So in early December the young wood-cutter began cutting the pine-wood on the top of the La Faula hill. I now know his name and he is twenty years old. He works by himself. In the morning at eight he is already up on the hill. During the day one hears him cutting and sees the felling of the pines. When the pines are down he cleans-off the side branches and chops them into small pieces before pulling the logs up the hill with a powerful winch attached to his tractor.
His work is treacherous. Cutting high trees in a dense wood is always risky. Mostly the trees will go where they should but sometimes they twist and fall unpredictably. Often they fall against another tree while still standing vertical and getting them down is fraught with possibilities of danger. Winching tons of logs up a steep slope pitted with stumps is extremely dangerous. Sensibly the wood-cutter gets into and stays in the cab of the tractor while doing this. Numerous farmers, less experienced in forestry, have been killed in Friuli when the tree they were winching suddenly blocked and the tractor, instead, reared up and over on the unwary farmer.
And this is all without mentioning the risks of turning the tractor over on steep slopes, on being injured by the chain-saw or being crushed while stacking the logs. Getting the logs out involves driving a heavily-loaded trailer down a narrow and slippery logging road, sheer sides dropping away, all the while trying to keep control with a tractor that weighs significantly less. Being a woodcutter is like being in the Old West. One faces danger every day and in most actions. Nowadays there is machinery but it is powerful and unforgiving of human slightness.
So I wonder at the fact that the wood-cutter is up there on our hill alone. I know that if something bad happens and he is incapacitated or cannot reach or use his telephone no-one will come to help him until he fails to return for dinner in the evening. It is like this, even now in 2011. He could die there, not adrift on some angry ocean nor alone in a crevice of a great mountain but not more than 50 metres from La Faula where Luca and I are working and the dogs are playing. I keep an ear out and when I sense there are long periods of silence turn an eye to the hill. Once or twice the dogs got an extra walk as I climbed the hill to make sure that the wood-cutter was all-right.
Last Sunday I made my habitual visit to the local Trattoria Ai Cons. After Sunday Mass the regulars are there and they figuratively chew the fat. It’s a good place to feel the currents flowing around La Faula. A friend leant over towards me.
’They say he doesn’t pay’ he said in a low voice.
’Who’ I replied but I already had an idea.
’Him, he that is cutting your wood. They say he doesn’t pay. I heard this during the week. They were discussing it’.
’But they would say that wouldn’t they?’ I replied.
’It’s the cattiveria [spite - malice]. They always have to talk bad about someone who’s doing something. And it might even be true.’ I paused. Of course it may or may not be true. But the vein of cattiveria in small Italian villages is a rich seam, easily mined when somebody is doing something out of the ordinary.
A few days later I discussed the situation with Corradino as we walked together along the river stop-bank, the dogs darting to and fro around us. Corradino was warming up for his big holiday season bender - too much alcohol and too much temptation. He was already imbibing the Christmas spirit and his breath was a bit sour.
’The problem is’ I said ’That when you give the cut to someone you can’t be there all the time controlling that they aren’t ripping you off’. It’s impossible not to be fregato [screwed].
’No’ Corradino said. ’The problem is that wood-cutting is heavy and difficult and stressful. The machinery costs a lot and breaks often. Then there is the fuel. If you give the cut to someone he sees all that he has to risk and do. And then he has to pay you for doing nothing. It’s obvious that there is always the temptation to take a bit more and give the owner of the wood less.’
To be continued .....
Returning to the felling of the La Faula Pine Wood:
This evening, when it was already dark and under a consistent light rain, an articulated log hauler lorry came to take away some of the pine logs cut from the pine-wood at the top of the La Faula hill.
The young wood-cutter had already created a large pile of logs before Christmas but when the lorry had arrived to take them, and left the tarmacked road, it lost traction and needed to be pulled back onto the hard by a tractor. Moving this pile will need to wait until either the temperatures fall and stay consistently below zero or that there passes a period of dry.
The wood-cutter, wisely, placed his second pile next to the road and this was the one that the logs were taken from this evening. The experience was, in some way, exhilarating. Normally the closest I get to the big log-hauling lorries is when I pass them on the motorway. Our van is small and old and the lorries so large and stacked so high with lumber that I feel a tinge of nervousness as I overtake, the van rattling along and the vertical wall of wood rearing alongside. Occasionally, I have done this in the rain, nearly blinded, and wholly terrified, by the constant sheet of spray thrown-up the by the numerous lorry wheels.
So it was that this evening the wood-cutter called me and said that the lorry would soon arrive. We had agreed that I would be there to record the weight and check that everything was above-board. The night was dark but the lorry was fully illuminated by numerous spotlights placed upon it. The enormous arm carried three large lights that pushed the night away. Out of the black the scene emerged as if in daylight. The lorry was on the side of the narrow country road but nobody passing could miss it. An enormous pile of logs was perpendicular to the lorry and the great arm would swing over and grab a bunch of logs as if they weighed as balsa. The loading proceeded with speed. The operator was expert and when a particularly heavy bunch of logs was lifted was suddenly bathed in red light as an over-load warning triggered.
I stood there with the wood-cutter. Both of us, oblivious to the rain, were transfixed by the marvel of the power, strength and dexterity of the machinery. To watch trunks of such weight lightly lifted, swung and positioned without a drop or a bang was breath-taking. We didn’t feel the cold or the wet; we were taken away watching the steel and plastic, come alive and exert its graceful magic. Of course, for the wood-cutter there was also the pleasure that the logs now passed to the saw-mill and payment would be following.
I commented on how able the operator was in manipulating the arm so expertly. It seemed, somehow, a tremendous thing for one man to have all that power under his immediate control and to be able to exercise it so finely. The elegance with which the arm operated seemed to portend operation by a man somehow more than those of us average guys.
It is so nice to be sitting here in a toasty-warm kitchen with the sound of wood crackling coming from the new wood-burning stove sat in the corner of the room behind the door.
The best Christmas present this year was finally to have heating in the house! The stove was eventually delivered on the Friday of the week preceding Christmas. It’s arrival coincided with a sensible diminution of the outside temperature. On the Monday and Tuesday following the stove’s arrival, the plumbers worked to connect it to the house’s heating system. On the Wednesday morning the electricians did their part. Luca and I by this stage were almost beside ourselves. The cold in the house had become bone-cracking. The inside chill was so vicious after a number of nights below zero degrees Celsius that was unpleasant to finish work and come inside for the evening. There was nothing to do except to escape to bed immediately after dinner! (I did, however, manage to watch all the episodes of Black Adder on the BBC iPlayer - never having had a TV I missed all this modern culture - but the internet is letting me catch up!)
So it was with some trepidation that we awaited Wednesday evening when the stove-installer and the plumber would come to light-up the stove and calibrate the draw, the pump and air supply. Of course, we knew that if all went well our wait would have been worth it. But given that it had taken around three months for the stove to arrive, we knew that if there was a defect or something needing repairs we would be in for a white Christmas - but inside the house! We didn’t feel that we would be able to survive such an eventuality!
As it happened, everything flowed just as it should. The stove lit up, there were no leaks and we have been warm ever since. In fact, the stove has proved better than we could have imagined. The house has never been so warm. The wood consumption is lower than with our old wet-back cooker. There are no problems with condensate or creosote build-up. The stove sits away in a corner of the kitchen, gently crackling. We couldn’t have asked for anything more. And here I must type-in the stove details in case some internet searcher should be looking for information on this particular type of stove Klover SICURO top Modello KL 29 top.
In these last months we have had two significant expenditures: the two new webcams and the stove and new chimney. As I wrote previously, in the case of the webcams we had to pay the full amount up-front before the supplier would even order them from the manufacturer. In the case of the stove and new chimney, it was virtually them same; to confirm the order we had to pay a major part of the total price. In both cases the suppliers refused to take any risk on subsequent non-payment. Having paid, however, the risk was all ours until the webcams were installed and the chimney remade and stove installed. As the weeks passed and the stove failed to arrive my real fear was that should Italy be forced from the Euro, or should the Euro fail (same thing really - one would follow the other), all consignments would at that point cease - no business would ship a product without knowing it’s new price. In fact for a moment a large part of economic activity in Italy would freeze. And if it froze while we were without a stove we would freeze too and all the way through winter!
The trouble with Italy leaving the Euro is that one can never know when it will happen. The point at which one knows that it will happen is the point at which it has. That Italy and the Euro will part is without doubt. But the devil is in the timing. I suspect that it will be like the earthquake that hit Aquila in 2009. We know that Italy is in a Euro fault zone. There have been lots of small tremors but when they cease and calm returns it will seem that we are safe from ’the Big One’. The authorities will tell us there is nothing more to worry about, not to be afraid and to go inside to bed. And so we will, relieved that The End has been pushed beyond our own time. But it will be folly and useless. When the ’Big One’ comes to Italy it will fracture the society and all will see that Italy never had an economic infrastructure capable of withstanding globalisation and linking itself to countries such as Germany. All will see that behind the facade, beautiful as it is, in true Italian style there were only words and they will not be enough: When the ’Big One’ comes!
Now this was a positive turn of events. In past years, when concern that the stand of pines was a fire risk had niggled at my mind, I had made a few desultory attempts at seeing if anyone local would be interested in logging the pines. In those times nobody was. 'No good for burning' the local woodcutters informed me. 'Too much resin. Coats the chimneys and can lead to chimney fires.' 'No good for building wood'. others told me. 'The trees have never been thinned. Too tall, too thin, too many branches'. 'Maybe the wood could be good for pallets'. said another woodcutter. 'One of my sons works at the pallet works. I'll talk to him. Maybe he will be interested'.
It all seemed too difficult so I reconciled myself to leaving the pines there. Although I did worry about fire; the wood is popular with walkers and, unfortunately, sometimes motocross bikers. And where there are people well ..... On the other hand we do have a number of Great Buzzard pairs somewhere on the hill. We guess that they live in the pine trees although we have strained to see their nests and have never succeeded. At least they wouldn't be disturbed!
So here I was with someone offering to pay for the pines. It seemed like a lucky stroke and I accepted although feigning a notable lack of alacrity.
Since we arrived at La Faula in 1995 the pine wood at the top of the Faula has been a clear and notable feature. And it was before. We first started visiting La Faula together during holidays spent with Luca's parents in the late 1980's. The pines were a proud, dark, evergreen presence defining and differentiating the Faula hill from the others. In the time of the Agriturismo, guests recount to us how good it is when coming to La Faula to see the hill, topped with its pines, rising up from the plain. And pine trees are very beautiful. So, it could seem like a big, perhaps negative, step to fell them.
But the Maresciallo of the Forestry Guards was right. Those pines are not native to the hills of Friuli. The woods of Friuli are self-regenerative. They contain a mixture of oak, wild cherry, ash, chestnut, hazelnut, some beech and robinia psuedoacacia (Black Locust) from America. In Friuli Trees are harvested from a wood every twenty years. Only well developed hardwoods such as oak are cut with younger trees being left to develop. Great trees such as the chestnut are often left as features and landmarks. The great prize is the robinia which grows aggressively and fast and produces a non-resinous hard wood ideal for burning. A cut robinia sprouts numerously from the stump and along its root system. It is nitrogen-fixing so is good for the clay 'soil' of most woods. It doesn't seem to out-compete native European trees but its rapid growth shades the brambles keeping newly cut woods clean.
A mixed wood provides habitat for many types of wildlife. The pine forest, a cathedral of tall, marching trees, hushed pine-needle soft, is more monument than bursting ecosystem!
And so it was that last week the young wood-cutter/volunteer forest fireman began felling the pines, alone.
To be continued ....
This summer past a Maresciallo from the Forestry Corps stopped by. As usual, I offered a glass of wine. He chatted amiably with me for a while then slid into the nub of his visit.
"Those trees up there, those pines on top of the hill. You should really think about cutting them."
"Oh" I said. This was a surprise but I had yet to see exactly where this was going so I remained silent.
"Yes, the trees are getting old, pines are not native here, they don't last forever. The stand is getting old. It is better that you cut it now. If you don't one day we may oblige you to cut it. If you do it now you could probably earn something. If you have to do it under duress, however, you won't be sure of this."
"Ah" I said. It was perfectly clear. The logic was faultless. He was right, the pines were old and it surely would be better for us to manage the cut than have it forced upon us. A bit of local house-keeping by the local Forestry Corps!
Summer was busy and I put the problem of the wood to the back of my mind. One morning, however, a guest with knowing smile and twinkling eyes said to me "Paul, there is a fireman here to see you! He is outside by the tables"
I went outside and sure enough there was a young-guy wearing off-duty fatigues of the forest-fire volunteers.
"Ciao" I said
"Ciao" he replied
Having exchanged 'Ciao's' I then politely said "Prego" [please as in 'what can I do for you']
The fire volunteer extended a hand and introduced himself. I don't think that I caught his name and somehow, in the intervening times notwithstanding having seen him a few times and even having signed a contract with him, I've never managed to actually establish what he is called. Of course, I know who he is, where he lives, how long he has lived there, who his family are, whether he is reliable or not, how he works. But his name has so-far escaped me.
"I heard that you might be thinking to cut the pine trees at the top of the hill" the young volunteer fireman said.
"I'm in the business of cutting trees and pine is my speciality. I could even pay you."
to be continued ....
Yesterday, we put on-line the modifications we have made to the web site. We have simplified the Home Page leaving it as a simple Index Page and moved all the photos, videos and slide-show content to the new Media Page. The Media Page can be accessed by clicking on the Media Icon on the left of the Access Bar at the very top of the page.
We have separated-out the Diary and this too is accessed by clicking on the Diary icon on the left of the Access Bar.
We now have three webcams at La Faula and their pages are accessed via the Media Page.
The Message System remains and is accessed via the Scriverci/Write Us and Area Messaggi/Message Area icons on the far right of the Access Bar at the very top of the Home Page (and of the other pages containing the Access Bar). We have removed the list of people for whom a message is waiting as they are notified via e-mail.
This Faula website began life in 1997 and its evolution and functionality has reflected that of the web itself. The site had become too confusing and unwieldy and so we are attempting to simplify and stream-line it. The complication for us is that the web-site is speaking to two distinct audiences: those who have stayed at La Faula, know it and want to follow happenings here and those alighting upon the site for the first time in consideration of making a holiday. And, over the years we have created a lot of content which is now a part of the history of La Faula and which we want to make accessible. Not to mention other content such as photos of La Faula from early guests and other photo series that we have not yet integrated into the site.
We try to keep the Faula website alive - it’s not that difficult as La Faula is alive and placed in the middle of a very special country - perhaps too special!
Please feel free to write to us and let us know what you think. Re-making the web-site is going to take a very long time. We go slowly but the first steps have just been taken.
Kind Regards - Paul and Luca
Of course, we are extremely preoccupied at the prospect of the break-up of the Euro. A partial break-up with, say, Portugal and, particularly, Greece leaving the Euro would put us at La Faula under tremendous competitive pressure as both countries reverted to their own grossly devalued currencies and we remained locked-in to the Euro. But my main concern right now is the fact that if Italy leaves the Euro promptly we might not get heating all winter! The wood-burning stove that we ordered months ago has still not arrived. This evening I received an e-mail directly from the manufacturer saying that the delays in shipment were due to delays they were having in receiving materials from their suppliers. This may or may not be true. However, undeniably, the effect of Italy exiting from the Euro in a disorderly manner would be that, for a time, all deliveries would be halted as manufacturers coped with the uncertainty of a new currency and waited for the economic situation to stabilise. For a moment economic activity would stop. So, for us here at La Faula, a warm winter depends upon Italy staying in the Euro. Every week of extra delay in having the stove delivered brings us closer to the moment when Italy is likely to be pushed out of the Euro. It would be nail-bitingly nerve-racking except that when not typing I have my hands buried deep in my electric throw-blanket!
Today, Mario Draghi of the European Central Bank was reported to have hinted that if Europe was able to create some type of fiscal union for Euro members the Bank may be able to be more aggressive in creating money to ensure that countries remained solvent. Over the last weeks the press have reported that the big bazooka solution would be just the thing because the European Central Bank can create unlimited money (the big bazooka) so no country need find itself short. The Germans felt that this was the road to hyper-inflation. Instead, it was reported that the Germans were leaning towards a fiscal union where the national budgets of countries such as Italy would be subject to prudent oversight and even veto if they carried on with their spendthrift ways.
So there you have it. All that Italy has ever done in its whole existence is create money when it found itself in difficulty. When the actual printing of money could no longer be justified due to the inflation it caused, Italy repeatedly devalued its currency. When this wasn’t enough Italy joined the Euro giving it cheap money based on the implicit German guarantee. Italy is addicted to cheap money. And even this isn’t enough. By racking up a government debt more than twice its GDP it stole the as-yet unproduced gross domestic product of successive generations. And you might ask: did Italy equip those successive generations to produce and pay back that public debt. No! is the answer. It provided its kids with generally second-rate schools and Universities (see the OECD annual PISA surveys). And then, it created an economy that could not even offer these kids jobs. The question is: what kind of people would do this to their own children?
So now, to save Italy and thereby save the Euro the ECB is urged to create money, and lots of it. So, instead of having its bad habits tamed by membership of the Euro, Italy has almost succeeded in having the Euro area adopt its own bad habits. The Italians have succeeded in importing their own disease into the heart of the Euro-zone. That’s something!
We are the smallest of small businesses. Apart from Luca and myself, we employ Maritza the cleaner and have volunteers to help us in the peak of summer. Luca's nephew also helps out from time to time between his studies. The Agriturismo is open for six months of the year and for the remaining months we look after the farm, vineyard and wines. We work very hard in the Agriturismo during the summer but we do enjoy a very peaceful late-autumn and winter. La Faula is something that we do because, in the round, it is enjoyable and satisfying. Economically, it allows us to improve the business and live in a beautiful place but we certainly won't get rich doing it!
Being a small business with limited resources we hope, beyond hope, that the new Government under Mario Monti can and will make the changes that we, people of small businesses, so desperately need. When economists note that the Italian economy hasn't grown for years because of a whole raft of negative factors weigh down on business we know all about it. It isn't hypothetical for us - it really happens - and we dream to have this crushing burden lifted from us. So every night we pray that Monti will bring us salvation just as every night in the past we cursed Berlusconi and those who sustained and supported him for the corrosion that he instigated and permitted and that touched on us, our business and the country we live in.
But desperately wanting something, no matter how badly, should not dim one's critical faculties. Identifying risks and pitfalls doesn't bring them into existence if they don't exist and, if they do, it makes the overcoming of them and eventual success all the more meritorious.
Today in the Financial Times Martin Feldstein, who is a number one big-wig, argued that Italy, by making the right reforms could save itself and the Euro. The corollary, of course, is that if Italy can't save itself it will probably destroy the Euro.
But the question has to be asked. If Italy is able to make the right reforms now, why wasn't it able to avoid getting into this mess in the first place. And having got into it, why wasn't it able to extricate itself from it? The answer has to be that a country that used entry to the Euro as a source of cheap money to stave off making the very necessary reforms that the Euro and globalisation where making inevitable and obligatory is probably not the kind of country that can step up to the bat when all is in imminent danger of being lost.
And who are these members of the Monti Government who are to save our poor Italian souls? Well, I can tell you. The Monti Government is comprised of members with the median age of 64 years making it the oldest in the history of the Italian Republic (and that's saying something) and the oldest in Europe. A Minister who is important to us is the Minister of Tourism and Sport, coming in with a sprightly 73 years. These people one can say are part of the Italian 'establishment'. So where were they all these years while things were going so wrong? Many of these new Ministers have held senior State and administrative posts. Of course, they weren't part of the Berlusconi Government but one key failing (of many) of the Berlusconi Government was that it did not reform the State, the very place where many of the Monti Government were comfortably ensconced. And, of course, Italy is the country of the Catholic Church so it could be seen as reassuring that Monti and many of his Ministers are very close to the Catholic church and that one of Monti's first acts as Prime Minister was to farewell the Pope at the airport as the Pontiff departed for an international trip.
So Italy is to be saved by a bunch of sexagenarians and septuagenarians, linked to the Catholic Church and members of the gerontocratic caste that did the very best out of the unreconstructed and unreformed Italy. They are, as usual, representative of the very generation that has destroyed Italy and left no hope or future for the young and those that don't conform to their idea of the correct way to be a human being. I must wish them well, self interest requires this of me as a minimum. Now they are lionised. But I fear that they are the the less noble beasts of old!
What follows is an excerpt form the Independent newspaper of Great Britain dated 2 October 1996. It wasn't as if anyone didn't know where Italy would lead the Euro ......
Jacques Chirac yesterday said what many people had long thought - Italy is heading for the second division in Europe. The country's hopes of qualifying for the first round of European monetary union were severely rebuffed as the French President explicitly stated that the country is too far behind to meet the Maastricht convergence criteria on time.
The French President singled out Italy as a country that might have to wait beyond the launch date of 1 January 1999 to be allowed to join a single European currency. He also made special reference to the Italian lira as a currency whose devaluation could threaten the export markets of the "core" Europe once monetary union was in place.
"More time may be needed for those who are behind, like Italy," Mr Chirac said in what appeared to be a deliberate attempt to humiliate ahead of a Franco-Italian summit meeting in Naples, scheduled for the end of the week.
His comments whipped up a storm of protest in Rome, including reports that the bilateral summit was about to be scrap- ped. The French ambassador, Jean-Bernard Merimee, was summoned to the Prime Minister's office, and eventually Mr Chirac retracted his remarks, saying instead that he "ardently hoped" Italy would make the single currency on time. But by that stage the damage was already done.
By casting doubt on Italy's European future, Mr Chirac effectively cut the ground from under the Italian government's feet in its efforts to sell the budget - an unprecedented 62.5 trillion lire package of spending cuts and swingeing tax increases - as one last big push for a place in Europe.
The financial package has already caused friction between opposing ends of Mr Prodi's broad centre-left coalition, and political analysts believe any serious assault on its credibility would almost certainly cause a government collapse, with incalculable consequences for Italy's future stability. The financial markets remained cautious yesterday, but the lira and Italian bonds lost much of the ground they had gained in the last few days.
Mr Prodi did his best to remain upbeat, evoking "tensions created by the strength of Italy's export capacity": "We always think of Italy being afraid of competition from France and Germany. In fact, France and Germany are also very afraid of competition from Italy."
A more considered look at the events of the past few days, however, suggests the fear is all on Italy's side, and that a number of European countries intend to make sure that a country burdened with singularly unhealthy public finances does not join the single currency until it is ready.
When Mr Prodi's government took office in May, it had no intention of trying to meet the Maastricht criteria by 1997, but planned to satisfy most of them by 1998 - believing at that stage either that the introduction of a single currency would be postponed or that the criteria would be eased.
That policy remained in place until mid-September, when two key developments forced the Prodi government to change its mind. First, the successful launch of tight-budget packages in France and Germany suggested the euro would in fact be launched on schedule. Second, Mr Prodi made a crucial visit to Spain for talks with his counterpart Jose Maria Aznar.
According to diplomatic sources, Mr Prodi asked Mr Aznar to join him in petitioning the big European players for a sort of reprieve whereby their two countries would be judged on their economic performance in 1998, not 1997 as was previously agreed. Mr Aznar refused to go along with this plan, telling Mr Prodi that Spain had every intention of meeting the targets.
Suddenly, Italy seemed to have been left out in the cold, and Mr Prodi rushed back to Rome with a new plan. The first budget was ditched and a new one prepared in 24 hours. The new deal passed muster with the cabinet, and Mr Prodi euphorically announced that the package would get Italy into Europe.
That euphoria has proved near-impossible to maintain. Italy currently meets none of the Maastricht criteria, and even under the latest plan it can only hope to get close to the target considered most important - a 3 per cent deficit-to-GDP ratio, from around 6.5 per cent now.
The plan can only succeed if the political will exists to admit Italy into the single currency, warts and all. Mr Chirac and Mr Aznar have made clear that they don't like the idea, and the dip-lomatic community is fairly sure that Germany doesn't like it either.
"Italy doesn't meet any of the Maastricht criteria and this budget may not even meet its targets. Because of its high public debt and reliance on short-term debt financing, Italy is still a rather different economy from the core European countries," said Ros Lifton of HSBC Markets in London. "President Chirac's remarks may have been politically inappropriate, but he was largely stating the obvious."
I'm sitting here rather enjoying a development in electric blankets: the electric throw (or throw blanket). As I have written previously, some time ago, in fact, we decided to substitute the old wet-back stove in the kitchen, that Luca and I for 16 years had used exclusively for heating our winter living area, with a new, more efficient wood-burning boiler, less prone to producing creosote in the chimney. At the same time we decided to remake our old concrete block chimney installing a stainless steel insulated model.
The chimney has, in fact been remade, and very well. The old chimney was opened-up and gutted, the new one installed inside and the chimney was then re-closed. The finish remains to be done but effectively the house has not visually changed at all. The problems is that the new wood-burning stove has still not arrived although ordered months ago. Our stove installer reports that the factory claims to be behind in orders as the demand this year is intense. It is true that very many people we know have turned to using wood-burning and pellet burning stoves recently to escape the effects of high gas and oil prices. Plus, the woods all around us are being cut for burning-timber, something that was exceedingly rare when we arrived here in the 1990's. So the late-delivery of our new stove is explicable.
Luckily, the weather is very sunny and stable but the temperature hovers around 0°C at night. The thick stone walls of the house are inexorably cooling and inside here is rather as living inside an extremely large refrigerator. Sitting at a computer in the evening is just too horrible to consider. Sometimes I put a small electric fan heater on, letting the warm air blow towards me but outside the direct range of the fan of heat all remains cold so it seems a real waste - especially as electricity in Italy is shockingly expensive.
So this is where the electric throw comes in. It is cosy, warm, uses a small amount of energy and instead of rushing-off to bed after dinner to warm-up one can pass a moment of two in the kitchen catching up with the horrifying news concerning the Euro (eek, eek etc!).
I use this blog to put down - in black and white - the thoughts and impressions that I have formed living in Italy. The Italians a wont to believe that 'all the world is a village', that is that all places are the same and, strangely enough, like Italy. However, in Italy humanity manifests itself exceptionally. Exceptionally disappointing history with so much bad amongst so much good; exceptionally bad government, only bad; an exceptionally dysfunctional State, nothing redeeming there; exceptionally persistent and metastatic organised crime, yuk; exceptionally large public debt, could be dangerous; exceptionally low economic growth, will be dangerous. It is strange though, to think something that nobody thinks at all. In my case, I think that the Italian black economy, while not being a figment of anyone's imagination, is not currently as large as it is made out to be. If true this would have the direst of consequences for Italy as it would mean that the public debt is even more unmanageable than now. The impoverishment of Italy would be inevitable and just a matter of time.
So this morning, snug under my electric throw, I opened Il Fatto Quoditiano 'The Daily Fact' and the headline was that tax evasion had reached 18% of Gross Domestic Product. Hmm!!! Maybe, I thought, 'they' are right after all. But then, the article immediately following was about a popular demonstration that formed outside the offices of the State Debt Collector and Recovery Agency, 'Equitalia'. It formed and consisted of people upset, distraught, at the suicide of an entrepreneur in the Veneto region who had found himeslf in economic difficulty an, it seems, was unable to pay his employees. The object of the demonstration was reported as being to evidence their rage at feeling strangled and oppressed by those they defined as being the Strong Arm of the State: The State Debt Collector and Recovery Agency, the Tax Department, the Finance Police, taxes in general, and above all, the Banks. Their proposed remedy being a general tax payment strike.
Now, you should know that here, in Friuli, it is generally believed that the entrepreneurs of the Veneto region don't pay their taxes, that they are the great evaders that we hear about incessantly. So there really is something strange that these people are taking to the streets to protest the oppressive tax burden that bears upon them and the oppression inflicted by the Italian State. Why would tax evaders do this, one must ask? And there is another thing. Why do these people include the banks in this list of State agencies? The answer to this second question is that in Italy banks are implements and implementers of State policy which, for a number of decades has been to recycle the public debt. There is no free market in banking services and interest structure, policy, taxation and rates reflect the need to keep the banks solvently buying Italian debt, both to hold themselves, and to pass-on to customers.
So I think that the story of tax evasion amounting to 18% of PIL should be added to the local legends that we have had to absorb for the whole period that Giulio Tremonti was Finance Minister: that the banks in Italy are more solid and stable than those in most of the rest of the world; that the Italian economy weathered and was weathering the economic crisis better than other countries; that Italy is admired by other countries for how it manages its economy; that to claim that things are not going well here is only defeatism. Vinceremo!
P.S. The dogs asked me to mention that coming inside in the evening is losing its appeal now that the inside temperature is about the same as that in their cage - outside, at least one can howl to the moon!
Last week we had two webcams mounted on the barn. The images from these cams will be published in the next week on our website increasing the real-time coverage of La Faula. The webcams were expensive and to reduce the cost Luca and I mounted the tubing and ran the ethernet cabling ourselves. The suppliers of the webcams invoiced everything, in advance, before they even ordered the cams from the manufacturer, and there was not even a hint of anything being paid in the black (i.e. in cash separate from the invoice). The stove installer, yesterday, finished re-making the chimney that will serve the new wood-burning stove we have ordered. He came down from the scaffolding, having finished the job, at 9.30 and at 9.35 I had in my hand the second of the three invoices covering the total amount. The stove will not be installed until the invoice is paid. It is getting cold in here so I prodded Luca to pay immediately! When the stove is installed we will get the final invoice and the total of the three will cover completely the cost of the job - again nothing in black.
During the winter we do lots of smallish jobs here ourselves. Frequently we go to the local builder's merchants to buy drain inspection chambers, piping, cement, mortar. Lots of little things in small quantities. I can pay by cash or bank transfer but we always get an invoice or till receipt. Sometimes, in the morning, I may go to one of the local bars for a cappuccino. In every case the owners know me well. But they always give me a till receipt. At other times Alcide from the Trattoria Ai Cons invites Luca and I to drop by in the evening for a plate of pasta in company. It's free but when we go he prints out a till receipt for the value of the meal.
Now, we all know that in Italy we all evade paying our taxes. In fact, the black economy is calculated to be so large in Italy that even if just a part of it could be brought into the open the benefits to the public accounts would be huge and the problem of the Italian public debt would diminish. So every Italians government, Monti included, promises that IT will finally clamp down on tax evasion.
Now, it is a fact that many Italians would prefer not to pay their taxes and would not pay them if they could get away with it. Many private businesses when they see that the money paid in taxes is treated with the absolute minimum of respect by a voracious, wasteful and corrupt State regard payment of tax as nothing short of theft.
