Ikea Enters History

Collegno is not the first place you’d choose to receive a refresher on genocide. A small working class municipality on Torino’s west side, in my household, its claim to fame is its Ikea. Step inside on a Sunday afternoon, and you’ll find the cafeteria packed with local families enthusiastically gorging on plates of Swedish meatballs.

Italians are legendary for their culinary chauvinism. Proud of their country’s vast array of regional cuisines, to bear witness to a hundred indulging Scandinavian department store food can be surprising. That is, if you buy into the idea that Italians are as obsessed with consuming themselves as Eat Pray Love fans are.

So fond are Italians of foreign foods, just before we first moved to the country two years ago, rightist politicians attempted to prohibit the opening of new kebab parlors in the neighboring province of Lombardy. Alarmed at the growing market for Berlin-style Turkish street food (often said to be as popular as pizza) the racism of their effort was plainly obvious.

But Swedish meatballs? How do you explain that? At least with döner kebab, though one would be hard pressed to find it in Istanbul, there is still something distinctly Mediterranean about it. The ease with which Italians have adopted it makes a great deal of sense. Especially if you’re aware of the historic impact of Islamic civilization on Italy.

The most plausible explanation is that Italians like it for the same reasons they buy Ikea furniture. Their fondness for Scandinavian cuisine isn’t so much because they want to eat their pillows. Nor is it a sign they feel obliged to indulge alien culinary rituals in order to reconcile themselves to having to buying foreign. After all, food makes everything easier.

Rather, the appetite for something as plainly foreign as lingonberries is a reflection of the increasingly globalized country that Italians call their home. They eat it because it is there. As though to affirm the extent to which their dining repertoire is expanding, take, for example, the graffiti scrawled on the wall, above. It reads, in English, “Fuck Serbia.”

Located outside the entrance to Ikea, on a local road connecting the store to central Torino, it’s unavoidable. The times we’ve driven towards Ikea, it has been its own ironic confirmation of our decision to buy Swedish. Serbia stands for destruction, for genocide. Ikea, functionality and savings. How much more rational could we be?

Returning home to Torino, the graffiti tends to take on more serious overtones. Having already been confronted by its initial absurdity, (“What’s this doing on a rural road in northern Italy?” was my first reaction, “Why is this not in Italian?” my second,) its foreign language and subject matter appear to be more indigenous to its surroundings.

Serbia, for example, is not that far away. It takes two hours to fly to Belgrade from Milano. During 1999’s Kosovo War, NATO jets found the trip to be even shorter. Until the 1991 breakup of the former Yugoslavia, Italy shared a physical frontier with the state Belgrade once led. Though Italy is best known for its North African and Albanian immigrants, especially in the north, many Serbian migrants make their home, too.

However, Balkan immigration is not the first thing that comes to mind when one encounters a piece of graffiti that says “Fuck Serbia” in Collegno. One might, for example, attribute it to local anger at Fiat for increasing production at a Belgrade-area subsidiary, instead of producing the same automobiles in Fiat’s own hometown, Torino.

Not me. Having spent the previous week reading accounts of the 16th anniversary of the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre, in which 8,5000 + Bosnian Muslims were murdered by Serbian forces, my first impulse was to read this graffiti as though it were a sign of this anniversary’s observance. Surely, I thought, there must be some Bosnian Muslims here.

Though I believe was mistaken, there’s something compelling about fantasies of survivors registering their anger on a roadside wall outside an Italian branch of Ikea. Considering how distant the war feels today, how easily its lessons about the necessity of tolerance have been buried by anti-immigrant politics, you can understand why.

To wit, two and a half weeks before the sixteenth anniversary of the killings in Srebrenica, a Dutch court acquitted Geert Wilders, Europe’s most outspoken anti-Muslim politician, of charges of racism. Across the continent, the verdict was greeted with shock. If anyone should have been convicted of racism, it was Wilders.

Despite the fact that on July 7th, a court in Holland concluded that the Dutch Army was responsible for the deaths of three Bosnian Muslims in the Srebrenica massacre (Dutch UN troops were tasked with protecting the Bosnians,) Wilders’ acquittal has set a new precedent. If he can’t be successfully prosecuted, it will be harder to convict others like him.

Hence, the reasonableness of seeing protests against Serbia in such unlikely locations. The more difficult it becomes to pursue justice, the more common it will be to encounter complaints like this. Or so I imagined, as I finished photographing the graffiti with my iPhone, while my patient wife waited for me in the safety of our air conditioned car.


  1. Patrick, I have to concur. There have been many occasions when I was up in the Phoenix area — about 110 miles from Tucson — and decided that I had to stop for meatballs on the way back rather than something more chic or regionally appropriate.

    1. Charlie, I wasn’t arguing that it was unnatural for Italians to desire Swedish meatballs. As I explain in the article, “Swedish” is just there, meaning available, just like any other cuisine, including Italian. To assume that Italians are such culinary chauvinists as to avoid eating Swedish is, is as you explained earlier, to not fully understand the local. Nonetheless, i allow myself the “surprise” of the foreigner, by noticing Italian enjoyment of Swedish cuisine all the same. I hope that clarifies

      1. I’m confused, Joel. I didn’t say that it was unnatural for Italians to desire Swedish meatballs. All I wrote was this:

        Patrick, I have to concur. There have been many occasions when I was up in the Phoenix area — about 110 miles from Tucson — and decided that I had to stop for meatballs on the way back rather than something more chic or regionally appropriate.

        See? No mention of Italians or unnaturalness.

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