Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Bicycle Thieves

In the film Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thief),Vittorio De Sica's 1948 masterpiece of Italian neorealism, Antonio is struggling to support his family in post-World War II Rome. He has miraculously landed a job, but it requires a bicycle and his has already been pawned. His wife sells her dowry linens to retrieve it and the family's prospects seem to be on the rise, Then the bicycle is stolen. Antonio is devastated because the loss of his job means ruin for his family. One thing leads to another until Antonio himself becomes a bicycle thief. 

I thought of Antonio the other morning when I went down to get my bike and found that it had been stolen during the night. I suspect that it was just one of many because the bike rack was curiously empty and the only bikes left were those that were locked with heavy metal chains. 

Old-timers in Pisa attribute the thefts to people from Livorno, Pisa's ancient enemy in war and modern rival in soccer. Others accuse extracomunitari, people from outside the European Union, for the most part from eastern Europe. Harder for them to admit, but also likely, is the fact that among the culprits are ordinary Italian citizens, who like Antonio, are reduced to thievery by Italy's severe economic crisis. 

Whoever is behind it, bicycle theft is an enormous problem in Italy. In a recent surveyFiab, (the Italian Federation of Friends of the Bicycle) estimated that 320,000 of the four million bikes on the road in Italy are stolen each year. The numbers are especially high in university towns such as Bologna, where the 240 people interviewed by Fiab reported 275 bicycles stolen. In Pisa, the numbers of stolen bikes are also higher than one per person interviewed. At a high school in Pisa, 50 bikes, locked to racks in the school's courtyard, have been stolen in the last several months. In a recent article in the local paper, the principal of the school Andrea Simonetti, cried basta and called for the city to take action: "We cannot remain silent while our parking lots are regularly plundered in broad daylight," he said.  

Pisa has instigated a registration policy for bikes, and police have conducted some undercover raids at known selling points for stolen bikes. However, theft is still such a common occurrence here that most people don't even bother to report it. Antonio and I, however, both filed a denuncia. At the headquarters of the carabinieri, the officer who took my complaint was very nice, but like Antonio's police officer, he warned me there was very little the police could do. He gave me a copy of the report and suggested that I walk around the city and look for my bike.  If I found it, I could call for an officer and with my complaint in hand, it was likely my bike would be returned to me.  

So I've been walking around Pisa for the last couple of days. Bikes are everywhere - thousands and thousands of them - but there is no sign of mine.  In the film there is a scene where Antonio, who has been searching for his bike in the streets of Rome, sits on a curb and watches sadly as the world whizzes past him on bikes. I know how he felt.

If Hollywood made The Bicycle Thief, my part would be played by a young beautiful blond who would find her bike, aided by an incredibly handsome Italian policeman. They would fall madly in love and in the last scene, they would bike off into the sunset. In the gritty world of Italian neorealism, however, Antonio never does find his bike.  I suspect I won't either.

My green and white Bianchi bicycle was already old when I bought it nine years ago for 40 euros. JR, however, kept it in good repair, and a vegetable crate, tied to the back rack, allowed me to carry wine and other heavy items. I never bought an official bike basket because I always assumed my bike would get stolen. Now it's happened, but I content myself with the fact that nine years is something of a record for continuous bike ownership here in Pisa. Friends always said that my bike was too ugly to steal, but I thought of it as distinctive and too easily recognized. I guess in the dark of the night, its distinctiveness was not apparent. 

Unlike Antonio, I can buy another bike, but I will miss my old one. It took me not just to the supermarket in Pisa, but also - on bright, sunny spring  days - along coastal roads on the island of Elba, through Tuscan river valleys red with poppies, and to the tops of the highest hills in Chianti.

(To see more photos, including places I visited on my bike, click here.)

A presto,