And yet, in the examples above, these people are all invoicing for the goods and services provided leaving nothing out that may interest the taxman. They do this because they are subject to 'sector study' analysis whereby the tax authorities will expect a person or firm involved in a specified economic activity in a particular part of Italy to earn a specified amount in a year. Previously to the Prodi governement of 2006-2008, the idea of taxation through Sector Studies was to ensure that economic activity, at the small and medium enterprise level, was subject to minimum effective taxation. The Prodi government of 2006-2008, however, covered the boom period prior to the 2008 crash. During this time the Italian Government increased substantially the estimated income earned by firms sector by sector. The subsequent economic crash and prolonged down-turn that carries on through today left many businesses earning, in reality, less than that which was estimated by the tax authorities. Once a business earns less than what the tax authorities estimate, it pays that firm to eliminate activity in the black and declare it's true income and pay tax on that. If a firm is not congruent with the sector studies and pays the lower rate based on what it declares it cannot risk being found, upon inspection, to have undeclared income.
In addition to sector studies there are controls based on the assets that an individual has. There must be a relationship between the assets and the income declared otherwise a prima facie case of evasion is established and the citizen must justify the source of funds to the assets held (and holidays taken etc). When it comes to controlling there is not only the Inland Revenue with its corps of inspectors but there are the Finance Police, an Army with, amongst others, the role of combatting tax evasion. And then all the other organs and agencies of the State that control business, including taxes and excise duties, have the obligation to reveal and report suspected cases of tax evasion as does every layer of government right down to your local council.
So it seems to me that either Friuli is a special case or the problem of tax evasion in Italy is more nuanced than it seems.
The black economy is black because it is unknown. Knowing human nature and extrapolating from cases where it is proved, we can be sure that it exists but being unknown it cannot be quantified. If it could be quantified it would cease to be unknown and once known would cease to exist. The black economy is a known-unknown. In Italy the black economy consists of tax evasion by normal economic actors and underground transactions conducted by organised crime. Obviously, organised crime is a social harm that one would hope the State would move against for reasons other than bringing-in extra income.
In the 1980's the Italian public debt was climbing uncontrollably. The government of Bettino Craxi (corrupt and eventually to flee into exile) supported by the equally corrupt and Mafia-connected Christian Democrats proved unable to bring State Spending under control. Italy had a large deficit and its public debt as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product was almost twice the amount of similarly-sized European economies. Unable to effectively tackle spending, the Italian Government decided to increase the size of the Italian economy. It did this to the extent of increasing GDP by 18% through what was described as a statistical sleight of hand involving adding to GDP a newly estimated sum for the black economy.
In 1992 Italy suffered a balance of payments crisis, was ejected from the ERM (forerunner to the Euro) and devalued twice. From this time on Italy brought its deficits down and moved into primary surplus - that is it the State took in more than it spent excluding debt costs. For every year except one since this time Italy has remained in primary surplus - that is, excepting interest on its public debt, it doesn't spend more than it receives.
So it would seem that Italy is not the spendthrift country that national stereotypes would lead us to believe.
In 1992 Italy realised that if it could bring the black economy into the sunlight and tax it, it would go a long way to solving the problem of its enormous public debt. And so every year and every government since has worked away, industriously and with the complete power of the Italian State behind it, to find and tax undeclared earnings. It has been so successful that the banks in Lugarno, a town in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, that served Italian citizens wanting to salt their money away from the Italian taxman, have found their Italian custom drying up and have either closed branches or down-sized.
So one might ask ones-self why the public debt is more or less the same as in 1992 and why the Italian Court of Accounts claimed this month that tax evasion is running at 18% of GDP. It seems that the black economy grows as fast as the Italian State can find parts of it and tax them. This means, literally, that the better and more effective the Italian State is at eliminating the black economy the faster the black economy grows.
But there is another factor to this equation. For 20 years the Italian economy has been stagnant with little or no growth and frequent bouts of recession. The Italian economy is moribund and the usual suspects to explain this are increasing international competition, family firms, firms too small with too little capital, bureaucracy, rigid labour laws etc. Without any doubt these are all important factors.
But what if, just what if, my examples above, the CCTV seller, the stove installer, all the local bars and restaurants, all issuing invoices or till receipts, were not the anomaly but were more the rule, at least in North Italy. What if the State had effectively managed to get a whole lot of small Italian businesses to pay their taxes. But following the chimera of the enormous black economy the Italian state devoted more and more resources to shaking-businesses down, looking for more money. And this in a country where the fiscal pressure on business is enormous and was, in the past ameliorated through evasion.
The effect would be to damage private enterprise, to remove the economic incentive to be in business and to remove to the State funds that would otherwise have been reinvested in business or spent in the real economy.
I will take a punt that as of today, November 2011, the Italian black economy is not nearly as large as it is believed to be but the Italian State, in trying to get at it to solve sins of the past will carry-on inflicting long lasting damage on private economic initiative in the country. The effect of this will be that economic activity will remain wounded and the economic growth that is supposed to save the country from its debt will remain as much a chimera as the pot of gold tucked under every Italian firm if ony the State could get its hand on it. And worse, if the black economy is smaller than officially estimated then Italian Gross Domestic Product is, in reality, smaller than calculated which means that the public debt is a greater percentage of GDP than is currently believed and Italian deficits are a larger percentage of a smaller GDP. In the end, if this were to be the case this would be a real disaster for Italy: smaller and saddled with a more intractable public debt.
In our kitchen we have an Italian postcard from the early 1940's. On the back is printed in bold, with the Royal Crest, VINCEREMO (we will win). Dream on.
Yesterday evening, Luca and I watched the sunset through the hole in the kitchen wall where the chimney used to be. Had we wished to, we could have passed thought into the dining room and watched the sun set through the hole in the wall that had suddenly appeared while the old chimney space was being enlarged. But we didn't. Instead we enjoyed the cool blues, reds and orange hues of the closing day and felt the crisp air against our faces. It could have been romantic but for the grey smothering dust that coated every surface around us!
Italy has a new executive government of unelected persons deriving their legitimacy from the support given by the elected representatives of the people.
This, in and of itself, is testament to the fact that the elected politicians in Italy are not up to the job of dealing with liberalising the Italian economy to permit the country to grow out of its debt. For without this growth the debt will never be repaid and the markets are on to the fact that this was, in fact, the strategy of every recent government but one (the 'technocratic’ Dini government). The plan of the Italian gerontocracy was that those of that generation that had enjoyed the fruits of the debt would continue to enjoy it until they were long-gone. All they had to do was to postpone the default onto some other generation. But the markets called their number and the Italian gerontocrats found themselves with their pants down.
Last Sunday the Golf Club had a tournament in the morning followed by a lunch. During the lunch one member, a vocal and staunch supporter of Silvio Berlusconi, commented in the most scathing of terms on Berlusconi's having been pushed into resigning and foretold the failure of the Monti executive. 'Just you watch' he said implying that punishment would come to Italy for what had happened. Nobody dared to say a word. Those of the Italian Left would have been agin him from the start. Many of the people present would have voted for Berlusconi at least once. But now, for them, he had become a liability so apart from members and supporters of Berlusconi's party most just wanted him away.
The problem is that the Berlusconi supporter had a point. And behind that point is an inconvenient fact of history. That is that Mussolini lost power in the same way. In 1943 the Allies had invaded Italy and were moving up the peninsular. Mussolini's government was functioning dysfunctionally and Mussolini personally was chronically ill. Government and the country was chaotic and senior Fascists eventually moved against him in the Grand Council of Fascism meeting in July 1943 (19-7 against). Effect was given to the council's decision by the King who had Mussolini arrested by the Carabiniere.
Of course, Mussolini was a Dictator so there were no popular elections that could have turfed him out. But the way in which he was deposed left a large body of Italians, supporters of Mussolini, furious at the way they had been deprived of their preferred leader. This, and Mussolini's summary execution, left unfinished business for a large part of Italy, a business that remains unfinished to this day.
So it is, of course, that Berlusconi had become a liability and had to go and he did resign when he saw that eight members of his government had not voted on a routine financing bill. But he never lost a confidence vote in the parliament and, although popularly elected leader, he was, in effect, pushed into a corner from which he had only one exit.
Objectively, this provides a poor basis upon which to construct an executive government of unelected technocrats. It leaves a boil of injustice in the body politic. And Italy will pay for this just as the cutting off of Mussolini created a cohort of Italians, blind and unreasoning who, many years on from the death of their hero, were and are desirous to live only under a government of Silvio Berlusconi, the nearest an Italian can get to fascism-with-power in the modern age.
I'm sitting here in a moderately unmade kitchen. I never got back to the story of the Chimney Man (I will) but the upshot of our chimney travails was that we had to remake the chimney that vents the wood-burning stove in the kitchen and replace the old wood-burning stove with a more modern and efficient model less prone to producing condensate and creosote. Two or three weeks ago it seemed like the outside temperatures were on the way down and life in the house in the evening got pretty chilly. However, the temperatures are back up again and so it is enough to open the doors and windows of the house during the day to allow the house to heat-up, a heat which it them maintains overnight. It is the opposite of what one must do in high summer which is to keep the house closed during the day and open it up to cool down at night.
I don't know if I have written about it, but I am currently attending an evening class on advanced wine-making. La Faula is a small outfit and I have no formal education in wine-making, so I tend to feel like a bit of a fraud when in the company of 'real' wine-makers. Two Saturdays ago, we visited a well-known local winery as part of the course. One of the other students said to me:
'You're from La Faula, aren't you. Luca & Paul Wines?
'Yes' I said. 'But we're only a small undertaking, more of a hobby really' Self depreciation is my self-defence.
'I saw you in the Espresso Guide' said the other student. 'I was flicking through the wines of Friuli and I saw you were in there. I think you got 3 Bottles for one of your wines.'
It was all very embarrassing. The Espresso Wine guide is the real-deal for Italy. It is there with the Gambero Rosso as the bible on Italian wines.
'No, no.' I replied. 'That's impossible. We've never submitted our wines to the competition. You must be confusing us with someone else. We are just a little outfit producing wines for our Agriturismo.'
'I was you' he insisted. Luca & Paul Wines, Povoletto. I'll bring the guide next week.'
By the time I got home, I had forgotten all about it and so didn't mention it to Luca. The week passed and I went to the evening class on Tuesday and Thursday and didn't think any more of it.
However, this Saturday passed we had another winery visit and at the end we were in the winery shop talking with the owner. I feel humble in the presence of the other students, wine-makers, all of whom inherited family wineries and all who attended the local agricultural high-school specialising in viticulture and viniculture. Being at this level they are of modest wineries, the top-flight go to University and graduate in Oenology or Viticulture and don't do evening classes in advanced wine-making. All-the-same, my fellow students represent generations of knowledge and experience and are woven into the fabric of Friulano wine-making, for better or for worse.
'Che furbo' [What a sly one] I heard. 'Look here! It's you.'
It was the student who the previous Saturday had insisted to have seen us in the Espresso Wine Guide. He proffered the guide to me, open.
'I can't see'. I said 'Without my glasses on I'm blind'
'Look it's you'. He replied. Luca & Paul Wines, Azienda Agricola La Faula, Povoletto. Merlot 2006 Three Bottles.
'Ahh' I said. 'Yes. That Merlot 2006 was wonderful. In fact it sold out straight away'. This was true. It had been a very good wine and we no longer had even a bottle for remembrance.
'Ehhh, che furbo' said another student. 'Always making jokes about your wines and here you're in the Espresso Guide. Hmmm.'
I was quite thrilled, I have to admit. I guessed that Luca must have submitted the wine for the competition. He takes care of this stuff. We don't buy the guides so had never bothered to check to see if we had been included. Now, to be clear, a top-top wine gets Five Bottles and Four Bottles is a very good wine. Three bottles means that the wine is good enough to distinguish itself from the pack. I was pretty pleased.
Coming back to the kitchen, today the stove fitter began the process of remaking the chimney. Once that is done he will fit our new wood-burning stove and cosiness should return to the La Faula kitchen in the evenings. All day the house rang to the sound of the Kango Hammer and dust snuck in through every crevice leaving a fine patina on every thing and every surface. We moved many kitchen implements from the kitchen to the dining room but the dust got them anyway. So here I am. In a corner of the kitchen where my large computer sits. Cold draughts catch my right ear and I'm wishing that I had waited a week longer before having my hair cut so short. It is not exactly like being in a construction site, but it has a bit the aspect. Soon there will be nothing to do but go up to bed, snuggle down under the sheets and watch another episode of The Restaurant on my iPad (who does get to partner top French Chef Raymond Blanc at the end - I don't know - I've got another 16 episodes to watch!).
Yesterday I took Fritz to the vet's. This was a big day of reckoning for Fritz, although he did not know it. The trip was to ascertain whether Fritz' hip replacement had taken and knitted properly with the bone. I didn't want to think of the ugly choices that would confront us if the x-rays showed things not to be as they should be. But, thinking of the stress that Fritz must place on his hip in moments of play, and when running and jumping it seemed to me to be almost beyond hope that the trip should finish completely positively. The operation was in early July. Now, I swing between believing that dogs are intelligent creatures, able to understand us and our social interactions of a non-conceptual kind and believing that they are simply living automatons to which we ascribe intelligence because they behave in ways that we like. I was, however, struck to see that Fritz had no fear to be at the veterinary surgery and when the vet came into the room Fritz' tail started wagging furiously and he rolled over for a good tummy-rub.
We paid a lot for Fritz' operation but at least it went to a vet's practice and a vet who had obviously treated Fritz well and left him with lots of positive memories.
Well, you too can play vet and see the photo of the x-ray. It looked good to me and the vet confirmed that it was. Everything is in order. Now we just have to hope that it doesn't wear out!
Today the technicians mounted the two new webcams. We hope tomorrow to have the web pages ready so that we can put the images on-line. We are happy with the cams and the images. There are some technical glitches with the live image which I hope are not also present in the transfer of the images that appear on the website. So that is another one of our projects for the winter done. The last 'extraordinary' project for this winter is the fitting of a small wood-burning boiler in the kitchen and remaking the chimney that serves it. This work should be done next week. Luckily it seems that warm and sunny weather has returned so provided everything goes to plan the experience, while unsettling, shouldn't be too traumatic. These old Friulani farmhouses have the most amazing capacity to generate dust when stonemasons are working in them. Having doors and windows open while workmen are banging away inside is pleasant in warm and sunny weather. In cold, damp or rainy weather it is a torture!
Today we in Italy still have the Euro and life went on as normal. I am waiting to have two very expensive day-and-night webcams installed so I don't want any major economic upsets until this happens. Especially, as we have already paid for them plus the installation. As I wrote previously, the supplier wouldn't even countenance our order unless we paid everything up front. I'm quite looking forward to having them mounted, especially the one that will face the hill. It will be interesting to see if we see any interesting animals on the screen. We did have the European Jackal a couple of years ago. The Lynx and Brown Bear have made a big come-back (actually they came from Slovenia over the mountains) in recent years. Sometimes the dogs go berserk at night barking so it would be good to find that we can see animal life at La Faula that previously was cloaked by the darkness.
This year buying the webcams was enough and we won't go for some good infra-red illuminators .... but, if we have a good 2012 ....
This evening I went for my second run. It was 5.30 and dusk was cloaking Friuli. Like yesterday, I jogged along the river stopbank. As I was leaving La Faula a shot pierced the still evening air to my left on the far corner of the vineyard. A poacher! I wasn't sure what to do. I certainly was going to continue my run, but I was dressed in a black top and light-grey Virgin Atlantic pyjama bottoms. I didn't want to be taken for a deer and blasted into the next world. I carried on internally debating whether it would be best to return home and get a reflective cyclists belt or carry on as I was. I was afraid that the reflective cyclists belt might gleam like an animal's eye, there in the complete dark, drawing the poacher's fire so I opted to continue while hoping for the best.
The poacher's shot had given me a little surge of adrenalin, but today, as I went on my thighs got heavy and full of dull pain. I scraped the grass tufts with the soles of my shoes as lifting my legs became a chore. I didn't find any good rhythm but I knew that this is when the benefits start. I would have liked to make little stops, now and then, you know, just to walk a bit, but he who stops is lost so I slowed down but carried on. As I neared La Faula I heard movement in the woods to my side. The poacher! 'Ciao!' I said looking in the direction from which I had heard the sound. The movement stopped, I increased my speed and fair flew home, imagining, in a childish way, that I was outdistancing the range of the shotgun.
Now, of course, the poacher is one of our neighbours who slips out of the house at dusk to search for prey. What prey I don't know but maybe the new webcam will inform me!
Today I went jogging for the first time in twenty years. As a young man in New Zealand I ran, swam and played squash. Then as a lawyer in London swimming, jogging and cycling were a part of my daily routine. So as the years passed, I still imagined myself to be fit and physically capable as I had been earlier. Holding onto this belief, there didn't seem to be any need to test it. And besides, working at La Faula involved a lot of movement and physical activity.
The trouble with La Faula is that the bedrooms have a lot of mirrors that reflect only the mid-part of a normal adult. There are few things less appealing than the middle part of a somewhat rotund middle-aged man. Being, in my head, still a fit twenty-something (well, maybe 30 some-thing), I preferred to believe that the partial picture distorted the whole. But eventually I forced myself to study what I had become. Yes, it was me in the mirror, but what was I to do about it?
Now, some people are fairly indifferent about food. But I love it. My great pleasure is going out with, or to, friends and eating and drinking up large and generally being my opinionated self. I had to face up to the fact that if I was to carry-on indulging this pleasure, I was going to have to move my physical activity up a series of notches.
Recently I have started taking the border collies for a walk along the river stopbank in the morning. Now that the Agriturismo is closed the dogs are desperately bored and incessantly seek attention. As I can't fill the attention deficit of all the guests who have given the dogs love over the summer, I decided that spending time with them by walking them would at least assuage my guilt at not being able to play with them every minute of the day as they would like. After a while, I found that I was really enjoying the walks myself and so I decided that I would walk the dogs in the morning and go for a run at night.
Feeling that my running days were not too far past in my history, I said to Luca 'Do you know where my running gear is?' Now, as a keen runner for many years I had had a collection of sweats, tracksuits, cushioned socks and the like. I assumed that they must be all there, stored away by Luca, in a neat pile, ready to be pressed into action. 'What' said Luca. 'They've all disappeared. When you wore those you were a third of the size you are now. Over the years, I've used them. They've been worn-out. Maybe a sweatshirt top or two remain'. I remembered that over the years I had seen Luca wearing my tracksuits and sweat-pants and dimly remembered that I had got too big for them. The road to ruin is short indeed!
'It is warm. You can wear your summer shorts' said Luca. 'No' I said. 'I'm too old to want to be cold. I want to have a gentle jog all cosy and covered'. I dug out a light grey pair of brushed-cotton pyjama pants that I had got from Virgin Atlantic one overnight trip returning to London from New York. They were pretty cheap and lacked elastic but had a sturdy draw-string so I was able to bind them tight around my waist. When I ran, all those years ago, running shoes and their technology were of the utmost importance to me. I was deeply attached to the Nike Air Max of which I had numerous pairs. Not one had remained. I found a pair of Reebocks that had an inflatable aircushion that you pumped up using a soda-syphon cartridge. The cushion was down, the plastic was cracked and the idea of putting them back into service seemed too daunting so I settled on a pair of Nike running shoes that I had bought in Italy years ago but which I had found to be a bit too tight. Trying them on again, after all this time, they didn't seem as bad as I had remembered them so keeping the laces a little slack I put them on, tied them up, and started the first jog of my middle age. Fifty-one and back on the road!
Well, actually, back on the grass. I jogged gently down the river stopbank in the cooling evening air. Other people were out walking. A couple were searching for their dog that had run off seeking adventure. It wasn't so difficult. But I knew from previous experience that when one has had a break from running the first jogs when one returns are not so bad. It is afterwards when the body must adjust to the new demands being placed on it that the running gets hard so I guess that tomorrow should be OK but that for the weeks afterwards I am going to find the going tough!
During my jog I came across Sara and Giovanni walking their dog Missie. Giovanni sometimes reads my blogs and he keeps me honest. When I am writing critically of the Italians, which admittedly is quite a lot of the time), I imagine that Giovanni is reading it and ask myself can my opinions be justified by fact and reason or are they just hot air. Sara and Giovanni are also great hosts and great cooks and wonderful wine connoisseurs. To go to their place for dinner, cosy, and warm in these autumn months is to enjoy a banquet of the best food accompanied by wines, every drop of which is a pleasure to drink. Being a pit peckish as the result of the run, I took the opportunity to inveigle an invitation for dinner in the near future!
The end of Italy inside the Euro happened like this. Berlusconi presented a letter to the meeting of Heads of Governments of the Euro Countries 27 October 2011. It was a strange mixture, vague as to reforms but precise as to some dates on which they would be enacted. The letter was far from a blueprint to create a vibrant, liberal, free market economy in place of the statist-corporatist model Italy has always followed.
But even that was too much. Berlusconi's letter was attacked by the trade unions who said that 'we are dealing with rules that operate against work and the Italian social model'. The leader of the largest Party of the Opposition rejected liberalisation of the labour market out of hand saying 'If we light the fuse of social division instead of cohesion one risks dramatic consequences'. The leader of the Italian of Values Party, the ex-Investigating Magistrate Antonio De Pietro also rejected liberalising the labour market allowing workers to be laid-off as did Gianfranco Fini leader of the Future & Liberty party who only months ago tried to style himself as a liberal. The Northern League is against any liberalisation, being a pseudo-Nationalist off-shoot of the now-defunct Italian Communist Party.
Even the revered President of the Republic, 86 year-old Giorgio Napolitano, asked the Government to reconsider proposed cuts to be made in the massive funds given by the Italian State to support newspapers (on the basis that this would reduce 'pluralism'). This support is one of the most egregious anti-democratic practices in Italy today (it makes the press pliant) apart from the fact that it is also subject to massive fraud and corruption. As a member of the Italian Communist Party right to the very end, Napolitano would have been very grateful for the support provided to the party newspaper 'Unità'
And in that, you have the answer to the question as to why Berlusconi is still the Italian Prime Minister. He is the same as all the others, and the others are the same as him, and the Italians know it. In Italy everyone looks out for their own interests and the devil may take the hindmost. So what is going on in Europe concerning the Euro is irrelevant to what is going on in Italy. No change is possible because no-one group will risk giving up the status quo and no-one trusts the others. Being corporatist in structure, power is shared out between groups but all the groups, bumping up against each other and generating friction in the struggle for resources, are committed to things staying as the are. In Italy it is better to sink together than to allow elements to break out and swim for freedom.
In Italy no one even knows what changing to a free market could mean because they are not liberals and do not know what constitutes economic freedom. They believe, to their core, that giving the other (Italian) man his freedom will not result in that freedom being exercised to the greater good but to the selfish interests of those who are free to follow them. And if one Italian is not free, he doesn't see why the others should be. In recognising that Italians will not purposefully act for the greater good (obviously there are exceptions!), it has never occurred to Italians that in allowing people to be free and follow their own interests the greater good can still be served.
When Italians describe themselves, they describe the envy that they believe they individually, as a people, possess and the desire they have to see the other fellow do badly, even to the point of doing badly themselves. The following joke has been told to me many times and it makes the point well:
There were two neighbours. God said to one of them "I will give you anything you ask, but whatever you receive, your neighbour will receive twice as much. Would you be rich? You can be very rich, but he will be twice as wealthy. Do you wish to live a long and healthy life? You can, but his life will be longer and healthier. What is your desire?" The man frowned, thought for a moment, and then said, "Here is my request: Strike me blind in one eye!"
This is what is going on in Italy now. When the markets and Europe realise that Italy is not going to save itself, to save the rest Italy will have to be cut loose from the Euro. When this happens it will be bad for those in Italy that the system serves well: politicians, pensioners, state employees. But it will be much worse for the others: bankrupt business people, workers without jobs, young people without hope. This last group will have nothing.
The point was well made today. A young entrepreneur took out a full page advertisment in the Veneto edition of the Corriere della Sera (see the link below). In it he posed fully nude, strategically placed hands protecting his modesty. The text read: EVERY DAY IN ITALY AN ENTREPRENEUR RISKS TO BE [EVEN] WITHOUT HIS UNDERWEAR
It's true. But in Italy, who cares?
Today is the day when Silvio Berlusconi is supposed to take to a meeting of European leaders a list of concrete measures that his government will implement to ensure the the Italian economy will outgrow its public debt. As it happens, he is taking a letter of intent. Leaks from his cabinet have disclosed that although a letter of intent falls short of the certain steps that other European leaders have been demanding, Berlusconi is counting on the fact that fear of provoking a crisis will stay the hand of those countries that may be inclined to attack Italy for its lack of action. This is very Italian, Machiavellian. It is also very Italian not to consider all the consequences of an action. Even if France and Germany are so restrained, the markets needn't be and it is a fact that the BCE cannot continue to buy Italian debt in the secondary market forever. Italy as ever is running the most atrocious risk of not being able to service its public debt.
You might think that the opposition parties would be right there with their lists of the steps to be taken to liberalize the economy and free the latent growth ensnared. Lack of growth impacts terribly on workers without jobs, on entrepreneurs who struggle to make a profit and risk bankruptcy, on kids who suffer inadequate schooling as education investment is squeezed. It is terribly bad for a country. But the Italian opposition parties are quiet. Of course, they criticise Berlusconi for his legal problems and dragging Italy into disrepute. But as to policy they are silent. They are silent because they would do pretty much as Berlusconi has done and they would, no more than Berlusconi, maybe even less, be able to implement the reforms being demanded of Italy.
When economic growth is not a priority for an entire political class; when they will let an economy stagnate and slowly retrench; when they will let workers lose their jobs without hope of replacement; when they will let education fall into disrepair for lack of funds; when they will inspect and control the life out of business; when they will impose a tax burden until the productive sector sweats blood enough to produce a primary surplus (taking more than they spend, excluding debt service); when they will use emigration of young people as a safety valve then one knows that that political class doesn't represent workers, young people and entrepreneurs. By definition they represent those not involved in the productive or future productive life of the country. Excluding babies, Italy's political class represents the old, retired and about to retire.
A country with an enormous public debt but a stable primary budget surplus and no debt reduction (incremental debt increase) is a country dedicated to the status quo. The internal gains generated in creating the public debt have already been captured by those economically active (working, buying houses, accumulating capital and assets) at the time the debt was created. That group are content to let the subsequent generation service the debt, without considering who will pay for the principal. This was the strategy supported by every political party in the land.
What unsettled the calculation of the older generation that they could borrow up large and then let the generation immediately following service the debt and then some later generation repay the capital was the refusal of the markets to believe that this was sustainable. And they refused to believe that it was sustainable because the Italian economy struggles to provide the wealth that the country requires.
The future of the Euro hinges, fundamentally, on Italy. Italy is under pressure from other European countries, especially France and Germany, to get a grip on its economy and convince the bond markets that it will be able to force government spending down and grow its way out of its debt.
The generation that currently runs Italy never intended to pay back the principal. Instead, they hoped to pay the interest and leave the repayment of the capital to some other generation. But the markets called them out.
Italy has until Wednesday to present a credible plan to growth. But any plan will be incredible. The reason is that no political party in Italy believes in doing what growth would require. Creating real markets in services that are currently profitably cantonised by guilds or professional groups, removing clogs on the economy such as notaries, removing the system of bureaucratic tutelage that restrains and inhibits economic enterprises, allowing ideas to become economic enterprises with minimum friction, suppressing cartels and uncompetitive behaviour. Italy would have to do these, at a minimum, but not a single political party, in Italy, is interested.
Italy may not be a representative democracy but it is a nation whose people govern themselves. If, after 150 years of nationhood, they have not seen the need to create a liberal and free-market economic system it is futile for other Europeans to think that they will do it now.
The key thing to understand is that the Political Parties in Italy are not differentiated by being from the left or right. Rather, they can be thought of as a spoils system for the generation born shortly before or after the second world war. Italians of that generation follow politics as they follow football. Being involved with one party or another can bring advantages. Being a spectator is all the more enjoyable if one roots for one party instead of another. But in the end, the game is played to the benefit of the people in their late 50's or older.
When these people were poor, and young, they had no savings. The only way out was economic growth. Inflation, devaluation, non-payment of taxes, lack of safety and environmental legislation created a wild west of growth. In high-inflationary times credit was hard to obtain so the State provided it and the lucky beneficiaries saw inflation erode the real value of the debt. Many houses were bought that way. And when the State had empty coffers, it borrowed, and took on workers who where not required to work. It was a big party in which people who had known grinding poverty suddenly found themselves living a life richer and more leisured than the Feudal Landowners who had oppressed them within the times of their own memories.
But then, these people started to get older. They had assets and savings so inflation had to be tamed. Old age beckoned so the State provided generous pensions. They no longer wanted to face hazards in their work and environment so environmental and work and safety laws were enacted and enforced. As these people left the productive sector, they sought to secure their lifestyle so eliminating tax evasion became a key role of the state.
The key thing to understand is that the Italian State exists only for this generation. Not for the ill-educated young people. Not for the young people that cannot find work. Not for the Entrepreneur struggling with Italian bureaucracy, subject to an extreme tax burden and all the time being controlled by the State to ensure compliance with the myriad laws restricting his or her freedom of action.
to be continued tomorrow if it rains!
Before continuing with the story of the Chimney Man and why we are freezing here at La Faula (almost like the Queen - close to fuel poverty!), for those of you who are interested, here is a summary of what we are currently up to. I Skyped it to a friend then thought that it would be good to share ....
Today the rain came so we have a moment to repose. We have just finished digging-up the ground around half of the house laying water pipes and tubes for new external electricity cables. It was a big job but it had to be done. Last year we got an industrial water decalcifier - principally for the winery - but as we only have one water system at La Faula we were using expensively decalcified water to wash the tractors, spray the vines and water the garden. A no-no if ever there was one! The work we have just done creates two water circuits more or less isolating the de-calcified water to uses in the house and winery.
We have also taken out the wet-back wood-burning stove we use for winter heating and hot water and have contracted to buy a more efficient wood-burning boiler and re-make completely the chimney. We have had the old wet-back stove since 1996. It was very good at keeping us warm but its design resulted in a large, and eventually dangerous, build-up of creosote in the chimney. We have, we hope, identified a wood-burning boiler that is efficient and which avoids this problem. The trouble is that the work won't be done until late November. It is already cold inside and the prospect of opening walls, drilling and breaking rock fills us with horror. Of course, one can't make an omlet without breaking the egg but it's easier said than done! Hopefully though, it will work out well, and give us at least another 16 years of winter warmth without problems.
We have contracted to get a WiMax internet connection. The internet connection we have is not bad but when they are working on it, which isn't that often, it goes out sometimes for a week so we have decided to diversify our risks.
We think that next year could be dire. It seems unlikely that we can avoid the economic misery that swirls around. Italy is absolutely disastrous - worse than I can actually comprehend. Berlusconi is one thing but the venality, despicability, duplicity, incompetence and dishonesty of his Ministers of State defies belief. Of course, many Italians are indignant and - good on them - show their indignation but the majority of good'ol boys and girls here are wholly content. Pensions are adjusted for inflation as every year, they don't have to sell or wind-down their assets. Italy is a generational den of thieves.
