This is the final Christmas letter of 2012.
20 December 2012
Dear [ ]
For another year, I write with much pleasure to thank you for a wonderful Christmas package, both practical and luxurious!
The microplane is very much appreciated. A great many of our recipes call for lemon or orange zest and so the microplane will be a wonderful addition to our kitchen drawers. We are harbouring the chocolates, keeping them for those particular moments when we come in from the cold outside and feel like a hot drink with something special as an accompaniment! A great selection and we very much appreciate the thought that went into them!
Today is quite a big one regarding my time at La Faula! As you may have read in my blog, we had a leak in our ground-floor central heating circuit. It may have been there for a while but we were unaware of it as we never saw any signs of water on the floor or walls. It is likely that the water had made its own path under the house and as we are near a river it probably got down into the gravel that eventually underlies the house. We decided to re-make the heating circuit but this time with externally-mounted copper pipes running along the walls just under the wooden ceiling beams. This was far preferable to breaking-up the brick floor but it did mean breaking holes in three of the stone walls to permit the tubing to run from the boiler room through to the dining room and then, finally, onto the last ground floor room with the open ’fogolar’ fireplace.
Now, there is a Friulano saying that ’it is better to have the devil in one’s house than a stone-mason’. This arises because of the horrible dust produced when intervening in the structure of stone-walled Friulano houses. Internally, the large stones are covered with lime plaster. When hit with a power hammer this plaster atomises into a fine dust that travels far in the air and gets into every nook and cranny no matter how much effort has been made to isolate the area being worked. Lime plaster powder is unpleasant to the touch, gritty and takes away any sense of cosiness and security from the house. Once the lime plaster has been pulverised away the rocks behind must be smashed, cracked and split by the power hammer. It is best to do this with the doors open so, in the winter, the house gets cold and fills up with a nasty grey dust. As we must do all our house works in the winter, it is a procedure we know well and , as the years go by, we find it always more difficult to endure!
Before we knew that we would have to re-make the ground-floor central heating I had managed to convince Luca (well, bully, really!) that we should order a Norwegian wood stove to place in the open traditional Friulano ’fogolar’ fireplace. The Friulano ’fogolar’ was no more than an open hearth covered by a large hood connected by a horizontal flue to a large open chimney. It is no different in concept from the open fire in the middle of any hut or tipi. The fogolar was the symbol of the extreme Friulano poverty and the lack of resources to obtain metals to create closed stoves. The fogolar was deleterious to the health of those using it as the chimney would draw irregularly and the room was often filled with the toxic gases of partial or incomplete combustion. When the fire was lit, most of the heat went up the chimney so the family would sit just centimetres from the fogolar, hot to the front and cold to the back. When the fogolar was out the chimney would continue to draw air out of the house cooling it down.
The fogolar itself is rather beautiful to look at and as a feature it can be a pleasant experience to sit around one with friends. We did it occasionally but often had to flee the room when the smoke came down and out from under the hood. I got tired of opening this door or that, or that window or this to see if the fogolar could be made to draw better and when it was working well I found myself worrying about having a roaring open fire in the centre of a wood-beamed house. Finally, a fogolar consumes enormous amounts of wood for little heat. It really isn’t worth the candle so for some time I had wanted to find a solution that would allow us to keep the beauty of the fogolar structure while substituting the pre-historic woodfire-hole-in-ceiling system with something more efficient. Eventually I settled on a Jotul F373 wood stove. When Luca discovered that we would have, unexpectedly, to spend on the central heating he felt that continuing with the stove would be an unnecessary luxury. As a compromise, we put off for a year some modifications we wanted to make to two of the bedrooms and went ahead with the stove.
By sheer coincidence, the stove installer (who also had to remake the chimney) came on the same week as the new central heating circuit was being made. Poor La Faula rang to the sound of power hammers. Dust fell from every nook and cranny with the vibration then, miraculously, was taken-up again by those same nooks and cranny’s ready to fall again at the slightest movement. The grit got everywhere and, the sun being low on the horizon at this time of the year, every sunny day revealed every surface to be wearing a patina of grey! The wooden floor on the landing outside Rooms 7 & 8 had to be taken up to give access to the copper heating pipes that had eventually to get to the boiler room. We felt like we were living in a building site. We were living in a building site!
Patience and lack of any other option prevailed, time passed, and yesterday the central heating went live and tonight I am writing this in front of the gently crackling logs in the Jotul 373! I can say that it has been everything that I wanted and more. The ’fogolar’ room that was cold and mostly closed in the winter is warm and cosy. The stove consumes so little and produces so much heat that we keep it going all day. For the first time in our 17 years at La Faula the house has a general background of warmth.
So here I am, beside the ’fogolar’ writing this. Soon with a cup of hot milk I will go up to bed. Summer, of course, is a real pleasure, but winter, at La Faula, has for Luca and myself just got immeasurably better!
Well, I hope that you enjoyed the story of how La Faula ’warmed-up’.
We do wish you a Very Merry Christmas, that next year is a good one and we very much look forward to seeing you in August.
Very Best of Regards - Paul and Luca
This is the third and penultimate Christmas letter of 2012. It was sent to a family who come to La Faula as guests but who have become friends.
11 December 2012
... "Well, I’m sitting here closed in the kitchen. Luca is in his office doing his distance learning course on web-site programming. Outside the kitchen, the dining room is unmade with the tables in the middle of the room, the chairs and decorations removed outside and the furniture that remains covered in plastic dust sheets. As I guess that you will remember from my earlier diary entries, the central heating circuit on the ground floor had been leaking for some time. We never actually found out where the water was going but hearing the water pressure tank constantly re-filling when only Luca and I were in the house meant that either we had ghosts fond of taking long showers or there was a leak. We tracked the leak down as far as the ground-floor central heating and tomorrow the plumbers should come to remake the heating circuit. Of course they were due to come today but ... well .... you know .....!
Passing through from the dining room to the end room on the ground floor where there is the open fireplace, there the whole room is work-in-progress! Quite independently from the central heating I had managed to talk Luca into agreeing to having a wonderful glass-sided Norwegian wood-stove mounted in the old ´fogolar´ fireplace. Today the stove-installer and chimney-maker came and began by smashing up the centre of the old fireplace. He´s a good guy, very able and efficient but he was working with the doors open so the room got pretty cold, dust was everywhere. At moments like these the place certainly loses its cosiness and one can´t wait for the work to be over to put everything back in order! I am pleased though with the stove and I know that it is going to make La Faula much warmer and comfortable for us two old guys!
We are actually having a really nice winter in every respect. Autumn was warm, relaxing and peaceful. We have the right number of dinners out with friends for it to be enjoyable, but not excessive, and the rest of the time we enjoy being here with the dogs. Luca has sold a large shipment of wine to Japan and so I need to get packing and do some more wine-bottling. The great thing about winter, though, is that there is really no stress at all so it takes a lot of discipline to push oneself to get things done!
... Now, I do have to tell you that yet again, the [John Doe]’s have been - actually will have been - responsible for another cunning improvement at La Faula. This time my attention was drawn to the problem of the inflatable beds and animals in the pool area. After hearing about how your beds and animals were appropriated - or should I say misappropriated - I got to thinking what could be done about it. Then, after your stay, we had two families of Belgians, with lots of kids, and they took no chances with their inflatables, obviously having had problems in the past. These families, after each session in the pool, took all their inflatables up to their rooms (it drove Maritza mad having to try and clean around giant sharks, turtles and dolphins!).
So I have designed an elegant, strong-but-lightweight structure, of the style of the stainless steel towel rack, that will enable families to lock-away their inflatables near the pool area. I think this will be a winner and will bring order to the air-bed world!
Luca and I really appreciate your having sent us the Christmas pudding. It has not yet arrived so we will look forward to the postman´s visit with positive anticipation in these days (normally the postman only brings bills and suchlike so a scrummy pudding will make a welcome change!).
... I liked you comment on [X business] having some kids with special needs and some very challenging parents! Having one´s own small business is tough but at least one has the chance to learn from past experience and to modify things to try and make challenges less challenging! Every year when we close at the end of summer I take stock of what we could do to make things easier for us and for our guests. I find this the most satisfying part of what we do! In some ways challenging people can be the most satisfying - at least when you manage to content them - and you then know that at some future time if a similar situation should present itself you will probably be able to manage that without too much difficulty.
I will pass-on your good wishes and thoughts to the woman in the conversation class who lost her 16 year old son in an accident. It is a very brave thing that she is doing culturally to talk about this as in Italian culture misfortune is normally not disclosed. In fact the Italian word to describe misfortune is "disgrazie" or "disgrace" meaning away from God´s grace so it carries the connotation of being in some way responsible when bad things happen. Her 84 year old mother is also in the class and is appalled by her (adult) daughter´s openness but I encourage everyone to write what comes to mind without fear of censure. It is a good class and I do enjoy my one-and-a-half hours every Friday at the old Ravosa Primary School!"
What follows is the second of my Christmas 2012 letters; this one sent to an old friend in New Zealand after a period without contact. I have excerpted those parts relating to Luca and myself and La Faula.
11 December 2012
"... Winter is lovely here. Now we are only open six months of the year from March - September so the winter is time for the vineyard, wine-making and bottling and doing those things that we can’t get done in the summer. This year, 2012, was a good one for us. By now we have been going as a farm-stay properly since 2000 so we have built-up a bit of a clientèle plus we have some experience behind us. The Agriturismo is fun but tough as we have to work very hard in the peak months but then these autumn and winter months are just divine. I am a lazy fellow so I enjoy not being under any pressure at all!
Europe in general has problems with the Euro and Italy, in particular, is in dire straights. As most of our clientèle is foreign so far this hasn’t impacted on us much. But right now Italy is entering an unbelievably recessive (I would say depressive) phase so it is pretty uncertain what lies ahead. For sure Italy can’t stay in the Euro and I think that we are going to be living history here at La Faula for the next couple of years!
The wine side of the business goes pretty well, if not particularly profitably! Up until now we have done everything from growing the grapes thru making the wine then bottling it. Not knowing anything about this it was pretty tough for a long time and we learnt through a lot of error plus we spent money poorly on the wine-making side of the business. Our wines now are well received. We win awards and export to Japan but as the Agriturismo grows running the two businesses simultaneously becomes a real challenge, especially with us getting older and with increasing summertime temperatures ripening the grapes ever earlier and bringing the harvest date forward so that it conflicts with the season of the Agriturismo. Running a small business is just a succession of challenges, I guess if you don’t overcome them then you are either bankrupt or dead. If you are neither of these then you must have surmounted the previous challenges and so go on with a temporary feeling of satisfaction: temporary because the next "Oh no!" moment is already lined-up around the corner and just waiting to pop-out and hit you!
Luca is fairly happy at the moment. He finds living in Italy more of a struggle than I do. I very much like this part of the world and like the people in the village and the friends that I have made. Not to mention the great food and wine! Luca, obviously, is more ambivalent about being here (still). Italian society is not at all suffocating for foreigners - think of all the Brits and Americans who have come to live here over the years - but it is a very conformist society for the Italians. Being Italian, Luca is never completely free of this so his experience of being here is a bit different to mine.
Luca and I have for sure got older. The work though is pretty physical and so, although we suffer, as all farmers, from bad backs and creaking joints, overall I think that it is good for us.
A really important part of our life here has been our dogs. Once we had eight in total. Now we are down to four. Unfortunately dogs live short lives so recently we have have faced some moments of loss. Of course, they are only dogs but they are also our partners in the Agriturismo as many families come for them, so when one dies we feel the loss as a closing of a chapter in the great adventure that is our coming to La Faula!"
As Christmas comes around every year, it seems the moment when I have the time and inclination to write to friends. Sometimes it is to give thanks for a gift received, sometimes to renew an old friendship or nurture an existing one. As I know that some of you who read this blog are also friends, I thought that it could be nice also to share my news with you. If you were the recipient of this letter I hope that you won’t mind if I give the parts relating to life at La Faula a wider circulation!
30 November 2012
... Every morning I wake up to Radio 4 and the shipping forecast. Most mornings it seems that the UK is enveloped in rain and darkness and I guess that this can’t have been any help. I imagine that the current UK weather must be provoking real respiratory problems, it all seems so damp and humid!
Here we have been very lucky and have had a really nice and warm autumn. It has rained a bit but nothing exceptional. As I guess you know Tuscany and Puglia and many other regions have been very badly affected by flooding. I love the autumn and winter in Friuli - when warm that is - and so far it has all been to my liking! As you read in my blog, we lost our central heating circuit on the ground floor. As the boiler still heats other sections of the house this has not been such a disaster as it could have been if the weather had turned cold. The new radiators have, in any case. arrived and my guess is that they will be mounted next week so I am expecting a very cosy winter. We have also ordered a Norwegian wood-burning stove to insert into the traditional fireplace in the little room at the end of the house where you did a lot of your work. The stove has three glass sides and can be rotated so I am actually looking forward to being able to sit beside the fire in the evenings and do my computer work. Old age makes one realise that creature comforts are not to be deferred to "later" as "later" is more or less already here!
Italy has gone-off the cliff. It’s all over but no-one wants to say it (I write like one of those mad, paranoia-driven, American right-wing, conspiracy minded, wing-nuts!). Whether they say it or not, the game is up, time is called and Italy is on a quick ride to poverty. It is not unbelievable but what I do find unbelievable, in a way, is that it has happened and so quickly. When I wrote in my blog, upon the arrival of Monti, that this would be the result of his policies, my conclusions were the result of my intellectual understanding of economic cause and effect. Argument and reason can bring one to an intrinsically shocking conclusion but this doesn’t mean that one is personally shocked. But, I am shocked by what is going on around us at the moment. The economy has stopped in Friuli and the statistics indicate that this is the same, if not worse, in other parts of the country. The feeling that I have I compare to the feeling that German Jews must have had in the 1930’s - before the war - when they realised that the Nazis where serious about changing their role in society in ways that once would have been unthinkable. That a government of a Western Country would so deliberately - if ignorantly - destroy the last possible chance for its citizens to enjoy the lifestyle of a moderately prosperous developed economy defies belief. Italy is Zimbabwe.
Of course, the official line in Europe is that Monti has saved Italy. But this doesn’t make his evil any less real. It’s the real-deal Len! It is this Italian generation’s equivalent of the second world war. Thankfully there is no war to be had, so deaths will be avoided, but the social dislocation will be equally as great and Italy, from a much less illustrious base, will decline as inexorably as the Roman Empire, just with a super-enhanced velocity!
Moving-on, Luca is fine. Very relaxed at the moment. I must write and tell you all about the wine situation. It is, in fact, a very Italian story, but I should mention that we have just sold two large pallets of red wine to Japan at a good price. This is satisfying and in the next weeks I will be bottling more wine. Anyway, wine shall be for another night! ...
The story of our neighbour Loris’s farm - continued ...
