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31 Jul, 2019 11:34

Greedy Ghost takes over Europe: Don’t sit, don’t eat, in an age of profit before people

Greedy Ghost takes over Europe: Don’t sit, don’t eat, in an age of profit before people

Harsh punishment meted out to two German backpackers for the ‘crime’ of brewing their own coffee at the Rialto Bridge in Venice is symptomatic of the way that public space is being eroded and profit being put before humanity.

Don’t smell the coffee in Venice, at least not if you brewed it yourself on a portable mini-stove in the center of the historic city instead of paying for it at a coffee shop or café, or you could be in big, big trouble.

Two German tourists who did that recently were fined a total of €950 ($1000) and asked to leave the city.

The tourists made no mess. They caused no obstruction, but they were clobbered under regulations from Venice’s city council. These regulations (detailed here) include a €200 fine for sitting down outside to consume food or drinks, except within designated areas. Can you imagine the mentality of the ‘passer-by’ who reported them to the police?  

Venice employs white-vested ‘stewards’ to enforce its rules. These have been dubbed ‘the sandwich police.’

Sitting down is forbidden but sitting down and eating is doubly forbidden,” one person told the Observer last summer. There are no special concessions for the old or infirm. When I tweeted about the coffee brewing incident one of my followers replied: “Venice is one of the most unfriendly places I’ve ever been. There’s no respect for people whatsoever. In a 40 degree heat wave a couple of weeks ago, teams of local volunteers were hassling old ladies for sitting on steps in St Mark’s Square, insisting that we ‘respect’ the city.”

Elsewhere in Italy it’s even worse. In Florence, you can be fined €500 for eating al fresco in parts of the city center in ‘peak hours‘. Two years ago, Florence banned non-local food from the city center, with the mayor even threatening to turn hoses on people who ate on the cathedral steps. So if you’re going there this summer and plan to make your own sandwiches, beware.  

Regrettably, it’s not just Italy where this anti-human stuff is going on. It’s happening all over.

At a public meeting to save local authority libraries in Britain from closure, which I attended in 2011, the author Philip Pullman referred to the ‘greedy ghost’ which was taking over. “The Greedy Ghost is everywhere. That office block isn’t making enough money, tear it down and put up a block of flats… The flats aren’t making enough money, rip them apart and put a hotel. The hotel isn’t making enough money, smash it to the ground and put up a multiplex cinema. The cinema isn’t making enough money, demolish it and put up a shopping mall.” 

While ostensibly about ‘protecting historic cities’ from ‘mass tourism’, the measures being introduced across Europe can be seen as part of a wider trend to restrict free use of public spaces in order to get us to spend more money. The ‘greedy ghost’ is haunting us everywhere, particularly when we’re on holiday.

In 2008, Croatia introduced a ban on the import of meat and dairy products from all EU countries to stop Czech holidaymakers, who loved to take their summer vacation on the Adriatic coast, coming in in their Skodas with their car boot full of food and drink. “The Croats court the rich Germans and Austrians, but they discriminate against the Czechs, seeing them as undesirable low-quality tourists,” a Czech newspaper wrote. 

European unity, anyone? 

Taking out seating for the public is a key part of the plan to maximize profits. Sir Terence Conran, who designed the interiors of the original Terminal 1 at Heathrow and the North Terminal at Gatwick in the 1960s, has contrasted the brief he received from the state-owned British Airports Authority then, with the instructions Richard Rogers, the architect of Terminal 5, got from the privately owned BAA, forty years later.

It tells us everything about how the needs of people have been sacrificed for making more profit.

Conran was told to put in “lots of seating” as the priority “was a concern for the users’ comfort and, in particular, to relax and put at ease people who, at that time, might have been anxious about air travel,” he recalled.

Rogers’ brief was very different. “They don’t want any seating for the public,” Rogers told him. “He realised that if there was only seating in cafes and bars, then in effect people were being obliged to pay to sit down. Whereas if you provide proper seating, then people won’t shop as much. But BAA decided that this was exactly what they wanted, and that they could get away with it.

A reduction in public seating is a hallmark of most new developments, from airports to shopping centers. If we do want to sit down in these shiny new US-style malls, we are expected to pay for the privilege in pricey cafes and bars. The same goes for free public toilets. They used to be everywhere in Britain yet almost 40% have disappeared in the last two decades. Again, this is pushing people to use toilets in cafes and bars where they will probably end up spending money, especially if toilets can only be accessed with a code on a receipt. 

Another disturbing trend is the banning of people taking their own food and drink into major sporting and musical events, which never used to happen. While ‘security’ concerns are often cited, again, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that this is all about making people pay over the odds at official ‘outlets’. It seems we’re not really meant to go outside our front door unless we’re prepared to spend quite a bit of money.

When did the Greedy Ghost take over?  

Things were not as bad as this 30 or 40 years ago, that’s for sure. Like many other university students, I travelled around Europe in the 1980s on an Interrail ticket. I also went behind the ‘Iron Curtain.’ I stayed at hostels, small hotels and even slept out… in public spaces. My first night in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) was spent on a bench on the platform at Erfurt railway station. One of my friends slept in the central reservation of a major highway in Hungary without any bother from the authorities. My friends and I sat on steps in major cities and ate and drank our own food and drink, without getting $1000 fines.  

Consider this: Italy and other Western countries now have more restrictions on what you can do in public spaces than the old communist countries had. The Greedy Ghost has had the last laugh.

Follow Neil Clark @NeilClark66 

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.