Yesterday we signed a contract for two more webcams. As Len observed a couple of years ago, the current webcam, at night, looks like it is transmitting images of a WWI night battle over the trenches. We have to keep pushing ourselves out into the web. If we don't we are lost. Over some resistance from Luca, I have ordered two expensive top-of-the-line day/night cameras. One will record the hill behind us which is very beautiful and the other a shot from the barn where the tractors are, over the fountain and with a sliver of pool blue in the distance. As the lens will be wide angle and the camera mounted away, and on high, we don't anticipate any privacy concerns or problems with pictures of kids etc.
The trouble is that owning a small (or, I guess any) business is so complicated now that every day one has to overcome a kind of stickiness. The environment in which one operates is like a molasses. Of course, growth can only be slow. We were shocked when ordering the webcams that we had to pay the whole amount in full before they would even order them from the factory. Non payment is a great problem in Italy and they just weren't prepared to take any risk on us not paying, even a portion. This is despite the fact that we have already purchased one webcam from them. Now the whole risk is on us should they fail or not deliver. Italian courts offer no redress so it shows just how far things have degenerated here.
The same was with the new stove. The supplier wouldn't even consider ordering a screw until he had 40% of the total price in his bank account!
to be continued .....
Just at that point, the Chimney Man's phone rang. The video camera cable in one hand, he deftly removed the telephone from his top pocket with the other. I noted that he looked at the number before deciding to answer. 'Pronto', Pronto' he said 'eh Ciao!'
Obviously the Chimney Man knew the caller and had decided that the call would not be brief. Cradling the telephone between ear and shoulder he slickly pulled-up the black cable and fished the video camera out of the chimney. Keeping the telephone to his ear and the cable and camera in the other hand he made his way unevenly up to the nearest ridge in the roof and settled onto it.
'Hm, hm, OK, OK, Hmm Hmm' Ten metres above me at the highest point of the roof, it was impossible not to hear the Chimney Man's conversation. There was a lot of 'I said' and 'He said' and it was pretty clear that he was in dispute with someone and was chewing his side of the story over with the caller. I moved out of sight, under the eaves, to avoid seeming to be an eaves-dropper.
Assuming that the call would be, if not brief, at least not too long I hung around, loitering while waiting for him to finish his conversation. It occurred to me that I had not seen the son so I searched him out and found him busy wrapping up the fogolar hood in opened black plastic bin bags, stuck up with silver metallic tape of the kind used to seal stainless steel chimney pipe joints.
'What are you doing?' I said, aghast at the idea of closing the whole open space under the large smoke hood.
'I have to close it' said the son 'so that no soot comes out when we clean the chimney'
'Ah, OK' I replied, but the chimney was barely used, maybe the fire was lit once or twice a year, so I wondered whether the potential amount of soot could justify the effort the son was making.
Eventually, the Chimney Man finished his call and returned to earth.
'How was it' was all that I could think to say.
'It's finished' he replied. 'That chimney is a fire risk. You know that creosote burns at 1,200°C and with those wooden rafters ... well!'
'Is is really that bad' I said
'Well you can decide for yourself' he said. ’But if it catches fire you won't have any insurance because that chimney doesn't comply with the law and the Fire Brigade will charge you a fortune to put it out. And that's without the roof itself catching fire!'
'Oh' I said
Now, of course, I don't want to burn La Faula down just trying to keep warm on a winter's evening. But I didn't want to remake the chimney just because I had been frightened into it. I harboured suspicions about the chimney man and felt uneasy.
'So what should we do then?' I said
'Nothing else for it' he replied 'I've got the core drill. We'll just drill out the wall from the kitchen into the dining room. There, I'll put a 90° curve and then drill through to the outside wall. I can then mount a double insulated, copper clad chimney compliant with all the relevant laws.'
'Ah' I said. 'You'll insert the new chimney pipes into the old?'
'No, impossible' he replied.
'No, the only thing is to mount the new chimney on the outside of the old.'
to be continued ........
We looked at each other. I didn't know what to say. Maybe the Chimney man was always on the phone but never with me! The two of us waited comfortably in silence. There was nothing to be said so we stood there, idly taking in the view. Eventually, the van door opened and a man dressed in black emerged from the van's interior. I saw immediately that the Chimney man had a predilection for beer and fatty foods. I didn't realise at that stage that he would be going onto the roof. When I did, I feared for the old clay roof tiles that we had so carefully removed then replaced when the roof was remade 10 years ago.
I pointed out the fogolar fireplace where I was hoping to place the cosy Danish stove. Then, I pointed out the chimney connected to the wet-back stove in the kitchen that keeps us warm in winter. The Chimney man looked up to the top of the chimney and took in the black streaks of creosote running down from the chimney lip. Just a faint whistle and slight shake of the head but instantly I knew that we were in trouble.'Right then' said the Chimney man. 'Is there an opening to the roof?' 'Sure' I replied that won't be a problem' 'I'll just get my equipment' he replied and disappeared behind the van. I heard the door opening and a lot of rummaging going on. Eventually he emerged with a big black pack on his back, solid and expanded as he was. Over one shoulder was a roll of black electrical cable.
As we went upstairs, he with his big solid workboots, I prayed that he hadn't been cleaning any chimneys before coming to us. On the top floor we arrived at the little window that gives out onto the roof. It seemed improbable that he would be able to squeeze through so I rapidly removed anything in the vicinity that could possibly be dirtied or broken. 'We'll be alright then' the Chimney man said obviously bidding me to leave. What could I do. As so often in Italy, hoping for the best, I left them to their devices.
I slunk around the house, loitering under eaves and corners where I couldn’t be seen from above until I located the Chimney man on the very highest part of the house. He was feeding a bulb-shaped object into the chimney, I guessed this was the video camera with light source that he would use to make the inspection. Letting the black cable run out a little at a time he lowered the video camera down the chimney, watching its internal progress on a monitor hung from a strap going around the back of his neck and resting on the upper part of his stomach.
’How is it’ I shouted-up. ’Kappa O’ he replied and made the sign of the cross.
to be continued
Before I get back to the story of why I am sitting here in a tepid kitchen - though far from cold as I am wrapped-up like Father Christmas - I should mention that last evening we found out that our Sauvignon Blanc 2010 had won a Gold Medal at one of the Italian National competitions for Organic wines. Being a competition only for organic wines, of course, the field was limited. However, Italy is the world's second largest wine producer so it does please me, as a New Zealander, to have succeeded making a white wine that as received some recognition.
For those of you who have followed this blog over the years, you will know that in 2004 we employed the services of a consulting wine-maker who knew little about wine-making. We were slow to ditch him, thinking that his idiosyncratic wine-making methods were a sign of his genius; it was too preposterous an idea that he could just have been making it up as he went along. In fact he was just making it up as he went along. A real Bernie Madoff winemaker! His insistence that all our wines - white and red - had to age minimum three years hid from us the fact that we were making wines nobody would want to drink. Of course, we noticed that the wines were not to the standard, principally the white wines, but assumed that this guy had some unrevealed master-plan and that at the end when the wines emerged they would be the exceptional drinks that he promised they would be. They weren't and recovering from that situation was the result of some very good luck and the generosity of spirit of some angels who helped us put things to rights.
Making red wine is comparatively simple, a deft touch and experience allow the red wines effectively to make themselves. One is but a shepherd, keeping those yeast happy and where you want them. White wines also make themselves but are a much tougher proposition as they must, in the modern market, be light, clean, fruity and pleasing to the palate. This is largely achieved by fermenting the grape juice free of large sediments such as bits of leaves, insects etc. The fermentation temperature was dreamed-up by Goldilocks - it has to be neither too hot or the aromas will 'burn off' and neither too cold or the yeast may throw-in the towel leaving space for bacteria to make vinegar. At the end, the light and fruity wine must be kept free of oxygen, excess tartaric acid must be precipitated out and it must be kept cool, at least until bottling, so that a secondary fermentation that results in malic acid being transformed into lactic acid, with a resulting flatness, doesn't occur.
Mostly, the techniques used in white wine making involve the use of machinery to clarify the wine, and machinery to chill the wine and hold it at a certain temperature and a truly sterile bottling plant with filters with 100% integrity. In all this there are dynamic parameters of temperature and time to be applied and respected. If one has studied wine-making at University or in a Technical College or has worked in a winery one has seen how the machinery is used and the techniques applied. In my case I created a kind of completed jig-saw puzzle putting together all the information that I could glean from people who know about these things. But when the time came, I was on my own and it was frightening and I did make mistakes and I did encounter problems. Now I know that I probably over-clarified the juice prior to fermentation beginning. In fact, when grape juice is too clean the yeast lack nutrients to begin the fermentation. I didn't help the yeast by not knowing how to converge the yeast culture temperature with the (cooler) wine temperature. I was lucky, and in the end by adding a hardy species of yeast that is more resistant to difficult conditions than its more selected cousins, the fermentation started and it ran normally and through to its gentle end with effectively all the fermentable sugars having been transformed into alcohol. I was lucky because every wine-maker fears the 'stuck' fermentation where the yeast find the environment too stressful and a certain way into the fermentation give up the ghost. Even without this happening, under stress the yeast can begin metabolic processes that damage the wine including the production of acetic acid so that the wine seems to have gone into vinegar. Once this happens the wine is ruined and that's the end of it.
So I am happy to have made white wine once, using the essential techniques in use today, and to have got to the end, not only without having been cursed by bad luck but with some recognition for the end result!
Now, back to my story about how it is that at 51 years of age, when I should be reclining in a warm and cosy house, instead I am sitting here wrapped-up as if to resist hypothermia!
..... I was quite enthusiastic about the whole idea of getting a nice Danish stove installed in the place of the open fireplace that made a fridge of the lounge. I envisaged us sitting there in the evening reading or watching BBC on the iPad app. I waited with anticipation for the Chimney man to call and agree a time and date to come and inspect the chimney. But he didn't come. And when I called the number that I had been given he didn't answer.
Now, as we all know, Europe is going into recession and Italy is leading the way. One would think that the Chimney Man would have been at our door in an instant. Doing the job and getting paid for it. But no. Nothing. I called the stove salesman 'Look' I said 'Your Chimney Man is nowhere to be found' 'Don't worry' said the stove salesman. 'I'll talk to him and get back to you'. Here I have to mention that I had to ring the stove salesman more than once as his phone just rang free on a number of times that I called him. I was getting a sinking feeling about the situation and starting to wonder how it could be that I seemed to have moved from potential buyer to petitioner! The stove salesman called me back 'I've just spoken to the Chimney Man. He said that he has spoken to you and you havve agreed that he will come around next week.' 'OK' I said. It wasn't true but at least I could be reasonably sure that he would come the next week.
And the following week the chimney man did come around. In a large shiny, latest-reg van with all his ISO numbers and skills plastered on the side plus a list of the special German technologies that he could apply in following his calling! The van came to a halt in the middle of the driveway. But then it had to go backwards as our plumber was just leaving. Then the new white van came back. I stood expectantly. I saw that there were two occupants inside and I waited for them to get out. Time passed and the dogs who were waiting around my feet grew restless. Eventually, the passenger door opened and a young man with a long pale face and page-boy collar-length haircut got out. 'He's on the phone' said the young man. 'He's always on the phone'.
To be continued .....
Normally, at this time of the year, when the first cold of autumn has touched us in the evening and morning, I'm sitting here in a warm and cosy kitchen with two dozing Border Collies at my side and the wood-burning stove crackling away and throwing yellow lights and black shadows on white tiles.
This evening, however, after a long, hot shower I'm sitting here, in a tepid kitchen, hotter than in the summer under all the warm gear I put on to keep me from chilling in my immobility, fixed in front of the computer screen. The internet connection comes and goes. I want to think that it is because Hutchinson 3 Italia is up-grading the network and some time soon the 21Mbps promised by the dongle will materialise. But I suspect that the reality is that we are all at home in these early-darkening evenings and we all want to be on-line at the same time. The coming and going of the internet is it's own digital creaking.
I am cold - or rather I would be if it were not for the elaborate care I have taken to wrap-up - because I wanted the lounge to be warm this winter. In the middle of the lounge is a fogolar, an open fireplace umbrella-ed by a hood in the middle of which is a great hole leading outside to the chimney. The chimney is made of concrete blocks and is 10 meters high. When the fire is not lit, the chimney sucks the air out of the house, a giant lung that renders the lounge a cold store. When the fogolar is lit, however, the great draught sometimes stops, and rolling billows of smoke descend from the hood and fill the room with choking, eye-watering, stinking grey. All windows and doors are then opened and the cold floods in. One day I said 'enough' 'never again'. And about a month ago I found on the internet a very nice Danish stove, 3 sides in glass, that we could insert into the fogolar. I called the local agent who came around. He seemed very capable and emphasised that they key to good stove function is in the chimney so he would send around his chimney man to have a look inside with a special video camera.
to be continued.
Yesterday, I wrote of how wonderful the red grapes were this year following the early, warm spring and the long hot summer. We have high hopes for the 2011 vintage red wine.
The very same conditions brought the white grapes to peak maturity in the last week of August. While we were occupied with the Agriturismo, our neighbours were picking their white grapes and making wine. Waiting until the Agriturismo closed to begin making the white wine was not an option; waiting this long would have meant sugar levels so high that any wine made from them would have had about 15% alcohol and acidity so consumed that they would have been flat, like cooked instead of crisp apples!
We have to make a wine that people will buy. Guests at La Faula are free to buy and bring their own prosecco and sparkling wines but are limited to drinking the still wines that we make. As a friend and guest once said to me: 'we are wine prisoners at La Faula so you had better make what we want to drink'. He was, of course, right; this is a rule that we must always respect.
So, in early September, I gave our white grapes to a neighbour so that he could make the wine, keeping most and giving us a portion. It was a difficult decision but at least it will ensure that we have white wines for 2011.
But it is not this that I want to write about. Having one's own business often means making difficult decisions and having to choose between one option and another. No, I want to write about shame and shaming.
On September 23 2011 Tony Barber in the Financial Times posed the question of why Italy is short of statesmen but long on scoundrels. His conclusion was that the political system and leaders can be seen as an autobiography of the Italian nation.
The wrongdoing and corruption by the Italian political class and state employees that are reported in the foreign press is just a little of what gets reported in Italy. And we all believe that what gets reported is just the tip of what goes on. This must be the case; wrongdoing in Italy is uncovered through the efforts of a limited number of investigating magistrates. What they don't investigate never sees the light of day. It is obvious that in a nation of 60 million inhabitants, where the State seeks to control and regulate all economic activity to the smallest detail and where it funds a large clientèlist private sector, most economic activity touching on the State will never pass under any reviewing lens.
I have written previously that many, if not most, Italians are afraid of la fregatura - being ripped-off by one's fellow Italians. Consistently, the most, popular peak-time television programme is Striscia la Notizia which deals with wrong-doing by the public administration and rip-offs between private citizens (in a typically Italian twist, this programme plays on one of Silvio Berlusconi's TV channels).
In sum, public corruption and lack of morals and private dishonesty between citizens are so unconstrained, in so many cases, public and well known, that it is possible to say that these people are shameless, that is they are people without shame. Numerous are the cases in Italy where the dishonest activities of politicians and private tricksters are publicised and well known. In cases where in any other society the people would have slunk off away from the limelight, in Italy they remain in place soaking up, perhaps even enjoying, the notoriety.
So, if Tony Barber is correct and Italian politicians are just the reflection of the Italian people it may be that many in Italy are without shame.
I have argued previously that Italians are not guided by an abstract, personal sense of right and wrong. Rather that their history is one of a largely down-trodden and subject rural people, prone to vendetta and violence, who were controlled and taught how to behave by an ultimately infallible Catholic Church. Personal pride at doing good and shame at doing bad are the corollary to a personal sense of right and wrong. They are private feelings that arise in a person who knows to feel shame at having done wrong, even if that person is the only one who knows of the act and its quality.
Public shaming is not the same. Public shaming is a social behaviour that pressures an individual to conform to social mores. It seeks to ignite a feeling of personal shame in a person through their having transgressed social codes of conduct. But public shaming is wholly coercive: where public shaming works there are very real physical consequences to the individual if he or she doesn't alter their behaviour. Sometimes the individual is beyond redemption and the public shaming precedes expulsion from the family or community, arrest and trial, and in extreme cases 'honour killing'. Public shaming occurs now, amongst us, in some immigrant communities with strict and rigid codes of conduct. It shocks us, but within the lifespan of people alive today in Europe also Jews, and Homosexuals and Roma, and communists and alleged communists, and religious non-conformists suffered public shame. And not only in Germany. We need think only of how Great Britain thanked Alan Turing for his work done during the Second World War.
For as long as it worked, public shaming was an important element of social control in Italy. The Catholic Church knows a thing or too about shame and the village Priest who through confession, and gossip and the reports of the Perpetua (the generally live-in domestic servant in the service of a Priest) was able to wield the stick of public shame as an adjunct to the terrors of eternal damnation.
But once the power of the Catholic Church to control the lives of individual Italians waned public shaming ceased to work. In fact, it was and is seen for what it was: the coercive tyranny visited on a subject people by professedly non sexually active men and woman bound together in their religious orders (Italian nuns were pretty good at public shame as well) and belonging to a religion that could never escape the whiff of hypocrisy.
How the Italians are can be seen from how they drive. They get their clues from the signs ahead: Stop, Give-Way, Speed Limit 50Km/hr. But they choose whether to obey them or not. When compliance gets too low, and accidents too common and serious, Police cars, speed traps, random alcohol checks, punitive laws and other external mechanisms (like the randomly-changing traffic light on an empty intersection on the way to La Faula!) are arrayed to ensure compliance. But where those things are not; in the back roads of Friuli, the Frascas (wine bars at the winery door) still do a roaring trade and the drivers are as drunk as they ever were!
For a society to be largely safe and stable the people need to have an internal gps, as it were, that leads most individuals to control themselves and their own behaviour before it needs to be controlled by the State. In many cases, in Italy, the control by the State is the only control that there is.
Post Script: If you read Italian you will see that anything I have written about Italy, if anything, downplays the tragedy that is The Country. The link below to the website of Il Fatto Quotidiano (Fact of The Day) provides a daily torrent of disturbing and debilitating facts that show just how low and cynical so many things are in Italy. As The President of the Italian Republic said yesterday: 'One may curse a lot against the Politics, but be careful but politics is all of us.'
Saturday past we finished this year's grape harvest bringing-in the Merlot. The red grapes this year are exceptional and I am taking particular care in the winery hoping that the red wine of 2011 will be as exceptional as the grapes that made it.
It is a funny thing, one talks of wine-making and wine-makers but these, in reality, don't apply to any human. Immediately after harvest, the yeast make the wine by turning the simple sugars in the grape juice into alcohol. The yeast are the real wine-makers. My job is to create an environment that favours the yeast that will give us the type of wine that we like and to control the environment (for example by keeping the must from exceeding a certain temperature during fermentation) to help give us the outcome that we want.
The 'wine-maker' shepherd's the wine through the various biological and physical processes that it will go through to give an agreeable result. Because of this, wine-making can be wholly technical as in the big wineries where chemical analysis and technicians ensure that the best parameters are respected and nothing untoward happens during the creation of wine from must. Or it can be principally artisan, based on chemical analysis, certainly, but also on accumulated experience, trial, error and success.
As many of you who have read this blog will know, lacking technical expertise and experience, Luca and I, for a period, took the advice of a consulting wine-maker. Unfortunately, he knew little more than we did and so we spent a lot of money and didn't get the wine we had been led to expect. It wasn't very enjoyable but it was a learning experience and so the harvest and wine-making have passed from being something scary and fraught with uncertainty for me, to something where the unknown unknowns are always less and the known unknowns always more.
Wine-making like many things is an exercise in managing uncertainty and the more one has done this, the less scary it becomes.
This year I have decided to risk making the red wine completely in stainless steel vats. We always have high before us the French example of truly great wines aged in oaken barrels. Instinctively, one aims for that if one wants also to make good-to-better wines.
But, this year I want to take the risk to see if we can make a fine red wine with super grapes without resorting to oaken barrels. The barrels will become next years flower-planters. Historically, in Friuli red wines were lighter and drunk soon after being made. This was not a region with great oak forests so the barrels in which the wines were made were principally made from cherry-wood. The barrels were used forever and in the absence of sulphite preservatives were a veritable incubator of all sorts of microbial life. The wine never tasted very good after time in these barrels and the old Friulani resented the negative impact the storage vessels had on the wine. To this day, Friulani of a certain age refuse to drink wines that have been aged in wood; even if the impact on the wine is no longer negative the memory is overpowering and they want nothing to do with wines that carry a woody taste.
Until recently, Friuli’s climate was cooler but in the last 20 years the average mean temperature during the summer has edged up. The increase seems little but its impact on the vines has been profound. In Friuli now, the red grapes achieve a significantly greater maturity and complexity than in past times. This is another factor I must consider. In a year like this one where the grapes a fine and mature will they miss something from wood-aging? I don’t know, but this is the time to find-out. And, if it should be the case that it is possible to make a good red wine wholly in stainless steel tanks we will have reduced our costs, lightened the work-load in the winery and, most importantly, arrived at a wine that tastes of itself and not some tree cut down in a French forest!
On 8 September the President of the Italian Republic gave a speech which was reported by Rai News as follows:
'His strongest call was to the Italians to make them understand that the times had changed for all: for the political, social, and cultural and for individual citizens. 'To stay in Europe' - he said - requires a necessary examination of the collective [Italian] conscience. It must regard the individual behaviour of many Italians from every part of the political and social spectrum. Many must now understand that we are no more in the 1980's, let alone the 1970's. The world has changed radically. Also we must change our behaviour and our expectations in the European sense to maintain our European prospects'
On the 16th September during a visit to Romania he called on 'every Italian to demonstrate responsibility'.
Frank Bruni wrote in the New York Times on 17 September this year:
AND Italy has its own education failures. Roberto d'Alimonte, an Italian political scientist from whom I've often sought insight, told me that only about 14 percent of Italians between the ages of 25 and 64 have college degrees or the equivalent. That puts Italy far behind France, the United States, South Korea and many other countries.
"It's one of the phenomena that explains continued support for the Berlusconi government," he said. "Low education."
I think that it is clear - at least to the President of the Italian Republic and to Italian and foreign observers that it is no longer sufficient to make a mental separation between Berlusconi, Italy's dysfunctional social, political, judicial, educational .... systems and it's people. All those things are of and from the people. If they are dysfunctional it is because the people, collectively, are dysfunctional, even though some individual Italians may not be.
We, outside Italy, know that the Italian educational system is weak and poor in educating. Inside Italy, we know that for decades the educational system was a place of patronage and nepotism (and absenteeism by the teachers) with the primary aim of laying down an Italian 'motherboard' so that all Italians could be Italians and the same. This excluded teaching how to reason, question and think independently. There has never been room in Italy for independent thinkers, just as there was no room in the Princely and Clerical City-States that preceded the formation of the country in 1860. The difference between then and now being that those free-thinkers that DNA and individuality throw-up, despite the system, are no longer burnt with faggots of fennel as in past times. But many do emigrate and take their brilliance and creativity with them. Leaving behind them something less.
But I don't think that it is enough to blame Italy's perpetual and self-destructive woes on the ignorance of the people. And ignorant most of them certainly are; if a collectivising and mediocre school system was not enough, Berlusconi has ensured that most Italians are and stay ignorant by obtaining and maintaining an iron grip over the media. A media that has purposefully infantilised Italian society and driven Italians to aspire to the most mediocre values that a people may aspire to.
On September 16 this year the Financial Times carried an article headlined 'Eurozone: A Nightmare scenario:
Under the title 'Latin Lessons' was the following:
'Open strife between France and Germany is putting strain on a newly single currency in western Europe, and Italy is trying to get everyone else to subsidise its chronic fiscal profligacy.
Sound familiar? On this occasion the conflict is the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, and Italy's monetary sleight of hand involves printing paper notes when it should have been minting silver coins.'
So it seems that Italy hasn't changed much in the last 140 years and that trickiness was a national characteristic then as now.
Last winter I wrote that the Italian language lacked any phrase equivalent to the English phrase 'right and wrong' and that Italians don't weigh behaviour in terms of whether it is right or wrong applying those two words as abstract concepts. Thus there is space in Italian culture for concepts such as 'furbizia' (cunning) which is socially acceptable in Italy even though it covers behaviours that in many countries would be regarded as plain dishonest and wrong. In the absence of internalised concepts of right and wrong many Italians have little difficulty with the fact that Silvio Berlusconi freely lies, is corrupt, breaks the law with impunity and has almost exclusively followed his own interests in the time he has been in power. Very many Italians divide over Silvio Berlusconi only as to whether they feel themselves to be of his tribe or of the other - that of the geriatric Left.
Because, of course, we - the Italians - all know, and see in plain view, that the Italian Left is plagued by corruption, hypocrisy, double-dealing, self-enriching hierarchical political structures, clerical conservatism and social prudery. We know that the Italian Left knows of no other way to run Italy than the Italian right. They are cut from the same Italian cloth. They are statists. Left and Right are two tribes divided only by the historical allegiance they owe to two now long-dead gods - Mussolini and Stalin. And in choosing a foreign god over an Italian one the Left will never be forgiven by the majority of Italians who know that in carving the national spoils the Left would have treated with the Soviet Union and risked that very nationalism that Italians must believe in to be Italian.
On 13 September this year Berlusconi was in Brussels to discuss the Italian 'austerity' package with big-wigs of the EU.
'should Europe decide to give an indication regarding the age at which workers can go into pension, all the governments would be happy to increase the pension age being obliged to do so by Europe.'
Berlusconi doesn't say that it is necessary to increase the pension age because it is right to do so, which in Italy's case it surely is. No, he would like Europe to mandate it which - perhaps - could provide justification for it.
And here, I think is the clue to how Italians think. Not because they are genetically inclined to think differently to anyone else but because their history has taught them to think and see the world in a certain way. And this way is no longer appropriate to the modern world but it is a closed way of thinking which will never let them develop and change as they must. It will not happen.
Later in the Roman Empire Italy, through the intervention of Constantine, embraced Christianity. The Italian peninsular was successively invaded by Christian peoples from the North and the certainty of the pax romana gave way to long periods of chaos, danger and social destruction. There were periods when it was little blessing to occupy such a beautiful promontory pushing out into the Mediterranean when the tourists were there to rape, sack and pillage.
During this time the Roman Catholic church provided a basis for social organisation that transcended the latinate peoples who occupied the peninsular and could extend to the new arrivals from the north. The Catholic Church was a top-down organisation with god at the top and various levels of hierarchy below. And for most of the Christian history of the Italian peninsular the vast, vast majority of its inhabitants were desperately poor, sick, illiterate, with minimum property and received their instructions on how to live and be human from the Catholic Church. In the papal states, and in some non-papal states, for example in areas controlled by Patriarchs, the spiritual and temporal fell within the purview of the Catholic Church. Where temporal rulers held sway, the Catholic Church provided important social control over a poor and desperate people, exploited without shame or pity. This is the true history of the Italians.
So it was that the interceder between the power of the state, aristocracy, and landlords and the peasant was the local Roman Catholic Priest. Until the arrival of semi-representative Mayors, the local Priest organised the spiritual, moral and often working life of his flock. The Priest, however, owed his position to an overarching organisation that had a massive investment in social tranquillity and social control and he, personally, had a collaborative relationship with local land owners who were exploiting the peasants in a most terrible way. Moreover, Italy was a place of Disease, Famine, Earthquake, Volcanoes, Destructive Weather and Cruel Terrain, Banditry and Social Violence and the risk and uncertainty engendered brought the most vulnerable to look for protection and certainty in the only authority that reached out and catered for them - the Church. But the price was acceptance of the Church's authority.
In 1571 Martin Luther refused to accept the sale of Papal Indulgences to raise money for the construction of Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome. He began to question the Catholic theology that put the Church at the centre of an individual's relationship with God and rather saw an individual as having a relationship with Christ mediated by faith. His writings led to him being arraigned before a General Assembly of the Estates of the Holy Roman Empire in the town of Worms.
At the General Assembly (Diet) Luther was asked if he justified the writings that set out his beliefs. After having taken time to reflect he replied:
'Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.'
As we all know, this was a seminal moment in the development of Western Culture. It was the moment when an individual invoked his conscience, informed by the scriptures, against the teaching and power of the Roman Catholic Church. No wonder he said the words 'May God help me. Amen' So, the Reformation began in this way.
In Italy, the Catholic Church responded with the Counter-Reformation one element of which was the creation of the Roman Inquisition designed to combat the spread of Protestantism in Italy and it operated by trying people for crimes related to heresy, including sorcery, immorality, blasphemy, Judaizing and witchcraft. The inquisition system of tribunals lasted until the mid 18th century, when the Italian states began to suppress the local inquisitions, effectively eliminating the power of the church to prosecute heretical crimes.
Thus Italians have never been trained to look to their own conscience to find that which is right and that which is wrong. Instead they have always looked to something outside which told them what one had and had not to do to arrive in heaven instead of burning in hell eternally. And as western culture developed and the ecclesiastical cruelty meted out to the people became less acceptable and justifiable there arose the idea of forgiveness for true repentance. Cruel penances no longer had a part in developing western society.
A modern society with an autonomous and emancipated people requires, for social stability, a high degree of self-regulating organisation. For a modern society to work people must have a fairly common idea of what is right and wrong and they must follow this, generally to a greater extent. Those that don't, in countries such as the UK and US, are controlled through the intervention of the State via the criminal law.
A society that lacks an internalised, self-regulating, morality, however, is going to be a society prone to extensive corruption and trickery. The social fabric will find a big space for organised crime and politicians who are highly corrupt and self-serving. In the absence of a clearly defined and shared morality there will be no common ground upon which tough but necessary changes can be implemented. The society will be one where the Prisoner's Dilemma and Free Riding will exist in the eddies and whirlpools of moral ambiguity. Social Trust will be low and each individual will refuse to surrender anything to the common good knowing that the fruits of his or her labours will be stolen and appropriated for the egoistic pleasures of others. So people will try their hardest to avoid paying tax.
In such a society the State, in preservation of itself, must necessarily be coercive. The apotheosis of this in Italy was the Fascist state created under Benito Mussolini. And the coercive state can instinctively be accepted by its members because it can allow a degree of social organisation and cohesion that would otherwise be impossible. In Italy the Fascist State was dismantled but the idea of fascism as a means of social organisation was never officially degraded following the Second World War so for many, very many, Italians it remains an ideal, albeit unattainable. And for those for whom the fascist state is unpalatable, a state run by the left, would be just the ticket, controlling the excesses of the capitalist and managerial classes and crushing tax evaders under a heavy boot. For the Italians of a certain age, the State must always be punitive.
to be continued
p.s. for those of you who understand Italian, there is a link below to a YouTube video in which one of the prostitutes used by Berlusconi talks about her role and philosophy in an unfolding prostitutes-for-favours corruption scandal involving Berlusconi. It seems that anything that I wrote above is mild compared to what really goes on in Italy at the highest levels!
