Centre Sociale

“When in Rome do as the Romans do”

Moving to an unknown city, a foreign country is always exciting.
Yet it is also challenging. You have to get used to a new environment, make an effort to meet new friends and – unless you’re fortunate enough to be fluent in the respective language already – learn a foreign language.
There are different ways to master a language. While some excel at language courses, others prefer to study on their own with the help of books and online material and still others will tell you that the single most effective way is to simply go out and speak to people.

But what about people who don’t have either the resources to finance a language course or the time to go out and spend hours speaking to locals? Think of a migrant who has to work 50 to 60 hours to support his family, for instance.
For those kind of people (and, of course, for anyone else interested) Rome bears a specific opportunity: free language courses at one of the so-called “centri sociali”. This is exactly how I learned Italian, for example.

But first, let’s talk about what a “centro sociale” is and how they came into existence. A “centro sociale” is a social center that is managed by the Roman citizens. The first “centri sociali” appeared in the 1980s when young Romans occupied formerly abandoned buildings and turned them into social centers. The aim was to create a self-governed space where they could pursue all kinds of activities. From these origins social centers spread all over Rome and today you can find more than 60 throughout the whole city. The services offered include language courses, childcare provision, concerts and exhibitions, communal cooking, yoga and dance classes and all other kinds of workshops.
On top of that, everything is for free. You heard me right, absolutely free.

Some readers might wonder who are the people behind those social centers and why are they doing that?
Interestingly enough, it is not only young adults that you’ll meet there. Quite the contrary, the groups running the social centers consist of people of every age and from various social strata. What all of them have in common is the ambition as well as the determination to make their neighborhood a better place to live in. In order to achieve this goal everybody contributes according to his or her skills and talents. At the end of the day the guy offering pottery classes is as engaged as the lawyer offering legal advice upon the threat of eviction.
The reward is a strong sense of belonging and the conviction that everyone has the power to transform the community (s)he is living in.

Admittedly, many of those social centers came into existence due to deficiencies that specifically apply to Italy with its kleptocratic elites and corrupt politicians coupled with substantial hardship caused by the economic crisis.
However, to see that the Roman people do not despair and do not accept the current state of affairs as unchangeable was very inspiring. To experience how people from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds collaborate and share their time, knowledge and expertise to make their community a place they can be proud of, was far more beautiful than any of the grand sights.

Rome has been the center of humanity for a long time. Today, media presents in Italy in a different light: we see a country characterized by economic difficulties, the mafia, nepotism and the struggle with illegal immigrants.
However, despite all those difficulties there is a good reason to pay attention to what is happening at the local level and possibly follow their example.

I can’t see any reason why one finds little comparable initiatives in Vienna so far. Let’s change this together!

By: Florian Eckmayr