Factories are closing and the surplus labour that once went to work in industry is now stuck on the land. Children that would once have left the farm for greener pastures and fields anew now remain at home with their parents. As family size grows, these young people are pushed to enlarge the amount of land that the family farms. Of farm machinery there is excess capacity, so they search out fields to rent. Land is not for sale as retired farmers hold onto the land in order to receive the CAP (Common Agriculture Policy) payments. The increased competition for land is stressing Loris. Over recent time, Loris had arrived at a settled number of retired farmers and their descendants that he rented land from. An informal "gentleman’s agreement" operated to prevent poaching of land to rent between the existing farmers. But the introduction of extra labour into the rural economy has upset this agreement and the new entrants, motivated by need and, probably, desperation, have no fear in attempting to poach fields from other farmers, such as Loris, by offering slightly better rents to the owners. The cake is not getting bigger but it is being sliced more finely and Loris is feeling the pinch.
And another change has occurred which has affected, profoundly, Loris’s feeling of financial security. Ten years ago Loris looked at his large house, barns and workshops and saw a capital investment that at the end, or in the case of some unforeseen negative event, could be turned into a generous cash sum to guarantee his future financial security. But in the last year the market in housing and farm buildings has frozen. It is clear that there was historic massive over-building of the small-holder farms. Now there are too many farm buildings attached to too little land. The buildings are old and expensive to maintain, the houses uninsulated and expensive to heat in the winter . Loris can not envision anyone wanting to buy his farm as a whole. The best that he can foresee is selling the fields piecemeal. Suddenly, Loris has realised that he is not working to create a capital asset the value of which he will realise when he retires. Instead of value having been added to the farm in these last years, value has been taken away. The real value in Loris’s farm is in what he can earn by farming and what he will realise from the sale of the productive land that he owns when he eventually retires.
So, there are too many farmers, with too many small farms and with an extremely limited supply of land for enlargement . These farmers, unlike the previous generation, cannot respond to their straightened reality by leaving farming and moving into industry, as there is no industry, and they are without the possibility of emigration as they are tied to their farms and in any case lack the skills to emigrate and re-establish themselves in another field in another country. The economic crisis in Italy in the last year has seen the reversal of the normal flow of excess labour from the countryside to the city or to industry. Lacking other possibilities, children stay at home on the farm even if it is too small to sustain them as adults. It is a disaster. And this disaster was created by State intervention that favoured the establishment of too many inefficient small farms and then, by keeping CAP payments to retired farmers and their descendants (who register themselves as farmers), ensures that land is locked down and not available to those farmers trying to farm for a living and who need to get bigger to utilise their plant more efficiently and to increase their productivity.
As Loris says, can it really be the case that in the Povoletto Council area comprising five villages, there is the need for seven combine harvesters and more than 200 tractors?
So Loris will keep on farming, carefully, and earning a living. Costs are high, but for cereals farmers prices have recently improved and forecasts are that the deleterious effects of global warming on food production and increasing world population will keep prices high and higher in the future. Where his story will finish-up he doesn’t know. But he does know that no matter how good or bad an entrepreneur he is, he doesn’t define the rules of the game. Farming in Europe is a Statist project. The terms under which it is conducted are defined by the political system. Loris runs on the treadmill that has been made for him. His father and uncles got on it and were, in the times of boom, handsomely rewarded. Those times are over and Loris has inherited the treadmill. It gives him a living but he can’t avoid the feeling that as the treadmill turns for him it inexorably slows. It seems like entropy. And it probably is.
Remembering a First Christmas, Italy
I remember something about Christmas. In that time, we had only one day for the Christmas festival: the 25th of December, the birth day of Jesus Christ and the Faithful went to Church, the Priest celebrated the mass and the Faithful had previously made the Nativity Scene that recalled the birth of Jesus Christ I also remember that the Christmas carols were very moving. I should also note as regards the Christmas festival that I remember it as being important and very nice. Also the children, everyone, on Christmas Eve put their shoes under the window on the window sill or on the floor and Father Christmas brought some presents like an apple, mandarins nuts and oranges. A few families made and decorated the Christmas tree. Underneath the tree there were some presents to give each other. To conclude I would like to give you my Regards and Best Wishes for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Lastly, I will tell you something about the really different Christmas festival that I passed when I was in Australia. Usually everybody spent the Christmas holiday at the seaside. Because over there it was summertime. And so the weather was very hot.
Christmas many years ago. I remember awakening in the wee hours of the morning when it was still dark. I called my mother who was still asleep as I wanted immediately to check if Father Christmas had been. To my big surprise I found my first bicycle.
We were in three children when I was a child and I remember not a particular Christmas but the atmosphere of Christmas I remember that we decorated the Christmas tree using many glass balls in very different colours, and for lighting we used candles. But my mum was afraid because of the risk of fire So we lit the candles only for a short time, switching off the electric lamps and so the light was suggestive, flickering. We even made a nativity scene and we children were always discussing how to prepare it. I remember in the evening we went to bed very excited and anticipating the morning and we were full of expectations for the gifts that we would find in the morning. I don’t remember any particular gifts but I do remember the joy of the wait.
Christmas in the 50’s in Artegna. I remember the nativity scene with the moss of the woods. The Christmas tree was for rich people. I remember 24 December the midnight mass and after, at home, the warm broth and a slice of focaccia. And after to bed. I remember the presents, little things: mandarins, walnuts hazel nuts, peanuts, some chocolate and some candies. Seldom toys. For us children a wonderful festival. Christmas is today still beautiful a family festival, but ..... now already in October in the department stores there are a lot of Christmas ornaments, glitter, garlands etc. and balls, balls, and more balls! What a drag!
Christmas 1946. In that time I lived in Rome with my family before transferring to Brazil with my family. I am sick in bed because I have one of the children’s sicknesses. I am not in my usual bedroom with my brother but in another room of the house. In this room my mother has installed a very big nativity scene, as was the tradition in my family. It has a large blue sky with many little stars, little statues represented the Christmas folk like Mary, Joseph, shepherds and so on. There are many little houses and the mountains dusted with faint snow and multi coloured lights. This installation is mounted on a table and surrounded by a table-skirt. In the night I see my Daddy come in the dark into this room carrying many packets and putting them under the table-skirt. Next day is Christmas day and the packets are distributed amongst the members of my family. That magic charming atmosphere of this first Christmas was never more created in my life (perhaps because in Brazil it was summer time and too hot).
My first Christmas The time is too distant to have a lot of memory. The images that I have in my mind are not very clear. But in particular I remember the great preparation of my mother to dress, to be elegant, together with all the family. After the mass we exchanged presents. I remember well the presents under the tree to open, a great meal and sweets to have after dinner.
The memory that I have of Christmas is Christmas Eve. There was a special dinner and there were also traditional sweets. Then at midnight we went to mass. We were a large family and we had only the produce of our land to eat. My parents as a Christmas gift bought oranges and sweets. In those days, where I was born, the mountain villages were very poor. Then I got married. With my husband, I emigrated in search of work to improve our lives.
My memories of Christmas are beautiful: even if we did not have family, close friends only, because my parents when young emigrated to Venezuela there was a lot of fun, food to eat, music and gifts. I believed in the Christ Child and so I wrote letters to get what I wanted as a gift and almost always the gift arrived. We didn’t want expensive gifts because these were in other times with few needs, not like now, but we were all happy! Now there is no longer Christmas for us for when one’s child has died, one can no longer celebrate.
The story of our neighbour Loris’s farm - continued ...
Between 2007 and 2011 increasing grain prices ran concurrently with increasing energy prices. A cereals farmer in Friuli benefited more of less according to where his or her farm was located, the type of soil and how many inputs he or she used. As rising energy prices brought rising fertiliser prices, Loris had to make continuous trade-offs between reducing the application of fertilisers, thus reducing his costs but with the effect of also reducing production and thus his income. Overall, however, buoyant cereals prices and good harvests served him well but his farm was always balanced on a knife-edge: one bad harvest or a collapse in cereals prices could bring him to the brink so he started running his farm defensively, only spending when strictly necessary, conserving what he had and risking none of his income. The certain growth of the 1970’s, 1980’s and early 1990’s was just a memory and was replaced by the gnawing uncertainty of running a business that could only survive if run lean, very lean Any fat and the game would be over.
Then in 2011 a single event occurred that was to impact on his farm, and future, in a greater way than anything previously, in his time or the time of his father. In November 2011 Mario Monti was appointed Prime Minister of Italy with a completely unelected executive.
Mario Monti, although unelected, was appointed by the Italian President with the specific stated objective to liberalise the Italian economy and thereby unleash the growth that was being restrained by restrictive laws, practice and red-tape. A newly vitalised Italian economy, it was thought, would be able to outgrow its enormous public debt over time and would thus give investors in that debt the security to continue investing in the short term, at lower interest rates. Monti made little effort at liberalisation. Where liberalisation was tried, it ran-up against a stonewall of organised entrenched interests.
Without vibrant growth Italy will, without doubt leave the Euro zone and most likely default on a part of its public debt. Without liberalisation there will be no significant growth and Italy will be reconsigned to the poverty from which it came, never, in times of plenty, having created an economic environment sufficient to consign that poverty irrevocably to its past.
This last point is a fact. Italy is a dead man walking, a train flung into the abyss, a ship mortally holed below the water-line. But Monti found a panacea much more interesting for a short-term fix to the disastrous state of the Italian finances, a fix so urgent that growth, tardy to arrive and often obstructed, need not any more be considered the fulcrum of future economic health. Monti believed, and believes, as does the Bank of Italy and the Treasury (economic ministry) and almost every expert in Italy and beyond that a massive slab of Italian GDP is in the black economy and if the Italian State could just get its hands on it many short term financing problems would be solved. The Monti government jacked-up taxes and declared war on tax evaders. Italy moved decisively from operating a self-assessment tax system for businesses to an assessment system operated by the tax authorities. The value of cash was reduced to a maximum of €1,000 as this is the maximum that can be used in any transaction. The Italian State under Mario Monti began hoovering-up enormous sums of money, money, the majority of which was obviously not from the black economy and which would have otherwise have been invested or spent. Mario Monti introduced to Italy the voracious value-destroying mechanism of the Soviet Union where the State was a destroyer of value until all the national wealth had been consumed and the system stopped working, all by itself.
It took few months for the Monti government to completely destroy an economy that was, after a national lifetime of maladministration, already at the end. After twelve months consumption had fallen back to the levels immediately following the second world war. De-industrialisation that had been occurring at a constant measured pace became a national suicide.
So coming back to Loris. The black economy doesn’t feature much in Loris’s farm. He is an EU cereals farmer so he produces, sells to registered dealers, everything is documented, low taxes paid, CAP payments dispensed. No chance to evade. But suddenly his costs shot-up. As the Italian State stripped money from businesses, great and small, they sought to recover, at least a part, from their customers. Prices for spare parts became prohibitive and loosed all relation from their value in production. Prices of every single thing that Loris uses in his farming business climbed.
to be continued ....
What follows, are the thoughts of my Friday evening English Conversation class. The original idea was for me to correct the text of the students and post it on the site so that those students with access to a computer could compare and contrast the corrected version with their original effort. In fact, there is little to correct as the English is pretty good. What has surprised us - myself and the students - is the opinions presented in such a structured way. The previous time we discovered that all the students would have voted for Barrack Obama. This time you can see how they see - at least in snapshot - the so-called Anglo-Saxon world!
What is the difference between Italy and the Anglo-Saxon world? The main difference is the language: English is spoken now throughout the world. Whereas our language, Italian, is spoken only in Italy. The Anglo-Saxon countries are: Great Britain, Northern Ireland, the United States of America, a part of Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Of what I have seen so far, they are better than us. They have the highest wages and pay fewer taxes.
The question is what are the different characteristics between Italian people and English or Anglo-Saxon people. Many people believe that, first of all, the Anglo-Saxon people are phlegmatic; that means self-controlled and so having an ability to behave calmly, respectfully and so on. Now, I am going to tell you something about Italian people. They more or less belong to the Latin race. Temperamentally it is easy for them to get into a temper or to be arrogant. But, on the other hand, they are friendly, and offer hospitality to everybody. (I think too much). And they are a good working population. But, the trouble is in Italy that when someone is in power or in charge or in a position of leadership they have a tendency to become dishonest, corrupted and take bribes. Bribery in Italy is really our biggest problem.
I conclude: in my opinion everybody in Italy who is in charge or in a position of leadership should be impeached. Moreover, they should be sentenced "to life imprisonment" because they robbed us.
I don’t know well the Anglo-Saxon world. I only know what I see on the television. I like to see the movies set in England because of the landscapes, the cottages and gardens so full of flowers. I was once in England and Scotland many years ago and I remember the weather suddenly changing from sun to rain, green fields, and dead sheep along the road killed by cars (in italy we can see dead cats). The people are very kind and queuing everywhere. The English kitchen is not as varied as the Italian one. But, I remember, with pleasure, very good salmon, smoked or fresh in Scotland; tender meat in England; and fantastic butterscotch cookies and the baked potatoes with butter and sour cream inside.
Italy contrasted with Europe - After 46 years in Switzerland, I had great difficulty to accustom myself to being in Italy. In Switzerland there are rules and laws that must be respected. In Italy, the politics are an awful and an unappetizing meal. The bureaucracy is a Kafkaesque nightmare etc etc. The Italian people are ingenious, clever, and brilliant both in positive and in negative things. Italy is my country, a beautiful country.
The differences between the Anglo-Saxon and Italian worlds are many. To mention some: in Italy we have the Roman Catholic religion, in the Anglo-Saxon world the religion is in the majority Anglican, Protestant and other. Italy is a republican democracy. This is different to the Anglo-Saxon world in which the monarchy has mostly so far endured. There are other differences, for example, in eating, in the clothing and most importantly in the freedom of information. In Italy we are controlled by party politics and the church. By comparison, the Anglo-Saxon world is completely and fully liberated and free.
Some differences between Italy and some Anglo-Saxon countries. Obviously there are many differences in various contexts. And now I will try to explain my point of view on some of them like:
For example in countries like the USA, the United Kingdom and so on there are only two main parties and electoral law has not changed for a long time. The people after voting can immediately know the winner with little margin of doubt. The candidate presents his programme to govern before and during the campaign and the winner must execute what he has promised.
In these countries there are various important and serious universities that train the management class and future leaders. The main aspect is the importance given to research. They develop new technologies and further knowledge in every field of existence. Many italian students go to these universities.
Much more informal and free without the excessive sentimentalism existing in italian families.
For me this is the fundamental difference but perhaps it is better to stop here ....
The main differences between Italy and and Anglo-Saxon world: London has the Queen, in Italy there isn’t a monarch. The difference between Italy and England is the English Language. This language is connected in origin to the germanic languages. The English Language is spoken in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The countries that have a political connection with the United Kingdon are Australia, New Zealand, Canada and North America.
Another difference between Italy and the Anglo-Saxon countries are that we only speak Italian but those countries all speak English.