The photo of the day for 1 September reflects a tradition. Since the 'Photo of The Day' began I have photographed the departure of this family, always the last guests to leave at the end of the Agriturismo season. This year's photo captures something else; the changes in the family. The eldest son is not in the photo because he came separately with his girlfriend and they are staying-on some more days. And the younger daughter is not in it because being an adult now sometimes she is not always around for the family photo!
So it was that Regine said good-bye to Nellie, an old friend, and we pondered upon the fact that next year they will only need the one-bedroom bungalow instead of the two bedroom bungalow that they have taken at the same time every year for the last 8 years.
Change is often disquieting, especially when there are changes to warm, familiar and cosy things that we have in our lives. This year at La Faula we have said goodbye to quite a few children - now grown up - who will probably not be coming on the family holiday next year. But change is thrust upon us and being the irresistible force of time we must accept it and even perhaps embrace it. But accept it we must and we must understand what it means for us and how we must best respond to go forward well and perhaps even better than before.
The irresistible force of change is being thrust down upon Italy at this moment. But Italy doesn't want to change. The present, for most, is supremely comfortable. Their problems are not at home but in the national debt that the Italian government holds and protects them from. The government has not only taken the problem of an indebted society off their hands but has paid many a supremely generous state-guaranteed occupational pension for life. The state has guaranteed their income and enabled them to keep their assets. Of course they are rich by other Western Country standards. And not only, they, looking at the wonderful situation they have created for themselves, tell themselves how special they are and how much better than others; for so little effort they were able to achieve so much.
The problem for the Italian government is that it cannot take away what these Italians already have - they are too self-interested to stand-by idly and let that happen. So they will keep their pensions and their houses and flats and other assets. And the State cannot cut those who work for it. There is no work for them and, even were they to be lucky enough to find work in the private sector they would have great difficulty understanding what it meant to work for a living. So all that the state can do, as it scrabbles around blindly trying to find ways to reduce the deficit and eventually the public debt, is look to the productive sector. The very same productive sector that is has tortured by application of labyrinthine bureaucracy and hamstrung by the application of suffocating labour laws.
But the government cannot help the productive sector by easing the labour laws. Italian workers were prepared to accept lower wages than the rest of Europe in return for less productivity, good holidays, 13 and 14 months pay, a generous payout on retirement (or upon buying a house), a job for life (it is in the Italian Constitution) and the security of being assisted by the government if the factory got into trouble. Freeing-up labour laws may well result rather quickly in an increase in wages but only if there is an increase in productivity and a decrease in the perks workers enjoyed up until now. The older workers won't stand for it. And the younger workers almost certainly are on temporary contracts so it won't mean anything to them [see the link to the FT article below noting the poor turn-out of young people to today's national strike].
We too at La Faula are using these days to think about useful and helpful changes that we can make. A slowing world economy, uncertainty in Italy, the fact that time moves on mean that we are thinking constantly about La Faula and how it operates. As our little business goes on we have always greater experience as to what works best. And what works best is that when what guests are looking for from us and what we are looking for from the guests are perfectly aligned. When those two things are in perfect alignment the Agriturismo flies and is infused with a unity that is wholly enjoyable.
So it is that we have decided to focus wholly on what it means for us to be an Agriturismo. An Agriturismo is not a Bed & Breakfast. It is a farm stay where people go to enjoy staying on a farm and sampling some of the produce of the farm. It is also a way of sustaining the rural economy. We are fulfilled when people enjoy being on the farm and enjoy the fruits of our labours. That's why we are here. Historically we have also accepted that some people looking to stay at La Faula are searching for nothing more than a bed & breakfast. Of course, there is the pool, the kids' play-area and other amenities that make it a nice place to pass the day. But La Faula has many more facets and having provided them it is those that we offer for others to enjoy!
This year, 2011, saw the last Volley-Ball camp at La Faula by the Codroipo Junior Volley-Ballers. It was a nice camp and a good note to finish on. We had got used to having the camp on the last week of August; it was familiar and it was nice to have La Faula invaded by a pack of young, enthusiastic and sporty young volley-ballers. We have done it now for eight years which is a big chunk of the time that we have been running the Agriturismo. In the end, providing full-board, including lunches, and managing the volley-ballers along with regular guests got too tiring - in the hot dog days of August we too need a little nap away from the mid-day sun!
It was interesting to have the volley-ballers for another reason. By now, anyone following Italy's recent economic travails and its response to the difficulties it is encountering funding its national debt will have realised that its current national behaviour is wholly consistent with every other disastrous event that has ever happened in its history since 1860.
First, Italy proceeds recklessly with a devil-may-care attitude until it encounters difficulty. Then, it grossly misjudges the nature of the risk and the magnitude of the problem. Then, as things deteriorate, it dissembles and then what it says it will do ceases to have any relation to what it actually does. Before the reckoning arrives, in the period of calm that preceeds the tempest, the Italians convince themselves that all is well and that they really are a people who can wing their way through the most terrible of moments. And then lacking courage, steadfastness and character Armageddon is visited upon the Italians and those who lead them leave the devil to take the hindmost.
In this way Italy, as a nation, has been a wholly destructive force in Europe more than once during the 18th and 19th centuries and it seems a more than fair bet that Italy will be the straw that breaks the Euro's back.
So what has this got to do with the volley-ball girls? The volley-ball girls who came to La Faula this week past were largely young, aged mainly around 12 years of age. They could have been from anywhere. They were open and spontaneous. Friendly and helpful. They were fit and sporty, cooperative and collaborative. To be in their company was a pleasure. Their coach, and organiser of the camp, was generous in his time, means and availability. It was impossible not to contrast this with, at that moment, the despicable, dishonest, conflicted and self-interested behaviour of the politicians, unions and interest groups tussling in an effort not to lose anything as Italy tried to respond to the national debt crisis. It was, moreover, impossible not to contrast the fresh behaviour and spontaneous, natural way of being of these young volley-ballers with that of their elders soaked in social distrust, bella figura and 31 years of Silvio Berlusconi's TV.
Italy is a wonderful place, it is beautiful and many people are warm and honest and caring. But the society is rotten to the core. This is reflected in the politicians not vice versa. But one man has certainly sewn the seeds of degradation and fed its malign progeny. And, we must, if we are to be honest, confront the fact that many Italians wanted this, were comfortable with it and supported and sustained it. But now, that those very Italians find that the rot has left them precariously exposed they will, as they did to Mussolini before, turn on Berlusconi and he is right to be afraid, as he must surely be.
Post Script: Sometimes, it may appear that I am unduly harsh in my judgements on Italy. But for a truly frank assessment I can only quote the words of Silvio Berlusconi published today:
Non me ne fotte niente...io..tra qualche mese me ne vado per i cazzi miei... da un'altra parte e quindi...vado via da questo paese di merda...di cui...sono nauseato...punto e basta..."
I couldn't give a f-ck, in some months time I'm going to go away for my own reasons .... to some other place and then I'll go away from this sh-t country, of which I'm sick ... and that's that!
The photo of the day is of James climbing Black Mountain in Slovenia. James, a guest, but who has become a friend, is the principal mover in organizing visits to WWI Alpine war sites during his stays at La Faula.
This year we scaled Black Mountain, 2400 metres. We then dropped into the saddle and scaled the next mountain in the chain, Red Mountain. It was a stunning, challenging and beautiful walk of which I will write more when times at La Faula quieten down somewhat!
This week sees the last time that we will host the Codroipo Volley ball girls during their annual summer training camp. It is fun, and the girls are great, but Luca and I have decided that we need a more measured activity in the summer and the volleyball girls, who require also lunches are straining our old (and tired) bodies somewhat.
The volunteers since mid-July are Chloe and Alex from London and Margherita from Italy. They have knitted down into a great team and having them here is really great for us.
Fritzy came through his hip replacement very well. Until a couple of days ago he was never let free as time was needed for the muscles to close around his femur. To avoid him running and jumping we kept him in a cage or tied-up and took him for walks. He has recovered well and in these last days we have left him, for periods, untethered and unclosed. The great thing is too see how happy Fritz is now that he is free of the debilitating pain of his arthritic hip-joint. He his truly a happy dog and is enjoying life to the full. We really thank the many guests who took Fritz for walks during his convalescence. Without this help, at what is a busy time for us,I am sure Fritz wouldn't have returned to good health so quickly and so emphatically!
As I guess all in Europe know, the summer is as perfect as it can be. Every day hot under blue skies with warm breezes bringing the sound of crickets singing in the long, yellow grass. For us it has been a wonderful season too. Things have gone smoothly and the guests have been enthusiastic, friendly and hospitable. We have had a series of controls from the authorities, mainly of a tax nature, but have not encountered any difficulties. Of course, with the Italian State close to not being able to fund its national debt, and not able to make the spending cuts needed because of the populist nature of its political system, it can do nothing else than look to transfer wealth from the private sector. We can expect, therefore, more controls, but we are sure in the knowledge that a nation that smothers its private sector in bureaucracy and extorts from it any surplus produced, while all the time vilifying entrepreneurs as anti social tax evaders will have no future and so we feel rather distant from the upheavals occurring in Italy around us. Italy will fall over but the sun will still shine and the crickets will still sing in the long dry grass in the summer ......
In late spring we decided to have Nellie and Anna, the female Border Collies, spade. The veterinary surgeon who did the job had undertaken every operation that, over the years, needed doing such as a replacement knee-joint for Spotty and operations on Minnie and Barty, the Maremanni, as they got older and had health problems.
For quite some time Fritzy, the runt of Nellie's litter of collies, had evinced a limp but recently he was obviously in pain so we took him along to the veterinary surgery as well.
When the x-rays were done the vet came to me and said that Fritzy had a hip displacement and the ball at the top of his leg had become arthritic. I looked at the x-ray and, while being completely ignorant of medical matters, dog or human, I could clearly see (even without glasses!) that the ball-joint of one leg really was completely out of order.
'So what does this mean?' I asked
'An operation' was the reply
'What kind of operation'
'He's a young dog. The advisable operation would be to replace the arthritic joint with a prosthetic one'
I knew what was coming
'How much will it cost?'
In that moment the dilemma we faced opened like a chasm that I felt sure we were going to fall into. In essence, €3,000 or put the dog down (sooner or later depending on the effectiveness of other palliative therapies). Hmmm. It was all too hard so I put the thing away for another day and brought Fritz home.
Luca didn't have anything to say either when I recounted the situation regarding the dog. We didn't even mention it for some days. Neither of us felt able to make the decision that would bind the other. In my mind, I asked myself if a dog was worth €3,000. I knew of course, that if we put him down he would not suffer and would not know. But I also knew that Fritzy likes life, he is a friendly and affectionate dog and he makes the most of his life at La Faula. It seemed a big thing to eliminate a life to stop suffering when the expenditure of €3,000 would keep the life and abolish the suffering.
But the decision was too great to be taken and it would have to emerge itself from the sum total of all the elements, known and unknown, at play. Over time, I came to the conclusion that we should have Fritz operated upon. I felt that he was a member of the Faula team, albeit a canine one, and that when a team member is in difficulty the rest, or al least those that can, have to pull together to help. One can’t just ditch a team-member because it is inconvenient. Looked at this way the cost, while still shocking, was not the central issue. At issue was the saving of the life of one of the Faula who had faithfully played his part.
However, even having come to this decision, I didn’t mention it to Luca as I felt that both of us had to arrive at our own answer individually and in our own time. So on the sunny afternoon that Luca said to me ’call the vet and book Fritz in for the operation’ I felt that we had taken the right path for us (even though that sum of money would buy two brand-new stainless steel wine-tanks that I hanker after!).
Now we have a little break between the spring holiday season (Easter, Pentecost and The Ascension) and the summer holidays. The season so far has gone well and been pleasurable. The guests have been nice and we have seen the return of old friends which is gratifying and enjoyable. The Volunteer from May has been Eleanor, from Scotland, who came to La Faula following studies in France for a year. She has been a great addition to the team and good company. Emily, from San Francisco in the United States has been here for a month on a cooking and language course and having her in the Agriturismo has certainly brought an American (or Californian?) perspective to things!
We are rather enjoying running the Agriturismo without any prospective plans or works in the offing. Everything is pretty much as we want it and, given how hard we work in the summer, it would be too much to say that we are lying back and enjoying it but certainly the whole process is more relaxing with everything (more or less) under control!
The weather has been nice, the Golf Club inauguration went-off well, we paid to have a drone video La Faula and were happy with the results (this video will be loaded on the Home Page in the near future). One doesn’t want to risk fate but all is well - at least now - in paradise!!
Normally I apply the rule never to identify guests who appear in the photo of the day and never to write about guests in my blog. Obviously, people coming to La Faula on holiday don't want to be objects of study or comment or to have their privacy stripped away.
But todays Photo of the Day is of Howard, who is 86 years old, and the photo is posted with his consent. I wanted to signal Howards stay at La Faula (for the second time) because it is something that makes La Faula special and illustrates what makes owning La Faula such a privilege.
Often, people ask me, 'do you go away in the winter?'
The answer is no. And the reason is that I have seen and heard of more of the world at La Faula than I ever could have if I had travelled. The world comes to us, and that world, in the diversity and difference and different life experiences of every guest, shows itself in its richness and complexity. If one has a curious mind and an interest in the world and how it is La Faula is a great place to see it!
So it is that duirng his stay at La Faula Howard would go to bed early and get up early. On the first morning of his stay I arrived in the breakfast room later than Howard and he commented on how surprised he was to get up, come down for a coffee and find that the farmers (Luca and I) were not already up. The time was 5.45 a.m.
Howard grew-up in Appalachia on a small farm. For most of his youth the existence of the outside world was signalled only by the sound of the steam-train passing through a nearby valley. Howard's family passed through the Great Depression with sufficient to eat and with things pretty much as they had been before the crash. Straight out of infantry training he arrived on Okinawa on the third day following the landings. From there he was posted to Japan. Howard then saw the 1950's and McCarthyism. He experienced the 1960's in San Franscisco and so on.
So Howard has seen and heard a great many of the profound events of the 20th century. And every morning, as I prepared breakfast, he would share his recollections of things that he had experienced, often prompted by me. I marvelled to be in the presence of someone who had experienced, directly, events that, already, are history. History of another century. I also felt Howard's loneliness at being so far away now from the people and times that had filled-up most of his life. But I do thank Howard for having taken the time to share some minutes with me and to have generously given me his thoughts and impressions of the times in which he lived.
And for that, I also have to thank La Faula!
These last 10 days were a challenge. We had in mind to bottle the 2010 vintage white wines (Sauvignon Blanc, Reisling Italico and Pinot Bianco) this May, but hadn't really focussed on when would be the best time to do it. We looked at the Agriturismo booking form and suddenly realised that we had to do it pretty much instantly otherwise it would be rendered impossible by the amount of work required on the tourism side. Bottling wine, however, requires prior racking, filtration and analysis not to mention setting-up, using and cleaning the equipment and, immediately prior to bottling, preparing and sterilising the plant. It takes two days after bottling to thoroughly clean and return to order the equipment, plant and tanks.
Filtration can always pose a challenge. The trick with wine filtration is to filter just enough to get the wine sterilely in the bottle but not to overwork the wine which can expose it to oxygen and result in loss of aroma. This comes mainly from experience; experience of one's own grapes and the physical properties that one's own wines exhibit. This year the filtration went fairly well without any great problems. As one filters the flow-rate, however, does diminish as the filters do their job and towards the end, normally in the evening of a long day, one begins to wonder if the last tank will fill before the flow rate becomes too little to continue!
The following day I was speaking with one of the owners of the laboratory that analyses our wine and he described wine filtering well: 'you should always', he said, start early and calmly. 'If you're lucky you may finish in the evening. You may, however, just as easily finish three days later'!
Anyway, I now know more than I did 10 days ago and next time's wine filtration will go even better!
The day following the filtration involves cleaning, setting up the winery and sterilising the bottling line. As one puts everything together and prepares the plastic and shining stainless steel one has the sense of preparing for some dangerous challenge that must turn-out well or all is lost! Bottling is truly approached with trepidation: it is the culmination of numerous hours of work starting with the pruning of the vineyard the previous year. Mistakes in most of the previous steps can, generally be forgiven and remedied, but there is no room for error during the bottling: either everything will work as it should or the process will have to be abandoned.
So it was that last Tuesday with the assistance of Luca's nephew, we bottled 2,125 bottles of wine. The day did go as it should and the wine is now in the bottle. After bottling it pays to leave the wine for at least a couple of weeks for it to settle before tasting. I do have to admit to some nervousness while we wait for this time to pass!
This is the moment when we pay for all those wonderful relaxed days in winter with long lie-ins, early dinners and gentle evenings beside the stove, faithful collies at our feet, listening to Radio 4 or reading a good book!
This spring is wonderful with cool nights and warm sunny days. The Agriturismo started well. The best part has been the warm and appreciative guests who have brought to La Faula a sense of - dare I say it - shared comradeship and openness that has made being here a real pleasure. Of course, if the guests were all grumpy, Mr. Angry's we would carry-on as always being jolly and friendly and trying to make sure that everyone feels at home. But when the guests are happy, and warm and enthusiastic it gives us such great satisfaction. La Faula is, after all, not only our business but also our home so we feel pretty pleased with how things have commenced. And for that we thank all of you who have participated in making it such a nice place to stay!
The warm weather has put us under a lot of pressure in the vineyard which is very advanced and also in the garden. I don't think that La Faula has ever looked as beautiful as it looks now. Luca's garden is a pleasure to spend time in and we have added a beautiful and practical meridian, fruit of an inventor who comes here to La Faula with his family.
In the next couple of weeks we must bottle last vintage's white wine. This puts me under a bit of pressure and I'll be glad when it is (successfully, I hope) completed!
Keeping-up with the website becomes a bit of a struggle. The extremely talented guy who did our coding has left being a small business owner for the pleasures (in Italy at least) of being an employee. He has less time to dedicate to the site so this is also holding-back a bit the constant changes that we have in progress. Especially regarding the general unfriendliness of the site to mobile devices and, in particular, iPhones and iPads that don't run Flash. I can see that the advent of the mobile device requires a rethink of how we serve them - (probably with a dedicated stripped-down site). This year so far has seen an explosion of iPhones and iPads being used at La Faula. Apple must be coming up to its peak so somewhere around the corner must be the next development that will favour some other company!
These are, in a little way, exciting days. The Agriturismo has opened and the first of the guests have arrived. We are rushing around finishing those last minute touches prior to Easter. Sometimes the idea of La Faula full of guests seems a little scary and one's breath catches with nervousness. I start cooking dinners on Friday night and tomorrow will be my first shop. Luca and I have prepared the vegetable garden and this year we mounted a polythene growing tunnel. The tomatoes and peppers are growing amazingly fast in the tunnel, spurred on by the particularly hot weather of the last weeks. The potatoes planted outside the tunnel are sprouting and the garden requires constant watering as we are in a period of dryness.
On Saturday we open the swimming pool and on Friday the kids play area will be finished. Already the lawns have required two cuts. But now I have to use the mower that the Golf Club uses to cut their greens. It's comfortable and does the work in a fraction of the time. Sometime next winter I'll write all about the golf club but, in summary, it has been an amazingly lucky stroke for La Faula that this group of amateur golfers and their golf pro happened upon us and decided that La Faula would be perfect for a rustic golf course.
Taking photos, loading them in the photo of the day, let alone writing the blog, becomes a challenge with so many other claims on my time. As the bookings come in and the house fills-up in some periods one prays not to have omitted to write a booking in the register. Now begins, for us, the big rush (in every sense) that will eventually bring us through summer and to early autumn and the harvest of the grapes and making of the wine. As before every adventure, one looks forward with apprehension, hoping that everything will go alright, and with enjoyable anticipation of the benefits that will flow from changes and improvements made since the last Agriturismo season. New volunteers will come and it is always fun to meet and work with these people who become, albeit temporarily, a part of our life at La Faula. The movement of guests, the spending of time with old and familiar friends and the meeting of new and interesting people leaven us up and make our work really special.
And one knows that, all going well, at the end of it, the Agriturismo closed, the wine made, the days drawing in, there will be another winter of peaceful nights, a warm wood stove, shared dinners listening to PM on Radio 4 and good books to enjoy with border collies curled around one’s feet!
So, recapping from yesterday's Blog entry, Italian Fascism was a means to the end of forging a united Italian Nation with one people, a people descended from the ancient Romans and like them prepared to submit their own egoism for good of the fatherland. All Italians were expected to participate in this grand adventure. It wasn't part of the plan to allow opt-outs and so those who didn't fit the Italian stereotype or who weren't prepared to submit their egoism to a Fascist Italian Nation and State were victimised, often cruelly, sometimes mortally.
But Fascism was always work-in-progress an ad hoc make-it-up-as-you-go-along pantomime, big on symbolism and grand gesture while short on substance and often tipping over into buffoonery. But for those happy to conform, especially the poor, ill-educated and down-trodden, Fascism offered a basic education and the chance to participate in a wonderful spectacle that was denied their forebears, subject, beaten-down and humbled as they always had been by local landlords and factory owners, their souls always held hostage by the local Priest.
Communism, however, was a defined ideology. An ideology that had been defined by the educated middle class in the name of the workers. It was an ideology only capable of meeting the aspirations of the working classes and their intellectual fellow-travellers and its application in the Soviet Union had shown what awaited the rest. It was a foreign ideology and stabbed at the heart of real, as opposed to Fascist-invented, Italian culture based around the Catholic Church.
When Italian Fascism took the road of total war in league with Germany it was no longer such a good game to play. Quickly many Italians including the King and the military leadership decided that maybe it had all been a big mistake. We all know what happened then. They started rooting for another team (the Allies) and the Fascist experiment was effectively over with Mussolini deciding, at the end, that maybe Socialism would have been better all along. He was hung-out to dry.
But Communism suffered no such defeat and the Italian Left were in no way humbled by the knowledge of what Communism had been up to in the Soviet Union. But the United States, the Catholic Church and their allies the Christian Democrats kept the Italian Communists out of power until communism ceased to count. Communism may have ceased to exist but in Italy the communists didn't and in 2006 Romani Prodi formed a government of the Left including unreconstructed Communists, left-wing Catholic reactionaries, and people who called themselves Greens.
Romani Prodi, an operator from the old Christian Democrats, a good Catholic, a wise and professorial type presented his coalition during the electoral campaign as moderate, pro-business, reformist, even a bit liberal. In power he and a Finance Minister Vincenzo Visco declared war on the small entrepreneur, that tax evader and non-respecter of laws, owing allegiance to the family and not the state. Italy needed less of these hard to control individualists and more big businesses capitalised to compete in global markets.
The State declared war on small businesses. Controls by the Finance Police were ratcheted-up. Compliance was to be by terror and so administrative sanctions were introduced allowing businesses to be closed for three months following failure to issue three till receipts. Humiliation was to be public with closed businesses taped-up with official seals. Fines were introduced that effectively caused a subject business to close. But this wasn't enough. The whole population was to be made to obey the State. Overflights were made of the total Italian territory and the resulting photographs were digitised and compared to the land registry. Inspectors were sent out to ensure the demolition of every unauthorised wood-pile with a roof, car-port, animal stall. And so on it went.
This would have been OK but the Prodi Government immediately reduced the Pensionable age to 58 years from the 60 years that the previous Berlusconi Government had managed to get to after much struggle. Generous wage settlements under the national contracts system were made in excess of inflation and productivity improvements (in fact, productivity was declining). Public spending went up on the back of increased tax receipts (primarily VAT) following the mini-boom of 2006-2007-2008 (until the Boom!). No serious attempt was made to begin to drag down the public debt. Moreover, it emerged that Prodi had used a Berlusconi law that he later repealed to donate, tax-free large sums of money to his children. His justice minister was investigated and then charged with influence peddling. His environment minister was a Green who refused to take any responsibility at all for the disastrous system concerning waste in Naples that had lead to dioxin being found in Mozarella cheese and the city overcome by stinking, foetid waste. The Finance Minister Visco tolerated a private market in the grounds of the economics ministry in Rome where no receipts were given. When tackled about this he simply refused to reply.
Normal people quickly realised that they had been duped. The private sector reeled from the absolute hostility shown them by the Government. Small businesses felt especially vulnerable. Pensioners had been paid-off by Prodi and workers in the public and private sectors also but the behaviour of the Prodi Government was so overbearing and disrespectful and the behaviour of its members at a minimum hypocritical and often worse. The consent of the people for Prodi to govern simply dried-up. After two years, just long enough for its members to qualify for a pension for life, the government folded. In the following election Berlusconi came back, the communists disappeared as did the greens. They have effectively ceased to exist. And Prodi is still hero to a large part of the left which is an indictment of their lack of moral judgement and the vindictiveness they hold towards their fellow co-nationals.
So it is that bad, shocking and terrible as Berlusconi is without any doubt the alternative would be worse! It was worse!
What a country!
Since the move to Summer Time, long light evenings are limiting the time available to Blog. Soon, I will be forced to reduce it to a weekend entry only.
In the meantime there was something that I wanted to write about. Perhaps it has crossed your mind that it should be strange that Silvio Berlusconi is still in power given that he is currently attending four trials and the Italian economy is in constant decline and even his ex-wife called him 'sick'? Maybe you have wondered about the parliamentary opposition?
The largest part of the parliamentary opposition to Silvio Berlusconi is the Partito Democratico. This is a rag-bag that collects various groupings of the historical Italian left, but not all. This grouping, and it can only be called a grouping, because parties of the left come and go, dissolve and reform, split away and rejoin offers no ideas and is not trusted by a large part of the Italian population. This distrust flows from the history of the Italian Left and the class-war that it unleashed the last time it was in power under Romano Prodi from 17 May 2006 until 7 May 2008. In its current form and with its current ideology the Italian left is unlikely to ever be given the chance to govern again.
To understand why Silvio Berlusconi can still claim to be persecuted by Communists, and be believed by a lot of Italians, it is necessary to understand Fascism. Fascism never had a coherent ideology. But it was a virulent form of nationalism that strove to channel the energies and mould the characters of the Italians into a coherent whole sufficient to sustain a modern nation state with martial and imperialistic ambitions. It gave Italians a sense of belonging to a greater whole that, in their unity, would enable them to approach if not rival the achievements of their forebears of ancient Rome. Being conformist in design and implementation, obviously, it was intolerant of pluralism but this intolerance required that it offer something to all the elements of ethnic-Italian society. It was populistic by nature. These elements result in it still being fondly remembered by many Italians who were alive during the times of fascism.
Fascism did not have a particular economic ideology nor was it a participant in class warfare. It required the support of the industrialists and landowners, these were its pillars, but it also breathed the oxygen of support of the very workers who were going to create the modern militaristic Italian state. Everyone had to participate in Italy's great new adventure for it to work!
Socialism and Communism, however, were natural well-springs of the atrocious exploitation and subjugation of the working classes on the land and in the factories. Feudal landholdings continued in Italy into the 20th century. Share-croppers were the lucky agricultural workers. Unending and unbearable misery was the lot of Day-labourers. Workers were maimed and exhausted in the factories. It was natural that they embraced the example of the Soviet Union and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. But the aim of many was revolution and overthrow of the capitalist, political and religious classes. Here I must mention that many early socialists and communists were also Italian Nationalists and capable of compromise but the perceived threat to the existing power structures in Italy, including, of course, the Catholic Church, fed and sustained the development and growth of Fascism. Mussolini found fertile ground for his black-shirted groups of strike-breaking thugs.
As Fascism grew and found power many Italian Communists were forced to flee and many went to the Soviet Union where the found a warm welcome in Stalin's government. After the Second World War the Soviet Union and the United States waged a proxy battle for control of Italy. With the assistance of the Catholic Church and the United States the Democratic Christians retained a rightward grip on Italy until the weakening of the empire of the Soviet Union rendered Italy less important in any future world order. Notwithstanding that many of those returning to Italy from the Soviet Union after the Second World War renounced violent struggle to achieve proletariatarian ends, their vicinity to Stalin's regime and their continued close links to the Soviet Union led to their being seen by many Italians as essentially covert revolutionaries aiming to impose a dictatorship on the country which would be based on a monopolistic aggregation of all political power plus the means of production in an unrepresentative body of men.
When contrasted with Italian Communism Fascism seems almost pluralistic. But they key truth is that Facism grew out of the structure of Italian society: hierarchical, uniform, conformist, clerical, conservative and closed. In this sense it was the society's evolved response to the great political and economic upheavals happening at the time. Communism, however, was an imported ideology which aimed to give power over to a part, albeit a large part (workers), of society to the obvious disadvantage of the rest. But it was an ideology of a people who were equally hierarchical, uniform, conformist, conservative and closed.
Once, it became clear that Communism was dead the Italian left had nothing left. All that was left was a group of hierarchical, uniform, conformist, conservative and closed people clinging to (and often changing) old and defunct symbols and slogans while trying to convince the rest of the Italians that they were in some way progressive. As the Italian left has historically been staunchly opposed to individualism and libertarianism (if it knows what it is), it has been unable to make the move of other parties of the left internationally who have focussed on the means by which a society may work to the benefit of its individual members. The Italian left is still thinking in groups. Class struggle only happens to the masses. The individual is only an atom and cannot, by definition, count. One person’s struggle is but nowt compared to the great tides of history.
So that is that, you might think. But it wasn’t. On 17 May 2006 the Italians, thoroughly tired of Berlusconi, elected a Government headed by Romano Prodi. Prodi had presented his coalition during the run-up to the elections as market friendly, understanding of business and its needs, even reforming and liberalizing. Many had high hopes for the Prodi government. It came to power in the era of loose money when growth took off, liquidity was high, exports up. Of course, this all ended in the crash of late 2008 but that was still in the future and in 2006 many hoped that the Prodi government would begin the liberalisation that Italy so badly needs and which Berlusconi had so patently not implemented.
Instead, Prodi and his Finance Minister Vincenzo Visco declared war on Italian business and, in particular, small Italian businesses which were defined as being a problem for Italy and not a part of the motor that kept the country going.
To Be Continued!
A few days ago I recounted the story of the incident that occurred in our winery. A tank of very cold white wine saturated with carbon dioxide heated-up, albeit by a small amount. I didn't vent-off the CO2 and happily went to bed only to confront a fountain of wine spraying out of the tank door in the morning. The pressure had built-up to the point where the door seal failed. The tank had originally held 1000 litres of wine. We lost 200 litres before we got the situation under control. I guessed that the wine that had remained in the tank was probably not adversely affected as the inside of the tank was charged with CO2, a gas that is extremely protective of wine (think of Prosecco or Champagne!), but until I had had the wine analysed and tasted by an expert there remained an element of doubt.
