Homeless Chic: Europe’s Punkabbestia Subculture

Punk indeed
Punk indeed

I used to think that the punkabbestia — dubiously dubbed “gutter punk” in English — were an Italian phenomenon. Strolling across Ponte Sisto, one of Rome’s most attractive old bridges, I would lament their occupation of the bridge (occupation is the perfect word in many ways) and its subsequent transformation into a kennel.

They were everywhere in Rome, and if one asked you for a euro and you didn’t hand it over, the first word to slip past the pierced lower lip was nearly always stronzo, or Fascist (at least ideologically). To not support their cause — inasmuch as there was one —was to be the automatic enemy, the political other, the bourgeois-Fascist so despised by the radical European left.

(Note: If Wikipedia is to be believed, there is even a debate over the etymology of the term punkabbestia, basically over whether or not the “bestia” in question is a reference to their pets or just some Tuscan slang meaning “superpunk.” There is nothing really punk about them, however, in the sense that I or anyone who has ever read Lester Bangs understands as “punk.” There isn’t even the slightest intellectual pretense about these punks, and Sontagism was key to the original formation of what became punk in the mid-70s. I bet none of these ardent young radicals has ever read “Notes on Camp,” or even Rimbaud.)

Rather, the punkabbestia resembled the Deadheads, an aesthetic relic of something that lost its sense long ago, a throwback to some vague, perpetual revolution that never was more than a flash in the pan of popular culture.

I think what bothered me most about them, however, wasn’t their self-inflicted griminess or even their rottener-than-thou snottitude. I was a retro-punk once, too. I understood that stuff, and I understood that most healthy people grow out of it after the brief flirt fizzles out. Even Johnny Rotten became John Lydon again within a year of the Sex Pistols’ first — and only — album.

What bothered me most about them were their dogs: starved, lactating and working on shabbos. Animals without which nobody would fork over a thin dime to these angry street youths, all of who probably had families and a clean pillow on which to lay their heads. They may have been slumming, but their animals were suffering acute humiliation and degradation. Where were the animal rights activists on Ponte Sisto?

The truth is that, after six years, they had become as much a part of my Roman landscape as the Pantheon. I hardly even noticed them anymore. Until I went to Spain, that is.

The Spanish city of Granada, in Andalusia, is heavy punkabbestia stomping ground. In fact, it’s difficult to enjoy the delights of the Albayzin — Granada’s historic Moorish quarter facing the Alhambra — without running into hoards of dreadlocked street musicians plucking out chords for change. The plazas after dark are strewn with groups huddled together on the pavement, their dogs humping and whining. You have to step over them, as if they were cadavers after a massacre. The graffiti is so thick that my wife quipped, “I feel like we’re in the Bronx.”

One Moroccan restaurateur told us that he is moving his restaurant to another part of the city because he has lost most of his business. He said that the tourist board of Granada tells the city’s visitors that the Albayzin is dangerous. “No one wants to come through here at night. The restaurants are all suffering.” The punkabbestia have taken over.

Even our trusty guidebook had this to say about the caves of Sacromonte, near the Albayzin: “…a few [Gypsies] still live here, as do a number of cave-squatters whose bohemian lifestyle is legendary in the city. The zone is now UNESCO protected…and law requires that all caves must be fit to live in.”

Does this mean that the squatters and their “bohemian lifestyle” are actually protected by law? No wonder they proliferate. I remember reading, back in the mid-1990s, of the squatter wars on New York’s Lower East Side. The city was trying very hard to root them out of the old tenements that they had turned into illegal outposts, complete with water and electricity that no one was willing to pay for. Today, in Granada, they are state-funded.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to suggest these good-natured young people should be rooted out of our beautiful European cities. But I do question the sagacity of such laissez-faire. There is real homelessness in the world, so why bend over backwards to accommodate such homeless-chic? Does the choice to live like a bum really constitute an “alternative lifestyle?”

If they wish for independence, they should know it has a price tag. If you want your freedom, you must pay for it. Most of us work and pay rent (or a mutuo), which isn’t exactly an illustrious lifestyle by punkabbestia standards. Nobody will hire you with piercings covering most available lobes and orifices, and unwashed hair grown knotty with time. But those are the breaks, kids. You can’t live off free beer forever.

The sobering conclusion is that this is, at the very least, a pan-European phenomenon. Many of us are quick to blame Italy as a kind of “capital of the Third World,” but for all I know similar phenomena exist in far-away places like Japan and Israel. A recent film, “Someone to Run With,” opens a window on Jerusalem’s punkabbestia subculture. We may not like them much, but they are here to stay. I just wish someone would take care of their dogs.

Published in The American


Have They Really Found St. Paul?

Pope Benedict XVI thinks so.

Back in 2006, MSNBC published a piece about the excavation of St. Paul’s tomb beneath the homonymous basilica in Rome:

Vatican archaeologists have unearthed a sarcophagus believed to contain the remains of the Apostle Paul, buried beneath Rome’s second-largest basilica.

