Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Italy I Left

The good stuff that carries the label Made In Italy is stuff we all know about even if only at second hand. Ice cream is one, known in the US by its Italian name gelato to denote the particular creamy density of the original. It is said Marco Polo learned of ice cream ( and pasta ) while living in China, but scenes like this are reminiscent in the modern mind only of Italy, not the Far East.

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.

Italy is stereotypically a land of florid agriculture, rolling hills, cypress trees and ochre villas set among the fields. It is they tell the visitors, paradise. And it doesn't look a bit like Key West!

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.

I love living in the Keys where fashion means nothing. Some people wear expensive clothes and others don't and yet neither seems to make much difference. Rich people wear rags on Duval Street and poseurs wear name brands. In Italy rules of dress are rigid unless you don't mind being an outcast.

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 -

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 loves the orderliness of the Germans. He loves the cleanliness of public spaces, the quiet neat lines of people, the trains that run on time, the mechanical integrity of German cars and motorcycles, a country where freewsys are speed limit free. And yet in his own life order and attention to rules is haphazard at best, squeezed out of him by conflicting rules, corrupt leaders and changing regulations that never take heed of his needs. There is a wistfulness in the way he drives and rides German. Me? I like Italian food and Italian bikes and the world I grew up in that is long gone. I rode a Benelli once, as did Giovanni, and now we don't. I miss the good parts of the good old days, the freedom to ride mostly in a world that wasn't so tightly regulated.

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.

I took this picture of my mother and my sisters in the late 1960s in the English garden where we spent our winters. Order, certainty and good manners ruled. In Italy farmers took off their hats off when they addressed my mother, and her whims were attended to immediately. I accepted everything as the way things were and should be. The older I have grown the less certainty I see in the world around me. I can't make up my mind how I feel about that, certainty breeds security and everyone aspires to a life of constant change.

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.