I awoke at first light this morning trying to decide whether I should have the wine analysed today or later. Expert tasting is done on Mondays. Like all uncertainties that can present problematic outcomes I was tempted to put the testing off at least for another week. In the full light of day, however, I decided that it was pointless to wait any longer and so I took the wine to the laboratory. Before leaving La Faula, however, I had Luca try the wine. Now this winter past Luca took a wine-tasting course plus he had tried this particular white before the incident so I thought that he could be the 'pit-canary' immediately signalling if something was wrong. Luckily, he found the wine fine. The lab analysis and expert tasting confirmed this so apart from the 200 litres lost (I'm not crying over that!) everything was back as before. Phew!!
Coming back from the laboratory I turned-off into an industrial estate where there is a chemicals wholesaler. Now, La Faula has a septic tank so we are very careful what chemicals we use in the house. In addition, being an 'organic' Agriturismo, over time we have reverted to using simpler and older cleaning products often based on simple chemicals that were once commonly found in old drugstores. For years I have purchased the chemicals from this wholesaler, a small, rather ramshackle outfit, which is convenient as in one place I could get all the ingredients that we use and in concentrations stronger than you can find at the local ironmongers. When I arrived I noticed that the place was completely different. Physically, it was just the same, but there was no hustle and bustle and I was keenly, if quietly, watched as I walked into the warehouse.
'Si' said the woman that I had dealt with many times before but this time in a perfunctory almost challenging way. I replied telling her what I was wanting to buy. 'We can't do that' she replied. 'We can't do that at all'
'But I've come here often' I said. 'I've been coming here for years. I've bought with an invoice. We're a local Agriturismo'
'You had better talk to the owner' replied the woman who I had always taken to be the daughter but now nothing seemed clear.
Living in Italy, one gets to recognise a business that has had problems with the authorities. The immediate response to a 'control' gone wrong is a closed defensiveness and an evinced inchoate but general hostility. We know, because we have had these feelings ourselves! The woman who I knew to be the owner was working at a tall bench. An old woman, in her late 60's or early 70's, slightly stooped, she was wearing elbow-high thick protective gloves, oversize goggly protective glasses and a mask over her mouth and nose. Beside her was a large sack of some white chemical that she was measuring out into smaller tub-like containers. When she saw me she turned and removed the glasses and mask. She had obviously heard the previous exchange.
'I'm really sorry' she said. But we've had a 'control' from the Guardia di Finanza. We are licensed as a wholesaler and we cannot sell at retail.
'But it's not retail' I said. 'Look we're an Agriturismo and have a VAT number. I've bought with an invoice here in the past'.
'That's not the problem' the woman replied. 'Invoice or not, doesn't change anything. You are using the products yourself and not selling them on so we can't sell them to you. I'm sorry'
There was nothing to be done. I thanked them for their time and left. And then I remembered that last summer the wholesaler where we buy pasta, milk and other staples, the Metro, had closed off the food and related items section and required businesses to apply for a new access card if they wanted to enter this section. The card was only available to those businesses involved in preparing food for the public. We applied for a card and it was only issued to us after a manager from the Metro had come to the Agriturismo and looked at our kitchen and dining room to ensure that we really do prepare and serve food to the public.
Everything was clear. In Italy all businesses (including La Faula) operate under a licence that specifies in great and restrictive detail just what that business may do. It is prohibited for a business to do anything outside the scope of the licence. The Minister of Finance, Tremonti, is extremely hostile to free-market systems as practised in what he has called the 'anglo-saxon' world and he has expressed himself not to be particularly impressed by the German model either. For Tremonti, a colbertist and statist, allied to the reactionary Northern League, the Italian State should shape and control the economy. Obviously, there has been an official push to restrict businesses to acting within the terms of their licence. Perhaps in these free-market times businesses got it into their heads that they could develop so as to serve the markets that presented themselves rather than those defined by the terms of their licence. Be that as it may, they were wrong and the Government of Silvio Berlusconi that since 1994 has systematically wrecked the Italian economy, is putting them back in their box.
This morning Silvio Berlusconi presented himself in court in Milan in a pre-trial hearing regarding fraud charges that have been levelled against him. In the next weeks he will be tried on three other counts including paying for sex with a minor.
His Finance Minister, the very same Tremonti, has promised the vast army of Italian Pensioners who are holding a big chunk of the Italian public debt in Treasury Bills that should [the government] want to raise taxes this would mean raising them on those who evade, not those who pay or have Italian Treasury Bills in the bank or who have inherited a house'. When I read this and read about Berlusconi appearing in Court I thought of the little chemical wholesalers, and the old lady spooning white powder into little tubs, and how degraded human beings are when they unleash the power of the State against those who want to do nothing more than to earn a legal living.
Yesterday, I recounted the story of the birth of the calf at Gino's Ranch. I have always felt hesitant to chronicle with my camera the lives of our neighbours, at least in as much as they intersect with ours, because it seemed intrusive and, being from outside, I have always to remember not to tax too much the hospitality of those who come from here. However, this morning Gino (of the ranch) came here after Mass and said that Nicola, who is captured in yesterday's photos rather saving the day (not to mention the lives of mother and calf), had expressed satisfaction with the photos having found them on the web and had suggested that they were worth viewing! This was good news as I would like to use the camera more outside La Faula and happiness with the results will make this considerably easier.
Continuing the story of Gino's Ranch and the calves conceived by our bull during a raunchy night last summer with Gino's cows, I have mentioned that I made a claim to have at least one of the offspring of our bull given that this is our right not to mention the fact that in their desire for a bit of masculine company, the cows trampled down our electric fence! I felt that I was probably whistling in the wind.
Belen. Gino's favourite heifer, was brought to us because her younger sister, born of the illicit tryst between Gino's Ranch and La Faula bovine livestock, was losing out to Belen in the competition for their mother's milk. Belen who was well over the time to be weaned came to us to resolve this problem. Then, on Friday, Gino came around again and said that he wanted to give us the second calf, just born, as her mother was refusing to let her feed. We have a ’good-old-cow’ whose daughter should wean now so we all thought to put the unlucky calf under our cow to see if she would suckle.
Yesterday, we went and picked-up the little calf, loaded her in our van, and brought her to La Faula. Much to the chagrin of the biological daughter of our 'good-old-cow' we introduced the poor little calf. To our great pleasure they bonded and now the little calf has a much milk as she wants to drink! The real daughter is separated from the other two but she looks over them through the bars of the fence and bellows in frustration at being deprived of her mother's milk! All night she kept the yelling up! It’s not easy being an adolescent, even an adolescent cow!
Previously, I wrote about Gino’s ranch on the other side of the Malina River to us. I wrote that last summer in a night of passion three of his cows were made pregnant by our bull. His cows are a mixture but based predominantly on Aberdeen Angus cattle so they are wholly black or black and white. Our bull, being a limousine, was reddish brown.
Broken fences don’t speak and so we would have been ignorant of this bovine assignation except that when the first calf was born it was reddish-brown. Gino realised that we would sooner or later put all the pieces together and so he came clean about the fact that three of his cows had been serviced by our bull. I put in a claim for one of the offspring but had little hope that my claim would bring fruit. But it has, and with interest!
These three births have all been successful but with difficulty. The last birth was to a cow who could not deliver without assistance. This is obviously serious as without intervention mother and calf will be lost. We have the equipment and know-how, at a pinch, if desperate measures are called for to birth a calf. However, our friend and neighbour, Nicola, has a herd of milking cows so delivering caught calves is second nature to him. As befits a busy and expert farmer Nicola only comes in at the last minute to birth the cow and then he leaves again. So I helped Gino and his brother-in-law prepare the cow and when all was ready we called Nicola who came, successfully delivered the calf and then with a cheery wave was off!
I was lucky that everyone consented to my photographing the events. We all live in this little corner of Italy and our friends and neighbours do find it a bit strange to be pictured and then put on the internet. That kind of thing just doesn’t go on at Ravosa. I push, heavily, the fact that Gino and others have relatives outside Italy who can share in the life here as never before. But I feel the reticence and am grateful that they consent to my proceeding to record all the same!
NOTE: This blog comprises two entries, each prepared within a day of the other. The first entry is on top and the later entry follows it.
In these early days of spring we prepare and bottle the white wines from last autumn's harvest. As I have previously written, the last grape harvest was the first time that we embarked on making fresh and fruity whites using refrigeration to cool the must and decant sediments prior to fermentation and then to keep the fermentation at a constant, relatively, cool temperature. Apart from the fact that a wine-maker needs specialised refrigeration equipment, this is a job that relies heavily on technique and know-how.
Luca had, from the beginning, wanted to make wines in this way. Our consulting wine maker in previous years was wholly against making wine using the technique of cooling to clarify (although he was more accepting of cooling to control fermentation temperatures). His stated philosophy was to return to making wines as they had once been made, spurning machinery wherever possible and using wooden containers at all stages as until quite recently wood was the only material available for containing musts and wine.
I have a feeling that behind the consulting winemaker's stated philosophy was also an ignorance in the actual techniques of using refrigeration in white wine making. I was also very reluctant. It seemed to me that refrigeration equipment would be expensive to acquire and operate and would introduce further possibilities for things to go wrong. Plus, not having ever seen the equipment in action it seemed like a real personal challenge to start making wine this way so I happily fell-in behind the 'superior' wisdom of the consulting winemaker!
In the last couple of years we realised that we had no option but to make fresh and fruity whites as this is what the market looks for. We had the luck to obtain a 20-year old refrigeration plant in good working condition and the guys at the lab where we take our wines for analysis gave me a run-down on what I had to do. I got a good boost of confidence from the technician who came to set the plant up and who was very enthusiastic about it. Old but good, it seems!
The problem with advice is that it always seems so clear and obvious when given (good advice, that is!) but when one is alone, facing unforeseen situations, it all seems so inadequate. Unfortunately, when you are a 50 year-old winemaker there is no-one to hold your hand so real reserves of native intelligence have to be trawled-up!
As I have previously written, I made a fair few mistakes, none of them serious, but I recognised them only after I had made them so I was always just that bit uncertain as to whether having done differently I would have got a better wine at the end. Something quite unforeseen was that I had trouble getting the wine to ferment. This was caused by the composition of the juice following the climatic conditions of the growing season and was a problem also experienced by our neighbours. Cooling the must to clarify it added to the problem. I had some unsettled nights knowing that the next morning if the wine hadn't started to ferment I would have to think of what to do to get it to!
Sometimes getting fermentation going is a bit like trying to get a camp fire going in the rain. It seems impossible as it stutters and sputters until, finally, after many attempts some flame starts licking around the wood, feeding on itself until the blaze catches. So it was that once started, the fermentation went well and right through to its natural end which is very important. Then we put the wines outside to allow sediments to settle naturally during the cold of winter.
So it was that Saturday week we returned the wines to the inside of the winery and allowed them to naturally warm up to room temperature. The chemical analysis was fine (they were a little acidic but the rest of the parameters were fine) but the real test was going to be whether they were the 'fresh and fruity' white wines that Luca had had in mind right from the beginning of our time at La Faula!
ONE DAY LATER
I finished the previous blog with the open question as to whether the 2010 Faula white wines would be the fresh and fruity types that Luca had wanted us to make from the beginning. You might have thought that by now it would have been possible to answer this question as the wines are sitting in tanks in the winery on their road to being bottled. But there's many a slip twixt cup and lip and knowing this prevented me from giving an answer. Wine is a chemical complexity and keeping all that complexity in balance is the task of the good winemaker. Effectively, it's not over 'till it's over, so until the wine has been bottled, laid-down (for more or less time) and enjoyed prudence and modesty keep the winemaker from giving a definitive adjudication!
For the winemaker risks, difficulties and problems can be known unknowns. Worse, though, are the unknown unknowns that wait, unrecognised, for that moment to bite and the winemaker fears these most of all as they strike without warning with consequences that can be dire. Education and experience push unknown unknowns always further into the distance and thus they threaten less as time passes. But starting some new technique or process brings the risk of unforeseen problems back in again and this, ironically, was what happened in the hours after I wrote the blog above.
Fresh and fruity white wines have to be protected from oxygen as oxidation strips away the bouquet and freshness and yellows the liquid. The solubility of gases in wine increases as the wine temperature reduces so when we put the white wines outside the winery in the winter to cold stabilise we must be very careful that following fermentation there is little or no possibility for oxygen to come in contact with the liquid. When we put the wines outside to cool they are still fairly saturated with residual carbon dioxide a by-product of the fermentation. Carbon dioxide is extremely soluble in wine and so it protects the wine from absorbing any oxygen that should come its way.
Two Saturdays ago we brought the white wines back into the winery. We were very careful that they weren't aerated and everything went well. The laboratory analysis showed that all the parameters were perfect except that the wines were a little acidic. We reduced the acidity by adding a carbonate much like baking soda. The effect of this is that the acids crystallize and precipitate out but the reaction is accompanied by the production of a large amount of carbon dioxide. I added the carbonate while the wine was still cold reasoning that the CO2 would be absorbed by the wine and would offer protection during the filtration prior to bottling of the wine. This in fact happened and the wines were a little fizzy to the taste.
To filter and bottle the wines they need to be near ambient temperature. If they are too cold they are viscous and filter with difficulty and there is always the risk of aeration at lower temperatures. Wine must go into the bottle more or less at the temperature it will stay at for the rest of its life. So yesterday I put a heating plate into the wine and gently circulated tepid water through the plate bringing the temperature up to 16°C. I had left sufficient headspace in the tank above the wine and before turning in for the night I checked for any leakage from the tank. There was none and so I went to bed content.
This morning I awoke early. As I came downstairs I was hit by a wonderful fresh and fruity smell of wine. I knew instantly that something bad had happened in the winery which is at the back of the house. I ran to the winery and while the sight that met me was not as bad as that of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant after its travails it was still pretty shocking. Wine was spraying up out of a 1000 liter wine tank and the floor was awash with it. Approaching the tank I saw that a rubber seal around the door had been pushed out and the wine was escaping here. I knew that the only solution was to pump the wine out of the leaking tank and into another. Running back into the house I gave Luca a bad start to his morning by telling him we had a big problem in the winery.
Going into the winery we raced against time. Luckily all the equipment, tanks, pumps and hoses were clean and ready so we started pumping the wine out of the compromised tank. In one's rush one has to be careful not to make some error that will cause more damage like trying to pump the wine out of the tank before removing its lid. This is a common error in wineries and it causes the tank to implode so we took a little extra time before every action to make sure that it was the right one. In the pressure of the moment it was amazing how clear and focussed one becomes and how the brain gives its all to the task at hand. While I was working out the best steps to resolve the problem I was already trying to understand what the possible causes could be and what the possible consequences might be for the wine.
Eventually we had emptied the tank, and we saw that the sister-tank was 8/10ths full so we knew that we had lost 200 liters of wine. Shocking and regrettable but not a complete disaster. Plus, it's no use crying over spilt milk as the saying goes. So true! Having stabilised the situation, here I have to admit, I went and had breakfast and coffee. It had all happened so unexpectedly and been so engrossing that now that things were under control I took a little break.
Going back into the winery we transferred the wine into a tank of the right capacity, and sealed it and filled the headspace with nitrogen gas for its protective effects. By now I had a pretty good idea of what had happened. In increasing the temperature of the wine its solubility to CO2 had reduced, the carbon dioxide had left the wine and had pressurised the tank leading eventually to failure of the door seal. One thing led to another. Probably the wine that remained in the tank will have suffered little as this all occurred in an atmosphere charged with carbon dioxide but I will let it settle and next Monday will take it to the laboratory for analysis and expert tasting.
So there it is. Making fresh and fruity wines involves new techniques. Previously, I knew about the risks appurtenant with the physical property that the solubility of wine to a gas increases markedly as the wine temperature drops. Now the risks involved with decreasing the solubility of a wine to dissolved gases by increasing its temperature, are known to me. And those risks will never be forgotten as this was the first time in 15 years that we had a wine loss from a tank and the image of the wine spraying out of the breached seal are rather clearly still in my mind. Unexpected, unforeseen, shocking: unknown unknowns are often like that!
This Friday evening was the second to last for my English conversation class. I donate an hour of my time every Friday evening in winter to hold conversation class for the so-called 'University of the Third-Age' which, in Italy, theoretically begins at 50. The 'University of the Third-Age' is not a university but it is one of the panoply of publicly-funded institutions that keep the early retired occupied. As most retirees in Italy retire early there is a massive infrastructure to keep them stimulated and active. Of course, keeping them working is out of the question! As I have previously written, during the course one of the attendees went into full retirement - aged 51 years! In Italy all pension provision, occupational or basic, is public, it is not possible to opt-out for private, it is based on 80% of final earnings for occupational pensions and it is indexed for inflation.
The OECD has just published a report 'Pensions at a Glance 2011' http://www.oecd.org/document/49/0,3746,en_2649_34757_42992113_1_1_1_1,00.html
This report noted that in 2007, Italy spent the largest proportion of national income on pensions among OECD countries (meaning, effectively, the world) — over 14% of GDP. Average OECD expenditure was 7%. Pension spending in Italy accounts for a large part of public expenditure: 29.4% in 2007. Participation in the labour force for those over 50 year of age is one of the lowest in the OECD. Italy is run by and for old people so this report received little or no coverage here.
But those dry (although shocking) statistics were starkly on display this Friday evening. As we are reaching the end of the English conversation course the task for this evening was to prepare a brief presentation of 'something that is, has been, or will be important to you personally'. Most of the class consists of retirees but there are some students who are still working. As the retirees made their presentations it was, with the exception of only one, about great foreign experiences that these retirees had had. Some of these experiences had happened earlier in the persons life but all were important because exposure to foreign cultures and adventures had had a stimulating and invigorating effect. This is not to be surprised at as these are students who have self-selected to learn to speak English. What was striking, however, was the level of contentment and security that these people evince. They are in the middle of their greatest adventure, that of the their third age. They want for nothing, they have massive capital and savings, a State-guaranteed income for life, a health system tailored for their needs and the Italian State is bleeding all the subsequent generations to ensure that this cohort will lack for nothing until the end of their - extremely long - days. That is where that extra 7% of GDP spent on pensions - every year - in Italy goes!
The other students, however, were something different altogether. Their choice of topics for their presentations were the mirror image of their fellow students. These people are anxious. Anxious about their children not finding work, anxious about a world that seems dangerous and uncertain, anxious about the level of duplicity and dishonesty that seems to be present at every level in Italy. As I sat watching and listening to these people, all but one Italians, I could but marvel that a whole generation - that born around the Second World War - have taken all and left nothing but a public debt of 119% of GDP. When they go the rest will eat ashes!
For a couple of years, at least, guests have occasionally suggested to us that it might be nice to have at La Faula some children's outdoor play equipment such as swings and slides. Mentally, it was an idea that we resisted; it seemed aesthetically unpleasing and a La Faula with a kid's play-area seemed just one step-too-far away from the old farmhouse that we remembered from when we started the Agriturismo here.
We changed our mind in the first week of last September. By this date many kids in Germany have returned to school, summer for them being already ended. So frequently in early September we have German families with pre-school children. We are getting ready for the grape harvest and are preparing the winery for the wine-making to come. La Faula slips into an easier gear than the immediately preceding months; it's really rather relaxing and nice. Many families disappear for hours at a time into the swimming pool area and in this moment everything seems perfect in the garden!
Only that behind this perfect facade lurked a horrible secret: parents with two (generally) or more very small children were run ragged keeping them occupied! We would never have known this except for the fact that over breakfast one morning a father confided to me that the kids of another family were so active that the parents had hardly a moment's peace. He suggested that some kids play equipment would provide a place where small children could be kept occupied for hours lightening the load on the parents. Suddenly I saw it all clearly! A swimming pool is of little interest to small children, they can spend hours chasing the dogs and watching the chickens but when mum and dad want to relax in the pool area the kids (and parents) are at a loss and the parents begin dream fondly of the days when they were single!
And so it was that today I signed the contract for a two-seater swing, a 1.5 meter slide coming out of a little tower with climbing rungs and, finally, a mountable little wooden dog bouncing around on a big spring! To get this far I had to enter into the world of kids outdoor play equipment. It's really a place one doesn't want to go: plastic, metal or wood? Metro quality, rustic and simple or bespoke? Mount it yourself or have it mounted? Plop it on the grass or have it concreted in? Grass underneath or special safety mats? Being fundamentally uninterested in kids play equipment, I tackled these issues with a hole where my enthusiasm should have been. Yes it is true that the Metro equipment seemed robust and it was certainly cheap but would it really stand-up to the treatment it would get at La Faula or would it end up being thrown into the pool by some kid with a shockingly destructively bent? Having retrieved the pool ladder from inside the pool when one quiet but particularly determined child decided that was where it belonged I decided that everything would either have to be concreted-in or made of plastic. Plastic equipment we more or less ruled-out straight away although it is cheap, safe and, should it end-up in the pool it probably wouldn't do any damage! Plastic just didn't seem 'La Faula'.
So we were more-or-less left with super rustic wooden play equipment or something a bit more refined. In the end we decided that having got this far in keeping La Faula at some level of elegance it would be a pity to make a departure so we chose a producer from German-speaking Northern Italy. This seemed to be a nice compromise and we guessed that at least the German speaking guests should be happy - nothing too shocking here!
On the practical side we have decided to put the swing, slide and bouncy-spring in a corner of the pool area. This means that parents can close their small children in and the dogs are closed out. Otherwise, being Border Collies there would be a real risk that the dogs would see the equipment as some kind of trial for them to undertake! The play equipment will be in a corner where it can be viewed from under the pergola thereby, we hope, dampening the enthusiasm of any big kids to try the swings and spring to destruction! So that's it. Just when we think that we have really and truly reached the end of the changes and improvements to be made at La Faula we make another!!
P.S. The swings, slide and bouncy dog will be ready to be swung, slid and bounced from 1 May!
It's a good thing that winter is coming to a close. I really can't stand it any more! For me winter is a celebration of eating and drinking well. Short days, living in a wine and salumi producing region, numerous feast days, the desire of a people who work long hours in the summer to share company and dine together on cold days and evenings brings forth an almost unlimited number of possibilities to over-indulge. My particular weakness is that I have eaten well in many countries over the years. Perhaps my memory fails me but I don't believe ever to have eaten as consistently well as I do here in Friuli. Of course, it is also possible to eat badly here but never if invited into someone's home and we know which trattorie we like to eat at.
So last night we went to the trattoria Ai Cons for the traditional herring and flaked dried salt cod. I can only tell you it was wonderful. I thought to myself, 'in London or New York a meal like this would cost hundreds' and yet here I could enjoy it as if in my own kitchen. As in my own kitchen I was able to take seconds and thirds .... and the dining room of the trattoria was warm, even hot, and the wine was liquid even if it didn't cool!
Yesterday our friend Gino delivered to us a two-year old heifer, Bielen ('beautiful' in Friulano). Gino and one of his brothers-in-law have what is in fact, and what they call, a little ranch on the other side of the Malina, the torrent that runs in front of La Faula. The only thing separating our cows from theirs, apart from the river, are the electric fences. When Gino and this brother-in-law decided to set up the ranch we sold them four of our cows, some which were already pregnant. At the time, we were in the process of running down the livestock that we had inherited from Luca's father whereas they were in the process of building theirs up.
Last year they had offered us Bielen who is a fine specimen (we will use her for breeding). Unfortunately, for us, Gino could not bear to be parted from his heifer and so, somehow, they never got around to delivering her, until yesterday, that is. It became a bit of a standing joke but not nearly as much as the joking and leg-pulling as there has been in these last days. Last summer, a neighbour informed us that a complete section of our electric fencing had been broken with all the poles snapped in two. It was all very mysterious and there wasn't an obvious explanation so we just added it to our list of mysteries of La Faula.
But the other day Gino dropped by and mentioned that three of their cows had become pregnant which was nothing short of miraculous as they hadn't had a bull for at least 18 months. He mentioned that one of these cows, the mother of Bielen, had calved and as Bielen was still suckling from her mum it would be better if they brought her to us so the new-born calf could suckle without competition. As he left he rather cryptically mentioned that the calf just born was of a colour of none of their cows. 'Hmmm' I thought remembering the broken electric fence. When Gino had gone I walked over to their ranch and there I found a reddish-brown calf, obviously offspring of our own reddish-brown limousine bull.
I popped into the Ai Cons which is opposite Gino's ranch as Alcide, co-owner of the trattoria, is also Gino's brother-in-law. There the story came out. Last summer there had been a breakout from Gino's ranch. The cows had disappeared overnight. According to the official version, the next day they had returned as mysteriously as they had left. My bet is that seeing their cows with ours Gino and company had mounted a little operation to separate them and bring them home. But with the benefit that they came home pregnant! After the cows were safely back we were alerted about the state of our fencing!
This beneficence from nature would have remained undiscovered and unknown by us except for one thing, we are the only people around here with limousine livestock and so once Gino saw the colour of the calf he knew the game was up. I've told the ranchers that the law gives us one-half of the value of all the offspring of our bull but that I will settle for one other calf once it has weaned from its mother. I can see that it is going to be difficult to enforce my claim; having had this gift from nature Gino and his brother in law are going to be loathe to give it, or any part of it, up. Maybe we'll just have to settle for the Bielen!
Correction: My Friday night language class picked me up on the name of the heifer. I wrote above that it was Bielen deriving from the Friulano for beautiful 'biel'. This was completely wrong. The name of the heifer is Belén as in Belén Rodríguez en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belén_Rodríguez
This was a nice weekend. Saturday was really the way a Saturday should be if you have a vineyard! The morning dawned warm and sunny and it was nice just to lay in bed, the room light golden, listening to the occasional click of a golf-ball being hit and the scrummy sounds of the dogs playing in the gravel below.
As I lay there I suddenly remembered that the lab that does our grape and wine analysis and that gives us technical advice concerning the winery had changed location and today there was to be a lab-warming at midday. These guys have helped us greatly so it would have been bad form not to have made an appearance. Plus it was just the right thing to do on a Saturday afternoon - not work but, at least, work related!
Being a farmer, one knows all the backroads locally as when going long distances by tractor, for example to the garage which is not nearby, it is better to avoid the busy roads in favour of lightly trafficked routes. So I took a long winding route. The Alps were to the North, the sky brilliant blue above them. The plane was golden under the sun it not having rained for a fair time. The warm air came through the open window and I realised that no matter how much I like winter it is a relief when it eventually comes to an end!
When I got to the new lab a big barbecue was in progress. In good Friulano style older male relatives had been roped in to do the cooking. There was a big grill, gallons of wine and unlimited meat sizzling away above the flames. I made my way through the throngs of winemakers chatting and drinking looking for a familiar face. Now, I should mention that this lab has as one of its co-owners the owner of one of the top Friuli wineries so it has a pretty top-notch clientèle. I felt very modest coming from La Faula with our 3 hectares of (not very dense vineyard) and our nice but small winery!
Eventually I saw another wine-maker I know who was caterpulted into running a winery when her father, who is an industrialist, decided that he didn't have the time to run the winery he had purchased and so his daughter finished the conservatory where she was a violin student and jumped in to winemaking and vineyard management head-first! This woman is truly amazing. She makes award winning wines, she manages a very large estate with employees, she oversees the wine-making with the help of this lab, she's just had a baby and, luckily, she has a really supportive husband!
This woman gave us a big hand when I dispensed with our consulting wine-maker. At the time of the change we had the winery full of wines aging in oak, white and red. When I decided that I would not only provide the wine-making labour but would also decide the types of wines we would make and how we would make them the first thing that I did was to move the white wines into stainless steel tanks. I could have carefully cleaned the now-empty oak barrels for storage but I decided that we needed to make a clean break and so this lady found buyers in Slovenia for the barrels and also for some of the heavily oaked white wine. At the time we didn't even know her but she was unbelievably helpful, knowing herself what it was like to take over a winery without background in the field.
We both met through the lab, the owners of which, realising that we were facing a challenge, not only assisted us in developing our own style of wine-making but also put us in contact with others who could help us. So when I saw my friend it was, as always, a real pleasure, with a real sense of having a common bond!
After chatting a bit here and there I ran into a Lady called Rosa Bosco who is one of the greats of Friulano wine-making and also happens to be the mum of one of the two owners of the lab. I had recently read a blog written by someone who had visited her winery. I also knew of her by reputation. As we stood together, to kick-off the conversation I mentioned the blog that I had read and had she read it?
'No, not at all' she replied and seemed little interested. I guess if you're a wine great it must happen all the time! But then just as I thought that the conversation was about to flicker out she turned, she is not a tall woman, looked me in the eyes and wanted to know all about me, what was the name of our Azienda (farm), what sort of wines we made, what was the vineyard like. We started talking about wines, and wine-making. Normally, I feel diffident in these kind of gatherings. I'm most comfortable with our little winery making wines now as I think that they should be made but this seems nothing beside the big names in wine-making here that export all over the world. But I lost this feeling of reserve and found such a sense of pleasure as we recounted our experiences and philosophy, the wine styles we are aiming for, how we see the economics of our business. I realised that I was really enjoying being a wine-maker and sharing the knowledge and approach of this woman rich in winemaking history and experience!
Of course, now I don't feel like a real wine-maker again. Just an inter-loper who somehow found himself running a winery with his partner. But for those couple of hours on Saturday afternoon I too was a member of the band of Friulani vintners! It was good!
Speaking of good, this week should be a good one. I think that Ash Wednesday must be this coming Wednesday. On Tuesday, which is the last day of Carnival, we have been invited by friends for a last-day-of-Carnival dinner. When we are invited by these people to dine with them they always insist that it really will just be something simple, a relaxing last minute kind of thing. I don't know if it is that way in the kitchen but the food is wonderful, of the best quality, cooked well and with a light touch. The wine is fine and the conversation enjoyable and relaxing. They are hospitable, kind and generous people so they even put up with my occasional outbreaks of 'Italy is a madhouse, we're all going to die'. I always feel a bit bad afterwards if I've had a criticle outburst during the evening but recently I've realised that most Italians view me as a pleasant enough foreigner prone to these strange outbursts, a bit like having a coughing fit!
On Wednesday we are off to our favourite Trattoria Ai Cons just over the road for Baccalà, reconstituted dried salted cod. It’s divine. At least in Italy if we’re all going to die we’ll die with happy tummies!
