Pizza they say was developed in Naples as cheap portable nourishment for the poor. Nowadays everyone eats pizza, everyone, and even though traditional Italian pizza is supposed to be thin as paper and crispy I prefer my occasional pizza to be thick like these I saw in a pizzeria in Perugia. I ate a tomato-free slice with potatoes though I did wonder what the Nutella flavored pie (in the bottom left hand corner, barely visible) tasted like. Good I am told...even though it sounded horrid.
Venice, Florence,Rome, Naples, cities of antiquity known around be world, Milan a center of fashion and design, Bologna, an industrial tradition second to none, all combined create the world's seventh largest economy. All this yet Italy these days seems to be on the ropes economically, brought down by the distant collapse of banks and real estate in the US. The United Nations rates Italy's socialized health care system as the second best provider of medical care in the world, yet the people I spoke to told me it is being shredded by cuts and an apparent determination to drive people to seek private care. The propaganda that has kept Americans in the dark about the benefits of the system are becoming reality as austerity cuts into everything. It's weird though because the roads are choked with cars (and motorcycles) as the eighty five percent who aren't yet unemployed go about business as usual. Youth unemployment is far worse, close to fifty percent.
Italian in my estimation is the easiest language to speak and to write. Everything is pronounced exactly as it is written, unlike Spanish which has weird rules about double ells sounding like a y and vs and bs sounding indistinguishable to an English speaker. Italian has no irregular verbs or deviations from grammar, only a couple of accents and a 21 letter alphabet (j k w x y don't exist in Italian) so once you have learned the rules the language is simple to use. Yet almost no one outside Italy, Corsica, Libya, Somalia and Grand Opera uses Italian. Italians themselves love English, an impossibly complex irregular language that is an amalgam of German, Danish, French and grotesque medieval English that non English speakers can hardly ever grasp in its true complexity. For instance a modern English speaker has to learn to read Chaucer in the original but a modern Italian speaker can read Dante straight off the page with only a very small glossary needed to explain a few words that have dropped out of common usage. Yet English in Italy is hip and desirable. Feeling, Design, Sound, Look, these are all words that crop up in motorcycle reviews that I read in magazines and they make me crazy because there are Italian equivalents but they are too lazy to use them. The fact is English is a much richer and more adaptable language than Italian and we invent words and phrases that Italian, rigid in its rules and medieval vocabulary simply can't match.
I am as incapable of being fashionable as any human alive. I find the world of fashion and social acceptance through expensive name brands to be idiotic. Blame my Aspergers for my need to see logic and good sense in everything but fashion to me represents a waste of money of the highest order. Giovanni disagrees. He loves window shopping, seen here on the streets of Cortina d'Ampezzo a fashionable ski resort of decades past. His is the correct attitude in provincial Italy where I scrape by in my muddle headed clothing way by virtue of being foreign and thus forgivable for my social and sartorial faux pas.
Italian industrial design is exemplified by the silly little scooter called a Vespa, a wasp in Italian, so called because Enrico Piaggio heard the high pitched buzzing of the new motor under development and said it resembled a wasp - Sembra una Vespa! - and so it was named. In America the iconic scooter represents a culture that I'm not completely convinced ever really existed outside movie reels. Nowadays scooters in Italy represent sensible transportation in clogged cities not built to handle a population of 60 million on a mountainous peninsula hardly larger than Florida ( a flatland with a population around 19 million). Giovanni shakes his head at my nostalgic desire to own and ride a two stroke scooter, anything less than a hundred horsepower isn't true two wheeled fun in his adrenaline fueled book. He has six thousand miles on his six month old BMW and he will ride through the winter putting on more miles as he rides to work every day. I am starting to get anxious to get my restored Vespa back from the shop, I want to reconnect with my Vespa nostalgia...this photo was on the wall of a hotel we stayed in, in Alto Adige in Northern Italy. A happy family memory I assume but the hotelier was a severe German speaker so I feared to enquire.
People ride scooters in Italy because cars are monstrous expensive to own and operate. Yet people do drive on ten dollar a gallon gasoline. They get double the mileage out of their small cars, imagine if you got fifty miles to the gallon out of a Ford Ka or Lancia Ypsilon instead of burning four dollar a gallon gas at less than twenty miles to the gallon. Such a conservation scenario, the true path to energy independence is impossible to envision because we all live in our realities. Reality in Italy is that lunch for two is a minimum forty Euro affair, $55 to eat and drink Italian style like you were scooting in Roman Holiday. That's okay if you are on vacation...and employed!
If you think the Tea Party has a point about excessive government in the US, if you think President Obama is a socialist you need a taste of life in Italy. Its not to say there are no excessive regulations in the US, my point is that Italy is a morass of regulations such that you might find it hard to imagine. There is a drive on at the moment to improve tax collections and tax inspectors in Italy judge a citizen's income by expenses, not declared income, and base Value Added Tax (a form of national sales tax) has just been increased to twenty two percent. Buy a yacht and get audited. By a car over 2,000cc and get audited. Deposit or withdraw more than three grand in cash and you will be required to explain where the money came from or was going to. It's not simply a notification as in the US over ten grand cash, it's an assumption of guilt. Banks only change foreign currency if you have an account. I had to change my cash dollars at the central post office and the clerk freaked when she had to figure out how to do it for a non resident... Paper still has its place in Giovanni's world, simple untraceable and familiar.