Loris’s increasing acre-age, however, brought with it problems as well as benefits. Seeds and fertilisers could no longer easily be managed manually so some kind of fork-lift would be required to load heavy sacks onto the trailer for transport to where they would be dispersed. This would require another tractor. Needing a fork-lift, it didn’t really matter how old the tractor was so long as it was fit for the purpose so, after some scouting around, Loris purchased a small second-hand tractor and mounted a new forklift. Loris was also making more hay and harvesting more grain so he got access to his uncle’s trailer. To speed-up sowing, Loris purchased a larger and better mechanised seed drill. But this was too heavy for the tractor Loris had been using previously so Loris purchased another second-hand tractor to pull and power the seed-drill. Then, in his drive to plough more land faster, Loris purchased a three furrow plough. He came across a second-hand tractor that would be ideal both to plough and to sew. He traded in the tractor he had purchased for the new mechanised seed drill and, in October of this year, purchased the Lamborghini tractor shown in the photos of the day of Wednesday 24 October. This tractor is 17 years old.
The grain prices that Friulani farmers received from 2000 - 2006 were pretty flat and farmers like Loris increased their earnings by farming more land and doing it more efficiently. In Loris’s case he bought machinery new when it was an overt aid to increasing production and productivity, such as the seed drill. Any machinery that didn’t have a direct impact on the bottom line could be purchased second hand, such as the tractors. For Friulani small-holder farmers a good, reliable tractor that is 17 years old is as good a a new one. While tractors used in specialised farming such as vineyards or large land-holdings have become more technologically sophisticated and bring direct productivity and production benefits to the farmer, for small cereals farms tractors are effectively motors-on-wheels and too much electronic sophistication is actually a disadvantage as it makes them more difficult and expensive to repair when something goes wrong.
By 2007 Loris had effectively plateaued in as far as he could develop his farm. Land was not coming onto the market so it was difficult to increase the farm size by purchase. But Loris was also reaching the natural limit of what he could manage by himself through adept choice and use of machinery. Luckily, in 2007 cereals prices took-off, in particular due to cereals being used in the production of bio-diesel. Loris was lucky that a succession of hot summers and drought affected his production little as his maize was planted in clay soil which retains humidity. Nearby farmers with their crops in gravel soils saw their harvests plunge. It seemed to Loris, as it seemed to us in these last years, that he could, after having built-up his business and adjusted it to make the most out of what he had using efficiencies gained by machinery and improved processes, that he could now settle back to a calm life and a comfortable income. But it was not to be.
to be continued ....
... Getting back to the story of our friend, local farmer Loris ...
The 1990’s were a fine time for Loris. Cereals prices were high, input costs contained and he had all the machinery he needed to earn a comfortable living without the all-consuming physical exertion of only a generation previously. Through mechanisation and the increased productivity it produced he was, alone, able comfortably to farm that which he had inherited from his family and, in addition, to increase his acre-age. It seemed to him that his working life would be a trajectory of constant improvement.
In 1992 Italy faced an existential crisis brought on by its profligate and ill-considered economic policy of decades. Italy was ejected from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) ,the precursor the the Euro ,and came to within a hairs-breadth of not being able to fund its public debt. Exit from the ERM saw two more-or-less simultaneous devaluations. Then in 1995 the Lira was devalued again. Inflation at the time was high. All these things favoured and created an export boom in Friuli, principally based around chairs and furniture manufacture. Whether true or not, it was believed that at some point during the 1990’s Friuliwas responsible for 60% of world chair production. By happy coincidence, the fall of communism in Eastern Europe had given Friuli chair manufacturers access to lumber supplies from countries with even weaker currencies that Italy’s and with prices reflecting the relative poverty of those societies exiting from communism.
Friuli was awash in liquidity. Factories sprouted in the Manzano district and elsewhere providing well-paid jobs. Italy was well-placed, because of its manufacturing and steel working heritage, to design and provide wood-working machinery. Many of the normal disadvantages of a weak currency - in particular high input costs - were thus ameliorated. In Friuli it seemed that the party would never end and this was the environment in which Loris found himself.
As all times, when it seems that the party will never end, it already has and Loris faced his first real challenge and the beginning of his having to refashion his farm.
As was the case of all small-holder farms in Italy after the Second World War, Loris’s farm included a cow stall and in his case he had eight milking cows. As in many villages, Ravosa had a cooperative dairy to which the milk would be brought in the evening and morning. The cooperative building and plant itself was provided by the Italian State but the farmers paid the running costs, including the cheese-maker, and they received cheese rounds in proportion to the milk that they contributed. The dairy also skimmed some milk fat to make butter, which was sold, but this was essentially a side-line with fresh ’latteria’ cheese being the principal product. Of course, the stalls were small and the cows were kept principally to provide milk and cheese to the farmer’s family. But some cheese was sold to non-farming folk and this produced a small income.
But while a small cow-stall might make sense for a large family where the women and children could manage the cows and the milk and the produce of the cows could provide needed protein and some cash, it made no sense in relation to the smaller nuclear families that were becoming prevalent in Friulano agriculture in the 1980’s. And whereas labour had been traditionally divided on the farm with the animals being the women’s responsibility (plus bringing-up and looking after the children, and house-cleaning, and cooking, and washing!) and the fields and crops being that of the menfolk, sole farmers, like Loris, found themselves having to absorb both roles. Moreover, stall keeping, animal husbandry and milk production are labour intensive, and if practised on a small scale are only economically viable if undertaken by the farmer his or her-self.
The time had arrived when Loris’s stall had to go. This was a tough decision. The stall had been a key part of the farm all of Loris’s life up to that point. To abandon it seemed as if to remove a pillar from the farm. But it was no longer economic. Loris had to focus on cereals production and increasing his acre-age. The time to buy milk from the super-market had arrived!
The first five years of the new millennium, 2000 - 2005, saw Loris expanding his acre-age and up-sizing his farm machinery to permit him to manage his increasingly larger farm. At the beginning of the decade most of the farmers were aged in their early thirties being the generation born around the 1960’s that were now fully working their family farms. They were flush with cash an eager to buy more fields. But few fields were on sale so prices were high and competition for them fierce. Those fields that could potentially have been put up for sale were those of farmers who lacked off-spring or whose kids, if they had them, had no interest in carrying on the agricultural tradition. But for so long as they owned agricultural land they received the CAP payments so they were incentivized by the Common Agricultural Policy not to sell. This prevented young farmers from buying land to increase the size of their farms. It placed a break on the aggregations of farms instead keeping them small and unable to benefit from economies of scale. So the farmers would either be paid to plough, sow and reap the pensioner’s fields or the pensioner would keep the PAC payment, the farmer would rent the field and plough, sow and harvest on his own account. This was a time when knowledge that some fields were coming on sale was treated as information of the greatest value. Negotiations were conducted in secret to avoid creating an auction as more farmers got interested. But the seller "held the knife by the handle" as they say in Italy and farmers were forced to concede that no negotiating was to be had. One paid the asking price and that was that!
By 2008 the value of agricultural land around Ravosa had simply got too high and at this point Loris decided that he could no longer justify buying more land. Instead he would focus of renting fields to use as his own.
to be continued ...
As for the last two years, this year I am teaching English conversation for the "University of the Third Age" at the old Ravosa elementary school. Every Friday night for 90 minutes the poor students, mostly retired, must endure English conversation in New Zealandese which is certainly not BBC English! This year, I have tried getting the students before-class to prepare some text in English on a given topic. Then they read it out loud and while they are doing this I type it down on my Chrome-book (which works very well also off-line!). I promised them that I would put the text on-line so that they could compare their original effort with something that has been corrected. Of course, it is not helpful to re-write what the students have done but, luckily, this is not really necessary as most have a fair degree of basic English skill. The topic, rather obviously, for last week was the American Election. Below you will see what the students, all aged between 50 and 82 years, made of it! Rather to my surprise they were all, to a man and woman, Obama supporters. Obviously we really are living in the time of Obama!
USA - Election of American President. After an election campaign, head to head, Chicago and America celebrated Barack Obama’s victory. Mitt Romney was the loser, but with fair play, he admitted defeat and congratulated Obama. This is America’s democracy.
What I think about President Obama. For his family, he is a good father so I hope and think that he will be a good President for America. When he knew of his victory he was very exited. And he thanked his people for having voted him President.
American Presidential Election Day was on 6 November 2012. The winner was Barack Obama of the Democratic Party. He took 50% of the vote. Against Obama was challenger Romney of the Republican party who got 48% of the vote. Barack Obama has been re-elected for another 4 years.
Four more years was the slogan!
On his first appearance at the press conference shown on BBC/CNN television Obama said: “I will finish doing what I have begun.
You know the slogan "We can do!"
The American people voted for the re-election of Barack Obama because he will behave favourably towards, in particular, those from the working class and also Latinos, Indigenous Americans, women and young people. They expect him to solve all the important problems such as health care (only started), unemployment and many other things.
Instead the Republican challenger, Romney, cast his lot on behalf of the Capitalist People. He lost by a few votes.
At a television press conference Romney congratulated President Obama on his re-election. Romney also said: “I would like to collaborate with your government”. And finally he said God Bless You and the Big USA!”
Another Obama slogan "Forward!.
6th November Election Day USA!
Obama wins! And I believe that so so many people in the world are very happy. Me too! Obama gives the impression of being a reasonable person, honest and optimistic. He has a very kind family. I think that his wife Michelle has contributed deeply to his re-election. Of course, there are other people who are not happy at the result of this election. But I note one thing that is very special about America. The loser gives his congratulation’s to the winner and Democracy goes ahead, like in Italy - Ha Ha!
I really hope that Obama may contribute to improve the good life in the world. Another difference with Italy: in the USA people vote on one day and in the same day we can know the winner.
I am happy that Obama has won the American Presidential election because he is credible. Because during his presidency he maintained all that he promised. He is important also because he is the President that has given medical assistance to poor people. That’s all. For me it is fantastic!
The winner is Barack Obama. just as I expected. I am very happy for this victory because Obama is for Europe politically. The four years that he governed were very difficult for him because of the international crisis. Romney didn’t inspire confidence and I think he wouldn’t be able to govern. In Ohio the people gave the casting vote for the winner. The votes of Afro American and Hispanics were very important. His famous slogan when he won the first time was "Yes we can".
And so Obama won again. His ideas are good and he is young and full of energy. But this global world is very complicated. I don’t think that only one man can resolve all the problems even if he has a lot of power. The fact that almost 50% of the American people voted for Romney means that not everybody supports Obama. Now Obama has to work hard and I hope that the political system in the United States is better than ours. I hope that all the people, even the opposition, work together for a better result.
... Getting back to the story of our friend, local farmer Loris ...
Loris doesn’t have a computer or smart phone. He understands about the internet though and when he needs to purchase spare parts for his agricultural machinery on-line he gets one of his nephews to do it for him. He has digital security cameras to keep an eye on his tractors and diesel tank so it is not fear of new technology that holds him back from completely going digital. Rather, it is, for him, the feeling that the last of the old life, the memories he has of how things were in Friuli before the serious earthquake of 1976, the memories of life lived close to the stall animals and working the fields with primitive implements pulled by animals or simple Fiat tractors. A way of life secure in the shared strength of extended family working together, close to the land and its fruits. A more simple life gone already. So Loris resists moving onto the internet, putting a WiFi in his house. By keeping things in some way how they were before the digital world, he pays homage to his memories and an existence by now largely forgotten.
So it was that when I recounted to Loris what I had written in the last diary entries for October he listened intently.
He, like me, was rather taken to realise the massive accumulation of wealth that had occurred to his family in such a short period of time.
"But you are missing some facts" he told me
"First, to make the story complete you need to mention that it was the raising of silkworms that gave my family its first cash crop." Loris said
In the early part of the 20th Century Venice was a centre of silk working. The mulberry tree upon which silk worm (larvae of the bombyx mori moth) feeds had been brought to Friuli from Asia and established itself well. Agricultural fields were delineated by lines of mulberry trees and the leaves would be harvested to feed the silkworms who would eventually spin themselves a cocoon of silk. The cocoons were then sold for cash to the reeling plants around Udine where young women and girls would remove the single true silk thread from cocoons floating in hot water. This was a step-up from subsistence farming.
"Second" Loris said "You need to mention that in 1993 the Common Agricultural Policy payments began."
The Common Agricultural Policy payments gave Loris, who had taken over his father’s share of the farm in 1991 at the age of 28 years, a secure income not linked to the vagaries of production or prices.
So in the early 1990’s when Loris took over his father’s farm it was at the economic apex of small-holding agriculture in Italy. Smallholder farmers had enjoyed a transfer of economic wealth on a massive scale that had been partially, if indirectly, initially funded by the United States, debt incurred in making capital investments had been eroded away through inflation and input costs artificially reduced through subsidies. Product prices were supported by State buying and, when this got too much, finally, guaranteed CAP payments ensured an income separated from production and prices.
In an incredibly short period the feudal system of share-cropping had given way to land reform on a massive scale lubricated by a flow of money that quietened any resistance and brought rural misery into economic comfort. Mechanisation and the use of chemicals had brought a massive increase in productivity. But just as the peasants had worked for the landlords prior to the Second World War, now they effectively worked for the Italian State. Needing the affirmation of the massive rural vote, a validation that the previous landlords had never required, The Italian State ensured that Italian farmers were comfortably off. But in return they were expected to do what the Italian State required of them and so they were managed, educated and herded principally by Coldiretti the Catholic corporatist union created to bind smallholder farmers to the corporatist Italian system, in large part by ensuring that their concerns were met. It was a real two-way street. But a street of stasis where the status quo would reign, productivity stagnate and increasing costs render Italian farming always less competitive.
to be continued ...
... picking up from yesterday:
One of the good things about writing a blog is that it gives one an audience to carry around in one’s head, a kind of angel on one’s shoulder, a point of reference to whom experiences, thoughts, ideas and reflections can be related, daily, even if not actually on the blog. As someone who has a busy internal life, it offers me the chance to objectify my view of the world, relate it as if on the blog, and not bore witless those around me who really couldn’t care less about my opinions or how I see the world! In Italy, this is virtually every Italian I know as they, themselves, were born with innate perfect knowledge and applying the self-evident truth that all the world is the same (as Italy) - tutto il mondo é paese - there is nothing that I can tell them that they don’t already know. But this is a digression into an old saw. What I really wanted to say was that in the last weeks one of the things that I wanted to blog about was that at La Faula we have reached the end of constructing things. We have one small modification that we want to make to two rooms (which imbecilic planning laws layered onto bureaucratic caution and inertia have blocked already for 3 months) but that’s it. Of course, we want to keep making incremental improvements to La Faula rendering it always more beautiful and attractive as a place to stay but the making is done. Now our challenge is to mentally move from the pleasure of new things to the grind of repairing things that break and maintaining that which we already have.
New things, of course, generally, don’t break so, like a new car, there was a period at La Faula when everything was spanking and we didn’t need to worry about searching out water leaks or worry about central heating pressures. But now the complexity that is La Faula means that repairs and maintenance are a serious business. If, like Superman, one could view La Faula with x-ray vision, just the pipework, drains, electricity plant and communications system would look like an overlapping, overlaying and tangled spaghetti. So many pipes and tubes and cables run under and around those tranquil and soothing gardens of Luca that surround the house that we have reached the stage where no more excavations can be made without risking damaging existing infrastructure.