The sarcophagus, which dates at least as far back as A.D. 390, has been the subject of an extended excavation that began in 2002 and was completed last month, the project’s head said this week.

So why is the pope chiming in only now about the veracity of these “findings?” Because today is a big holiday here in the Eternal City. It’s St. Peter & Paul’s Day, the city’s Catholic patriarchs, on the liturgical calendar.

Listen to the pope’s “scientific proof” that the remains are actually Paul’s:

…human bone fragments going back to the first or second century, red incense powder and linen cloth. “This–Pope Benedict XVI declared–seems to confirm the unanimous and unopposed tradition the what we have here are the remains of the apostle Paul.”

So of all the human folk living in Rome in the first few centuries CE, the presence of incense and linen absolutely and incontrovertibly indicates that these are the bones of Saul of Tarsus, or Paul the Apostle? How did they narrow it down? Oh, it’s because they have always maintained that this was the case, which is usually how the Vatican ratifies its miracles. Outrageous, unfounded claims about history and the nature of the universe, fake skepticism and the dispatching of Vatican “officials”, then unopposable “proof” of the miracle or relic in question. Then, alas, a sanctuary and the opening of a tchotchke shop selling plastic replicas of holy relics.

The great irony here is that the Vatican feels the need to back up its claims with science. Otherwise, they realize very few people would be stupid enough to fall for this mishaguss. After all, we aren’t living in the Middle Ages any longer.

Are we??

Religious Hypocrisy 2.0

Here is a disturbingly humorous story from yesterday’s TGCOM, a nightly news program in Italy. A Catholic priest was stopped for drunk driving, his license revoked because his blood-alcohol level was 0.3% higher than legally allowed. His defense? “I celebrated four masses today!” Nor did he stop there. “I am a non-drinker,” he added. The poor priest, forced by his vocation to drink that horrible stuff, wine.

Here’s the punch line, though. His lawyers are the same lawyers that helped get an imam off the same hook a few days ago. The imam in question was stopped by police with 1% blood-alcohol content (higher than the priest’s!). His defense? “The Koran forbids drinking alcohol. It must be my asthma medication.”

And he got his license back!

Israel Excluded From the “Mediterranean Games”

Supporters of Israels right to compete, Abruzzo
Supporters of Israel's right to compete, Abruzzo

This weekend Italy is hosting the so-called “Mediterranean Games” in Pescara. These games have been going on since 1951, and since that year Israel has never been allowed to join them. Sounds like Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, excluded from all the reindeer games.  Franco Frattini, Italy’s Foreign Minister, has said that “these will be the last Mediterranean Games without Israel.”

And, clearly, the Palestinians.

I’m Just Plugging Myself Here

Quick book plug (don’t worry, I don’t get a dime if you buy the damn thing):

In the last election, Fiamma Nirenstein, an Italian journalist who lives part time in Jerusalem, became one of two Jewish candidates elected to the parliament. Nirenstein is recognized globally as a charismatic and articulate champion for Israel, and she undoubtedly played an important role in helping to cement its relationship with Italy. Berlusconi told me that he has enormous admiration for Nirenstein’s contribution as a legislator to Italian politics. She has just written an inspiring book promoting the case for Israel which was published in English translation by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. (Jerusalem Post)

Comment-Thread Conservatives and Liberals

Ron Rosenbaum gets it right again:

“Perpetually agitated, permanently enraged” commenters: that rings a bell. (And I’m sure you comment- thread conservatives, at least the cowardly anonymity abusers, will prove us right again). I like the phrase “comment thread conservatives”, it gives new meaning to “base”. And for those who haven’t gotten it, after I’ve repeated it three times, I mean the same goes for comment-thread liberals too–it’s the cowardly anonymity that engenders the “cyber disinhibition”– lowers the IQ (and humanity) on both sides.

What I enjoy about Rosenbaum’s blog is his willingness to alienate both right and left, liberal and conservative in order to make a point that he feels needs making. While so many super-opinionated bloggers sling super-sized opinions about the political “other”, Rosenbaum cuts them all down to size. Notice that he (a self-professed liberal) blogs on Pajamas Media–a conservative stronghold. He apparently finds it liberating to be the black sheep.

Another much-needed paragraph:

While in fact commenter culture has turned into an endless war of digital lynch mobs, liberals and conservative gangs enforcing group think conformity on their respective mobs with febrile insults. Not a broader spectrum of opinion but a more narrow minded one that is incapable of little more than sub normal bozo-like displays of party line talking points for the most part. A threat to freedom in the sense that the vast tide of stupidity drowns out any attempt at intelligent discussion.

If he appears to be ranting, just take a look at the comments to this post. Apparently he’s pushed the touchy-button. We should all be so unafraid to disagree with those most like us.

For a humorous look at commenter culture, I leave you with this.