At La Faula Luca is our chicken breeder. The hens we breed for their eggs. The roosters for their meat (Pollo alla Cacciatora - http://www.faula.com/viewric.php?id=157 ). Chickens are quite cute and certainly many guests have spent hours with their kids, looking through the wire into the chicken pen. But chicken behaviour is rooted in the most primitive of instincts and so to avoid suffering we must regularly intervene. One of our interventions is to let the hens and roosters out after midday to roam free around the farm and beyond. This ensures that the hens have mostly lain their eggs in the laying boxes and it ensures that the roosters get plenty of space apart one from the other. But sometimes this isn't enough and yesterday I saw something that was quite distressing.
After a certain age the roosters have to be separated from one another and fattened up for their trip to the La Creuset. This date, unbeknownst to them, is determined by the level of aggressiveness that they show to each other. Yesterday was one such date. I came down from the vineyard to discover one rooster, crying in terror, its head submissively buried in the ivy on the side of the little bridge next to the chicken pen while another cockerel, a grand specimen full of plumes and shiny feathers walked around it pecking at the other hapless bird until it drew blood. This in itself can lead to a frenzy of pecking by other roosters until the injured specimen succumbs and dies.
I shooed away the aggressor of these two roosters knowing that its behaviour is so instinctual and free of malice that no moral judgement could be laid upon it, no matter how cruel and bestial its actions may seem. But while the aggressor acts out of motive instinct the victim really suffers. It suffers the aggression of domination, the pain of the damage inflicted by the attack and the terror of its imminent death. An animal suffers, really suffers, because this, the ability to suffer, keeps that individual alive longer by avoiding pain and danger and fighting for survival when annihilation threatens. But, perversely, suffering means that in a cruel world, when the end comes for an individual life in nature it is often a bad, very bad, end.
One would hope that one of the great advantages in being human is that empathy, the ability to put oneself in other's shoes, would mean that our understanding of what it means to suffer would drive us to avoid situations where suffering may be caused. And suffering in the world as we know it is often, but not exclusively, caused by one animal, also the human animal, exercising domination over another. When we look at human suffering we see that when one or a group of people are given unaccountable power over others they, contrary to what we may think, tend to exercise it badly and people die as a consequence. For this reason many countries and groups of countries have abandoned the idea of dictatorships opting instead for democracy, liberalism, accountability and openness in trade and relations with other groups of people that we recognise by the countries that they belong to.
Europe which for the whole of human history has been a human battleground has decided that it's not worth the candle to carry on like this and has abandoned the conflicts of the past for the stability of the gentle present and future. And one would imagine that countries that have suffered horribly when led by those unaccountable to the whole would be particularly keen, as a people, to avoid those things that brought them to grief in the past.
And so Italy. Born in 1861 through bloody conquest. In 1915 bringer of futile bloody war to the Slovenian and Austrian lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Invader of North Africa and bringer of death via gas to the tribes of those lands. Inventor and progenitor of fascist militarism. Warmonger. Turn-coat. One would imagine that a country with this history might be especially careful to run a liberal political system with a muscular democracy, and respect for human rights.
Silvio Berlusconi's party has recently introduced steps to try to reduce the appearances on national publicly-funded TV of presenters of shows that have criticised him. He already owns most of the private TV channels. He is introducing a law to bring currently independent public prosecutors under the control of the Interior Ministry. He has complained that the President of the Republic, or his staff, slow laws down by sending them back on the basis that they may be unconstitutional; he has complained that the Constitutional Court (also containing his own appointees) has abrogated laws on the basis that they infringe the constitution. He complains that the Parliament in which he holds a majority in both houses has not voted the laws as designed by the executive but instead tends to amend them. In short this man wants a dictatorship of the executive unconstrained by the constitution or parliament or President of the Republic. And he intends that the executive shall be that elected by a pliant electorate brainwashed in Orwellian style.
It is highly unlikely that Silvio will get his wish. There are too many competing power centres who will do all to block him. But two things stand out in Italy. First, Silvio Berlusconi is trying to move to an Authoritarian Regime based on Dictatorship by the Executive without this having created major outrage in the country. Of course, very many people are very outraged. And they express this extreme outrage, among other ways by marching in the streets. But this doesn't mean that the country is outraged - it isn't. And it isn't outraged because, Silvio Berlusconi has written-off free-thinking and informed young people and those who communicate through the internet who tend to be particularly outraged. No, he is aiming fair and square at the generation born just before, or during or just after the war. These people, the youngest of whom are now in their 50 ' s are conservative, comfortable in hierarchical social constructions, statist, admiring of muscular expression of state authority (just look at how the Carabiniere dress) and many, not all, are ridden with shame at what they saw or experienced in the turmoil of the period around and during the second world war.
And these people, the very one's for whom the public debt was racked-up, the very one's whose comfortable 'third age' was guaranteed from the age of 50 and sometimes before, and the very one's who consumed all and collectively left nothing for their descendants except and ever increasing debt, the very one's who live through tribally-manipulated television and press, these one's, supremely comfortable in their intolerance and xenophobia, be they of the so called 'left' or so called 'right in Italy, feel at ease only with what they know, and what they know is the same as what they knew because they refuse to let go of the 1940 's - they are still there fighting the same battles. So, as it was for the generation before them, what they knew only led to suffering, their own suffering. But they, like their parents, embrace it still and embrace it again. Shame on them for obliging the rest of us to continuously relive their own failed history.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-12618452 - another example of their failed history
http://www.rainews24.rai.it/it/news.php?newsid=150622 (in Italian) - how the Italian left could be, but isn’t!
For Luca and I Saturday when the Agriturismo is closed for the winter is the day when we do jobs that we don't consider 'work'! Work for us is the farm/vineyard, the winery and repairs and upkeep of a minor nature on the house. Saturday, however, is for lesser jobs like wood-cutting, working on the garden and vegetable garden, and generally doing other odds and ends that give us the sense of being more 'at leisure' than during the week. Around 4.00 p.m. friends start to drop by and then, for us, the weekend truly starts.
This Saturday past, a friend of ours, Federico and his wife dropped by to share a pot of tea and talk roses with Luca. Federico's wife is Japanese and I don't want to trade in stereotypes but we never drink as much tea as when we are with these two. Hours and pots of tea pass. At the end, when they leave, we always feel that somehow we have participated in our own private tea ceremony!
Saturday afternoon is also the moment when the members of the golf club committee come by to do their own Saturday jobs. As in all sports clubs there is always an enthusiastic and committed core (corps?) who do most of the work while the rest just enjoy the benefit. In the case of the Faula Golf Club we have a nascent suspicion that the people who do the work improving the club grounds and amenities and follow the general upkeep of their facilities enjoy this more than actually hitting the ball around. Even if this were not to be true the hours they dedicate to 'work' compared to 'play' at La Faula are wholly disproportionate!
So while we are sitting enjoying the company of friends in the main dining room of La Faula, the golf people come and go. When they finish their chores they also stop inside and being good Friulani drink some wine together. It is a very nice and convivial environment but Federico finds himself constantly shocked that people just come and go and share the public areas of our house with us. Of course, when the agriturismo is closed it is not just anyone who comes inside La Faula but it has to be conceded that there is a bit of movement!
This last Saturday after the golf people had finished and left to go home Federico finally asked us 'how can you live like this, with people just coming into your living area and enjoying a wine together?' The question was easy to understand. Before we came to La Faula, Luca and I had normal lives like everyone else. Saturdays were a time of a big fry-up breakfast at the Dome Cafe on Hampstead High Street followed by a browse at Waterstones, also on the High Street. Maybe in the afternoon a couple of hours of work or reading and then out to dinner or dinner in with friends. This was, of course, nice. But it was hard to explain to Federico just how special life is for us now and we know, and the recent loss of Minnie, Spotty and Barty have served to remind us, that everything passes and that one day in the future we will look back fondly on these moments as something valuable in our lives.
Now to be clear, we don't live in the main concourse of a railway station so when all the golfers go home the house is again ours alone. But the golf committee consists of such a warm and generously spirited group of people that it is wonderful, invigorating and stimulating to be able to share our lives with them. In the winter we have as much solitude as we want at La Faula. But we also have this great conviviality and communal element that enriches us and gives our time here a dimension that we would not give up for anything!
These are the most wonderful of days in the vineyard. Normally, working in the vineyard is a solitary affair but in this moment it takes on a social dimension as us and all our neighbours are out in the warm sunshine finishing the pruning of the vines, fixing and tightening the wires that sustain the vines and bending the branches that will produce this year's grapes to the wire. Between working there is a lot of stopping for conversation. I think that we all enjoy the social aspect of this moment that also signifies that winter will soon come to an end.
Now the vineyard is very dry and the grasses yellow. Spring with its struggle between cold air coming down from the North of Europe and warm air pushing up from the Mediterranean portends thunderstorms and rain but for now the settled last sigh of winter holds. The primroses, crocuses, and violets bring colour to the hill and the sky over the vineyard is a limpid crystalline blue.
In the last days from the woods around us has come the sound of urgent wood cutting. Here, timber is cut only during the phase of the 'old moon' and this will be the last before the cutting season closes so those who still have trees to fell must do it now or wait another year. We have never been so well advanced with our vineyard work. When we took over La Faula from Luca's family the vineyard had been a hobby and so there was no real clear idea of how it should be kept. We really struggled for a number of years just to work out the best work cycle to follow. Worse, the best way to train and keep the vines never seemed to take form from the miasma of uncertainty and unlimited advice that we received.
In large part this was due to our having arrived at a key point in the development of Friulano wines. This was a moment of transition from artisanal grape-growing and wine-making based on tradition and inherited understandings to one based more solidly on scientific knowledge and understandings underpinned by research. Key Friulano wine-makers had made the transition years before and had powered away in national and export markets. The vast majority carried on as they knew how supplying local markets.
In the last fifteen years, however, competition from New World wines, more discriminating consumers and the inclusion of wine in the legal regime relating to standards of food production forced everyone to up their game. But this was a bit like asking a weekend Faula Golf Club golfer to prepare for and compete in the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta Georgia. There was a lot of struggle, uncertainty about what was involved and confusion interspersed with the feeling that it would all be too much! People who knew what was required were few and far between and their knowledge was largely utilised by the bigger producers who could afford to buy their services.
We had a moment of incredible luck, however, when during a big communal lunch one summer in 2007, at the Trattoria Ai Cons, I was explaining how we had just ceased calling our previous consulting wine-maker to go it alone and just how daunting this seemed. 'Ah, you should speak to my nephew' said another guest at the table. 'He's at University still studying oenology but he's very good!' I did contact this nephew, Roberto, and he was more than very good. He now advises all over the world but in that very instant before he became famous and in demand he was the sun that illuminated our wine business and showed us that for which we were searching.
Roberto had spent a year in New Zealand working in wineries as part of his studies and he was clear, and orderly in thinking and with his help what had seemed obscure suddenly was defined and obvious. We have never looked back. With the skills Roberto gave us we have been able to take our winery business in hand and guide it according to our philosophy and reasoning. It doesn't mean that we don't make mistakes and that difficulties don't arise, but we know now how they fit into the scheme of things. Roberto stripped away the mystery from the whole process and for this we are eternally grateful.
This is not to say the Roberto is not conflicted. New Zealand wine-making is extremely technical and scientific, the romance is in the product in the bottle not in the making of what goes in it. I really like this approach. I like the certainty of applying defined and clear techniques and processes to the grapes which aim to bring out the best of what went into them - the wind on the leaves, the heat of the sun, the rain in spring, the minerals in the soil, our work of the winter. Much Italian wine-making, however, involves bringing the romance and magic into the winery and Roberto could never quite escape the feeling that there was something somehow more 'authentic' in this approach. Different woods, fermentation tubs, barrels, wild yeasts, fermenting white wines with the skins, no pumps, manual movement of the skins into the juice are all things that introduce uncertainty and unforeseen outcomes by subjecting the wine-making process to environmental factors inside the winery, environmental factors that are known unknowns!
This is also the path that many consulting wine-makers use to impress their clients. I know because from 2004 until 2007 I made wines like this. It is unbelievably time consuming, the wood (barrels, tubs etc) are prohibitively expensive. It is all so much mumbo jumbo but in the execution of it you have to be really good or otherwise you risk producing wines that people don't recognise as something they want to drink! By now I am rather a good wine-maker when it comes to red wines aged in wood. We have won numerous awards for our reds in the National Italian competition for organic wines, including two silver medals. But my big challenge is to produce very good reds and whites in stainless steel. No vineyard could be better situated than ours and the soil can not be bettered. So it is with some satisfaction that we find ourselves, this year, enjoying working the vineyard and passing time chatting to our neighbours!
This morning I was speaking with someone from near here who lived overseas for a significant period of time before returning to Italy. He's not a great computer user but occasionally if it enters his mind he goes to faula.com to look at the photos and then he reads my blog.
He said that when he reads the blog he is always taken by its overt and implicit criticisms of the Italian people, their culture and way of being. In Italy, he explained, it is normal, standard even, in the media and daily life to criticise politicians and the government and the public administration as inefficient, corrupt, useless or worse. Of course, exactly who you criticise and how much will depend upon your political persuasion. If you are from the right, he said, you will also criticise the communists even though they don't exist and if you are from a more radical left you can criticise clericalism if you want to be a bit radical chic. He said that at a personal level this criticism will come equally from those people who Italy has served or is serving very well as from those to whom it has given less.
But the Italian people, he said to me looking me right in the eye, as such, are wholly beyond criticism. Italy being the cradle of European culture, by definition something positive in the development of mankind, has a culture that is beyond rebuke. The Italian people he said are a priori 'brava gente' (good people) and they will never accept to be defined as less than this. Moreover, he said, Italians as a group or individually will never accept responsibility for anything negative. It is always someone else's fault. He said in Italy you will never hear anyone volunteer 'It is my fault and I will take the consequences'. He said that to do so would be to signal weakness and invite a figurative feeding frenzy. Finally he said that any Italian who is unhappy with this leaves and so Italy is always a country of emigration in good times and bad. Those who stay, complaining or not, by definition accept the cultural status quo.
He asked me why I bother to write the blog given that most foreigners probably already think like me and most Italians will never accept a negative thing that I write, even should they take time to read it.
This is a good question and I mulled it over in my mind while I was in the winery and then in the vineyard. I certainly don't write the blog because I think that my life is particularly interesting or that I can write about it in a way that brings it vividly to life. The main reasons that I write about our life at La Faula are that it is my own personal diary and it is as an ongoing conversation with those of you who return regularly to La Faula. Through my diary a connection is maintained so I imagine it feels more at home to return here.
But the thing that really got me writing about Italy, as such, was the developing story of Berlusconi. What I find so objectionable and wilfully blinkered is the focus, by Italians and foreigners, on Berlusconi as if he represented something apart, the implication being that if he were to go the country would somehow get better. The facts are that Silvio Berlusconi is not alone. We can think of Benito Craxi who so corrupted an already corrupt system that he was forced to flee to Tunisia when the mob turned on him and the legal system closed in. Not to mention Giulio Andreotti a cynical populist whose fingerprints are on many of the most unsavoury aspects of Italy's unsavoury modern politics. Why stop there? Why not think about Benito Mussolini and his successor Pietro Badoglio who so lacked courage that after replacing Il Duce he abandoned his country so as to flee to the safe embrace of the Allies? There are many, many, other stories that are tedious to repeat in their tawdriness and exposed threadbare morality.
So I write because I live here. And Berlusconi, wholly disastrous that he has been, and is, is no more so than the people. By definition he cannot be. He is from them and of them. He will go, as he must, no-one endures for ever, and Italy will be, again, home alone. It is from the people and the culture that wise leadership endowed with foresight must emerge. And if that culture and that people are not fit for purpose in a modern connected world Italy will be exceptional in having a culture that managed to dig itself into a hole at the time that others were coming out of theirs!
Addendum: I have a feeling that Italy is about to be severely challenged by the events in Lybia - if it transpires that Berlusconi was taking a cut of oil or gas flows from Lybia or was otherwise corruptly involved with Gaddafi , government would become uncertain, markets could lose faith in Italy’s ability to meet its debt obligations and suddenly Italy could be tipped into a realm of directionless uncertainty. But in its recent history Italy has been there before so at least it wouldn’t be a novelty!
A day or two ago a guest who comes regularly to La Faula wrote for some booking information. This person a couple of years ago decided after a holiday that he was really going to learn Italian. Unlike the majority of us who embark on language courses in the afterglow of an enjoyable foreign holiday but then who drift off as the glow turns dull he really has done it so now on the Faula website he chooses 'Italian' as his language when he writes and his message naturally enough arrives to Luca (well done James!). In this message the guest mentioned that he reads with amusement my ... ahem .... comments about the Italians but he did laugh a lot to read that "however luca wants to add that Italy and La Faula is still a very nice place to take a holiday!"
Reading this, Luca quickly scanned my diary entries. So, what do you think you're doing ... sending dispatches from Tahrir Square?' he said to me. 'Can't you create some of that 'Room With A View' flavour for your blog?' Well, if I could in a Blog create that Room With A View flavour then I would be a successful author and not a co-owner in a little Agriturismo in a little corner of Italy! Anyway, I did agree that I would interleave my 'observations' on Italian life with more Faula oriented writing.
And yesterday I did have something that I wanted to share with you. On Saturday as I wrote we bottled red wine. We had some trouble with the bottling machine so first thing Monday morning I took it to the machine shop where it was made to have it repaired. As I returned home I passed an industrial zone where many times I had noticed there was a business selling outdoor games like swings and slides. This time I decided to stop in and get an idea of prices. We have realised that with so many families with small children coming to La Faula it would be a real bonus for parents if there were a couple of swings and a slide with climbing frame. We resisted the idea for a bit because it wasn't in our mental plan for La Faula which we have been implementing pretty much from the beginning. Plus times are uncertain so we find ourselves really having to justify our expenditure to ourselves. The tendency is to try and push it out. Anyway, I stopped-off and found that it was a typical Italian family business that had started off as a simple carpenters but which had developed into manufacturers of garden furniture. The wife was in the office with the son and we looked through their catalogue and they gave me indicative prices.
As I drove off I suddenly had a sense of great release and satisfaction. When one starts a business from scratch it is so much more complicated and challenging and all-consuming than one could ever have imagined that it takes one in its embrace and, somehow, one never wants to be let go. One wants to wrestle with the challenges, prevail and out of the adversity create something concrete by force of energy and will. This is the real satisfaction of having a small business. La Faula's needs were so varied and so many, and so great from the vineyard, to the winery to the Agriturismo and our skills were so limited in viticulture, in oenology, in hospitality, in cooking that only complete application of self could bring us through.
And so, as I drove away from the outdoor furniture maker, knowing that this 'project' was the last that we have in mind, knowing that realistically the future must be incremental improvements, getting better, not wider, I felt this sense of release. In some way we have arrived. This was a milestone. And this morning another milestone was passed. Not having studied oenology or wine-making formally I have had largely to teach myself. We had a consulting wine-maker of whom I have written previously. He posed our business its greatest challenge by taking us down a route of extremely idiosyncratic wine-making for a number of years. When, in extremis, I took over the wine-making the outcome was far from certain. So much had been unclear. We have, of course, received very great help but most of what we did had to be done alone. Our particular challenge was that due to being fully occupied with the agriturismo in the summer we must do all our wine-work in the winter when the winery and wines are cold. This is problematic as it is always better to work and bottle wines when they are around 20°C. I had to design some particular equipment and had it made by a local factory that makes industrial equipment, including for wineries, in stainless steel. This morning I took my last design for a particular piece of piping to have made. That's it. We now have a protocol for making our own wines and for how we grow and train the grapes. Our energies going forward will be in improving not simply managing!
Foreign Press URL's below for those interested in how Italy is fairing. Please excuse us for the fact that these are not clickable links - see the comments below. To see the London Financial Times articles it is necessary to register - it is easy, free and worth it!
Italy's famously impolitic Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi described U.S. President-elect Barack Obama in November 2008 as "young, handsome and even tanned."
In September 2009 he told a crowd of cheering supporters in Milan "I bring you greetings from a person who is called...a person who is sun-tanned...Barack Obama. You wouldn't believe it, but they go sunbathing at the beach together - his wife is also sun-tanned."
On 19 February this year in response to the 5000 Tunisians who have arrived in Italy following the revolution in that country 89% of Italians surveyed reported themselves to be worried about the situation and 58% to be very worried.
Today at La Faula Maritza, who helps us in the Agriturismo, held a birthday party for her son. Maritza's mum was here, two of her sisters, their children and some Italian friends. Maritza and her family come from the Dominican Republic. Their arrival in the car park coincided with the arrival of some local Italians. As the Dominicans exploded from their cars in a mess of laughter, noise and confusion the Italians were rooted to the spot. They just watched them stupefied. After Maritza and her family had disappeared into the house the Italians came over. All they could say at first was to comment on the darkness of their skin.
Now, in many other countries this would signify racism. But in Italy this is not the case. The Italians themselves, and not a few Friulani, also fall all over the spectrum of human complexion. Here at La Faula we meet very few Italians from the South of the country. And those we do are generally in the 'forces of order' that control wine-makers or Agriturismi. More than once I have been confronted by two gentlemen at the front door who I took to be foreigners (i.e. non Italians) but who turned out to be Carabiniere or Finanziere making their regular inspections.
In this context, it is probably true that most Italians wouldn't see Berlusconi's comments as racist but more as an amusing comment on an obvious fact.
Often I write critically of Italian culture but I can say that in my experience I have never encountered in Italy that nasty, visceral racism based simply on skin-colour, no matter how rationalised ex post facto, that exists as a minor but nasty vein in the United States, in Great Britain or New Zealand. I think that this lack of racist motive when commenting on skin colour results in such comments being made more freely than in many other countries where they would be wholly and completely unacceptable.
But this is not to say that Italians are open and accepting of cultures different to their own. A very common Italian saying is 'tutto il mondo è paese' or 'the world is the same wherever you go'. And of course very many Italians believe this. Many don't speak other languages so their view of the world comes principally from Italian TV and Newspapers. And Italian TV is not only dubbed but foreign content is modified to make it comprehensible to Italians who have no knowledge of how other countries are structured or function. So the United States has the Guardia di Finanza (Finance Police), the Police Station is the Questura and the District Attorney is a Magistrato. Americans, English (and I imagine Germans) naturally use Italian colloquialisms. For Italians Barak Obama and the Queen speak Italian - and they speak an Italian that Italians can understand. So how could Italians think otherwise than the world is the same wherever one goes?
When rascally English politicians were fiddling their expenses receipts this got very good coverage in Italy and many Italians were quick to let me know just how similar English politicians were to their own. What they have not been quick to report is the prison sentences handed down in the last month to the politicians tried and found guilty.
This all means that Italians are completely unprepared to affront unfamiliar cultures that arrive amongst them. People who don't speak, act or think like them pose a terrific challenge to the settled way that very many Italians view the world. They don't like having foreigners here, they don't like their ways and they want them out. And this is one of the principal motivations behind the anti-immigrant Northern League who support Silvio Berlusconi's government (his 'very best and faithful allies' according to him). And what is more, the Northern League finds Southern Italians too foreign for their liking and would cut them adrift if it was in any way politically feasible to do it without calling on reserves of strength and courage.
So racism, I am convinced is rare in Italy. But xenophobia when confronted by any group that is different to how Northern Italians view themselves is a constant thread here. At this point I must add a caveat. As I wrote above, we very rarely meet proper Southern Italians in our daily life. When we are being controlled by them we are not really in the position to ask them how they feel about being seen badly by many Northern Italians, at least by those of the Northern League. And the same goes for Guests from the mezzogiorno. We make them feel welcome and avoid tricky topics.
But Italy’s Finance Minister, connected to the Northern League, doesn’t feel under any compunction to be so diplomatic. Last week he made the point in a number of places that without the South of Italy we would be richer (those of us not in the South of Italy, that is!). This is like the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer saying without that bit of England north of Birmingham all the rest would be better off or the German Finance Minister saying that without the old East Germany the rest would be richer!
Today we bottled 2500 bottles of our red wine. We had planned to bottle only one-half of this amount but we had got into a good rhythm so, given that the wine was ready for bottling, it seemed only sensible to continue. Bottling this much wine is a full day's work, starting at five in the morning and finishing at seven in the evening. We bottle and cap our wine manually in the sense that we have the machinery that fills the bottles and fixes the Stelvin screw-caps but the manipulation and movement of the bottles we do by hand.
In this sense it is personally satisfying because you start in the morning, the first smudge of dawn on the horizon, with the wine in the tanks, the bottles under plastic on the pallets, the Stelvin blanks in their boxes and, all going well in the evening the sun is down, dark has returned but the storeroom is full of cages containing uniform rows of shiny bottles, with their purple Luca&PaulWine caps, dark with the wine contained inside.
We bottle roughly four times a year. Every time one bottles one sees little things that can be improved for next time. And next time there are those things that can be improved for the following bottling. Then there are the unexpected problems that occur and which require immediate intervention. Finally, we seem to have cracked the filtration problem. Some purists think that red wine should not be filtered. But we prefer to filter our wines to an extent because a wine carries the history of all that went into it. This obviously includes the grape juice, but it also includes remnants of vine leaf, grape skin, yeast and bacteria that we prefer to remove. How one filters wine, however, can be a deeply personal choice. One feels that the wine shouldn't be overfiltered so one tries to filter to the minimum necessary to meet one's objective. Each vineyard's wines are distinctive so unless one has a full laboratory one proceeds, at the beginning, by trial and error, and error in this case means blocked filters and a great deal of difficulty if this is in the middle of bottling.
Now, I feel happy with the levels of filtration. Probably for the first time ever, the wines flowed just as they should over the whole bottling period instead of progressively reducing their flow as the filters gradually filled-up.
This morning however, fairly early on in the bottling one of the valves that opens and closes to let wine into the bottles jammed open spraying Luca with wine. When one works with hundreds if not thousands of litres of wine one is always instinctively ready to leap at any moment and turn off the pump. In the middle of the bottling there is nothing to do but dismantle the valve and see if the problem can be fixed. In this case, a return-spring had bent and was no longer pushing the valve closed. Luckily, we had some spares so were able to carry on without problems but on Monday I will be taking the bottler into the machine shop that made it to get that valve looked at - it's not the first time that it has malfunctioned.
So it is, that in our yearly cycle another milestone is passed. Today we bottled a Refosco 2008 which had been in a large oak barrel for one year and a Refosco 2009 that has never seen the inside of a wooden barrel. This Refosco is the first non-oaked red wine that we have made since taking over the whole wine process ourselves after our challenging experience with a consulting winemaker who really didn't seem to know how to make wine outside of a wooden barrel! Personally, I like oaked wines but I also like non-oaked wines. Effectively they are two different drinks. In a non-oaked wine the taste you get at the end is of the grapes, how they were fermented and what they brought with them from the vineyard. It is in many ways more challenging to make this wine as a viticulturist and winemaker because the wine must honestly reflect the grapes and the grapes must must evince the land and climate that they were grown in. In the case of oaked-wines, however, a good barrel of French or Slovonian oak can dull any negative aspects that might be present in the wine and provide a vanilla veneer pleasant to the palate.
It is becoming impossible to continue writing this little blog as Annie, the Border Collie, is beside me pawing continuously at my leg. Billy the cat is in the next room reclining on the door (read 'dog') mat and Annie would dearly love to be out there stalking him. But she has to stay in the kitchen with me. I have to be careful when I'm using the mouse because she comes under my forearm and flicks-up with her nose to get my attention. If I'm not holding the mouse well it flies up and onto the floor. Once I read the Logitech gear was a little bit cheaply made. Well, this computer mouse is Logitech and it has survived a shocking number of sudden arcs onto the tiled floor!
So it's now done, Silvio Berlusconi, Prime Minister of Italy who first acceded to that office in 1994 is now to stand trial in early April.
But I don't want to write about that. I want to write about 'furbizia'. This morning it was reported on the BBC that Italy has asked the European Union for €85 million to cover costs involved with the outbreak of immigration from Tunisia (5,000 so far). Yesterday the Bank of Italy announced that the public debt had grown another 4.5% in 2010.
One might ask oneself what exactly the Italian Government is doing with its money to be so penurious? Well today, I found a partial answer. I attended a day long course organised by our Agriturismo Union on optimising web presence. Italy is a laggard in Europe on the diffusion of internet broadband - for example we are only 10 minutes away from Udine, supposedly we live in the rich Italian North but a huge swathe of Friuli covering 50% of the population, including where we live, is not served by ADSL. And the Italian Government has done nothing to encourage, sponsor or finance the roll-out of fast broadband. It is commonly believed (and has been reported in the foreign press) that this is because Berlusconi sees fast broadband with its possibility to deliver television as a threat to his TV empire. Be that as it may, the Government has just decided to finance private newspapers and radio to the tune of €45 million this year. You will not be surprised, I suppose, that Berlusconi and his family benefit directly from this through their media holdings.
So there we have €45 million. The government spent another €45 million to create its tourism website www.italia.it Have a look and see if you can see where that €45 million went? Not only, but the site has been taken off-line, re-put, taken-off again, re-put as it was wholly dysfunctional. Even now it has many errors, omissions and blanks.
So there, just there, you have €90 million of taxpayers money legally misappropriated. But let’s get back to furbizia. Furbizia is being devious, cunning, sly and dishonest. I would say that given how the Italian government spends its money, asking for cash from other Europeans is furbizia - wouldn’t you?
The Italians on the course certainly thought so, they were outraged. And then, they showed again, how the internet has become a real release for the bottled frustrations of many Italians.
The following links are to YouTube videos. The first is a satirical video using original footage of the then Minister for Tourism preparing a little broadcast to accompany the new official tourism website:
The other is of the two comrades-in-arms George W. Bush and Silvio Berlusconi
Yesterday friends from the Golf Club prepared a wonderful lunch here of Bagna Cauda, a Piemontese speciality ( http://www.faula.com/viewric.php?id=160 ). Basically, everyone has a little terracotta fondue heater in which is put a rich sauce which has been reducing away in the kitchen for an hour or more. The aim of this meal is to pass time away in the enjoyable company of others. Into the sauce are dipped a wide selection of fresh and cooked vegetable, some rustic bread. It is accompanied with wine and the pleasure of good conversation with friends. This lunch travels on for hours. It is a most enjoyable way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
But yesterday there was something else present in addition to conviviality and fine Italian food. For yesterday afternoon many thousands of women took to the streets in major Italian cities and in other cities worldwide to demonstrate against the pervasive sexism present in Italian society; a sexism that Silvio Berlusconi has exploited, channelled and heightened through his media empire. So during the lunch the wives were keeping touch with friends on the marches via their telephones. On their part there was a palpable sense of excitement that after years of having to endure a culture of 'velines' (basically, beautiful, but tarted-up young dancing girls, scantily dressed who prance their way through an almost unbelievable number of Italian television shows, including talk and current affairs shows) of men referring shamelessly, even breathlessly, of their love for the word that can never be said on the BBC (but which was used twice in one day on Radio 4 recently) but which is used without compunction here as if it were a compliment to all womankind! These women were so pleased that for once they, ordinary women, as they really are, not the creation of men's simple fantasies, were claiming, and loudly, a place for their being.