When things break it is a hassle. Making something new brings pleasure. But the challenge for us is to find satisfaction in making right those things that are consumed and broken. Some things, such as solid wooden furniture, are often more beautiful when worn. Luca’s garden becomes ever more beautiful as the plants grow and it finds its own balance and harmony. And a house, like La Faula, if handled with respect can develop character as repairs and modifications alter the planned symmetry of the moment that it was made. In fact, La Faula has been made and remade many times. I think of La Faula as an old lady to whom we should not try to re add the patina of youth. Rather, when we intervene structurally or in the house’s plant and systems we should do this in a tasteful way recognising that we cannot go back to its beginning more than a century ago.
So it was that late last week we realised that we had a big leak in the central heating system and further research identified the leak as being in the circuit on the ground floor comprising the dining room and the adjacent room with the old Friulano fogolar hearth. Properly the part of the house that we heat with our new wood-burning boiler. Now, after some bad early experiences of Italian severe lack of foresight on the part of the first lot of artisans that worked on the house, I developed the habit of building redundancy into anything I can in the house that I am involved in. If we are putting down pipes I also lay empty tubes, big one’s, just in case tomorrow we may need them. If something functions with a pump I try to ensure that some minimum function will also be available if the pump packs it in. I put in inspection boxes just in case a drain should block. And I can only recount that I am constantly faced with "No don’t do that. If there’s a problem later you can address it then. Just put in what you need." And "Why would you duplicate work" or "A tube of 70mm diameter is enough, why put one of 90mm?" etc. But I work on the principle that if it ain’t broke but it is reasonably foreseeable that it will break tomorrow make sure you have a back-up. And in this case, some years ago I had our plumber bring down from the first floor to the dining room central heating piping to which we attached a fan assisted radiator to ensure that we had heating down below even if the ground-floor circuit failed to function. At the time we did this I think that both Luca and I knew that the old pipes running under the ground-floor tiles would one day disappoint us and so today, all those years later, that work, that at the time involved breaking the wall and creating dust and dirt and inconvenience, has finally paid off!
To remake the ground floor heating circuit we will not be breaking up the floor to lay new pipework. Rather, we have decided to run copper pipes externally on the wall immediately below the ceiling beams. In this way, old lady Faula will have a few more wrinkles but those that, one day, come after us to live in La Faula will stay warm down below sure that if something goes wrong they will know it instantly and they will be able to put it right with minimum fuss. An improvement, I’d say!
Since I wrote my last diary entry, I’ve finally understood the problems with the diary menu system. Since we changed the display of the diary entries earlier on this year, quite a number of people, guests and also locals, have told me that there were problems seeing the diary entries. Being mainly preoccupied with writing the entries, a quick whiz over the menus seemed to confirm that everything was alright. But Luca, who is doing a distance-learning course on web-design, has started digging into our website and to my horror he explained the problems with the menu system as it currently is. There is a technical problem in that diary entries for the months following March of this year are not displayed in the comprehensive month/year menu. There is another problem in that the diary page initially only displays diary entries for the current month, not the last entry made. So, for example, if my last diary entry was 31 October but we are already in November and, as yet, I haven’t made my first November entry, then the diary page, confusingly, will display a blank. Finally, the various arrows created only confusion and choosing the year was otiose.
We will put this right. But it does unsettle me that amongst all the information that we are constantly processing about our little business - from how the grapes are doing, when next to bottle the wine, how bookings are going, what improvements and maintenance we should conduct this winter, a myriad of things, the information that there was a problem with part of the website was heard and understood by me but didn’t trigger the correct response which would have been to try and understand the problem. Rather, it stayed there on my radar as something registered but parked.
This problem with the diary section of the website has an analogous one with our central heating system. Last year after a long and cold wait, we finally had fitted a wonderful, efficient, wood-burning boiler. For the period of last winter that we had it, it performed stunningly: the part of the house where Luca and I live was warm and cosy. Being an Agriturismo, with many rooms and bathrooms, we have a rather complex boiler-room and the level of complexity was increased by permitting the wood-fueled boiler to access part of the general heating system to allow us to heat our rooms and Luca’s office. Now, the Agriturismo is closed in winter so at least we don’t need to worry that problems with the central heating system are leaving guests cold! But I noticed last winter that there were large swings in the pressure registered in the central heating system. Pipes would feel warm to the touch when warm water should never have been able to push into them. It was all very peculiar but there were no obvious leaks so I studied the plumbing diagram in the wood-fuel boiler instruction manual and found that our plumber had not fitted an expansion tank as required. When asked about this he said that it wasn’t strictly necessary as the volume of water in the central heating plant was small so even an increase in the water’s volume as it heated would not result in much of an increase in the internal pressure of the plant. It was all a bit strange and there seemed to be no obvious explanation for the anomalies in the central heating plant but there were no water leaks that we could see and so we finished the winter, cleaned the boiler, closed the stop-cocks and completely forgot about central heating as we sweltered through a summer that was 2°C higher than the mean!
Last week it seemed that the time to light the wood-fuel boiler had arrived. Although not so cold, we’ve had some rain so a wood fire is just the thing to keep one feeling cosy. I opened the stop-cocks to the central heating system, fired-up the boiler with good dry timber and sat back to enjoy the experience! But I couldn’t enjoy the experience. The boiler worked fine but the pressure of the central heating system was too low and stayed low, there were large pressure swings and hot water would force its way back into radiators that should have been full of cold water. And worse, the pressure pump that ensures that everyone gets good showers in the summer, even when the house is full, would suddenly kick-in when no water should have been running! For sure there was something wrong but the strange thing was that there were no obvious leaks in the house. More calls followed to our harried trusty-plumber. Now, if you say that your dining room is awash with water and you could traverse it with a dinghy a plumber, any plumber, will assume that you have a plumbing problem and respond with alacrity. But if you disturb him or her bent double behind pipework trying to get an oversized wrench around a rusty and locked pipe, and you whine that there is not actually anything concrete like water spurting Niagara-like from a broken pipe but you just have a feeling based on the pressure differentials between when the central heating plant is hot and cold and, well, some pipes get warm when they should be cold, then the plumber will conclude that you are likely to be a hallucinating neurotic and will invent some story, any story, to reassure you that the problem is a minor one, completely normal, and easily remedied by the most simple of morons.
"Have you checked the pressure of the expansion tanks in the principal central heating circuit?" asked the plumber
"Actually, no" I replied "Should I have?"
"Certainly" said the plumber. The air behind the membrane should be at 1.5 bar. And you need to pump them up occasionally"
"You do? Really" I said wondering why you would need to pump up the air cushion in the expansion tanks if the air couldn’t go anywhere being closed inside the cushion membrane.
"Certainly" said the plumber. "And the membranes break. Yes, they break often."
"Oh" I said quite taken aback. Nobody had ever told me that I had to regularly take the pressure of the expansion tank membranes. It seemed that it was all my fault. And they might even be broken and thus not doing the job and who knew what damage this could have provoked, all because I hadn’t kept those expansion tanks maintained!
"Don’t you worry" said the plumber. "Pump-up the tanks and I’m sure that you will find that all the problems solve themselves."
"And take a valium and don’t call me again with spurious concerns" I thought I heard the plumber say but maybe I just imagined it.
Following the plumber’s advice, Luca and I nearly wrecked our backs dragging down the air compressor from the workshop. Little air-compressor wheels don’t run well over coarse gravel put down to resist the passage of tractors. As the plumber had promised, I found that the expansion tanks were without pressure and so I brought them up to 1.5 bar, precisely, as I had been instructed to do. But I had no sooner screwed the plastic cap back on the valves (there are two tanks) but I saw that the plant pressure had dropped back down again to almost nothing. Then I knew, without a doubt, that we had a leak in the central heating system somewhere in the house and it was a big one.
to be continued ......
p.s. writing this was a pleasure on my new Samsung Chromebook sitting in our cosy kitchen listening to the rain driving down on the last of the leaves still appended to the grape vines straddling the pergola outside. It did take me a bit longer because in getting used to the spell-checker I did find that it has a tendency to deal with mis-spellings by eliminating whole sentences but by now I know that no sentence of mine is so good that it is an irreplaceable jewel and so, consequently, a sentence lost is not a sentence mourned!
Continued from 29 October....
But there was a difference. Loris’s father and uncles had never driven any kind of motorised vehicle. Ploughs were pulled by oxen and horses were used to pull the carts. So at the age of 12 Loris became the family tractor driver. And not only. Sewing of seeds had been done with manual seed drills. With the tractors came mechanised seed drills. And with the seeds came fertilisers, pesticides and fungicides, all things that Loris’s father and uncles had never used in quantity. So Loris was responsible for mixing-up quantities of chemicals, ignorant of any risks, often with his bare hands. The burgeoning crops brought cash. And the expenditure of that cash was funnelled by Coldiretti, the Catholic Farmers Union, with its roots in each parish, representing and controlling the farmers, effectuating the implementation of Government agricultural policy, the quid pro quo being the growth and financial security of farmers, but particularly smallholders.
From the time that Loris entered into agriculture on his family’s farm all he ever knew was growth, comfort, new tractors and farm implements.
By the time that I arrived in Ravosa in 1997 the unified family farm had been divided amongst the three brothers. Whereas, following the Second World War, they had been obliged to operate collectively to have a single viable farm, by the early 1990’s their farm had reached the size where it effectively could be divided into three viable farms. Each brother took his share of the fields and woods and they continued to share the machinery. Loris remained the principal tractor driver but over time his father and uncles had also become used to tractors and modern agricultural practices.
So it was that when Loris’s father granted him effective ownership of the farm, as any young farmer would, he surveyed his machinery and decided what he needed to change and buy to increase the farm’s productivity. And he was able, in a brief number of years, to buy two large tractors, two trailers, a modern seed drill, plough, grinder of cut maize stalks and various other farm implements; all without going into debt.
And he lived comfortably in a large three-story house, with barn, workshop, and cow stall that his father and uncles had built with help from stonemason relatives, utilising a 100% zero interest lone funded by the Italian State. As those were times of inflation the loan soon dwindled to irrelevance. In one generation - in fact, in the period of 40 years - Loris’s family had moved from the misery of abject poverty to being landholders with significant capital and cash flow!
to be continued....
Continued from 24 October....
While Loris’s father and uncles were in Switzerland working, Italy was receiving Marshall Fund aid from the United States. Italian emigrants from all over the world sent remittances home to their families. And Italy operated an extremely loose monetary policy. Reconstruction, a massive surplus of labour (young men) after the Second World War, industrialisation, increasing productivity on the land (through land reform, mechanisation and the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides), rapidly reducing infant mortality and increases in health, the formation of the first economic ’communities’, forerunners to the European Common Market, all lead Italy into a period of strong growth during the 1950’s and 1960’s.
At the end of the Second World War, Italy was still a predominantly rural society, but with most peasants not owning their own land. As infant mortality dropped and life expectancy rose the economic structure of rural Italy proved unable to support the growing population so young men, principally, but also young women, emigrated either to the large industrial cities of Torino and Milano or overseas. In this world share-cropping for the major landowners ceased to be an option in a democratic society so the Democratic Christian Party undertook far-reaching land reforms which had the effect of placing the land in the ownership of those that worked it. Resistance to these reforms from the major landowners was muted as the demise of share-cropping had already largely rendered their continued ownership of their estates economically untenable.
So it was that when Loris’s father and uncles returned from Switzerland, they brought with them a pile of money; the first real cash that they or ancestors had ever accumulated. The Italian Parliament, at that point reflecting the predominantly rural nature of the society, conservative, catholic and most likely voting for the Democratic Christian Party assisted small-holding farmers to expand, increase the size of their stalls, buy livestock, tractors, even to build houses on zero-interest mortgages. The strong inflation of the time relieved farmers (and not only farmers) of the burden of debt incurred to improve and add to their capital stock.
It was possible to start with nothing, emigrate and accumulate some capital, and return and create an economically viable small farm with latest model Fiat tractor, a new stall paid for by the state, livestock to populate the stall and construct a large house for each individual family until that time living communally in the old farmhouse. And in Friuli following the earthquake of 1976 the state also paid for an inside toilet!
Loris left school when he was 14 years old to work with his father and uncles. As was common, family members pooled their resources and farmed in common. This enabled economies of scale and higher productivity from mechanisation than would have been the case if every nuclear family had farmed alone. It also reflected the communal life lived by rural communities up until that time.
to be continued ....
The photo of the day is of our friend Loris, a cereals farmer who lives in Ravosa. The story of Loris’s new tractor is a story of what happens when a country, over time, becomes poorer.
Within the scope of human memory, Loris’s family have always lived in Ravosa. They believe that for most of that time their ancestors were dirt-poor subsistence farmers. They have good reasons for that belief as Loris’s father and uncles had direct experience of grinding poverty in their youth. Their ancestors might have been serfs - certainly they did not own their own farmland. The end of the Second World War, however, gave them the possibility to emigrate and participate in the rapid economic growth enjoyed by the non-Soviet Block countries of Western Europe in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Loris’s father and uncles and others from their hamlet emigrated to Switzerland where they worked road-building. The work was manual and hard graft, but they were treated fairly, they saw another world, and, most importantly, what they earned was a small fortune in Italy.
to be continued ....
I called Luca and said that he was required by at La Faula. He sighed. The Italian State is an irresistible force. It pushes one whether one likes it or not. Whether Luca and I were inconvenienced or not was irrelevant. The job was being done, the visit was in motion and we had to bend ourselves to the exigencies and logic of the Carabiniere.
During the wait for Luca’s arrival the questioning began and the answers carefully noted. How many tables are their in the dining room (we counted them together)? What products do you prepare for the guests? Pesto, tomato sauce, jams and marmalades. The kitchen was inspected then the guest rooms.
"That gun there"? I looked to Lucas’ great-grandfather’s shotgun which I had mounted over a door in the lounge. I felt a chill. I wondered if the gun had been declared to the Carabiniere as the law required. Keeping an unregistered weapon at home is a serious offence.
"It is inoperable" I replied "I have removed the hammers"
The Commandant walked underneath the gun. It was true. I had removed the hammers and this was plain to see. Who would want an operable fire-arm in their house?
"Hmm" was the reply. And this lounge here. Is it for the use of all the guests or just for those with the bedroom running off it?"
I asked myself what possible use this information could be of to the Carabiniere.
"No, this lounge forms part of a Family Suite, it is only for the use of those staying in the Family Rooms on the top floor. There is a cord at the bottom of the stairs to limit access." I replied
We went through the rooms from the front to the back eventually exiting from the door at the rear of the house. As we returned to the dining room I heard the van with Luca coming up the drive.
"Where do you stay?" said the Commandant as we stood in front of the Faula entrance door. But he already knew because there was only the part of the house above the dining room that we had not visited.
"Above here" I replied. There is also a guest-room on this side of the house.
"And above there is the Meeting Room" he said.
He had understood the layout of the house and had confirmed to himself that it conformed to the map attached to the licence.
Luca stopped and exited the van. I feared that he might launch an attack at the Carabiniere himself and knowing that we shouldn’t test their patience any more I explained briefly who they were and told Luca that I had complained enough for both him and myself so he just needed to be cooperative!
The Carabiniere introduced themselves again and told Luca what they wanted. We, the Carabiniere and myself then returned to the dining room and Luca soon joined us with a files of plastic sleeves containing numerous papers.