Suppose you've been laid off and now figure it's a good time to open a small business as there's no work t be had. A small shop selling candies smokes and newspapers. In Italy you need to get a government permit to sell tobacco and taxed paper. If you want to sell something privately, like a car or a hot tub the bill of sale must be written up on a piece of paper that has been taxed by the government (carta bollata). And to sell government monopolies you need a government license to sell stufflike tobacco, taxed paper and salt - yes salt; since Roman times salt was a government monopoly such that people were paid with the stuff hence the term salary from the Latin for salt -salis.
And the same goes for German speaking Italy:
Multinational corporations are just that and all the brands you know and love litter daily life across the globe, perhaps under different names or in different formulations to suit the locals...but they are everywhere. This visit I missed the chance to try Mcdonald's cold pasta sold in Italian stores and said to be very good. Italy has a cachet as a cool place for Americans, antiquity, good food lovely countryside and all that. However the social changes Americans take or granted are a little lagging in Italy. Gay rights are not enshrined legally though the European Union does have a human rights charter. Socially most Italians don't think gays should marry or adopt, and many like Giovanni prefer to believe being gay is a choice which I find to be utterly absurd. Gypsies, known to modern Europeans as Romanies are much feared and marginalized. They travel as a way of,life instead of settling down, dress weird, talk weirder and when we were children our parents disciplined us saying the gypsies (zingari) would come and take us away if we didn't behave. At my age and after a life spent among New World weirdos I figure, perhaps naïvely, they are just people:
The hallmarks of our youth stay with us over time. Padre Pio was a sainted figure of my youth, a friar who was reportedly struck by stigmata, wounds that appear unbidden replicating Christ's crucifixion wounds in hands feet and in his side and which seep blood from time to time.Pio of Pietrelcina - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. He was a grumpy dude who suffered terrible health and never allowed any medical person to examine his wounds which he always kept covered. Modern skeptics say he exploited the gullible but my sisters met him and thy still revere his memory. I was surprised to see his picture hanging next to a dust catcher from my home town. Most people in my village revere Padre Pio, not many have relatives who live in Florida.
When I see youngsters unaccompanied on the streets of Key West I revel in their freedom and think of my own endless summers on an inland island tucked away in the hills of central Italy. I left the house early in the morning and spent the day wandering the fields and woods engaged with my imagination, stealing fruit and drinking water that came spontaneously out of the ground. Anti bacterial soap was unknown to me and we played among pigs cows and sheep beating off god knows what infections. I ate fruit unwashed, my best friend was a shepherd minding his flocks, biblically like the nativity story on the hillsides, as they wandered the fields and his job, instead of being in school, was to watch his flock. We watched them and played with slingshots like David taking on Goliath. September ended our summer with the harvest taken in and the prospect of school darkening the horizon. Ripening grapes were the allure of the month and I vividly remember picking and eating gapes until I was stuffed. My mother used to get angry when I came home to lunch not hungry.
The simplicity of my freedom as a little scamp ended with ties and jackets and bells ringing the hours in my English boarding school, the total reversal of my summer romps. Nowadays life even in these rural backwaters is supervised and controlled far more tightly than we ever knew in the age before desk top computing. I find in returning to the US that I feel more at home than I would ever have expected. People ask me with wonderment why I fled the mythical paradise that is Italy, in. A reversal of Italians who think I was lucky and smart to emigrate when I could. I fled because my family and I didn't get along. I stayed because we in the US are the lucky ones. Things aren't as good as they might be, and perhaps we Americans of the 21st century have strayed a long way from the original intent of this country in the details, but not in ways the superficial anger of political "debate" might suggest. I dislike the wealth inequality that plagues our country, the denial of opportunity to millions of students, the persistent racial inequality and easy negative stereotyping. I am one of the lucky ones, white and middle aged and still employed living in a mild climate with the appurtenances of a middle class life. I have access to the world and yet I live a life of true inner freedom that would never have been available to me had I stayed behind.
The daily grind of life in Italy, land of low wages and lack of choices would never have permitted me to live on the margins of society as I have in California and Florida. As Giovanni says I'd never have been allowed to live on a boat, an inconceivable notion in the land of conformity. Growing old without children is odd enough, but choosing to be marginalized is an inconceivable choice in the land of conformity that is Italy. Renaissance Italy gave us the concept of banking and now low wage Italy is apparently the land of bank robberies. Can you imagine going through these contraptions every time you went to the bank?
Statistically the US is no longer the land of opportunity when one percent of the population sweeps up 95 percent of the income. Yet our future seems so much rosier than theirs is over there. Lifetime employment, medical care and pension plans are fading and in their place is privatization and uncertainty and no work. It feels to me as though the promises of post World War Two social compacts are being shelved in favor of a reversion to feudalism and I don't like it but I know I am better off here than there. Life ends in a black and white poster announcing your passing to a better world they say. A life summed up in thirty words or less.
I have spent the past six summers exploring my old world wondering if I was right to quit and run, to leave behind everything I knew and take on the unknown with no promises. I guess I can say it worked out somehow. I will go back next July I hope but this time I will be a tourist, not an emigre, not a returnee nor an explorer.
I knew I was an American as I lined up to get a sandwich at Fiumicino Airport as I waited for the boarding process to begin. I saw what I wanted and was about to ask for it, as one does, when I saw the sign,"get a receipt from the cashier" so I went to the cashier station which was unattended. So I asked where to pay, glad I speak Italian to help me navigate the chaos engendered by such a nominally simple operation. Over there she said pointing to the cashier at the news stand. WTF? Okay then. I walked across the concourse and once again lined up where I had just bought a book and a newspaper. Eventually I got to the cashier and paid for the sandwich. Then I went back to the food counter and found myself in a rugby scrum. I caught the eye of one woman in the absurd paper hat as I waved my receipt but she said, oh no, I am just doing coffee. Fuck This, I said to myself ready to abandon the quest for an eight dollar sandwich, and an unworthy thought entered my Teamster brain...damn the unions! I stood shoulder to shoulder within the crowd wondering why buying a sandwich had to resemble jostling for a seat on the last flight out of Saigon. But that's Italy. In Chicago I bought a Wolfgang Puck signature sandwich (in flight food is ghastly) that was easy to buy, tasted better and cost less. And I had Customs and Passport control behind me so I knew I was back home in America.
So yes, I turned my back on the land of exquisite art and delicious food, on romance and blah blah blah.

I have no regrets. Call me a philistine, but I don't regret leaving, not one bit.