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!