After going through the papers relating to Maritza, the cleaning lady the Commandant removed a stapled sheaf of papers from his pile.
"Here is your request under the Rural Development Plan of 2007 for €423 to pay for Organic Certification of the vineyard." the Commandant said.
"It says here you have 4 milking cows."
"No" I replied. "We never had milking cows. We have only had beef cattle for butchering."
"Well, why did you sign then that you had milking cows?" said the Commandant.
"Look" I said. "You know full well that individual farmers are unable to complete any paperwork as the modules, by law, may only be compiled by the relevant farmers union. The Farmers Union calls you up at the last minute, you rush down with all the other farmers, everyone signs, no-one reads. It’s a typical Italian story" I said
"Look" I continued. "I’m a lawyer. I worked in the City of London for nine years. I speak and read Italian. Do you think I understand anything regarding how things work here. And more to the point: do you?"
We stared at each other. I turned to Luca. "Fine" I said. "Fine. That’s it. From now on we don’t sign anything unless we have read and understood it. Let’s see how this is taken when we hold-up the line at the farmers union!"
The Commandant continued compiling his forms. When he had finished it was time to visit the outside of the farm and view the Agricultural structures, machinery and, of course, the beef cattle. The morning was sunny and warm and it was intrinsically pleasurable walking around the farm-yard. We pointed out the barn, the machinery, the vineyards. Everything was noted but the tension dissolved in the morning sun and we chatted as we walked. When we got to the hay-bale feeder of course the cows weren’t there. Having already eaten, they were sunning themselves at the end of the field.
"Get some maize flour and call the cows" I said to Luca
The Carabiniere walked towards the hay-bale feeder not seeing the electric fence wire transparent in the sun. The electric fence controller is right there, next to the hay-bale feeder. It is the very best place to get the best electric shock. I suddenly had the image of him getting shocked and his pistol discharging.
"Be careful!" I ordered. There is an electric fence right in front of you!"
He stopped and suddenly focussed on the thin stands of aluminium wire that were only centimetres from his body.
I guessed that where he came from there were no electric fences and I had a feeling that something rather unpleasant had only just been averted.
Luca entered the cow paddock with a bucket of maize flour. He disappeared from view by we heard in the distance his "chow, chow, chow" as he called the cows to feed. Eventually he returned with the cows behind him. But when they saw the Carabiniere watching them they stopped warily. "Chow, chow, chow" went Luca but something about the routine was strange and disquietening to the cows and they came very slowly to the feeder.
"Three cows" I said. "There they are."
The Commandant had taken a call on his telephone and had turned away from us as he spoke.
"Commandante" said the other Carabiniere. "The cows are here".
The Commandant turned, finished his conversation, counted the cows and we carried on to the vegetable garden.
"So what do you grow here" said the Commandant.
"Well, in spring and early summer we have rocket and lettuce. Then the zucchini start producing. We have basil for the pesto, gherkins and cucumbers, potatoes, Swiss-Chard and of course you can see the egg-plants and tomatoes.
"Of course the tomatoes and eggplants don’t grow as in the South of Italy, but this summer was hot so we had a good crop of vegetables. It was just that bit too dry so we had to water every evening"
We then turned to discussing the various merits of vegetables grown in the South of Italy compared to the North which has a cooler climate and shorter growing season. This inexorably lead to wine and the developments in wine producing in Calabria and Puglia. And I realised that the census was over.
Now, I could finish this diary entry, as I had intended by linking to some videos - very disturbing videos - that have appeared in the websites of National Newspapers where the police and Carabiniere have been photographed and filmed exercising their power in a disturbing way. But that would give the wrong impression because the two Carabiniere who undertook the census at La Faula were courteous and correct. They did their job properly without officiousness.
The real problem is that after the visit we felt invaded and the idea that all those aspects of La Faula that are ours, that we have created, those things that make La Faula special to us should be recorded, classified and catalogued on a national police database left us feeling violated.
The purpose of the visit was to give the police authorities a picture of every business that has received EU subsidies at one time or another. That much we know because the creation of the new Carabiniere Command with this responsibility is well known. But there are already other Military Commands with the same role such as that of the Guardia di Finanza. And the receipt of EU funds by farms in Friuli is controlled and regulated by the Friuli Regional Body Responsible for the Development of Agriculture.
It is correct that those who receive EU monies should be held to account for them. But in a typical Italian way - the way of incompetence and waste - instead of streamlining the process the State responds by layering another level of bureaucracy above those existing. And every additional layer requires more intrinsic powers so the Regional Inspectors are deemed to be inadequate,and the Guardia di Finanza is not enough so a new command of the Carabiniere is created and in this way Mario Monti, dissembler and manipulator, can convince the Germans that their money, the money they work for, will be well spent in Italy!
PostScript: Fully one-half of the Italian Regional Governmental administrations are under investigation for corruption and misuse of public money and one-half of Regional Governments are under investigation for instances of buying votes from organised crime.
After perusing my identity card, making sure that it was me and that it had not expired the Commandant removed a pile of papers from his satchel. From the papers he removed the latest declaration itemizing our activities and assets submitted by the Farmer’s Union but signed by Luca. From his satchel he then removed a sheaf of preprinted pages that were clearly identifiable as a facsimile of a computer screen, the page broken down into many fields under different headings. It was to be a census and the information would then be loaded onto a national database and the State would know all about us because it had been to La Faula to see and verify for itself!
’Could I have all your licences’ asked the Commandant.
’Well there you have it’ I replied. ’Berlusconi, the elected Prime Minister was turfed out on the pretext that it would take the un-elected Monti to liberalize Italy. But now the first thing that you are going to check is that we have all the correct licenses and that they are up-to-date’
’That’s right’ replied the Commandant. ’And I also need your Certificate of Registration with the Chamber of Commerce’.
I stared at the two Carabiniere. ’But you know, I don’t know where all this stuff is. It’s my partner Luca who deals with the Bureaucracy and he is away from La Faula right now.’
The Commandant expressed his displeasure at this news.
I could feel my indignation rising. ’What do you expect, that someone who knows where all the myriad and numerous forms and papers are filed should always be present at La Faula to ensure that every organ of the State that turns up doesn’t have to lose time?
’See if you can contact him and find out where the information is’ said the Commandant. ’Lets finish this in one go. It’s better!’
Of course the Commandant was right. It was better to get the whole thing over and done with straight away so I called Luca, explained the situation and he told me to go into the filing cabinet and open the middle drawer - or was that the draw two-thirds of the way up - and there, probably in the first set of hanging folders - or maybe towards the middle - I should find some plastic sleeves with the information the Carabiniere needed.
I loaded up with the plastic file-sleeves thinking that Luca would probably kill me if I had got the wrong one’s and had put everything out of order. But the Commandant had done this before and he knew what he was looking for so I pushed the pile towards him and let it to him to leaf through and find what he wanted. While he was doing this the possibility of a wonderful photo presented itself: the Commandant resplendent in his uniform sitting before piles of files, the other Carabiniere to the Commandant’s side, back to the wall, black pistol much in evidence. It would be a compact picture that would say it all.
’Look’ I said pleasantly. I wonder if I could take a photo of you for my diary. You know, something for the blog’
This was the only point that the Carabiniere turned nasty. ’No photos and remember that if I want to I can go through this place with a fine-tooth comb and fine you for every infraction I find’
The point was taken. Pity though, a great photo was missed and I had to content myself by slipping out later and photographing the Carabiniere car outside the house.
Having satisfied himself with the paperwork the Commandant started the questioning. What are your activities here, what is your principle agricultural activity, how many sleeping places have you in the Agriturismo, what services do you offer, what food products do you make and serve? The questions went on and on. And, of course, he already knew the answers because he had read them in the declarations that we had made over time and which he had a copy of. Just a little test!
’So who works for you?’ said the Commandant. ’Well’, I said ’we only have one employee and she is the cleaning lady. But she doesn’t work now because the Agriturismo is closed for the winter. We only have a seasonal licence’ I emphasised. ’Please bring me her contract and the latest copy of her pay-slip’ requested the Commandant and my heart sank as I knew this would require another call to Luca.
’I’ll have to call Luca again’ I said to the Commandant.
’You might as well suggest that he returns’ replied the Commandant. He is the Legal Representative of La Faula so it is better if he is here’
to be continued ......
Before continuing with the story of the visit of the Carabiniere to La Faula I wanted to note that today is a very important day for Italy. The link below is to a video interview posted in the FT website today where the Unicredit Bank Chief Economist explains that Italy’s fate looks brighter than Spain’s.
But today is not important to Italy for this reason. Rather we are in the moment when Italy has slid into the abyss. This is the moment when Italy’s economy begins to track that of Greece. But nobody feels it. Italy is free-falling. It is no longer a slow-motion train wreck but a plummeting, flailing, kinetic disaster. That Italy has numerous uncovered and unfunded liabilities seems certain given the steady stream of those that come to light at the point at which they become critical. The Monti government, believing that the black economy amounted to 18% of GDP and believing that an international rescue would oblige it to cut existing pensions and reduce the civil service by laying people off, adopted the undeclared strategy of making cosmetic reforms while helping itself to the undeclared income that it thought was there for the taking if just enough force and intimidation was applied.
That the Italian State has not found the 18% of undeclared GDP is not in doubt. That it has mortally wounded the productive (private) sector by applying usurious tax rates is no longer in doubt. The private sector is inexorably shrinking as businesses fail or close. Today, one of the large unions threatened a general strike. But a General Strike, in Italy, is by now an irrelevance. There is nothing to strike against. The Monti government got there first and fatally wounded the capitalists. There is nothing to be gained by private sector employees striking against their private sector bosses. The productive capacity from which workers are paid has been exhausted because the Italian State, using the force at its disposal, previously stole and consumed the fruits of productive labour.
The Monti Government, representing the interests of pensioners and state employees, is the enemy of labour and of capital. Probably never in the history of mankind have the interests of capital and labour been so closely aligned as they are now in Italy!
Returning to the story of the Carabiniere ...
I went ahead of the Carabiniere and into the house. Passing into the dining room I stopped and by my presence blocked them in the doorway to the room. The two Carabiniere eyed me up and I kept my level gaze back. When I was a law student studying Constitutional Law in New Zealand I enjoyed the facts of old cases relating to the power of soldiers of the King (these were old cases) to enter private property. The cases established that an Englishman’s home really is his castle and the fact that these cases arrived before the King’s own judges was testament to the strength of conviction and courage of the plaintiffs and their belief in a right and wrong beyond that created by the justification of raw power and superior force. Now I was as one of these plaintiffs but alone. In Italy the Soldiers of the State (for the Carabiniere are soldiers and the Carabiniere - Carbiners - are a part of the military) have unlimited powers of entry in the exercise of their functions in property which while private is also used for commercial purposes.
But this was my stand. It was a matter of right and wrong. The Italian State is in the wrong in the way that it treats the private sector. The private sector moans and complains but can effectively do nothing. A business owner can hardly go on strike to protest State oppression! But, as a matter of principle a stand had to be made, even if isolated and unwitnessed. And I made it. And the Carabiniere didn’t know what to do.
I wasn’t trying to block them because I had something to hide. I wasn’t denying that they had the right under Italian law to be there. But I claimed against them that it was wrong. Plain wrong. Not that it was unfair or oppressive. But that they were in the wrong and so had no moral justification to be there. That was a tricky one.
So the Commandant of the Carabiniere explained to me that they, themselves, could think of many other things to do other than what they had come for. But he explained to me that the Monti Government had come to an agreement with the military service of the Carabiniere to create a new command responsible for controlling all businesses that receive European Union assistance and so as we had in past years received €423 (that is four hundred and twenty three Euros) he was at La Faula to verify the truth of everything that we had declared in our application. He said to me that he had to do it and if I didn’t like it I could write my letter of complaint to Monti.
At this point I had to back down. My stand had been made but to resist further would have escalated things to another level. ’I suppose you want my identity card’ I said. ’Yes’ was the reply so I invited the officers to come in and sit down and handed over my identity card. After my brief moment of ’Free La Faula’ I was again being managed by the Italian State. Only the Commandant sat down. The other Carabiniere remained on his feet, always with his back to the wall. The concept of civil policing by consent clearly never got to Italy! By now everything was pretty relaxed. The Commandant, rather cunningly, had adopted a kind of resigned-just-doing-my-job-and following-orders persona so it was quite hard to maintain the outrage on my part.
’Look’ I said. The Italian State is destroying this country and, in the final analysis, it’s you that are doing it. You are, in reality, the force of the State’.
’Following orders does not excuse you from moral culpability. You are the force that Monti exercises.’
Here I have to say that I was extremely fortunate that both Carabiniere were from the South of Italy. When one comes from the South of Italy one knows the reality of the rot that is Italy and that the way power is exercised can be used to engender respect or fear, cooperation or obstinance. These Carabiniere, through their manners, and calm and patience, and respectful acknowledgement of my position, although neither agreeing or disagreeing with it, were gaining my willing cooperation. Our experience of inspections by Friulani officials has been the opposite. Self-righteous, rigid, martinets revelling in their power and authority. Things would have proceeded rather differently if the officers had been Friulani.
to be continued .....
So, here we were, just a little famous for having put Ravosa on the map, even if just for a few short minutes, on national TV. We had been chosen because within the Friuli region we are well know as producers of organic grapes and the Agriturismo is recognised as being of benefit to the Friuli Region. For this reason, two years ago we won a Gold Enterprise Award from the Chamber of Commerce.
Our activities are regulated by the Friuli Regional Department of Agriculture, ERSA, the Regional body for the development of agriculture, The Province of Udine Health Authority, the Udine Chamber of Commerce (which in Italy is a para-State entity), and the Povoletto Council which is responsible for issuing our licences. We are regularly inspected by the Guardia di Finanza Finance Police, the Nucleo Antisofisticazione of the Carabiniere responsible for Public Health matters, the ERSA Regional Inspectorate of Agriturismi, the Inspectorate for the Repression of Fraud in Agriculture and the local Health Department. On occasion, the local Council has conducted a walk-through just to make sure that we were respecting our licence terms.
Normally, inspections are carried out by officials in plane clothes. In theory this is to avoid disturbing the operation of the business but in practice it makes their activities more discreet and less obvious to the general public. So, you can imagine how surprised I was to see the Carabiniere car pull up outside La Faula. I quickly ran through my mind whether we had any problems or difficulties that could have prompted the visit. No, everything seemed in order, the summer had been a happy one for all. I was perplexed. And then concerned when I saw that the Officer exiting from the drivers side had rank and I was even more concerned when he opened the rear door and removed a briefcase. When the official briefcase appears the visit is not going to be a short one!
Lord Edward Coke (1552-1634) made the famous declaration "A man’s home is his castle – for where shall he be safe if it not be in his house?". This declaration was a direct challenge to the power of the King at the time, Charles I. Edward Coke is taught today in the law schools of common law countries. He is taught because he established, in a clear and unequivocal way, that the power of the ruler is not unlimited and is subject to other’s rights and customary restrictions. The doctrine that an Englishman’s home is his castle found its way into the Fourth Amendment to the American Constitution. In countries all over the world the right of the State, through its agents, to enter on private property is circumscribed and proportionate to the public good to be protected. But not in Italy.
