Peter Popham: Rome Notebook

The sun is bright ... but that's about it

The sun has been beating down on Italy for months now, and in these conditions people can turn a little cranky, not to mention witless.

Like Walter Schiavi, for example, a Milanese postman. A few weeks back he called in sick – then showed up at the very post office where he works, cunningly disguised with a pair of shades and a baseball cap worn back to front. He held up the cashier and escaped with €5,000 (£4,000). Now he's in jail, of course. If the colleague who handed over the money had not recognised him, the surveillance camera got an excellent shot of him, pointing a finger imperiously in the air.

Meanwhile in the village of Cartigliano, near Vicenza, Renato Zanetti was the councillor responsible for local industry. Was, because now he's resigned. Zanetti belongs to the Northern League, which made great gains at the last election thanks to their anti-immigrant rhetoric.

The League is fiery in defence of Italian industry: banning Chinese imports was one of their less realistic demands. Zanetti's own ceramics company was put out of business by imports from China, so a little bitterness is understandable.

But when a Chinese businessman called Yu Weizhang offered to rent Zanetti's premises in the village, he agreed. The contract was all in order, he says, the employees had working permits; Zanetti saw the rent as compensation for the damage the Chinese had done him.

Little did he know (he says) that by night Yu was running a secret textile factory, using illegal immigrants to bang the final nails into the Italian textile industry's coffin. "They worked invisibly by night, like ants," says Zanetti. "It took my breath away."

Athletes for Tibet

It's no surprise that Italy produces some of the prettiest Olympic champions, but given the craven attitude of Italy's authorities towards the Chinese government, it's pleasing to see the same athletes pinning their colours to the Tibetan cause, however belatedly. Margherita Granbassi, a dramatic blonde from Trieste who won two bronze medals for foil-fencing in Beijing, says she will donate her fencing mask to the Dalai Lama. Other winners have chipped in with promises of their own mementos.

Heartless bureaucrats

The heartlessness of Italian bureaucracy: Umberto Vorcheimer was chased out of Italy in 1940 aged seven because he was Jewish and his Italian citizenship had been revoked under Mussolini's race laws. He has lived out his life in Philadelphia, but now at 75 he wants to come home. His application for citizenship has been slowly rotating inside the Interior Ministry for four years.