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!