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Francesca La Marca says of her experience in Rome’s Palazzo Montecitorio: ‘There’s always drama and controversy – but that’s Italy for you.’
Francesca La Marca says of her experience in Rome’s Palazzo Montecitorio: ‘There’s always drama and controversy – but that’s Italy for you.’

POLITICS

A Torontonian's journey to the heart of Italian politics Add to ...

And now for a completely different Etobicoke politician.

Francesca La Marca refuses to be bounded by Ford Nation. The 38-year-old’s family home is just around the corner from Rob Ford’s mother’s house, but her suburban worldview is much more expansive.

It’s not just that she’s a lifelong left-winger with a doctorate in French literature, specializing in the urbane poetry of Charles Baudelaire. Through a quirk in the globalizing reach of electoral politics, the Toronto-born Ms. La Marca has turned herself into a member of parliament in Rome, where she represents Italian citizens living in North and Central America from a seat in the 17th-century Palazzo Montecitorio.

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As a deputy for the ruling Democratic Party, headed by the mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, who recently seized power in an abrupt backroom coup, Ms. La Marca is at the centre of a tumultuous system of government that makes Toronto look like a late-night comedy show.

“It’s a highly precarious political situation,” she says. “There’s always drama and controversy – but that’s Italy for you.”

Ms. La Marca grew up in west-end Toronto admiring Bob Rae and Jack Layton, but she was immersed in Italy’s dramatics from her earliest years. Her Sicilian-born father was active in Italy’s Socialist Party, and together they followed the latest developments from a fractured country that is perpetually critical of its political status quo.

“Like many Italian-Canadians, he had a strong sense of nostalgia,” she says. “He wanted to see Italy more just and more efficient.”

The dual citizen found the same desire welling in her as a worldly Toronto teenager in the 1990s when she watched her Sicilian contemporaries marching in the streets to protest the murder of crusading judges by the all-powerful Mafiosi – a transformative moment that prompted many Italians in her generation to enter politics and seek a culture shift, including the 39-year-old Prime Minister Renzi.

That level of political engagement, she says, marks a key difference from Canada.

“You look at Italian TV shows, you can’t get away from the constant debates. Politicians are there talking about issues and members of the public are putting them on the hot seat, and asking them very direct questions.

“I think it comes down to a different history and culture Italians are always on the streets conversing and arguing. They realize they have to fight to get somewhere, while we’re a more sheltered country that’s made up of different cultures, so we’re focused on getting along and getting things done.”

No matter how Italian she might feel in the more reticent parts of Toronto, her strong sense of Canadianness takes over in the unrepressed Italian system.

“There has to be a way to work effectively without all this excess,” she says. “Many people have this impression that Italy is very laid back and nothing gets done. Instead, it’s quite the opposite – really long hours, lots of meetings, and it’s not uncommon to finish at 10 or 11 at night. The stereotype of Italians being big talkers, meaning everything drags on and on, is absolutely true.”

She hopes to bring some Canadian efficiency to the competitive Italian political style by focusing on issues specific to the expatriate voters who elected her last year: She helps people obtain dual citizenship, get better access to health care when they return to Italy for extended periods, and source funding for teaching Italian language and culture in North America.

“It’s frustrating to someone from an Anglo-Saxon background,” she says. “There is so much lobbying, so many little steps you have to take to get something done. The bureaucracy in Canada is much slimmer. [In Italy] you have to really push for things and then let a lot of time go by.”

Rome is designed to soothe all frustrations. As a wide-eyed Torontonian working in the heart of the city, Ms. La Marca is well-placed to live the political junkie’s dream. Her apartment is steps from the Piazza Navona, and it’s just a short return trip on foot from the parliamentary palace after a long day at the office.

“There’s an amazing restaurant next to my building, called Lagana, that all the politicians patronize. When I finish work late, after voting at 10 p.m., I come home and see all the ministers at the restaurant, people I used to watch on TV as a teenager. The smells are wafting out, there’s honking on the street, the fruit vendors are everywhere. If I had to choose one word to describe Rome, it’s alive.”

The fact that those ministers now greet her as if she belongs in their world “boggles my mind,” she says. But sometimes at the end of her 14-hour workdays, the Italian parliamentarian from Etobicoke wishes she had a bit more time to savour the experience of walking by the Trevi Fountain.

“This has been a huge life change for me, coming from an academic background where everything’s predictable,” she says. “I’m still learning the ropes and always feeling overwhelmed. It’s easy to forget that I’m living in such an incredible place, that I have the good fortune to be in a city that’s an open-air museum.”

So she’s made a resolution: Work like a Torontonian, but live more like a Roman.

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