Over the next few weeks, you can join Job on his peregrinations in the new series ‘In search of Erasmus’: a tour of modern-day Europe with Erasmus as a guide. In his third story, “The Republic of the Denounced”, he takes you to an illegally occupied Olympic village in Turin and to the Jewish ghetto of Venice.

The water ripples gently, a gondola carrying tourists passes by. I’m sitting at the waterside near a bridge which connects Il Ghetto, the Jewish quarter in Venice, to the city’s other islands. I left Rotterdam two weeks ago and it’s hard to say goodbye to the people I meet on the way. Having travelled to all kinds of “republics”, I’m struck by the question: How could Erasmus have travelled his whole life without ever binding himself to one place?

IMG_0685 (1)
Image credit: Job Zomerplaag

The Republic of Letters

EM_Op_Zoek_Turijn Venetie

Erasmus repeatedly declined invitations to settle somewhere: he was afraid it would curtail his freedom. Most notable among these invitations is the one extended by the city of Zurich in 1522, which he declined with the words: “I want to be a citizen of the world, connected to everyone, or preferably a foreigner.” However, there is one place which Erasmus definitely wanted to bind himself to: “May I be granted citizenship of the divine city! That’s where I’m going, now that so many sicknesses are befalling me.”

Erasmus was less specific about his earthly destination. At most, Erasmus regarded himself as a citizen of The Republic of Letters. This network of early modern high society led Erasmus to the Venetian Republic, where he stayed with the humanist printer Aldus Manutius between 1506 and 1509. This is also the place where he became enthralled by classical writings which refugees brought with them from the fallen Eastern Roman Empire.

Even today, many refugees first set foot ashore on the Italian boot. Italy now has to try and deal with the large inflow of migrants escaping hunger and war or who are looking for a better future. Many Italians no longer make a distinction between the newcomers: even the self-considered politically correct circles talk about the “neri”, the blacks.


Moi: ooit een Olympisch dorp, nu een toevluchtsoord voor vluchtelingen uit alle windstreken Image credit: Job Zomerplaag

The occupied Olympic dream

Many of these newcomers have settled in the illegally occupied Olympic village in Turin, where the Olympic Games were held in 2006. The colourful buildings of Moi, as the area is commonly known, house five times the number of athletes who stayed there in 2006. “The occupation is the result of failing government policy. Before that, hundreds of people slept rough,” says Guiseppe ‘Pino’ Bardaro, a volunteer who teaches English in the school in Moi. Together with other sympathetic locals, he helps the residents by setting up local projects, offering language and skills courses and facilitating a dialogue between the residents of Moi and the local people.

This dialogue is not going smoothly, however. Where Erasmus was received with open arms in his Republic of Letters in Italy (he even received his doctorate in Turin), the residents of Moi feel unwanted. Heavily armed soldiers, who hardly dare show themselves in the “republic”, guard the access roads to this modern-day ghetto. The problems in Moi are considerable, Pino says: “Many of the guys can hardly read or write and find it difficult to find a job due to the high level of unemployment.” He introduces me to Mohammed, a twenty-something from Darfur. In a hotchpotch of English and Italian, we talk about life in Moi. He proudly shows me his room up in one of the towers. Together with his room-mate Sunny from Chad, we drink coffee and watch Italian television. During the commercial break we talk about his dreams and hopes for the future.

Job and Mohammed in Moi. Image credit: Job Zomerplaag

The migrant republic of Moi

Mohammed feels home in Europe, he says, and hopes he will one day really become part of Italian society: “That wouldn’t take very much: a job and a roof over my head.” The once-bright colours of the blocks of flats have faded and the paint has slowly peeled from the concrete in the years following the Olympic Games. Although his hopes for a better future are alive, he sometimes finds it very hard. Some “success” is achieved now and then when someone leaves Moi. However, Pino has to admit that he is sometimes in danger of losing hope: “Most guys will never leave Moi.”

After hearing Mohammed’s life story, from which it is clear that he has had many set-backs, I say indignantly that he shouldn’t want to live in this Europe. He lights a cigarette and frowns. “You don’t know where I’m from,” he snaps somewhat bitterly while staring at the towers. I hope to catch a sparkle in his large, dark eyes in the silence that follows: a past memory, a face, a home. However, after the cigarette smoke has cleared, I don’t see a sparkle in his eyes but a reflection of the towers of Moi. The question which Mohammed then asks in return remains unanswered, although this could be because it was not said out loud: “Where will my journey take me?”

Read one comment