And so this brings me to a quote cited in the New York Times article that is linked above:
'But it was her husband, Benedetto Bruno, a retired chemist with Italy's Civil Protection Agency, who captured how polarizing Mr. Berlusconi has become. "People vote for him because he personifies defects that Italians have in their DNA," he said. "When you hear about what he does, 80 percent of men think, 'I wish I were in his place.'
First, we had better be clear that the DNA Mr. Benedetto is talking about is cultural and not literal. The Italians do not in any sense comprise a race and their DNA is a mix of every people that ever entered the peninsular looking for sun, sea, fine food and wine (although the Northern League would dispute this being original celts of the Padana Plane!!)
But there is a real cultural DNA in Italy. A culture formed by having been owned, controlled, governed, dominated and directed by the Catholic Church for two-thousand years (and it hasn't yet stopped). And this DNA acts down to the most local and closed of levels, to the time when the village Priest effectively governed and the most religious and bigoted of a family set the standards for the others (still happens but the others tend to go their own way). A true race to the cultural bottom for most. This DNA was modified 150 years ago when the virus of Italian Nationalism and the creation of the Italian State (where one had never before, ever in the history of the peninsular, existed) was injected in. So Italians were taught to see themselves as a people, lineal descendants of the Roman Empire. They had a language imposed upon them (apart from the Tuscans, that is) where no common tongue had before existed and if they rebelled they were suppressed.
Prior to the First World War intellectuals were preoccupied by the fact that the average Italian who lived in the country was proving surprisingly resistent to being absorbed into the national fabric - family, village, region were proving too strong. So going to war with Austria (over the objections of the current government at the time) seemed a great way to reforge the nation in blood. And blood there was.
And then, as I have written before, Mussolini who was intricately involved in instigating the First World War came around again with the Arditi ('Federalismo or death' as Bossi would say) and Fascism. But Fascism missed a step and was pulled down but then in 1946 came the first of the 5 amnesties that removed the stain of crime for any action carried out by an Italian during the Second World War. So Fascism never had to render account for what it did to the nation and these days many see the Fascists and Mussolini as 'good ol boys'.
And out of all this came modern Italy. Now, in the old Italy there was the Madonna, then the Mother and then the Sister. They were loved and revered. And until the 1950's there were the Houses of Tolerance, the bordellos. In the late 1990's and early 1980's the oldest profession was being touted openly day and night on the streets of Italian cities. Berlusconi's government cracked down on that, as he rightly claimed a couple of weeks ago.
And this brings us back to the quote from The New York Times. It is true that many, very many Italian men, maybe 80% think that Berlusconi is just plain fortunate and have a sneaking, or not so sneaking, admiration for him. I would not hesitate but to guess that a very large number of Italian men see themselves as potential lotharios no matter how low or how exalted their status, no matter how fine or banal their beauty. And the implicit assumption in this attitude is that certain women should be available for men, just because they are men, and just because women are made for men's pleasure. It's a wonderful conceit!
And it doesn't finish there. It is a sword that men hold by the blade. For a boy that grows up believing that women come in two flavours, those he loves and respects like his mother and sisters and those he sees on TV, tarts by any other name, will strike a wall of reality when he goes out in the world and mixes with real women. Maybe, it will be just too much so he will stay at home and live with his mother and occasionally on Saturday nights .... well you know, Berlusconi has showed us how!
Italy is currently treading water. Berlusconi and the nation are waiting to see whether he will be committed to fast-track trial resulting from the recent investigations by prosecutors into his alleged use of under-aged Prostitutes and abuse of office in exerting force to have a young lady accused of theft released from Police custody. Two other trials in which he is defendant will soon resume.
He has no intention of resigning and it seems that he has the numbers in Parliament for the time being to remain in power. The left is a mish-mash and while some of its leaders seem decent people, others seem as time-serving self-enrichers in the style of Berlusconi. The thing in all this that is most notable to a foreigner is the lack of ideas and debate on principal. So much revolves around personalities here. Berlusconi's party is exactly that, the party of Silvio Berlusconi and it is more than a fair bet that without him it will cease to exist. The Northern League is run by a coterie of middle aged men led by the stroke disabled improbably alfa-male Bossi. The left have not found a person to hold their hopes and aspirations and attract the voters so they are desperately searching for someone who could be their leader (while they, of course, retain the real power!). It's all so crummy, mediocre and shabby.
By now Berlusconi is resorting to the tactics of 1970's South American populist leaders. It would be disturbing but in these times it is already an anachronism. The thing is that Italy is effectively in a time warp. Culturally isolationist by nature, linguistically challenged in English, computers and the internet, comfortably sitting on assets and receiving a State occupational pension, looked over by their good friend the omnipresent television many Italians feel completely at home with the Berlusconi style, slamming communists, admitting to little sins, sometimes, appealing to the little sins in all of us and contrasting this unfavourably with the stasi puritanism of the state prosecutors.
This feeling of comfort goes equally for the so called 'left' and 'right' although the labels bear no relation at all to the left and right of other Western European democracies. Italians of a certain age related primarily to their family, then village, then region. This feeling of cohesion was reinforced by the contrasting believed nastiness of other families, villages and regions. Many in the left are well within their comfort zone defining themselves in opposition to a historical, if current, character like Berlusconi. And those who support him are very comfortable as the conformist 'right' is always to be on the side of riskless conservatism (and Church). But all are equally reactionary. And being reactionary the winds of change that have been passing constantly over the world, at least since the 1980's, are felt here, behind Italy's high walls only as occasional breezes and breaths of air that get the attention for a moment but which are then immediately forgotten. [Good place for a holiday then - you too can be a time-lord!]
So it is that the focus of last week on the economy and the liberation of the productive private sector has just, kind of, drifted away into plans to amend three articles of the Italian constitution (that has never been amended and, although desperately in need of improvement, is effectively unchangeable) and some tax breaks for people in the South of Italy who, according to recent government statistic aren't paying their taxes as they should anyway. Hmm .... all so very Italian. But not progressive, not liberal, and not intelligent. Thank goodness the spring (or is it still winter) has been sunny, the eating and drinking this year for us Faulites has been good to the point of really too good and the Golf Club just can't seem to stop improving our land. I'll write about this next time!
What follows are links that people (Italian and German) who read this blog have send me. I haven't read the Italian books nor seen the German/French series so I cannot personally comment on them. For what it is worth here they are:
This link is to a popular humorous Italian Blog (in Italian). http://www.spinoza.it/
It is notable that in a calcified society, culturally and politically, as in any authoritarian State of today, the internet provides almost the only regular outlet for popular expression of frustration. And it does enable the organisation of public displays of dissatisfaction http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-12442128
Last Thursday Alcide of the trattoria Ai Cons called to ask if we wanted to drop by for dinner at around 8.00. When we got there the trattoria was full of Alcide and Elda's relatives and friends. Most of us were surprised to see so many people thinking to have been invited for a quiet simple dinner in the bar area, as Alcide is wont to do from time to time. It's a nice way to eat and spend some time together integrating the meal into what is being prepared for the trattoria guests. In fact, it was the same but on a larger scale. We were all invited guests because that day Alcide had butchered a pig and it was the traditional dinner to eat the 'boiled bones'. When a pig is butchered there is a wonderful ritual coming from times past when the people were poor and had a simple diet. After the pig has been killed the blood is drained and collected. Then the animal is disembowelled and the butchering begins. During this time the crackling ('fricis') is cooked and everyone stops to eat this greasy treat, hot on a cold day. The various cuts of meat and lard are prepared and the sausages made, then the salami and then the cartalage sausage ('muset') and blood and lung sausage.
In the evening after the salumi have been hung in the underground cellar there is a big dinner to celebrate and the pig's head and the bones are boiled up in a big pot and then served on the table on enormous platters with polenta.
So it was that Alcide shepherded us all into the dining room where all the tables had been put together to make one big banqueting table. In front of me was the purcitar, the home-calling pig butcher, a big, solid man with enormous hands, a forty-niner beard (of the gold rush type), a ready smile, ready to laugh and a great sense of irony. Next to him was his wife, now immortalised in the village for the time she yanked him out of local bar SiSi on the night that SiSi introduced lap-dancing.
Immediately on my left was a fellow from Nimis. We always treat these Nimis fellows with respect. There is a local saying 'the good, the bad and those from Nimis' and local legend has it that the remit of the Carabinieri only arrived in Nimis in the 1970's - before this they were effectively self-governing with gambling, drinking and whore houses and all that wild-west stuff!! It is true that they must be pretty tough because Nimis was completely put to the torch as a reprisal during the second world war.
To my right was Efran. He had emigrated to South Africa, still pretty much a boy, immediately after WWII. He was schooled in South Africa for two years by the precursor to the Anglo-American Company and afterwards was sent out to oversee mineral prospecting in places where the company had an interest. He saw and knows more of Imperial Africa than almost anyone. When he came back to Ravosa in the 1980's no-one even noticed that he had been away let alone was interested in what he had been up to. Then I turned up and I love to hear stories about Africa in the 1950's and 60's. He never runs out of things to recount. The one that I particularly loved this last time was how when they went to town and to the cinema there would be, at the beginning, the playing of God Save the Queen with the image of the young Queen Elisabeth on a horse. Efran was given his break in life when he was selected for a higher level of education in a Fascist school. He feels that he owes Mussolini a great deal. So he refused to stand up for the playing of the British National Anthem and was fore-ever being slung-out of the cinemas and then having to put things right with his supervisor in the company. Efran is an engaging, smart, capable and perceptive man so I guess that he was probably good at his job and somehow they got around his insult to English Royalty!
There is a Friulano saying that it is better to have the devil in your house than a stone mason! After living here 15 years I must say that I have some sympathy with these sentiments!
I have written in previous weeks about our opening various walls in the house to place ethernet cabling. La Faula is a house built of stones. For a good part of its life it would have had no windows, just shutters, and the stones would have been exposed. Some time, probably around the 1950's the interior would have been finished with a thick layer lime plaster. All the electrical tubing and pipework is set inside the plaster. Often the pipes are just millimetres below the wall surface but they are completely invisible due to the finishing techniques used.
Prior to cabling the house tubes must be set into the wall plaster. One of the great running doubts that we have had over the years is whether using a kango-hammer or breaking the plaster by hand produces less dust. Normally if there is a lot of plaster to be opened we do that part ourselves by hand hoping the keep the quantity of fine dust down. Maybe we do but immediately afterwards it is as if someone has run around flinging talcum powder over everything!
One has to clean immediately, and perfectly, even though one knows that the next part will also result in more dust. But the next part does not happen right away. First you have to tell the electrician that the traces have been made in the walls. 'No, I can't come today' he says even though no-one in their right mind would expect him to. 'I'll come on Wednesday, yes, Wednesday morning' the electrician says. ' Wednesday morning it is then' you reply optimistically. And then pass three maybe four Wednesdays. But eventually, after a number of snivelling and whining phone calls the the electricians arrive. They run the cables and pin them in the wall with cement mortar. But cables always go in and out of boxes and where the boxes go the stones must be chipped a bit to allow for a level finish. Electricians never muck-around. They have the most enormous kango-hammers. These are heavy, and very effective, and they pulverize the stone surface without breaking the stones. After that we speculate on whether stone dust is better or worse than the plaster dust!
The electricians cement in the distribution boxes and connect up the tubes that will carry this year's cabling with last years (we did this job in two stages covering two winters). Now comes the time to run the actual ethernet cables. Everything seems to be going well until Adriano (the father of this father and son team) comes with a downcast face. Unfortunately the most important cable, the one that will connect with the principal WiFi can't be fed through. The last piece of tube was used for an old telephone connection, yes, it's 17mm instead of 20mm diameter and that makes all the difference! So near yet so far!
Time for decisive action! 'OK, you'll have to smash open the wall' I say. 'We can't just stop here!' Oh no, it's in the kitchen, everything will have to be removed! Adriano returns upstairs to confer with his son, just finishing his electricians apprenticeship and with as much excess enthusiasm as Adriano has a deficit. As he heavily treads upstairs I hear that the son is probing away with the guide tool trying to pass it through. I reach up to the existing cables and move them around, pushing them up and down. Suddenly I hear the guide tool pass down the wall. Relief!
'Hey', I call up. 'I think that it's got through. I think we're OK'
And we were OK. The electricians got the cabling through, put all the plugs where they belong and disappeared with a promise to give us the bill in the summer when the Agriturismo is open (cash flow management!).
But now comes the final part in this mini torture. After the electricians go, you clean the whole place up again and then call a local retired stone mason. The final part of the job involves scraping back the cement mortar so that it is inset a uniform amount from the wall surface, wetting it and then smoothing it over with a hydrated lime mixture. The finish is really beautiful to see. It is impossible to distinguish where the plaster has been broken. It is an art but even a retired stone mason can't really muster much enthusiasm to come and do it. More snivelling and whining, passing time, waiting around various days at 9.00 a.m. instead of going into the vineyard on the hope that he will come. Days pass, moral droops and eventually one afternoon from the vineyard I see his 4x4 arrive. At least I think it’s his 4x4. On the other hand maybe it’s one of the golfers? Then, the house bell (it’s a siren, actually) rings out. It is him!
I hang around being friendly and appreciative and running to get anything that he has forgotten to bring. More dust, water flicked on the walls (and floor), moral and strength are low but the end is near. And today it was that I removed the final layer of dust from our little ethernet cabling job. I wanted to say to Luca, and myself, ’that’s it Luca, there will never be another occasion to open up the walls of La Faula.’ Something we will never have to face again. But I couldn’t say it because my mind went to what would happen if by some miracle ADSL was brought to Ravosa. We have just cabled up the house for 3G routers located on the top floor of the house. But the ADSL would arrive at the bottom .......
Silvio Berlusconi has been off the international, if not national, news in these days. Here in Italy it has become clear that before moving publicly the Investigating Magistrates had Berlusconi cold including having identified his private account from which more than €10 million were withdrawn to pay for his excesses.
Berlusconi seems to be going through a grief process. First he denied that he had been involved in any of the alleged activities. Then he got angry and lashed-out attacking the Investigating Magistrates and saying that they should be punished. Then he seems to have moved into denial acting as if the events - and consequences - had never happened. During this phase - which will almost certainly be brief given the forces bearing down on him - he announced that if Italy didn't increase its rate of economic growth it would be unable to manage its public debt. After 17 years running the country it seems to have finally occurred to him that something has to be done to address the problems of the private sector. Among other things he said:
'We must establish that it is permissible entrepreneurially to do all that is not expressly prohibited by law. We must definitively liberate Italy from a Assistentalist and Statist mentality that suppresses development, hinders investment and the creativity of the market, that destroys wealth and jobs and threatens the future of younger generations'
Of course, all modern politicians want to create self-reliant and entrepreneurial citizens. This is no novelty. But the part which really interests is the first sentence which addresses the fact that in Italy currently no entrepreneurial or business activity is permissible unless it is expressly permitted by law. This is one of the most shocking facets of doing business in Italy and the reason why almost no-one from outside wants to do it.
It is only possible to create a business in Italy if there is a predefined legal authorisation for that business so one can obtain a licence. Additionally, any permissible business activities can only occur as specified by law. What do you think of that?
We decided in 1995 that we wanted to create an Agriturismo at La Faula. We received our licence in 1997. We asked for permission to build a swimming pool in 1998. We obtained permission in 2006. We must serve, by value, 75% of our own produce in the Agriturismo or will lose our licence. We must not have seasonal price bands etc etc.
It is a pity that it took until now for Berlusconi to decide that liberating entrepreneurial activity might be good for growth and for the country. But he was too busy focussing on his problems with the courts, protecting and favouring his business empire and, it seems, having a good time at night!
Moving on. The days are becoming long and warm. It feels like a normal late January, early February. We are in the vineyard. I am largely occupied pruning the vine plants and Luca is working the soil. In Italian the functional part of a vineyard is called an ’impianto’ or ’plant’, the same term as may be applied to the productive area of a factory. And a vineyard is, in reality, a type of plant albeit biological. Apart from pruning and tying-up the plants there is the rest to consider. There are the supporting and sustaining poles, the wires, then, moving to the terrain, the terraces and the soil which must be constantly raised up and aerated. Effectively, the vine plants must be trained and nurtured and maintained and looked after, and their environment must be optimal if they are to produce optimal grapes .... and then, the winemaker using those optimal grapes must produce optimal wines!
Yesterday, 24 January, there was an article on the New York Times website entitled 'For Obama, Getting Message Out Online Is a Challenge' and that argued that the American President must be more imaginative in using the digital world to reach the people. The writer said:
'You can easily imagine Mr. Obama sitting in front of a keyboard at the end of a long day, briefly reflecting on the oddity of a personal encounter or on the meaning of some overlooked event, or perhaps describing what it is like to stand in the well of Congress and deliver the State of the Union address. It could be that in order to expand the reach and persuasiveness of the modern presidency, Mr. Obama simply needs to be his online self – not so much a blogger as a memoirist in chief, walking us through history in real time. '
It is obvious that the journalist who wrote this writes for a living and doesn't have some other day job that leaves only a few stolen minutes for on-line musings. Being a journalist means obviously writing about other people. But when 'other people' who are not journalists write about other people they have to be real careful because other people care about what is written about them. For the normal person free speech doesn't mean personal speech.
So it is hard to believe that after a hard day defending the free world, and with Michele and the girls waiting for daddy to come 'home', President Obama is going to relax, sit down in front of the computer, kick off his shoes and wiggle his stockinged toes, and pass incisive comments on other world leaders.
In fact blogging is pleasurable because of the enjoyment of hearing your own voice. And, of course, auto-confirming your own thoughts and prejudices! But it does take commitment and as the days spent pruning in the vineyard lengthen so the free time in the evenings becomes more precious and choices have to be made between blogging about Italy, and, for example, reading about Italy!
Coming to Italy, there is a revolution happening here as certain and inexorable as that which occurred in Tunisia and which may be on the cusp in Egypt. That Berlusconi will go is without doubt. He gave away that he knows the game is nearly up when he said he would not run away [from Italy] (as did Bettino Craxi who fled to Tunisia - no longer an option!). He is effectively at bay and is being reduced by the numerous prods and cuts whether from the judiciary, political opponents, business representatives, the press.
As any cornered person he is lashing out, recklessly and irrationally. As are his supporters in his political party. For without Berlusconi his party will cease to exist and those who have used his corrupt regime for personal advancement have reason to fear an accounting. And that was the problem. Berlusconi was running the country for his own purposes with some general governing for the public good on the side, much of it ineffective or unappreciated. His abuse just got too big in the end and so counter-balancing influences naturally came in to play. It is not a jasmine revolution but it is a revolution all the same.
And for a while everyone will hope for something better just as they hoped that Berlusconi would bring something better in his time. But they will hope for better without change. Change in Italy means giving up something certain, in some cases something very good, in others not so, for the certainty of discomfort and uncertainty. This require trust - social trust that in giving something up they will ensure the overall benefit of the society, a benefit that will also accrue to them personally. But most people will think that anything they lose will be accrued by others so they will cling to what they have and will fight like dogs to protect them.
On 29 March1944 an Intelligence Officer with the British Forces in Naples, Norman Lewis, wrote in his diary:
'At Pomigliano we have a flying monk who also demonstrates the stigmata. The monk claims that on an occasion last year when an aerial dog-fight was in progress, he soared up to the sky to catch in his arms the pilot of a stricken Italian plane, and bring him safely to earth. Most of the Neopolitans I know - some of them educated men - are convinced of the truth of this story.'
This monk became known as Padre Pio. I do not need to move more than 1 km from where I am sitting writing this blog to find someone who believes that the intervention of Padre Pio turned a brain tumour benign. A few years ago the village committee used proceeds of the village fete to subsidise a pilgrimage to the shrine of this erstwhile flying monk!
It is hard to think that here in Italy we have all the ingredients of a modern West European democracy. But who knows?
Maybe you've wondered just what the Italians who read this blog make of it? Maybe you just couldn't care less! Well, I'll tell anyway.
The first check on the veracity of what I write is provided by Luca's Mum and, by second-hand, Luca's Dad! Using the Bing browser translator Luca's Mum gets the low-down (also sideways depending upon the translation!) on La Faula even when she is not here. Luca and I came to visit his parents for the first time in 1988. At this time Luca's parents were convinced Communists and Italian Patriots. For them Italy was the very best country in the world and could only be better if it were Communist. This was the time of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and the Italian left-wing was unanimous in seeing only disaster ahead for the UK (how uncannily prescient they were - if for the wrong reasons). It was clear to them that Italy would never have need to undertake any reform such as was in action in the UK. In fact, Italy never did even though in some moment of exultation early on Silvio Berlusconi promised to be the Italian Margaret Thatcher!
But nowdays Luca's mum and dad can't find enough positive in the country to disagree with what I write. Their favourite newspapers, Unità (the Communist Party paper) and La Repubblica are by now bereft of any progressive practicality, any ideological motor of national renewal. Instead like so many they immerse themselves in criticising Berlusconi and his party and corrupt hangers-on as if he were the principal problem. He is only the problem of the moment. As there were before him there will be as many, maybe more, after. Moreover, our close family consists of Luca's parents, his sister, brother in law, niece and nephew. We, Luca, me, his sister and husband came to Italy in our ' 30's. Luca and myself from London and his sister and husband from Spain. As such we are excluded from Italian occupational pensions however are obliged to make full payments to the State. At family get-togethers Luca's sister and brother in law, who are both involved in State education recount the most horrific stories of nepotism, patronage, incompetence, trickery, waste and - it has to be said - more rarely out-and-out corruption. We unburden ourselves of the madness that passes for regulation of grape-growing, wine production and farm-stay activity. The way we are regulated is at a level so imbecilic as to be beyond words yet it is enforced by soldiers and inspectors and technicians with an unyielding rigidity. I won't repeat the problems facing Luca's niece and nephew as young people in the Italian University system.
In face of all this these days Luca's mum can only wearily say, 'let's hope someone finds the right road!' and 'remember, it's best not to generalise!'
Another check on what I write is provided when I go for a Sunday cappuccino at the Ai Cons trattoria down the road. Mario, the brother of the owner Alcide reads this blog and then relays its contents back. Sometimes he reads the blog then and there to them on his smart phone. When I arrive there is some discussion as to whether the essential ghist of what I have written is true or whether I am libelling them. All of the old men taking an aperitivo in the bar are Italian patriots. But to a man they aren't particularly impressed by the Italians and their penchant - as they see it - for trickery. Troppa furbizia e fregatura - to much trickery and too many scams. But they did feel that of good, honest and reliable Italians there were more than 2-3% - so few, that is surely an exaggeration!
Alcide, sitting by the ceramic stove is a wise man who has thought long and often about the human condition as it is experienced in this little corner of the world. He is old enough to remember the blinding poverty before the war, the poor schooling, the escape by many from an unyielding life through drink, the violence, vendettas and cold-hearted malice, the charity and generosity. He remembers how good it was at the beginning of the second world war when, for a child, there was a constant frisson of excitement but the impact on Friuli was negligible and then how it turned suddenly so nasty and frightening when Italy changed sides and the Germans went from being allies to enemies, and the Cossacks occupied the villages and the guerilla war between the partisans and the Germans was fought amongst the civilian population which mostly paid. And how people were killed and dumped in the Malina river. So much to tell.
And finally, of course there is my Friday night English conversation course. Last Friday we had a discussion as to the accuracy of the internet. Most of the people on the course have never seen a web browser but they understood the concept. After I explained about my blog they were all jotting down our website URL so I guess there will be more feedback at the end of this week!
If you are interested in Italy and what is happening here right now it is worth copying and pasting the above link to the New York Times website. The article is interesting, informative and amusing. The Times correspondent in Rome Rachel Donadio also finds herself visiting the Italian language for clues as to its culture. She notes the absence of an Italian word equivalent to 'accountability' and the absence of an English word equivalent to 'veline'. 'Veline' is the word used to describe the scantily-to-semi-non clad young women who pop up to perform gyrating dances in a whole range of Italian TV programmes. While they dance they are ogled at by generally old goaty male presenters and we, the audience, are thus expected to ogle too. Conformism is enforced even on those (males) home alone watching national TV! The ambition of many Italian young women is to become a 'veline' - 'velina'?
This week should be interesting!
I am sorry that the links aren't clickable straight through from our pages and that they must be copied and pasted into your browser. We will get to this eventually!
Somebody wrote to me this evening:
'with great intersting i've been reading your last post.Thanks!
I think is very i objective and honest...but just for compairaison ...it would be nice if you'd describe a few charactersistics of British people.
For instance, what are you like, why other nationes cherish you and why maybe not...?
For example , we knowyour destinctive sence of humor, attachment to tradition and home. We are familiar with your wonderfully arranged gardens, your famous marmalades and all sorts of puddings.
But that's about it.'
I really like this because it does capture the essence of how many foreigners think of the British; distinctive humour, attachment to tradition, the idea that an Englishman's home is his castle, the fabulous public gardens, tangy marmalades and puddings so heavy and rich that you can't rise-up afterwards. Of course, they are generalisations but this doesn't make them untrue. Without doubt there are humourless English, who couldn't care less about their accommodation and who think that all this tradition, pomp and circumstance is just so much tosh. These English wouldn't bother to go for a walk in an ornamental garden (and they certainly aren't National Trust members!) and probably find marmalade too tart and English puddings you can't buy at the off-licence! But the exception doesn't necessarily invalidate the rule!
Anyway, I did find this link which I guess is for foreign students going to the UK. http://www.woodlands-junior.kent.sch.uk/customs/behaviour.html
Now turning to a thread that is open and that I never got back to: why we don't use Facebook.
Sometimes people ask us if we can communicate through Facebook seeing that there is a La Faula profile. We beg-off this idea because it would not be practicable time-wise. Luca and I divide our workload with him taking and responding to e-mails and me managing the website and communications that come through it. Our website has evolved and is incredibly complex from the back (and I guess also from the front - sorry!). We are always finding things that need improving and revisiting. Every time that one thinks that the site 'has arrived' and there is nothing else to do either a problem presents itself (of the unknown, unknowns kind), or a problem can no longer be left (of the known unknowns kind) or the technology reaches a stage where you realise that the website can really help to make La Faula more efficient, productive and improve the guest experience. Designing the functionality of various features (they don't come off the shelf!) and then implementing them, checking them in operation absorbs an enormous amount of effort.
Currently Luca's nephew manages the Facebook Faula profile (we think that some of the La Faula friends might actually be his!!). If we had to open a third means of communication it would be too much for us to manage. We see our website as a kind of display window with a hatch in it from where we can give information and ask questions.
This evening, being Friday evening, I teach English conversation at the old Ravosa elementary school which has now found a new occupation providing classrooms for the University of the Third Age (which, in Italy, this year, officially begins at 51 years as this is the earliest that a person can retire on a full pension having satisfied the required number of years paying contributions). I am now 51 years so I guess that I should be retired, well except for the fact that I lack around 30 years of pension contributions; looks like I’ll have to work until I’m 85!
Anyway, the lesson started and the Slovenian student of which I have written previously asked me how one could translate into Italian the saying in English that ’Two wrongs don’t make a right’. So here I was on Wednesday writing about right and wrong and suddenly I was being confronted not with one wrong but with two! I smelt a rat - (I will have to be careful using colloquialisms - someone might think that I am calling them a smelly rat!). I reminded the class that we had addressed previously the concept of ’wrong’ and that we had felt that,in Italian there was really no equivalent notwithstanding the fact that there are very many words to describe mistake, error, confusion, mix-up etc.
It then came out that this student had been reading my blog so I recounted the fact of having this little blog, and having written my reflections on Italy and the Italians and how this had elicited comments that I might, or could possibly seem to be racist against the Italians. I commented, however, that it would be grossly unfair for anyone to be racist against the Italians for as we all know - that is, all us Italians - that we are - Italiani Brava Gente - ’Italians good people’. Everyone laughed at this.
We discussed the blog a little and I have been asked to clarify the fact that two of the students are not pensioners. Here I would like to recount that when the class had agreed that I could take a photograph for the website I chose the obviously young person amongst us to take the photo. I said that having established that the course was for pensioners (noting the exceptions) she was too young to be in the photo as she would ruin the effect so it would be better if she was the photographer. As she was siting-up the shot she remarked .... Actually I am in pension, I’ve just retired, from January 6th!!’
My comments of yesterday on the Italians brought a bit of a spirited reaction from some (a tiny number, to be honest) Italians who read my scribblings. I think that in fairness and completeness I should repeat the nub of their comments. One person fairly pointed out that if one seeks to summarize and reduce into three categories all the complexity of the Italians one is sure to make mistakes. A fair comment.
Another person said to me that it seemed that I had succumbed to the stereotype of Italians that foreigners hold, that is that Italians are sly and untrustworthy. If true, this would be wrong. But the answer to this comment is to turn it on its head and ask (and only Italians can answer this) what do Italians think of, and say about, other Italians?
Two other people, both Italians who had lived abroad, raised some interesting points. One said that one's view of Italy and Italians probably depended upon one's position. For example, if one has retired young on a fabulous State pension so that one can look forward for the rest of one's life with equanimity, Italy must seem pretty good, even wonderful. And this applies equally to state and private sector employees. However, if one has suffered the nepotism and unfairness of the Italian university system only to find there are no jobs and so no chance of acquiring the requisite number of years to get a pension at the end then the picture probably doesn't seem so good (here I should mention that this person went overseas after finishing University studies in Italy). Likewise, if one is an entrepreneur having to negotiate and treat constantly to keep one's business going then one's view of one's fellow Italians may not be so rosy, especially if they are tricky and don't pay. This problem, this person said, is exacerbated for small businesses by State supported and sometimes owned monopolies, oligopolies and cartels, punitive taxes, a deficient and unprotective legal system and a system of punitive state control mechanisms to ensure compliance with the law. I'll second all this (and, yes, this person is an economist)!
Finally, one person wrote to say that although English has more letters in the Italian alphabet when one is living in an English speaking country one doesn't notice this. Likewise, he said that until he read it he hadn't realised that Italian lacked the English equivalent of the word 'wrong'. And having lived outside Italy he realised just how the idea of 'wrong' was always present as a governer of people's actions. He thought that fear of being shamed and of cutting a bad figure amongst one's fellows probably was what governed in Italy i.e. what others think of you - not what you think of yourself. Out of interest this person had taken one of the diary paragraphs and put it through an internet translater. He said it ceased to make sense because the translater substituted the word 'wrong' with the Italian word for 'mistake'. So the paragraph was about mistakes, errors, incorrectness and inexactness but no 'wrongs'! He made another interesting point which I am not sure is exactly the same, but he said that in Italian there is no exact equivalent to the English word 'bad' as a moral concept. I'm not sure about this but I'll take his word for it.