In Italy, seed of 19th Century Nationalism, progenitor, incubator and developer of Fascism, Statism (statalismo), Corporatism (corporatismo), pyramidal-Hierarchy (gararchia) and Gerontocracy, private property must give way to the exigencies of the Italian State. The right of the State to inspect bears no relation to the public good to be protected. When this illiberal and authoritarian mix is leavened with the duplication, incompetence and inefficiency of the Italian public administration, the Italian owner of a private business normally grits his teeth and waits for the experience to be over and hoping to avoid the worst behaves like a lick-spittle.
I can’t do this. We are all human beings and we all have the right to be treated by those in authority in a manner respectful of the fact that we are carrying on our lawful activities. The Italian State, of course, must ensure that the legitimate public interest in private activity is safeguarded but it goes beyond that and demands that Italian businesses conform to the dysfunctional and twisted logic of Italian laws and administration. Business, in the Italian system, is a privilege, not to make a profit but to make a living - the rest is claimed by the State to pay pensioners and the public administration (i.e. the State itself).
So it was that I approached the Carabiniere and asked him what he wanted. He cleared his throat and introduced himself as the Commandant of the local Carabiniere Station. By this time the other Carabiniere had exited the car. I saw that he too held rank. I noted that both were armed.
’We are not here for an inspection’ said the Commandant, in a weary way. ’It’s more of a verification.’
’What do you think we are’ I said. ’Some kind of Railway Station where the Italian State in its many guises is continuously passing through?’ ’Do you think this is normal’?
There was no reply and, there was a heavy silence. I brought them inside.
(to be continued!)
Well, it’s 16.34 on Saturday afternoon and the Rai 2 programme ’Sereno Variabile’ will begin at 17.05 looking at various localities in Friuli. Luca feigns indifference, even hinting at shyness,but I think that we are all hoping that La Faula makes it into the final programme and is not left on the editing suite floor in favour of more interesting places! It is strange. When the film crew arrived the first day they were in eight persons. The support from the Friuli Region Tourist board numbered three including their own official photographer. Rai, the State Broadcaster, is this year in a €129 million loss. The Friuli Region pays its counsellors the second highest stipend in Italy after Sicily which is really saying something. The many quangos and entities under the control of the Friuli Regional Government are divided-up by the political parties like so much spoil.
Louis Theroux, in making his BBC documentaries, has visited and filmed much more challenging and interesting places than La Faula with half the crew. When he stayed at the Wild Horse Brothel this was easily verified because among the myriad mirrors it was possible to see the cameraman, who was alone. When Theroux was arranging to meet and film Michael Jackson’s father the intermediary insisted that he couldn’t take such a minimalist camera to the interview - it wouldn’t seem serious. Theroux was reduced to saying lamely that it was broadcast quality. And if I understood the credits correctly the director on that documentary was also the cameraman.
But, when push comes to shove, and Rai, the State Broadcaster has called to visit, not to see if the licence fee has been paid (in fact the Finance Police do this!) but to film the fruit of one’s labours, and that old fossil of a presenter, Osvaldo Bevilacqua, charming and friendly, but who has been presenting the programme since 1977, has sent a wave of excitement around the people of Ravosa with time to be interested in such things, well, when that time comes one does want to see La Faula making it to the national Italian TV. Corrupted so easily! ... Got to go!!
Well, maybe you were wondering if we managed to feature in the programme - or maybe not? The fact is that our face has been saved in front of those in the village who knew about the up-coming broadcast. Probably for the first time ever the village of Ravosa appeared on a map on national Italian television. It even had those little dots marching to and from it as they do to show movement on a map. There was a good section on La Faula, although I don’t think that it was mentioned by name. Luca did a long interview on organic wine and there were wonderful and lingering shots of the harvest, the Faula hill and vineyards and the inside of the dining room (see the photos of today). Giovanni, a friend who was sitting with us said: ’You see. La Faula is a place that you can put on television’ and it’s true. Sometimes Luca and I feel that other parts of Italy such as Umbria, Tuscany, Sicily, for example, are so much more interesting. But objectively viewed, Friuli and La Faula looked beautiful. At a moment like this it would be snarky to dwell on the fact that the director stayed during his time in Friuli in probably the most expensive accommodation available with the rest of the crew staying in something only a little less. I guess that as we were already paying for it, we should be happy that this time, unlike most times in Italy, we got something back!
Now you don’t just need to take my word for it. Click on the link below and move the progress bar knob forward to minute 26 to see Luca and La Faula!
Well, there I was last Sunday. Feeling great and enjoying the relative freedom of the closure of the Agriturismo, I started the day with a cycle stopping-off at Bin-Bar and the Trattoria Ai Cons for a cappuccino. Then Luca and I removed the plastic and shading from the greenhouse tunnel to let the last tomatoes ripen. Everything folded away, after a quick shower, I went with my friend Loris high-up in the hills between Italy and Slovenia to collect a long-outstanding debt for hay he had provided to a farmer who keeps goats and sheep and makes a wonderful pecorino cheese. Unfortunately, this taciturn but not unfriendly agriculturalist, is a reluctant payer so Loris has to spend hours mooching around before the debtor, realising that Loris isn’t going away, relents and coughs-up a portion of the money owed.
To help Loris pass the time, on this occasion he invited me to come with him. Now, it’s not such a bad job as it might seem as the sheep/goat farmer has a little bar where he with his wife, son and daughter sell ice-chilled beer on the tap. It’s a nice location high-up in the wooded Julian pre-Alps, so if one ignores he slightly strange feeling of being involved in a game of attrition it is possible to pass a pleasant Sunday afternoon there.
The problem was that as I got out of the car I felt a click in my lower back and the muscles all went tight. From time to time I have suffered lower back pain. It’s unpleasant but it normally only lasts for a week so hobbling up to the bar I pulled my weight onto my elbows and enjoyed an icy Moretti beer, one of my favourites!
At the beginning the farmer/debtor greeted Loris in a distant way but then engaged himself in conversation with other guests of the bar who also seemed to be personal friends. Loris and I passed time making conversation with the daughter and son. Everybody was pleasant but in the air I could feel the disappointment and lack of enthusiasm for Loris’ presence. It was one of those things. Nobody liked the situation but two years had passed since the hay had been given and Loris wasn’t going to let the debt go uncollected. The empty spaces in the conversation got bigger and bigger. I must admit, I just drank more beer and felt increasingly like a tourist who, leaving the beaten path, had intruded by accident on some foreign settling of accounts the exact details of which could neither be completely understood nor comprehended.
Eventually the farmer came over and Loris offered him a drink in his own bar. Having established that the encounter was to be friendly and understated, the farmer politely refused the drink and offered to show Loris his new tractor. Loris accepted and he and the farmer departed by foot, striding like farmers do, while I rather pathetically shuffled along behind. All I lacked to give full flavour to my hunched-up self was a good sniffle!
What then followed was that I - and Loris - felt that, leaving the beaten path- we had happened upon something from another world, the significance and import of which we couldn’t understand. The farmer proceeded first to show us his brand new Claas tractor. It was big, and had a front-loader attachment on the front to lift and transport hay bales. And from there we climbed a small road and arrived in front of a barn where an enormous machine was hot-air drying enormous round hay bales in an open-sided structure so that the whole area around the machine was hot. It defied belief that such a machine could be economic to run. It must cost so much to blow-dry the hay bales with hot air - in an open-sided structure - that it would have been cheaper to ship Mars bars directly from the United Kingdom to feed the goats and have them delivered directly by helicopter.
I was so taken by the whole thing that I forgot my sore back, the fact that I was supposed to be playing second string to Loris, and I launched in with a whole range of questions. The machine was so big that I even stepped inside it to see through the round quartz-chrystal peep-hole into the heart of the burner. As I looked into the fiery furnace I thought about our pathetic efforts to save energy at La Faula and our energy bills and I knew that I was faced with something completely different.
By now the farmer was rather enthused by my interest. But I knew that Loris was wondering how it could be that someone who could afford to air-dry his own hay bails could not or would not pay for those he had purchased. ’Not only can I heat the air using this diesel operated furnace’ said the farmer, ’But I can heat the air using boiling water through the integral heat-exchanger run off the wood-chip boiler down there’ He pointed to a pair of containers near the new tractor.
’What’ I said. ’You also have an industrial wood-chip boiler?’
’Yes, come and see’ the farmer replied.
We walked down the slope and as we got near the containers I saw that they weren’t containers at all but two specific modules attached to which was a plaque stating that it had been funded by the Friuli Rural Development Programme itself funded by the EU. The farmer clicked a button and one complete side of the module lifted-up and open revealing a massive wholly-automated wood-chip boiler with integrated hopper and feeder. I was flabbergasted and enthusiastic as machinery interests me and I always love the opportunity to get up close to something that whirrs and clicks and moves by itself. I was taken by the touch-screen control and the sheer size of the firebox.
I was impressed but I did notice the absence of a hopper to store the wood-chips. And where were they dried, I wondered. ’Where do you get the wood-chips from?’ I asked.
’Ahhh, said the farmer, I get them from the branches left over after the lumber-jacks have been cutting forests in the vicinity. I wait until they have been down a year and then I collect them and grind them up. I’ve got a very large wood-chipper’
This I didn’t doubt. It stood to reason that if the Regional Government had funded a wood-chip furnace it would have funded at the very least the wood-chipper, if not some forest to feed it!
But he went on ’Yes, when I build the eight new bedrooms in the house for the Agriturismo I will use this to heat it.’
’Eight new bedrooms!’ I replied
’Yes’ he said ’I’ve got the project and application ready. I’m just waiting for the next round of grants being awarded.’
Nothing else remained to be said by that point. Loris and I were dumbstruck at the public expenditure on display within this 10 square meters of this tiny farm. What followed then was a brisk tour of the new stalls where the goats and sheep were housed. We gazed aghast through the large glass feature-wall of the dairy where shiny stainless steel vats and equipment, all of it new, gleamed. We admired the control boxes connected to the 19Kw producing photovoltaic panels on the roof of the barn. We saw the brand-new trailer for dispersing manure, but no manure had touched it yet. We even saw the Indian worker who was feeding the goats and sheep.
We returned to the bar at the front of the house, and I noticed that half of the house had recently been done-up in tasteful rustic stile. I guessed that the other half was waiting for the bedrooms funding. I didn’t know how to make sense of all this. And I still don’t. But in this tiny farm, which would have once been barely removed from being at a subsistence level there was, without a doubt, more than €1 million of public investment. And I wondered what I hadn’t seen.
I drank another beer. The day was hot, my back had come back to haunt me twice as bad, and I had that feeling once has almost continuously in Italy that so much is inexplicable and unfathomable according to one’s normal understandings of how things work. And the truly terrible thing is that this applies not just to things that happen somewhere else in Italy that one reads about on news websites. This applied to things that one can touch and feel! How could this guy possibly have received so much from the Region of Friuli Venezia Giulia? I’ll never know. I’ll never be able to understand it even though we, Luca and I, in the exact same sector and governed by the exact same rules.
The afternoon had worn on and was tiring. I drank some more beer but my back didn’t let-up. There was silence. The other guests had gone and the brother and sister, I should have said previously that they must have been in their 20’s were sitting, passing time lethargically, with a friend. The silence filled the space and Loris decided that it was time to make his move.
’Ahh, I think that it’s time to go’ he said ’Do you think that you can, umm, ahh ...’ he trailed off. It was the moment of truth but I felt like I had passed an hour in the hay-bale drier. I felt brittle and crackly and irritated by the fact of the afternoon having taken on an unreal quality. On one side of the scales Loris’s right to be paid a very small sum of money. On the other side this mass of shiny newness, unjustified on any economic grounds, showered by unfathomable means on this tiny, uneconomic farm high-up in the Friuli pre-Alps somewhere near the Slovenian border.
The silenced ballooned again into the space. ’Yes, yes’ it was the daughter. ’Come, come with me’ she said and Loris disappeared with her into the house. I made small talk with the farmer about his dog, an ageing German Shepherd. I liked the dog and I liked how the farmer described how he had rescued it after it had been caged and ill-treated when you and how the dog sometimes still cowered at brisk and unexpected movements. Talking about the dog and watching him sleep, trustingly, at the feet of the farmer, his master, took me away from my back.
Loris returned and we left. And as we drove away we asked ourselves if we live in the same country and experienced the same reality as other people. We asked ourselves if the same economic rules applied to us as to other people on this peninsular. Or were we just particularly stupid and ignorant of the big secret that we don’t know, but that others do, that can release a person from the normal rules of making a business pay without going bust. It’s all very Italian. Maybe Loris is not very Italian. Because he doesn’t know the secret. And neither do Luca and myself.
To finish the story, Loris and I dropped-in on our friend Walter, who with his wife and daughter runs the Agriturismo Ai Farris about a kilometer from La Faula. Walter and his wife, when she gets out of the kitchen, are robust and good company and the daughter is intelligent and welcoming. It was early evening. There were some hanger-ons from a christening lunch and the dinner crowd hadn’t arrived so Loris and I sat with Walter, ate some sliced meats made with donkey-meat, Walter’s speciality, and drank some good cold beer and talked about Italy. Of course, we didn’t talk about the little farm just over the hills. In Italy prudence dissuades one from doing this. But it was in both of our minds, Loris and me.
By the time we left Walter’s Agriturismo my back was on fire and I could barely walk. Against my will I was curling up. I knew that once Loris dropped me off I had to get to bed. It would be the only safe place because soon I would be unable to get up off the floor. When Loris dropped me off I arched from the car. Hector came up to greet me. The lights of the yellow bungalow were on and Nello and Nichole were inside with relatives from Povoletto. The lights of Luca’s office were off so I guessed that he was in the house. To undo my laces I lifted a foot up onto the low brick wall on the side of the drive. Blackness exploded in my face, the muscles of my lower back locked antagonistically, and I rolled over onto the gravel. Hector licked my nose. The muscles released and I lay there wondering what to do next. I could hear Nello and Nichole in the bungalow laughing and talking. I didn’t fancy calling them. It seemed like a bad film. I knew that Luca wouldn’t hear me in the house. And then I realised that this was all visible on the webcam!
Last week, Osvaldo Bevilacqua, host of Sereno Variabile, an Italian TV travel show that has been going since 1977 came to La Faula to film a piece on Organic Wines (I believe it will screen on 29 September and will be viewable on the programme website after). This was part of a visit to the Collio Orientale part of Friuli. Of course, not watching Italian TV, I had neither heard of the programme nor of the presenter Bevilacqua. But the presence of him and his film crew sent a frisson of excitement around the village once people realised that he was here (he had lunch at our neighbouring Trattoria Ai Cons). But when Rai, the Italian State broadcaster, had contacted us to arrange the visit I told Luca that, in my opinion, we should tell them to stuff-off on the grounds that Rai is a part and symbol of Italy’s decadence and rot. But Luca was having none of it .... to be continued!