The government decides how many pharmacies a community can support and issues licenses accordingly. Giovanni's private cardiology practice has to be operated through the hospital where he has worked for thirty years to earn a government pension and pay the state back for his education. The hospital reports his extra income, he pays taxes on the total amount but the hospital takes 75% of the money. He pays the tax out of the 25% left over. Make sense? Of course not but he has no choice. Free enterprise is a concept that has no place in Italy's tightly regulated economy. The old red road men's houses, the Case Cantoniere are falling into disuse in the modern era of paved roads and modern road building technology. A man and a shovel and a stretch of graveled road to maintain is no longer a part of Italian scenery and better so perhaps. But the jobs these abandoned roadside buildings represent are also gone for good.
The problem nowadays is that citizens no longer have jobs for life, corruption is endemic at all levels in government and services are being cut. As an outsider I can see the need for streamlining but at the same time I see the wreckage of the lives being disrupted on the ground. Talking about the destruction of Greece a friend of Giovanni's remarked that instead of crushing the Greeks the Germans should be grateful for the opportunity to help out the descendents of the people who gave Germany civilization thousands of years ago. When Germans were Huns living in huts and pillaging, Greece was developing the structures that made modern civilization possible. Now the Greeks need help they are abandoned to their fate. And I'm ready to believe the Greek leadership that fiddled the books aren't hurting like the newly unemployed and their families. The Way Greeks Live Now - NYTimes.com
The new Pope has been making waves in Italy, a nominally Catholic country that takes pride in being home to the Papacy but ignores most of the rules of Catholicism. The Argentine Pope is surprising me certainly, by living what he believes, refusing the trappings of temporal power and focusing on poverty and misery that seems to be spreading across the industrial world. Apparently American bishops who like to keep nagging on about abortion and contraception are getting sort shrift in the new administration. In Italy he seems to be quite popular even though he hasn't actually moved the Church way from the divisive doctrines he says need to be reformed.
"Christ's Curve" they call this statue in the Alps. May every man find the curve that leads to you, Lord. And perhaps it's a measure of how bad things are that the Pope's every word resonates these days. I was surprised by the new found religiosity, but history shows that this is what happens when daily Life becomes unbearable, when economic and social uncertainty permeate daily life the churches tend to fill up again. The prosperity of post war Europe is on the wane and the future looks unclear.
I was in a bar with Giovanni having a coffee (an espresso I mean), and the talk turned to emigration as the woman behind the bar lamented her life. Her eyes lit up when Giovanni told her I had emigrated to America. Its not a holiday I said.
And I went into my spiel about no friends, no family, no one to pick you up when you fall, no familiar customs, no medical coverage without money. Can you get along with people not like you? Black brown, gay straight, immigrants all and all mixed up, she backed away. Reality sucks especially for those who dream streets are paved with gold somewhere else. Italians have their own stereotypes about the US.
Giovanni rides a motorcycle like a man possessed, fast and furious such that his friends can't keep up. They tell of group rides led by my friend who rode so fast they never even saw the roofs of the houses in the valleys they rode by. I struggle to keep up, inhibited by draconian speed laws never enforced, and mechanical speed traps lurking by the side of the road. We race long narrow winding roads, violating every law of traffic and I ask myself how Italy can grapple its way out of disrespect for the law when lawlessness is so ingrained. Well, Giovanni says as we pause to smoke or in my case take pictures, respect for the law needs to start at the top. Fair enough but I am a terrible law breaker, I enjoy respecting the law and have the greatest difficulty accepting that some laws are stupid.
Giovanni's Dad grew up and prospered in the post war world when the Marshal Plan rebuilt Western Europe as a bulwark against Communism. Social democracy meant the CIA funded center right parties but everyone supported social services, industry, full employment. He is in his eighties now, his pension assured, payment for a sensible life lived well.
Giovanni's mother lived a life as a housewife and mother, never exposed to the hazards and tribulationsof the workplace, never stretched by any requirement to face the unknown. Serene in her assurance she views the world outside the walls of their snug appartment as irrational and incomprehensible.
In Italy history is everywhere, the past adapted to the present. This war monument erected to the memory of national heroes in Narni features the visage of the late dictator Benito Mussolini, who started his career as a socialist and veered off into Fascism, the amalgamation of corporations and government, when socialism got too messy. Mussolini fell, his memory is reviled but his monuments stand adapted to the current democratic regime with few minor alterations. Italy adapts, for one never knows what might come next. This part of the world has been governed by popes, kings, dictators and bickering political parties. Whatever comes next will likely not be new.
I have no regrets. Call me a philistine, but I don't regret leaving, not one bit.