Have you noticed how many injured people there are walking around here in Groningen? This was one of my first remarks about the city back in the spring of 2001 when I was studying here as an Erasmus student.
By Giuseppe Raudino
I was having a discussion with a friend of mine, who was an Erasmus student too. It was my first truly international experience abroad, and what struck me about Groningen was the huge number of people walking with crutches or getting around in wheelchairs, not to mention the flocks of elderly people storming the Grote Markt and the shopping malls with their walkers and mobility scooters.
Compared to Italy, I couldn’t understand how such a collective disgrace seemed to have hit this poor city in the north of Europe. It must be the ice, I thought: in the wintertime, it must be slippery and this is what you get after a few months: broken arms, broken legs, dislocations, plasters and casts. I started to think that Dutch people must be reckless: Can’t they walk carefully and avoid accidents? Italy looked so different to me: happy people walking leisurely uphill, climbing stairs, moving swiftly to avoid potholes and dog excrement while juggling with their mobile phones in the attempt to perform their gesticulations.
I have to admit that my first encounter with this form of Dutch diversity caught me unprepared. I judged a social phenomenon with my cultural biases and applied a superficial theory to explain a hidden complexity. The truth is that the Netherlands takes better care of those people with physical impairments and disadvantages. Architectural barriers are long removed, facilities and services for the handicapped are largely available and, above all, showing your disability in most cases is not considered a source of shame.
This is exactly the opposite of what happens in Italy. In Italian cities, you may enjoy picturesque corners, tangled narrow streets and ancient buildings, but only a few spots are accessible to people who cannot walk as easily. Historical centres are mainly paved with bumpy cobblestones which do not make for a smooth route for a wheelchair; old buildings are not equipped with lifts, which makes it extremely complicated to get out of your home, unless you live on the ground floor; sidewalks are often blocked by cars parked by undisciplined drivers.
In other words, many Italian cities are a nightmare for those who have limited mobility; people affected by this problem may feel that they are better of staying at home than engaging in a struggle with a hostile environment. On top of that, because a person with a handicap is such a rare sight, those who do accept the challenge and go outside have to face weird stares and uncomfortable comments, like the ones I made myself in the beginning of this story.
A very famous Dutch anthropologist by the name of Geert Hofstede has pointed out how Dutch society is more equality-oriented and takes care of those who are in need, like the elderly and poor. That was the first lesson I learnt about diversity. In Italy, besides your familiar network, nobody seems to care, which was a bitter lesson for me to learn. But I am glad I stumbled upon a civilised society and eventually decided to live here – and by the way, I was relieved when I heard that the likelihood of getting injured is not higher in the Netherlands.