It’s amazing, even a bit disconcerting, the two lives that we live here in one year at La Faula. Today, I found myself really wondering if only last Tuesday the Agriturismo was open and we had guests and I was serving breakfasts and dinners. It already seems not only another time but another world!
When the Agriturismo closes I dive back into my world of Ravosa, of Friulano dialect and the interests, passions, cares and concerns of those who live around us. During the summer the world comes to La Faula. But in the main the world doesn’t come to most of the residents of Ravosa-Magredis. The world as they know it is the fantasy one propaganda-ised via Italian television. Even as they have television as a constant companion, my neighbours don’t wholly trust it, so they adjust and paint the stories and images they see on the screen with the colour of their beliefs, experiences and prejudices. Every vision and view is equally valid and equally pushed and defended. Everybody has their own truth. But it’s not a shared truth. I love it. It’s rich, wild and often bizarre. And as everyone’s own belief’s and prejudices are a light shone into their character, it illuminates the wild diversity of belief people can attain when those who command them seek to dominate them through manipulation rather than free them through education.
The downside, of course, is that if you can’t agree whether or not there is a fox in the chicken-coop, as their so often is in Italy, or whether the wolf is at the door, as he has been so often in Italian history, you can’t do anything in a coordinated fashion to protect the chickens or keep the wolf in the forest where he belongs!
This morning, after most of the summer away, I returned to my favourite local trattoria, the Ai Cons, for my Sunday morning cuppucino. To get to the trattoria I exit La Faula, cross our little bridge over the Torrente Malina and turning right follow the river stop-bank West for around 100 meters. Then, to my left, is the Ai Cons and after a rousing shake-up running down the near verticle wall of the stop-bank I cross the road and find Elda and her husband Alcide always with a warm welcome and ready to discuss the challenges and vagaries of the hospitality business and how things are going in the local wine sector.
This morning, at the beginning of the stop-bank there was a fresh cow pat. Now, locally, the only farmers with cattle outside (i.e. not permanently kept in stalls) is ourselves and Alcide’s brother, Giorgio. Giorgio, like us, keeps a few cattle for the meat. Mostly, the cattle are followed and looked after by Gino, Giorgio and Alcide’s brother-in-law who is the other guy in the photos of today.
The fresh cow pat posed a dilemma. If it came from one of our cows that would be a problem as it was over the bridge and, theoretically, in reach of the provincial road where speeding is the norm. Luca had told me some days ago that the smallest of the cows had learnt, during the drought of June, July and August, that the dry earth lost its conductivity, and had got into the habit of pushing through the electric fence in search of fresh grass. Even though it has rained since, the ground is still very dry and once an animal loses fear of an electric fence it remains constrained by it only to the extent that it wants to be.
So I was faced with the dilemma as to whether I should return to La Faula and check whether all the cows were in, thus delaying my oft-dreamt of during the summer cuppucino and chat, or carry on and hope that the cow pat had been left by one of Giorgio’s cows which had somehow escaped its field. I opted for the cuppucino!
I even have to admit that once I got to the Ai Cons and started recounting to Elda how our season had been and the interesting things that had happened during the summer, I completely forgot about the cow-pat and cow on-the-loose. It was to my relief, then, that Gino arrived and told us that he had just finished getting the bull (Giorgio’s bull) back in the field. Somehow the bull had escaped during the night and had been found happily munching away in a Ravosa vegetable garden this morning. Luckily, most of the people in Ravosa are related so a large bull munching up someone’s vegetables is not the disastrous tragedy that it could be!
p.s. to my great pleasure, Luca and I have been invited to lunch at the Ai Cons at 1.00 p.m. I have vowed to myself to try to keep my weight down this winter .... I’m not sure that Elda’s great cooking is going to be a good start!
I think that more than once this year, when talking to guests I analogised the moment of the last guests leaving with the feeling of school’s out for the summer holidays. That is, that wonderful feeling I had as a kid in New Zealand in the 1960’s when school broke for the summer hols and days of seaside leisure stretched ahead without the menacing cloud of study and homework.
Although lacking the prospect of summer, or long days spent at the seaside, the departure of the last Faula guests of the season carries with it that feeling of a slipping away of responsibility. No more responsibility to get dinners right and on time, no more having to get the volunteers doing what we want, no more responsibility to keep the business keen and honed. The pressure of time and performance ebbs away. Of course, La Faula carries on as a farm. But the pace is leisurely, time gives rather than takes away. Trips and dinners with friends beckon. Altogether the road stretching out ahead is one of calm and measured paces.
And made better by the satisfaction of an Agriturismo season well passed. Challenges there were and difficult moments. But not so many and they were overcome without the expenditure of great and exhausting effort. The guests were a wonderful bunch and their enthusiasm and participation in our idea of La Faula was gratifying and pleasing.
We struck it lucky this year with two of the volunteers, both language students from Great Britain. Both intelligent, competent and useful. Of course, it’s a lot to expect to insert someone who has never been here before and pretend that they should instantly grasp the ways of La Faula. But in the round both volunteers were a great help and made my life significantly easier during the summer.
In a world full of challenges and pitfalls, lurking accidents and misfortunes it is a wonderful thing to find oneself, even if just for a moment, in the sublime zone when everything has more or less gone right. Of course, it will not last and new challenges are already on the horizon just waiting to be perceived. But today, in the warm late-summer sun, under a cobalt Friuli sky, life truly seems to be the gift that it is, even if sometimes we don’t believe it to be so!
[Being written Friday morning]
Well, we’re almost at the longest day! For us at La Faula it’s a good milestone. In Agriculture the spring and autumn are the really pressured months. So here at La Faula we got the wine we needed to bottle bottled, the vine plants are grown, trained and producing grapes. We have passed the Easter, Pentecost and Corpus Domini holidays well. The swimming pool and fountain are going swimmingly (sorry!!). The grass is cut and even the sun and hot weather have returned! Phew!!
And in Italy the fat lady has sung; she has hit all the high-notes. As I wrote before, it is all over and what comes next is very clear.
And in this whole Italian story, unbelievably, only one person of importance, at one time got it all correct (apart from me that is!!). And what he said seemed so bizarre in an Italian context that it was dismissed as the fantasizings of a washed-up has-been. That man was Giulio Tremonti who was finance minister in the Italian Government of Silvio Berlusconi for most of the last twenty years when the Italian economy stagnated.
Just before Berlusconi’s government was levered aside, and while the first funding crisis was washing over Italy, Giulio Tremonti said that the only way out was for the Italy to modify its constitution to specifically state, as a paramount right, that in the sphere of economic activity everything that was not specifically prohibited was permitted. In this way the private sector would escape the dead hand of Italian bureaucracy.
It was an amazing proposition for Tremonti to espouse. Tremonti was, for the whole of his time as Finance Minister a Statist and Corporatist of the first degree with a belief in a managed economy and a hostility to free markets and liberalism as practised in what Italians call the Anglo-Saxon world. But he came to realise when it was almost too late that the only escape for Italy was to free its private sector from the Italian State in all its guises.
But Italy is not a liberal country, it and its people do not believe in liberalism. It is a Catholic Country based on hierarchy and people being told what to do by others. The idea of individual responsibility before god, not mediated by the Catholic Church, never arrived having stopped in countries to the north.
So Tremonti’s idea was just there, not taken seriously, without a cultural hook to hang it on. And, the real tragedy is that Tremonti was right. This really was last orders in the last chance saloon.
Instead, Italy went for an authoritarian Catholic, Mario Monti. He claimed that the Italians were disrespectful of the laws and liked to evade their taxes and that he was going to get what they kept away from the Italian State back. And so his government provided €1.4 billion (yes, billion) for measures to combat tax evasion. But nobody ever asked whether people should have been paying those taxes in the first place.
I don’t think there was much tax evaded. But whether I am right or not, the government did not succeed in raising its tax revenues substantially but it did succeed in driving numerous firms and self-employed people into closure and bankruptcy. And it did this while increasing spending on the public sector. So the economy sunk into a deep recession and more young people emigrated.
And Monti said that his measures while unpopular would be reinforced and that he had created a positive change in the ’behaviour’ of the country. But
[Being written Wednesday afternoon 16 May]
Springtime in Agriculture is a time of immense pressure. The response to the explosion of growth determines, along with the weather, of course, the nature of the eventual harvest in the autumn. So the grass must be cut at the first burst so it doesn’t out-compete the vine plants. The buds that sprout on the trunk of each and every vine must be removed to stop the vine reverting to the climber that it is by nature. Luca must begin the first spraying of the vines with copper sulphate to protect against fungal disease. It’s a jungle out there!
It is also a time of wine-bottling. Every year we close the Agriturismo for a week so we can get necessary bottling done in the spring. At the end of that week one knows there are bookings meaning breakfasts to be served and dinners cooked. One week may seem like plenty of time to prepare and bottle wine but in fact it is down to the line. Preparing the winery for the whole process takes a day in itself. Everything needs to be in the right place and clean. Filtering takes three days and the bottling two. Finally, there is a full day of cleaning and reverting the winery back to its ’normal’ condition.
At La Faula we bottle by hand. We have each of the elements of a bottling plant but it is not automated so it is physically demanding bottling 3,000 bottles in a burst. In addition, each step involves different machinery and the prospect of breakage and things going wrong. I find the whole thing unbelievably stressful and it is such a relief to have the wine in the bottle and no winery work until the harvest.
Last week the bottling itself went well. The filtering, which can be a real challenge, went smoothly. As someone once said to us about wine filtering "you know when you start but you never know when it will finish". This time it finished well. On the first hour of the bottling, a spring in the Stelvin capper broke and I feared that we would have to abandon the whole thing. However, the technician expert on cappers at our local wine machinery shop was in the workshop and free so Luca rushed the capper down, had it repaired and adjusted, and we had it back in time to carry on.
We know people with money who keep vineyards and make wine for pure passion; for the love of it. I can’t understand this. I always tell them instead of spending all that money and work for no return but the gratification to say that the wine in a bottle is ’yours’, why don’t you just burn an equivalent amount of Euros in the courtyard and spend the rest of the free time relaxing with a book! I guess that when it comes to wine passion one either has it or one doesn’t. How else can one explain the people that lose thousands and thousands of Euros, dollars etc investing in wineries that never turn a profit?
The week of the wine bottling also coincided with the opening of the swimming pool, the cleaning and filling of the fountain and cutting the grass around the house. It has been pretty stressful. Our swimming pool man is closing down. Friuli has never been a great swimming pool area and with the recession no-one is currently making pools. Our guy, who has moved into truck driving (having a truck for his swimming pool business helped!) hatched a plan to do pool openings and closures for existing clients as a way to augment his income. The weakness in his plan to operate, on the side, a bespoke and deluxe pool opening and closing service is that the prices would be deluxe also. In times of recession this is not a winning proposition and so I am in a bit of a quandary: keeping a relationship open with the guy is a good idea because when things break in the peak of summer he can put it right. On the other hand, we are running an Agriturismo not a firm of notaries so we can’t pay luxury prices for normal work. We paid for this year but rather resentfully so this is a problem to confront next spring and I guess that a lot of water will have passed under the bridge by then!
Of course, I would quite like to write about how things are developing in good old Italia, and I will, so I will just nip to the kitchen and do some prep for tonight’s dinner, then I will get down to it!
Today it was reported that the International Monetary Fund, at the end of its annual mission to Italy, considered that "Italy is a model for Europe" ... that "six months have passed since the current Government took charge [and] it has introduced policies that have produced a noteworthy level of stability. Those policies have been ambitious and have progressed the level of structural reforms".
So, there you have it. Italy is a model for Europe. How reassuring.
And it is true that, according to the Bank of Italy’s owns studies, Italy really has no problems at all. The Bank of Italy has reported that the Black Economy in 2008 was equivalent to 31.1% of Italy’s GDP and that of that 31% 18.5% was due to tax evasion and the remaining 12.6% to criminal activity. All the Italian State has to do is get its hands on that money and, in a trice, it’s economic problems will be over.
And so we are brainwashed into believing.
But something strange is happening in this economy awash in undeclared income. Businesses are failing in record numbers. The State debt collection arm, Equitalia (a nice touch, that, the name - Equitable Italy) has opened and continues to open record numbers of payment-demand and application proceedings and for its efforts is repaid by bombs and threats to its employees. Record numbers of business owners are committing suicide and although the causes of suicide are various and complex a good number have cited, in written notes left behind, economic difficulties and problems with the Italian State as being the reason they don’t feel able to go on.
But this is just anecdotal. More interesting are the official statistics for the first three months of this year. Notwithstanding the application by the Italian State of a truly massive amount of resources aimed at finding and combating tax evasion the year-on-year tax take was down by 0.5% and in March the public debt reached a new record. Not only but the Industrialists Federation is predicting a significantly deeper recession than forecast largely due to the collapse of internal demand in Italy.
Now none of these things prove the Bank of Italy wrong. However, the Bank of Italy study is only conjecture because if the Italian State, desperate as it is, knew where the black money was it would have got it. In fact, this mad Italian official obsession with the El Dorado of evaded taxes is causing deep damage to individual businesses, the economy and Italian society at large.
The evidence clearly shows that the Italian private sector is generally, although obviously not exclusively, in real difficulty. The numbers of workers on government-paid stay-at-home problems is climbing every month, businesses are going bust, GDP is falling and the tax take is going down notwithstanding swinging tax increases and the application of anti tax evasion measures that have been described by the Privacy Commissioner as far from those of a Western Democracy.
to be continued
On 26 April 2012 the Financial Times reported that: "Mario Monti, Italy’s prime minister, has added his weight to criticisms of austerity-led reform efforts in the eurozone, saying the policies were shrinking Europe’s economy and could deepen a double-dip recession".
Here, at least, one cannot accuse Monti of hypocrisy or duplicity. The Monti government, as all before him, is steadfastly following an anti-austerity policy where State spending serves to keep people unproductively in work and avoid mass unemployment. Italy entered the current crisis with its public finances as a mirror-image of other European countries. Italy had a massive public debt but a relatively small deficit as a percentage of GDP. Obviously, this was because years previously Italy had reached the point where it’s borrowing could not continue to grow unchecked. Other European countries, however, had much lower starting public debt but as their economies entered recession and their banks needed saving and social welfare costs rose while tax receipts fell their deficits (as a percentage of GDP) exploded and consequently their public debt took off.
Last week the Eurostat statistics regarding the public finances of EU countries for 2011 were published. It was reported that Italian public spending had reached 49.9% of Italy’s GDP and government receipts 46.1% of GDP.
Even though these two numbers are by far the most important for the Italian economy, they received relatively little attention in the Italian press. And yet these two numbers tell us almost all that we need to know about the Italian economy today.
First, a state that spends a sum equal to 50% of its GDP is practising anti-austerity. But more importantly, the question in Italy is: where is the money going? Italy, as you may or may not know, doesn’t have a comprehensive welfare system. Welfare, such as it is, is tied to factory workers or workers for large industrial concerns which are able to park unneeded workers at home for a period of time with a large chunk of the worker’s salary being paid by the State. This is Cassa Integrazione. Employees of small enterprises do not qualify for this support: if there is no work, they just get sent home without pay. In dire straights such people can seek assistance from the local council. But unemployment benefit/insurance as known in most other countries doesn’t exist in Italy. Of course, numerous governments, including Monti’s, have promised to introduce such cover but it is massively too expensive for a country like Italy to sustain. And, of course, this conditions the unions in resisting any diluting of protections that workers currently enjoy as what would follow would certainly, from the worker’s point of view, be worse.
