10th 2020

Surely not in Bologna la Rossa?

February 28th, 2018

My friend Angela walked into my flat last Wednesday, visibly shocked. She’d been in a shop in the town centre when a commotion had made her turn to look outside. A car inviting citizens to vote for the extreme right party, Casa Pound, was driving by, flags waving and fascist anthem blaring. Angela’s voice trembled with anger: “20 years ago”, she fumed, “this could never have happened in Bologna”.

‘Bologna the Red’, the city famed for its left-wing politics, the city where the wall of the old stock exchange, now the public library, is covered with photos of its partisans who died fighting Fascism.

Angela was born in 1953, the year after the Scelba Law made ‘apologia del fascismo’ and any attempt to reform the Fascist party a criminal offence according to the Italian constitution. Yet here were fascists shamelessly campaigning in Bologna.

The car Angela saw gained a certain online notoriety last week, not least for a video that went viral. It captured the (perhaps ironically) red Land Rover moving slowly through the mediaeval streets of the city centre, being chased by a cyclist shouting insults at it. Looking carefully at the shops and porticoes in the clip I recognized Via Sant’Isaia, the street at the end of my road. So the car had just gone past the Museum of the Resistance and Istituto Parri, the anti-fascist institute dedicated to the history of the liberation. Its director, Luca Alessandrini is a man with piercingly intelligent eyes and a moustache that joins seamlessly with his beard, obscuring his mouth but never his words.

I call and remind him of a conversation we had soon after we first met. Unlike Germany, he said post-war Italy had never truly dealt with its fascist past, never fully taken responsibility for its role in Jewish persecution. For decades, school syllabuses avoided the Second World War: the uncomfortable facts swept under the carpet. Former partisans used to visit schools here to tell children their story; but today only a few are still alive.

Does Luca think fascism could be creeping its way back into Italy? To some extent, yes. But not through voting for extreme right wing parties, which he doesn’t believe will happen. He’s more worried about the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the centre right which is, he says, “the real key to this electoral campaign”. Nationalistic slogans like Italia agli italiani – Italy for the Italians and Padroni in casa nostra – Masters in our own home are, he says, inherently fascist. Establishing a closed nation that defends its citizens through exclusion of foreigners was, he reminds me, part of the original Fascist ideology.

What does he think is driving it? The devastating effects of the recession, fear of globalization and the collapse of the old political parties that once had a genuine relationship with the people. “Fascism is seduction,” he concludes, “and it’s always been successful when there’s a crisis in traditional politics.”

Mark Gilbert, a Professor of history and International Studies at Johns Hopkins in Bologna, agrees there’s a “rather depressing ugly tone” appearing in Italian politics. “I do think the climate’s got worse,” he says, citing the canvassing tactics of Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Northern League now simply known as Lega: “I don’t think Salvini’s an outright racist,” he reflects, “but he’s certainly getting votes by flirting with being a racist.”

“There is a tension which is making this kind of stuff possible” he explains. “The consequences of mass immigration have unquestionably transformed a lot of people who were previously moderates.” On the other hand, he says, you have to counterpose this with the strength of Italian civil society. “There is no other country in Europe that’s had the same level of grassroots civil society support for migration and for helping immigrants.”

Last Friday afternoon, Bologna’s main square suddenly filled with riot police. A rally for the far right Forza Nuova was scheduled to take place that evening in the little piazza behind the landmark basilica, while an anti-fascist crowd had already gathered to protest against them at the other end of the square. Their gigantic banner bore the simple slogan “Bologna antifascista”. Their megaphone boomed angrily, at times provocatively. I watched them together with the black and white partisans framed behind me on the library wall. The voice of fascism may have reared its head in Italy once more but here in Bologna the voice of anti-fascism is always at hand to drown it out.

Written for From Our Own Correspondent, BBC Radio 4. (Audio version first broadcast 22nd February, 2018)

Judging gelato – the best gig of my life

December 20th, 2017

The end of the Gelato World Tour – the culmination of three years of worldwide national competitions where the public could vote for their favourite flavour. Since 2015 over 1,800 gelato makers have competed for a place in the finals held in the north Italian town of Rimini. 36 finalists from 4 continents and 19 different countries prepared batches of their winning flavours with ingredients ranging from rose water and black tea to cheese, extra virgin olive oil and even meat.
I was asked if I’d like to be on the journalists’ jury. What a silly question!

First broadcast on Inside Europe, Deutsche Welle Radio, 21st September, 2017