He also said that if I carry-on being smart about the Italians he'll send around his cousin from the south!
I challenge any Italian who reads this to disagree with the following comment:
descrivi con molta fiducia un Paese spaesato ma incapace di voltare pagina.Penso che una larga fetta di italiani siano nauseati da questa politica che pensa, sol al fine di salvaguardare i propri interessi, più a dividere che ad unire le forze. Come si può sognare un cambiamente con le forze sociali divise (grande esultanza del governo), le aziende che migrano, la chiesa "usata", forse in modo consenziente, per fini di parte, messaggi mediatici "disastrosi" ai giovani che faticano a crearsi un futuro, senso della morale ai minimi termini......
On Friday evenings in the winter I teach retired people English conversation at the ex-elementary school in Ravosa. As almost all Italians are convinced that all the world is a village, that is, we are all like the Italians, maybe even a bit less than the Italians, each lesson I find a word of phrase in English or in Italian to which there is no exact semantic correspondent in the other language. Two of the most interesting are 'furbizia' in Italian and 'wrong' in English. Wrong in the sense of 'right and wrong' and 'you must not do that, it is wrong!'
I explained to my students the concept of right and wrong and asked them for the corresponding Italian words. 'Right' was dead easy. The correspondent word in Italian is giusto and its meanings are fundamentally similar to 'right'. But 'wrong' had them completely stymied. 'Wrong' in the sense of an abstract moral or philosophical concept, they couldn't find. And having grasped the concept of 'wrong' they couldn't think of any occasion when they had ever heard the equivalent of 'right and wrong' uttered or a type of phrase such as 'I will not do that because it is wrong'. There are, of course, very many words in Italian to describe acting in error, being in and making an error, to make a mistake, to be inexact, to be incorrect. So I asked the class, if a language doesn't have a word equivalent to 'wrong' how can wrongs be measured and what can a people be like that lack this concept? For the first time introspection came upon them. With this introduction, I would like to give a brief description of the Italians we deal with every day. Of course, these categories are not rigid and there are blurring of the edges between them. But they are sufficiently distinct to be recognisable and to be recognised by the Italians themselves.
The first category are those Italians who are respectful, honest, and humble. And whose own humanity and feeling of correctness leads them to treat others as they themselves believe people should be treated. They really exist and in the environment they exist in their very being is somewhat of a miracle. Despite the double-dealing, dishonesty (furbizia) and corruption around them they are correct. Their word has value, they are straight-dealing and they go out of their way to assist when things go wrong. They do it without expectation of reward but because it is 'right' to treat one's fellow such. When one obtains professional services from such people one give thanks at every interaction because one has experienced the other side of the coin.
But these people in some ways, seen from outside are the saddest. They are the first to admit that sharp and double dealing are probably wholly necessary to get ahead in Italy. But it's not for them. They don't expect to get their reward in this life. And because of what they are like they are rather as flowers in a field of weeds, jostled-up against, struggling for existence, at risk of being swamped. Because they don't know anything else they can't imagine a world where the majority are like them and the minority distrustful. They stoically carry on accepting that those that rule them live by completely other rules. Sometimes they prefer one political side to another because they feel that the other side is even more distrustful and therefore more dangerous.They are often bemused by other Italians not understanding just how dissimilar they are from them.
These people often throw themselves into retirement as one may find refuge from a pack of marauding hyenas. They are often small business-people and they are relieved to retire and be free of the struggle without pity that passes for economic activity in Italy. Sometimes the resentment of injuries suffered in past years surfaces and with it the hope that some how, in some way, the tricky, dishonest and corrupt will pay. but they probably won't so it is a vain wish.
The next group are the true cynics and dummies of Italy. In any normal country they would be the moral infrastructure of a society, holding moderately to positive and decent values while keeping a little money in an off-shore bank account - at least till the Revenue get the account details! But in Italy this group - and it is large - has absolutely no sense of wrong. Of course, they can recount tens, if not hundreds, of stories of the ineptness, dishonesty, and trickiness that they have experienced at the hands of their fellow countrymen. And, no, they wouldn't do those things themselves, and they probably wouldn't, well, not often. But it's all a bit of a laugh, Italy's just like that! You know what the Italians are like!
But often these are the real dummies because their accompanying heightened sense of being up to detecting when someone is trying to put one across them, leads to them being ripped-off with ease. Living in a small territorial and business community one becomes aware of little and big scams being perpetrated and against whom. It is really hard to avoid the feeling that they have it coming.
The lack of moral judgement of this group can be sickening. Not wanting to judge others allows small sins like lying freely, ripping someone off when it will never be discovered, being a good hypocrite to somehow slip in.
The last group are really something else. These are people wholly amoral. I am convinced they are morally autistic and see others simply as lego figures to be manipulated and moved. These people have no empathy for others. They are without pity or care. Their mode is to manipulate and to this end, in whatever persona they adopt, they are smooth, they lie without pause. They may be urbane and well-dressed exuding relaxing professionalism. Or they may adopt the disguise of complaining incessantly about Italy and the nature of the people all the while outdoing the others in dishonesty. These people are corrupt to their core and it is neither here nor there should they damage you in the execution of their schemes. There are very many of them and so living and working in Italy is a bit like being surrounded by series of whirling, moving, interlocking-then-separating ponzi schemes that have to be negotiated without falling into them. Lest you think that I exaggerate the most watched programme on Italian TV and rated the most trustworthy and believable in opinion polls (Striscia la notizia) has concerned itself since 1988 with the various tricks, scams and rip-off perpetuated by Italians on their fellow citizens! And it never runs out of material.
When one starts out in Italy, Italian or foreigner, one inevitably falls into the clutches of one or more of these people. There is no redress. Italian culture proscribes calling a person a liar or a thief, a forked-tongue or even hinting at it. So confrontation is to be avoided; only bad can come of it. One simply moves on noting well the mistakes made and determined not to fall for it again. And sometimes, when the trickster has a particular skill that one wants to retain it is necessary to keep the relationship while convincing the person that the old game is up and it is time to play a straight bat. It is all stressful and tiring and one dreams often of retirement!
So you might ask, here Paul you have described three broad categories of Italians. But what percentages of the total do each of these categories form? For the answer to this I must return to my English conversation class. One of my students is a Slovenian. She's married to a local but has it in for her fellow villagers and Italians in general. I have to be careful not to invite too many reflections in class that may offend the other students. But one day while we were waiting for the others to arrive she observed that in the mass of tricky, despicable, dishonest, Italians there were some that were amazing good and decent, all the more amazingly so for how different they were to their fellows and how few there were. And the most amazing thing, completely incredible almost, was that these people, in their humility, weren't even aware of the degree of their exceptionality and goodness. My thoughts had been themselves along these lines. I asked her how many 'good' Italians she thought there were. She replied unhesitatingly 2-3%
If you are interested in Italy-Italian Politics-the Otherworldliness of Italy &/or Silvio Berlusconi it is worth reading the New York Times article to which I have included the address above. If you think for a second about Italy it is not hard to see it as distinctive. It suddenly appeared in 1861 with the Vatican and Papal States in its midst. It chose its own language from a variety on offer. Although an ally of Austria and Germany it changed sides and declared war on Austria in 1915. Although it could have gained most, if not all, of what it wanted by negotiation, popular incitement for war resisted futilely by an unwilling and unbelieving government forced the country into war where it lost close to 1 million men despite vastly outnumbering the poor forces against it. The masses were whipped into war frenzy by intellectuals and nationalists (and Benito Mussolini) who believed that only a national baptism in blood could forge a new nation of supermen from the slack material at hand. After two years of war Italy conquered around 5 miles of territory. It then lost all this, all of Friuli Venezia Giulia and a chunk of the Veneto after the defeat of Caporetto. French and British troops and artillery were moved from the Western Front to shore-up the line. Italy won the war when the Austro-Hungarian Empire folded and the troops of the empire gave up fighting and went home to their new nations.
The Arditi of the First World War were storm troopers trained to overcome the inertia of trench war by attacking under a moving artillery barrage, armed only with knives and grenades and killing the enemy, still sheltering in the trenches in hand to hand combat. They were trained to find excitement in the intimacy of hand to hand combat and death. They were effective and dangerous and dressed in black shirts.
After the war ended a great problem was what to do with these young men, trained to a pitch of blood-lust. Mussolini found work for idle hands and they formed the early fascist gangs of thuggery and intimidation. Mussolini switched from being a socialist to being a Fascist but nobody knew if this was a philosophy or an outward manifestation of a number of linked ways to order and organise society and state. Apart from lots of uniforms, it was clear that Fascism meant a militarised State and a State which commanded every aspect of civil life. But it was a state which existed along with private industry and for the workers and landowners and which also had aspects of social welfare. And it was a state that settled its conflicts with the Catholic Church gaining agreement from the Church that the Priests and Bishops diffused throughout Italian territory would not dispute the legitimacy of Italy and in return Italy would recognise and fund interests and activities in Italy that were important to the church.
Hitler really liked Fascism and admired Mussolini. In fact he, Hitler, copied some of its ways of being. But Mussolini knew that the Italians were not super-men and so war, while important, had to be fought in Somalia and Eritrea and Lybia where it was thought conquest would come cheap and easy. But it didn't, and illegally resorting to poison gas use against horse-mounted tribesmen seemed a cunning thing to do. And when Hitler put Italy on the line regarding forming an axis against the allied powers Mussolini and the Italian Government dithered and hummed and hawed. Eventually, convinced that France and Great Britain would fall precipitously Italy entered the war. We all know how that one finished. But do we?
It has been argued that Italy's entry into World War Two on the side of Germany was a disaster for Germany in that she had to devote resources to defending Italian interests in North Africa, where it eventually lost, and that this reduced the force it could bring to bear on the Soviet Union, where it ultimately lost.
But then, having decided in 1943 to change sides and leave the Germans to their own devices, the Italian Government and Military did nothing to assist the Allies who fought their way, alone, bloodily, up the Italian peninsular. And at the end of it all the Italians decided that apart from Mussolini and a few scabby Fascists, they had been on the side of the Allies all along as conveniently shown by the Partisans who attacked and harried the German forces in Italy as the Allies advanced. And on that myth the new Republic was born. But apart from some obvious Fascists who were eliminated instantly either to prevent risk of resurgence or to settle scores everyone else just changed uniform, sometimes they didn't even do that, and carried on as before. And very many, many people who run Italy today such as Silvio Berlusconi (Prime Minister) , Giorgio Napolitano (President of Italy) were alive and aware during these times.
This is a fair summary, if very brief, of some big events in Italian history of the 20th Century. But most Italians would not recognise this narrative at all. It implies something about them that, although inchoate, has a hint of the unsavoury about it. But this is an aside. I wanted to set this out because as I while away the hours in the vineyard I reflect on how it can be that Berlusconi can be such a crook, a hypocrite, a liar, a frequenter of prostitutes and mafiosi and yet he carries on and it seems normal, to Italians, to me, that he should carry on. No matter how 'bad' he might seem in a world outside Italy to us here 'bad' is a non-concept. It is salt that has lost its saltiness. So the real problem is with us, the Italians. And I want to explore this some time in the next days.
On Sunday mornings I like to go to the nearby village of Attimis where there is a little bar run by a very hospitable husband and wife. I take a latte macchiato and a croisant and read the newspaper, generally outside sitting on the veranda if the weather is nice. Attimis sits in a little cove at the base of the high Julian Alps. It catches the morning sun and is warm even in winter so it is possible to enjoy the beauty of the snowy mountains high around while stretching long out and soaking in the sun's rays.
Some years ago on Sunday mornings I would do a circular cycle ride and stop off in Attimis during the trip. Time went on, and for some reason, or at some stage, when and why I cannot remember, I ceased to cycle. But this morning Luca said 'look at you, you're just a fat old man, you'd better bike down to Attimis!' And so it was that I huffed and puffed my way to my Sunday morning coffee and back again. Which brings me to another old man to whom I hope not to bear any resemblance, Silvio Berlusconi.
At the end of last year it seemed that he had escaped the numerous challenges besetting him by the skin of his teeth. A real houdini! But now it seems that the investigating magistrates are about to charge him with facilitating and enjoying under-age prostitution and with abuse of office by personally intervening to have a morocan belly-dancer released from custody into the hands of his personal dental hygienist (who he had also found an office in the regional government).
As the revelations of his prostitute use have entered the public domain Berlusconi has moved from 'I love women and it is well known' through to 'It is better to love women than to be gay' now to 'Since I divorced my wife I have had a stable relationship but I had to hide it to avoid a media circus'. This is great coming from the man who singly owns or controls most of Italy's media!
In any case, it is clear that Berlusconi feels himself to be unconstrained by the laws that apply to other civilians. It is also clear that without the independence of the investigating magistrates Berlusconi would be effectively unconstrained and Italy would have a 1970's South American style popular authoritarian regime in charge. Popular because many, very many, Italians, see in Berlusconi's behaviour nothing out of the normal. For many, his attraction is that they are like him, but without the money, and he is like them or how they would like to be.
This might seem shocking. For the country that invented fascism, that got it all so wrong in the second world war, to align itself so naturally with the forces of control and illiberal-ism, must imply that the culture is still one that encourages, admires and rewards 'strong men' no matter what they do.
And so it is that today in Italy has arrived the final duel between the forces that represent, however imperfectly, the rule of law and the forces that represent, acutely defined, the rule of one man. If Berlusconi wins, in the sense that he 'reforms' the judiciary as he has promised, so the rule of law will lose. If law prevails and Berlusconi is tried and found guilty, and punished then it will be true that the law has proved equal for all, as promised in the Italian constitution. But either way, Italy will be neither more nor less democratic than before. And the people will be neither more nor less convinced that 'right' has prevailed. The only change will be that those connected to, and identifying with, the winning part will feel emboldened to push any claims that they may feel they have.
In the end, Berlusconi, and the magistrates, and the authoritarian neo-statist Northern League and the fractured, fractious and bereft-of-ideas Left are the incarnation of the Italians themselves. It is a good thing that they reassure themselves always that they are 'una brava gente' (a good people) because otherwise one might very easily come to the opposite conclusion.
Soon my diary entries are going to trail off again. Not because Italy is getting any less interesting (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-12191500 ) but because the days are getting longer. Whereas prior to Christmas we used to get into the kitchen for dinner by around 5.00 p.m. now we are coming down from the vineyard at five. The twilight allows a series of little jobs to be done until around 6.00 p.m. Dinner is later, by the time I have responded to information and booking requests and added the Photo of the Day I am ready to sink into my rocking chair by the wood stove and read for a little. Right now I am reading Naples 44 by Norman Lewis.
Following the rhythm of the seasons means slowing down and taking it reasonably easy from late-autumn up until Christmas. The period between Christmas and Sixth January (Epifania) is just an orgy of socialising, eating and drinking (and getting fat, and thinking about getting unfat) and sleeping in listening to the Today programme on Radio 4. But after that the cycle begins again. The hazelnut trees are in flower already, the first bulbs pushing up in the warm sun. You can feel the urgency in the air. Suddenly, all that seemed so languid prior to Christmas takes on a tightness and immediacy. The vineyard suddenly hovers overwhelmingly as the jobs that need to be completed before spring pile up.
It is nice to live in the light again. To feel the move towards summer, but having passed through spring, summer and autumn I know that again, at the end of this year, I will savour every last moment of November and December - my favourite months!
Italy doesn't have electoral constituencies and neither does it have local members of parliament. Instead, at national elections voters vote for a party, often effectively for a party leader (such as Silvio Berlusconi), and that leader then allocates positions in the lower house or senate to acolytes, lackeys, supporters, political creditors etc.
This system is rule by the political parties. It is democratic in the sense that parties are elected. It is not representative in that parties tend to represent small percentages of the electorate and there is no local and direct representation in the legislature. The system obliges coalition governments and Berlusconi has governed for all but two of the last 16 years with the key support of the Northern League. The Northern League was formed by a number of ex-members of the Radical Communist left. Ostensibly its objective was to lighten the load placed on workers and firms in the North by the need to support the perennially lazy and corrupt South and the voracious and rent seeking capital, Rome.
Instead, with a vote hovering around 5%, the Northern League has leveraged itself into power and spoils. As the only reliable ally of Silvio Berlusconi it has key ministerial positions and has put allies and relatives into the European parliament and in key jobs in the Italian government. It has also been elected into, or holds coalition power in, many of the Provincial and Regional governments of the North.
The Northern League is anti-immigrant, anti -gay, anti-deregulation. It holds to a strong and directive state, strong policing, and conservative catholic morals enforced, where possible, by law. It also holds to strong Unions within State-defined roles. It does not believe in free markets and is instinctively hostile to entrepreneurs who, by definition, act individually and are not a natural constituent of a corporatist state.
This type of government has existed for the last 16 years (there was a brief interregnum of two years when Romani Prodi formed a Government of the left but it was pretty much the same). It has stifled natural development and kept the economy and social development blocked. Without representative government there is no avenue for change to be pushed so people with ability and money and the belief in the need for change form foundations to try and illuminate, educate and elucidate.
One such foundation, italiafuturo, was founded by Luca di Montezemolo, notable Italian businessman and Chairman of Ferrari. A recent editorial tackled the way that the Northern League has exercised, and is exercising, its political power. The editorial gained national attention because it drew attention to something that seemed counter-intuitive. The Northern League blankets itself in announcements auto-defining an outsider status, an up-setter of the status quo but whose ambitions are perpetually thwarted. Instead:
'On the liberalisation front (in particular local liberalisation) and competition (starting with transport and professional services), on the elimination of useless bodies (the provinces at the top), on taxation, the League has deliberately taken the road of municipal neo-statism that penalises private firms that continue to be subject to insupportable costs and taxes. That which the League does in the territory corresponds to the 'colbertism' of [Finance Minister] Tremonti at the centre ... who seems much more interested to consolidate power in the central nodes of Italian capitalism via the state companies that are strenuously protected from every form of private competition.'
Just before Christmas we started to put in order previous photos and diary entries. A massive dysfunction in the website was that the almost random production of diary entries and photo loading by myself over the course of a year - and the pattern of which changed from year to year - rendered the search-back-by-date method which we had adopted at the beginning non functional. For certain months in certain years the chance of a user finding a date for which there was a previous diary entry or photo of the day could be as little as 4/31.
When we moved to a system which displayed the entries that had been made we saw that some time in the past many of the early photo files had been corrupted. This was purely because at the beginning of digital photos, Windows saved them in folders as any other digital file such as a document. In fact, in my old computer ’Images’ are found under ’Documents’. Folders might then be named My Holiday in Fiji or whatever and then the photos would sequentially number within the folder. Now, you may have noticed, photo ’addresses’ are wholly numeric - generally date shot then the camera assigned photo number. To identify a photo a user can assigns a descriptive tag to the photo which is not part of the file name.
The problem with the old system was that when photos were up-loaded to a website server the file name uploaded would be the folder name - a space - and then the photo number. The empty space causes great problems with modern database software and at some point - probably while the site was being re-hosted - the space was eliminated from the photoname. And that was the end of it. Having a different name it would no longer display on the appropriate page.
Last weekend I dusted off my old computer, dug out old photo CD’s and reloaded the photos that no longer displayed. Then I noticed that the diary entries had begun before the Photo of the Day. So as not to have the Home Page Slide Show display blanks for those dates I sifted back through the photos I had and dug out those of Luca and myself. I then added these into the empty spots.
I had exactly 10 photos left over so I have decided to load them as the photos for today. Boy, we sure look old!
A thoroughly horrid day. Barty has gone to join Minnie and Spotty. We are quite gutted, maybe strangely so. We don't want to be maudlin. We don't want to exaggerate, a dog, after all is just a dog. But a companion lost always leaves a hole. When that loss is permanent, one curses for times that will never be and the pain of times past gone. The bell tolls for us all in the end. Meaning is what happens and who it happens with before the first peal.
Last July Minnie and Spotty, our two Maremanno sheepdogs died. Spotty's sister Barty, however, seemed in rude health and over this winter we gradually attached ourselves to the hope that she might have some good time ahead of her and we with her. As I write this she is lying on the mat in the room next door. This was the photo of the day. She has obviously had chronic renal failure for some time but it has turned acute in a matter of the last days. The vet has told us that for her there is no going back and tomorrow she will join Minnie and Spotty and her suffering of these days will be finished.
Euthanasia of pets is difficult because no goodbye is ever enough to catch every memory and feeling that one has of a trusted companion. And yet one has to reconcile oneself to the decision that must be made and its finality.
I guess that you noticed that our Home Page now sports a Slide Show which brings up the Photo of the Day, in a more or less random way, from its inception in July 2005 to today. Maybe more for us than anyone it has proved addictive as Luca and I revisit times in our lives at La Faula over the last 6 years. Of course, there are many photos of Minnie, Spotty and Barty and tomorrow, for the first time since we arrived here, there won't be a Maremmano at La Faula. I began the photos and diary in 2005 out of a sense that we were doing things of great significance in our lives and that there was no record of it, primarily for us. Our business is Agriturism so it seemed obvious to share what we were doing with those who may wish to come here and try La Faula for themselves. And the internet made this possible where previously it was not.
So tonight we sadly say goodbye to Barty and thank her for her company, her faith and trust in us and for being such a great member of the La Faula team!
Yesterday was my 51st Birthday. The day was filled with a delicious sense of satisfaction. Satisfaction, because it's hard not to think that the world in which I live has improved sensibly in the last 51 years. Many parts of the world are now accepting, tolerant places where discrimination of a part of the citizenry on the basis of their intrinsic make-up is no longer tolerated. "There is no place in our society for discrimination." said then British Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2007. When discrimination comes so easily to the human psyche this is no small thing. To live in open, intellectually inquisitive societies that refuse to give themselves over to the basest instincts deriving from ignorance and self-blindness is a great fortune and I thank goodness every day to have been born into the times that began, for me, in 1960!
Satisfaction also because these times give those of us in our late middle age - all going healthily, that is - the possibility to think of all those things that we may do, enjoy and experience in the future. I have done so much, and so many things that were wonderful and that I could never have imagined, as a young man, would have been a part of my life. It seems to me that I am just starting again. Of course, the coachwork isn't quite what it was, and maybe the intellect not quite as sharp, but the hunger to learn, experience and adventure is as strong as ever. And these times, these wonderful times, give one the possibility to push the boat out even yet again!
Last week I described that at our Christmas dinner with Luca's family, his niece, who is finishing her PhD expressed her frustration, which is really impotent desperation, at the social construct in Italy that has deprived young people of any real chances of good work and an eventual State pension - unless that is you, or your family, are very well connected. The problem is real and it is very well covered by the New York Times article of 1 January 2011 of which I have pasted the link above.
But there is another problem which has not hit the headlines yet but when it does it will combine with the youth problem to create strong social unrest which, I foresee, will threaten the legitimacy of the Italian State.
The vast majority of the private sector in Italy is comprised of small businesses just like ours with a few employees. And it is falling to us to fund the voracious appetite of the Pensioned and the State sector and the unneeded workers 'parked' at home on 80% pay for an indeterminate time. Not only, but we pay the 'rents' (in the economic sense) captured, with government assistance and connivance, by monopolistic and oligopolistic companies (many wholly or partly state owned) that provide essential services such a electricity, gas, water, insurance, banking. Those of us who came to Italy from outside will never manage the 45 years pension contribution to receive a pension although we are paying full contributions now.
The old in Italy, in the guise of the paramilitary Finance Police and draconian laws regarding non-payment of taxes, extort payment from us. When there is no true democracy, when one large group in a society ruthlessly exploits another, there cannot be government by consensus. So it isn't just the young that feel hostile and alienated from the state. It is also us who are, in the end, providing a big chunk of GDP. Of course we have something to lose: capital, savings if we are lucky. But a large, sullen and hostile private sector, prone to non-cooperation is not something that any State should look to create.
At Ravosa we are surrounded by people who retired in their 40's and early 50's and who are living the 'life of Riley'. Among them are various retirees from the paramilitary Carabiniere and Finance Police. It galls to see them, younger than us, passing their lives, in grand houses, in idle luxury. In Italy one or two generations stole all. And for those privileged, they are stealing still.
p.s. Luca sincerely hopes that I am not boring you all with this harping on about the economic and social situation in Italy! He asked me to mention that it’s still a good place for a holiday!
*** I've seen that on the pages La Faula Today and Photos that there is a photo display problem for 1 January 2011 caused by the high number of photos loaded; the pages are too wide for the screen. This will be put right next week and we will be re-vamping all the pages containing previous photos and diary entries ***
This week past, I had a bit of a virus. Not a full-blown flu but a bit of a cough, shivers, a bit off-colour. So we begged-off various invites to spend New Year's Eve with Luca's family or friends. We felt that it would be altogether nicer to spend a cosy evening in at home. We do this most nights and it is always nice so it seemed just right for the changeover from one year to the next!
But when he heard this, Alcide, the owner of our local trattoria Ai Cons would have none of it.
'No, you can't spend New Year's Eve alone' he said
(I wanted to say 'but we're not alone. We have each other' but this is Italy and, somehow, often, one doesn't say exactly what one would like!)
'You have to be in company!' insisted Alcide. 'At least come and eat the [traditional plate] musèt and lentils with us!'
Having agreed to this, I guess it was foreseeable (reasonably foreseeable?) that just sharing the Friulano pig's cartilage sausage (musèt) and lentils would seem a totally inadequate way to salute the New Year and that we would be drawn into sharing a whole meal.
And so it was, that at 9.00 p.m. we joined a mixed table of neighbours, friends and their relatives for the Capodanno dinner cooked by Alcide's wife Elda. But, I'm not going to write about this except to say that it was a really great way to bring in the New Year. Suddenly it was 3.30 a.m., I had shot some good, if grainy, photos, and if we hadn't left then we would have stayed around to see in the new dawn!
No, instead, I'm going to tell you some of the people who were there. Apart from the cases of our hosts, Alcide and Elda, I'm not going to link their names to the photos and neither will I use any but their first names. But they are real people and they are our neighbours and friends here at Ravosa!
Alcide: Alcide retired some years back from his job as a Municipal Policeman in Udine. Alcide is married to Elda. Together they run the Ai Cons. The challenge for Alcide right now is that his brother George is the sole supplier of wine to the trattoria. Alcide grows the best cabernet grapes in the locality. He follows the vine plants with a pride that fair bursts from him. He knows everything about cabernet grapes that there is to know. He travels to France to get other perspectives. And he is challenged by the wines his brother makes from those grapes. Alcide wants something fruity and flavourful that the clients of his trattoria can drink easily. Every instinct dissuades him from breaking his tied-wine relationship. But something will surely break!
Elda: Is the wife of Alcide. She loves him dearly and you can see this in the photos. Before Alcide retired Elda ran the trattoria during the day by herself. It was a real stress to be cook, hostess, waitress. She wasn't so happy in those days but her happiness is complete now that Alcide is around to help. When Elda cooks for one, it is as one would for an esteemed guest in the house. She is a wonderful cook and she suffers every night the trattoria is open until she is certain that every guest has enjoyed every meal. Even though she has been doing it for years, every new day brings to her the fear that guests might not like her cooking. Only after every meal is served and everyone is happy can Elda relax!
Concetta: Is the elder sister of Alcide. She is in fact the oldest of the seven brothers and sisters in the family. Concetta has helped out at the Ai Cons whenever Elda needed a hand. Behind the rigorously efficient, almost mechanistic, demeanour, Concetta keeps warmth and a fine sense of humour. Concetta has seen enough of people and of life to know how it stacks up and to recognise the farce in it!
Piero: Piero made it big once in construction. Of course, he was younger then, had a big car when the others had none and travelled Italy when the others didn't even get to Udine. But in the end it didn't work out. Piero knows his mind. He is happy to share it. He has a physical presence that you feel when he talks at you. But in the end one really likes him because he is special and admirable. A fall didn't dent his optimism. His enthusiasm for the shear experience of existing, his acceptance of how cards fall and his absolute pleasure in picking them up and dealing another hand is invigorating. He can drive his relatives a bit mad though!
Ermes: Ermes was the best mechanic in the comune (municipality) if not beyond. He worked for Alfa Romeo when it was really something. People came from all over to seek his advice. He is a stable, low-key gentleman with a clear mind, clear vision and clear sense of right and wrong. His (adult) kids are warm, friendly, approachable and entrepreneurial. He has much to be proud of. He retired at his prime. When he retired it was not possible legally to work part time. Village gossip is that he had a moment of difficulty with the paramilitary Finance Police when he left work because people would come to him for advice and the Finance Police maintained he was doing something in 'the black'. I think that it is quite conceivable that the Finance Police act sometimes under the effect of an untrue impression and without just cause. Maybe someone makes a malicious denouncement to settle a slight or assuage envy. In any case, a few tattered rags flutter from Ermes' flagpole - 'a symbol of Italy', he says. 'For so long as the country is like this, I will leave those few rags that remain of the Italian flag at the top of my flagpole.'
Bruna: Bruna is the Councillor with responsibility for Social Welfare in the municipality. As social welfare is not based on universal benefits but is administered at the municipal level this is quite a responsibility. Bruna's brother was the mayor for two terms and is remembered with affection by very many. Neither Bruna nor her brother are ideologues. They just want to do well for their community. I teach English conversation on Friday evenings to retired people in the old primary school at Ravosa because I found it impossible to say no to Bruna. She is purposeful. In pursuit of her responsibilities, she will march through a wet winery at harvest, passing over machinery, pipes and cables to make a request that can't be refused her. She is refined. And she listens to others with an attentativeness and warmth that hints, just hints, that in some way, at some time, she has known the importance of being listened to.
Gino: Gino is our 'Australian' friend. For the people of Ravosa-Magredis he is also a Communist. As a young man in the 1950's Gino emigrated to North Queensland with a number of other young men from the village to manually cut sugar cane. They were not exploited, they were very well paid, but the work was hard, very hard. Post-war surplus Italian labour did what only machines do now. Gino's father had survived the First World War in the front line of the Isonzo. Few human beings can have experienced the hell that Gino's father endured. In the Second World War one of Gino's brothers was a Fascist. Another a Communist partisan hiding out in the mountains. The first person to employ Gino had been a prisoner of war near Cividale at Campo 57. He showed no rancour towards the Italians - the Friulani - he employed. He might have. Only two years ago did Gino find out the truth about Campo 57 http://www.awm.gov.au/exhibitions/stolenyears/ww2/italy/story2.asp When there was a break-out from the prison camp, locals in Magredis-Ravosa alerted the Fascist authorities to the presence of escapees hiding out in the locality. But enough of history. There is plenty here! Gino returned to Italy eventually, fell in love, married, had kids and made a good life. But what he had seen outside Italy marked him out for life. When he tried to explain the differences he had seen he was defined as a Communist. You can be a Communist in Italy no matter who you vote for! Gino is my friend and a real tangible link with Australasia!