By Andrea Stone, ContributorJune 14, 2017
CASERMA EDERLE, Italy -- The relationship between the local Vicenza community and the United States military goes back decades, but it's a history that few Americans get to hear from an Italian perspective.
Attendees of the Americans in Vicenza conference May 24 had the opportunity to hear not only that history, but also the way many in the local Italian community view Americans in Italy today.
"When you arrived in 1945, everyone remembered you as the liberators, America and freedom. And the process is still going on," said Marino Smiderle, chief editor of Il Giornale di Vicenza, the local newspaper.
Americans as representatives of freedom was something that her mother and grandmother shared with conference attendee Leila Alberti, a local national who has worked at the Directorate of Public Works for 35 years.
"Fascism was a very bad period. We were really poor. The Americans … had a lot of things that we didn't have," she said. "Everything that was American was amazing because of the richness and the way of life, for people who came from war, who came from starvation."
The relationship began with the liberation of northern Italy from German occupation in April 1945, but the American military officially established a presence at Caserma Ederle 10 years later, in 1955, said Francesco Jori, author of the book, "History of Vicenza."
"A famous writer said that they looked like Martians because for our reality at the time they were so weird and strange, they were like aliens," he said. "But there's something that the people of Vicenza don't know. The Americans had been here three years before, not the Army, but American businessmen for the Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Europe."
Vicenza was selected as a city where American business leaders would teach local entrepreneurs. The lessons were a success in the Veneto region, transforming from primarily poor rural farms to a region known for business within two generations, said Jori.
"It's as though the Americans sowed the seeds of entrepreneurship and … today, Vicenza is one of the biggest industrial cities in Italy," he said.
In the years since the impoverishment of World War II, when much of the population emigrated to other countries, the region has changed dramatically.
"Today, Veneto is a place people move into. We have over 170 different ethnicities and without all these different people, we wouldn't be able to be so successful," Jori said. "We are convinced that being able to live together with different people is a value, not a problem. What the pope says, 'to build bridges and not walls,' is the fundamental thing."
The world is different now for both Veneto and America.
"It's true that things have changed, but still for us, the Americans are an example. Nobody is perfect. But still, it's a lot of years of relationship, and most of the years, it's a good relationship," Alberti said.
However, the relationship between the citizens of Vicenza and the American military has been marked by conflict occasionally, especially with the opening of Caserma Del Din in 2013. In 2007, more than 100,000 Italians protested the construction of the post, but Smiderle insisted that the opposition is not personal.
"It's normal to have people protest military construction. It's difficult to find people who want military construction. It's not the fact that you were Americans," he said.
Plans for Del Din began when Italy had a stronger economy, as well.
"There was not an economic crisis. They were good years for the economy. (Some people thought), 'we don't need this base.' If you talk to them now, after eight years of hard economic crisis, I think they look at it (differently)," said Smiderle.
Understanding the views of local Italians in relation to Del Din was eye-opening for Col. Steve M. Marks, commander of U.S. Army Garrison Italy.
"As a garrison commander, you deal a lot with the community, and to have an appreciation for the history of the U.S. presence in Vicenza is critical," he said. "We do have an enormous economic impact in Vicenza, but you also have to understand there's a lot of other folks in Vicenza who may not appreciate our presence. So, we have to be aware as Americans that we can't come in and throw around the money. We've also got to take the time to cultivate that relationship."
A tool in cultivating the relationship has been the coverage of local American news in the Vicenza newspaper, but it wasn't always a clear-cut decision.
"The chief editor at the time used to say, 'the Americans don't speak Italian. They don't buy our newspaper. Why do we have to write about them?'" Smiderle said.
But Smiderle pushed the paper to cover local American news with the view that the Americans were part of the Vicenza community and their stories needed to be told.
And now there's a plan to tell more stories in English, as well.
"The questions that my chief editor asked make sense. Many of you stay here only a couple of years. Our newspaper is written in Italian. We cannot expect you to learn Italian and buy our newspaper. We have a very ambitious project … to have a couple of pages written in English once a week about local news so you can still read about the local news in English," he said. "Of course, the final goal is to make you feel at home and make you feel part of this community."
Learning more about the Vicenza community and the relationship between the two cultures was a goal of the conference.
"It was very interesting and informative, and I'm glad that we had something here," said Jael Latham, an American who works at DPW. "I wish that we had more opportunities to learn about the culture and the history here."