And not only, but Italy spends little, and badly, on infrastructure compared to other developed countries. And, notwithstanding the outrageous costs of modern weapons systems, Italy also spends relatively little on its military. Of course, numerous Italian governments, including Monti’s, have promised to increase infrastructure spending. But the money is not there.
So a country that spends a sum equal to fully one-half of its GDP is unable to provide a comprehensive social welfare net, decent infrastructure and a modern military.
On 19 April 2012 in an Editorial, the Financial Times said: "Italy’s humongous public sector and its overfed political system allow savings that need not affect the quality of frontline services".
Here you see that the Financial Times Editor, and I suspect very many non-Italians, has no concept of the mechanism driving Italy. The "humongous public sector" is what keeps humongous numbers of Italians in work. With the kind of suffocating bureaucratic system Italy operates, the private sector could never absorb these people if the State were - hypothetically - to be down-sized. The Italian public sector is in fact a make-work program for enormous numbers of Italians. Its raison d’etre is its own existence. Moreover, as these people are exercising very real, if ultimately destructive, roles and carrying very real power and responsibilities, they are the frontline services that they, themselves, support. They exist for each other and will resist massively any attempt to change this situation. They hold the whip-hand or the knife-by-the-handle as we say in Italy.
And what about the others? Well here the most important statistic is that government revenues are 46.1% of GDP - that is, the Government spent in 2011 4% more than it took in. And here is the driver of the Monti Government’s anti-tax evasion drive. Unprepared to significantly reduce Government spending - which would be austerity - Monti must make-up the difference by increasing tax receipts (or privatising but times are not propitious for this). There is no other way of achieving a primary surplus as he has pledged to do. But we always get back to the aphorism attributed to Winston Churchill:
"Some people regard private enterprise as a predatory tiger to be shot. Others look on it as a cow they can milk. Not enough people see it as a healthy horse, pulling a sturdy wagon."
The question, of course, for Italy is whether the horse is healthy enough to pull the wagon loaded-up with free-riders. And, more importantly whether a horse, hobbled by the very free-riders it is supposed to pull, will make it.
The answer, self-evidently, is no. Exploiting private enterprise and initiative to give a free-ride to others can never be a winning strategy for a nation or a people. Exploitation, by its very nature, involves the application of force as human beings tend to resist being exploited.
So it was that a Friulano who reads this blog suggested that I explain the significance in my diary entry of 17 April of the phrase: "putting the private sector in a share-cropper relationship with the state".
I don’t know about other Italians, but any Friulano with any knowledge of modern rural history knows about the "Mezzadria" which was the share-cropping system practised in Friuli until it was finally rendered illegal in 1974. The mezzadria relied on the fact that most peasants were landless and most land was in the hand of landlords and the aristocracy. Under the Mezzadria, the landlord ("concedente") would concede the right to work the land to a peasant ("mezzadro") in return for 50% of the production ("mezzo" meaning "half"). Of course, the land given was in small parcels and the peasant lacked the means to mechanise and the landlord lacked any incentive to provide improved means. It was exploitation of human labour of the worst kind and the period of the mezzadria is remembered here locally as the period of "miseria" or "misery".
In poor times and bad harvests 50% of nothing was still nothing but the mezzadri were held to their obligation to pay the landlord for use of the land. So the landlord used the services of the "Gastardo" whose job it was to control the peasants and ensure that they didn’t secrete or hide produce from the landlord. Keeping-back from the landlord resulted in expulsion from the land. The Italian film "The Tree of Wooden Clogs" (subtitled and available from Amazon.co.uk) is a sad depiction of what happened to mezzadri in Lombardy when, to make a pair of clogs to enable a son to walk kilometres to school, a father cut down a miserable tree beside a waterway. The Gastardo realised this and the family were expelled from the land.
The argument, then, that I am making, is that Monti has rendered us "mezzadri" of modern times. We are expected to work, without benefits and without enjoying the riches of the application of our physical and intellectual labour, to sustain the lifestyle of others. And to ensure this, The Inland Revenue and Finance Police are conducting raids to find entrepreneurs who keep revenue back from the State.
In fact, this Bank Holiday, 1 May, the Italian authorities have announced that Agriturismi are going to be done-over this weekend (my words, not theirs). In a somewhat humorous vein, the Rai24 news site began its report with the following:
"On holiday with the Finance Police. By now, it has become a habit: after the blitz in the Dolomites (Cortina e Courmayeur) and the seaside (Capri e costiera amalfitana), for the Bank Holiday of 1 May it is the turn of the Agriturismi"
Humorous it might seem for those who benefit from our labour. But it is worth recalling, as stated in the Financial Times that:
"[Italy’s] tax burden, [...] is forecast to reach an astonishing 49 per cent of national income by 2013"
No horse, however healthy, can pull a wagon such as this!!
p.s. so far the Finance Police haven’t dropped-by. We are of course waiting for them and this will doubtless form the basis for a subsequent diary entry!
On 17 April 2012, the President of Italy, responding to a wave of popular revulsion and disgust at the legal and moral corruption practised by the Italian Political Parties over an enormous period of time stated:
The Parties are not the kingdom of evil, and of corruption and self interested calculation ....
Woe to bundle them all-together, to demonize the Parties, to reject Politics
On April 18 the New York Times reported that:
The Vatican has appointed an American bishop to rein in the largest and most influential group of Catholic nuns in the United States, saying that an investigation found that the group had “serious doctrinal problems.” ...
The sisters were also reprimanded for making public statements that “disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.” ....
Doctrinal issues have been in the forefront during the papacy of Benedict XVI, who was in charge of the Vatican’s doctrinal office before he became pope. American nuns have come under particular scrutiny. Last year, American bishops announced that a book by a popular theologian at Fordham University, Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson, should be removed from all Catholic schools and universities.
Of course, The Vatican is correct. The Roman Catholic Church is a faith, it has it’s beliefs and obviously requires that those who adhere to the faith respect its precepts. It is not required to make those precepts conform to the state of society at any particular time; quite the opposite, it’s objective is to make society bend its will to accept, respect and follow the doctrine of the Church. In modern times, if one doesn’t agree with a particular religious faith one is free not to practise it.
The Secular Italian State is itself based on belief and precepts: that the people of the Italian peninsular constitute one-nation, that the ’re-springing’ of Italy was inevitable destiny, that the existence of the post-WWII Italian State was justified by the Partisan Resistance to Nazi-ism and Fascism, that Italy is a representative democracy, that Italian constitutional structures deserve intrinsic respect. This is the religion that it pushed down Italian’s throats at Kindergarten, at School, through the media. In this way the consent of the people to the Italian State is obtained. But it is not informed consent.
The declaration of Napolitano, Italian President, was in response to a popular movement that is gaining traction, guided by the comic Bepe Grillo, and which aims, as a minimum, the over-throw of the political parties as they currently exist and, perhaps, something even more.
I personally think that this is just a protest movement that doesn’t portend anything more. I think that the best of the Italians who could have led a type of ’Italian Spring’ have already emigrated and that Italians are, anyway, too passive to ever mount a serious rebellion. Perhaps more importantly, the current system of clientelism between the State and pensioners and State employees ensures that there is a solid and powerful block with a strong interest in avoiding radical change. This was the real reason that Italy responded to its debt crisis by importing Monti: Italy will do every short-term thing it can - including destroying the productive sector of the economy - to avoid default harbinging consequent economic management by non-Italians that may see State employees losing their jobs and well-off pensioners having their pensions slashed.
No, I think that the real problem lies with those who do not have a clientelistic relationship with the Italian State and Political Parties. We are talking about the private sector, or at least that part of the private sector that lives by producing profit from the application of human and intellectual capital. In past times entrepreneurs would support the Italian State because it provided a stable environment in which to conduct business, bureaucracy was a problem but it could be got-around and, perhaps most importantly, it was possible to earn a portion of income free of tax (through evasion) which enhanced investment in the business and the ’entrepreneurial return’.
For the worker, there was security of not being made redundant, generous holidays, high-purchasing power, 13 or 14 months pay for 12 months work, the prospect of early retirement on a final-salary pension and to top-it-off a generous finishing-work bonus paid at the moment of retirement.
Everyone won under this system. The private sector was happy, public sector employees enjoyed even better terms than those in the private sector, the political parties spent as they wanted and rewarded the politicians lavishly. It was a big party and it went on for decades. The only problem was that the Italian economy didn’t earn enough to pay for the style of life Italians felt they deserved so they stole it off the young and subsequent generations and built-up an enormous public debt that those who enjoyed the benefits of had no intention of repaying.
But now, the compact between State and private sector citizen has changed. It is now clear that the Political Parties, all of them, either legally - because they make the rules - or illegally - because they also break them - have been consistently and over an enormous period of time sacking, pillaging and plundering the Italian nation. It had reached the point where the nation existed fundamentally to sustain the wants and needs of the political parties and politicians. And this problem has not been addressed and it is clear that except in the cases of gross illegality where the law will or has intervened, the problem will not be addressed. It will not be addressed because those in positions of power like Monti and Napolitano will not directly and honestly address that fact that the Italian State is rotten to the core, always has been, and that those running it now intend to proceed, po-faced, modifying a little here-or-there but keeping the existing structures intact.
And, the State is demanding that the private sector should pay for this. The Italian State will not accept entrepreneurs or workers keeping something away from the revenue. The clear intention of the Monti Government (as the Prodi Government before) is to suppress tax evasion at the price of putting the private sector in a share-cropper relationship with the state. And knowing that, as things stand, the private sector will be hard-pushed to bear the burden of the State and Pensioners, the intention of the government was to remove existing rights from workers to increase private sector productivity and reduce costs on employers and businesses.
The problem is that in this way, the State just exists to exploit those stupid enough to have a business and those stupid enough to have chosen private sector employment over employment in the public sector. And this is unsustainable and this is where real problems will arise. The Italian unions are right to fight to protect the privileges of workers, mad and self-defeating as they may seem in a modern economy, because the objective of the changes is not a healthy economy that returns the benefits to those workers in compensation for what they have given up. Rather it is just to render workers less costly for business. And entrepreneurs, whose very capital put at risk renders them unable to resist the depredations of the Italian State, will see that not evading taxes is not to create a better society with lower taxes for all but rather it is to feed the huge appetites of the Italian State and politicians. They won’t work for this and over time the private sector will shrink.
So it is that many Italians see the doctrines of nation and state that we, Italians in Italy live by, to be lies, out and out lies. The State has, for many, lost its justification. Of course, in many nations there are those who don’t recognise the rights of the State to exercise authority over them. But when a nation abhors those who produce for it and tries to reduce them to servitude it shows, in that act, that it has no legitimacy: it is an organisation based on exploitation. There are many nations like this in the world. And it may come to you as a surprise to realise that Italy is one of them.
Napolitano, President of Italy, may try to justify the unjustifiable. But unlike the Roman Catholic Church, from which Italian culture springs, the ameliorating hand of God is not available to put to rights that which man destroys. It all, in the end, comes back to Martin Luther. A man, or nation, that lives by doctrine will, inevitably, live a lie when the doctrine exists to justify something ex-post-facto (after the event). A man, and a society, must always look into its own conscience and confront the truth. Humans know right from wrong. They don’t need the Pope in Rome to tell them.
Italy is a Roman Catholic society and it is a construct based on faith. But in a modern society, globally connected, facts upon which a judgement can be made are possible to independently ascertain. So the President of Italy is mendacious. It is quite untrue what he said: the facts clearly show that the Italian political parties are the kingdom of evil, and of corruption and self interested calculation ....
And it is right to bundle them all-together, to demonize them, and to reject Politics as it is practised in Italy.
Until this is done re-birth is not possible. Napolitano himself could have nailed some theses to the door of the Italian Parliament. If he had done this he could have helped spark the reformation that Italy must undergo if it is to remain a viable State in the modern world.
Diary Entries will inevitably become more sporadic as the Agriturismo and Winery require significant investments of time right now - not least to pay the increased taxes ... Grrrr.....
Easter has passed. The beautiful warm and dry times of March have given way to unsettled days with rain, sun, cold and hot, more or less in one day!
The Agriturismo is open. The Easter times were good notwithstanding the weather, but every day that we have guests and the sky is not perfectly blue and the sun not shining is a small Calvary for us!
We are out of Red wine so I must bottle in the next weeks. Spring is a time of re-birth but like all births it’s a bit of a challenge and perhaps more enjoyed in the warm glow after than at the time!
At this time, Italy itself should be going through a period of re-birth. After Monti was substituted for Berlusconi some of us hoped to believe that the liberalisation Monti promised was about to be realized under the duress of international bond markets and the obligation to keep a country’s word to the leaders of Germany and France. It seemed inconceivable, at a time of such great national emergency, that one should step-in to govern based on nothing more than mendacity. And yet, this is what has happened.
You might think that this would be enough to disqualify the man and his government from the captainage of the country. But, you would, it seems, be wrong.
Today the Financial Times reported something that has widely been reported in the national press. That is that all of the Italian political "parties had received €2.25bn since 1994 for reimbursement of election costs but spent only €579m on their campaigns." This is graft on an epic scale and po-faced, the parties of the left and right, intend to ride this one out. At the moment it seems that this was not illegal under Italian law, shocking though that might seem. Obviously the Italian political parties exist to sack and plunder the nation’s wealth. In this case wealth that was borrowed and formed a part, albeit inchoate, of the national debt which is 120% of GDP and climbing.
However, and astonishingly, this graft is only a part of the story. Graft, of the illegal kind, has been flourishing in all parties, both of the left and the right, during the Berlusconi years. And we are not talking about stealing pens from the stationary cabinet. We are talking about individuals stealing and misusing millions of Euros.
Now, confronted with a breach of national trust so shocking and reprehensible, and a complete unwillingness on the part of the Political Parties to pay any price for this except where they have been collared by the law, the national economic emergency seems but a footnote to the drama playing out in Italy today. And even if Mario Monti has proved not to be a man of his word, it seems that he is, at least, not worse than those politicians currently charged with governing the country but who have sub-contracted, anyway, the actual job to him. So it is that some ’respected [Italian] commentators’ have started to argue that Monti should enter into politics in his own right as this is that only alternative to allowing discredited and untrusted and untrustworthy politicians to take again the reigns of government.
But holding executive power in a democracy is a serious thing. It’s the real deal and, in a country with such a recent history of total dictatorship, the holding of executive power by the unelected is, frankly, breath-taking. And the only justification for entrusting Mario Monti with this power was that he would liberalise Italy in a way that no political party could. And, this was Mario Monti’s promise, to Italy and to the world.
And it is a promise that he has not kept and, when one considers his mendacity, the unavoidable conclusion is that he never intended to keep. Here, it is necessary to understand that we are not talking about reforms watered down by the political parties charged with confirming them into law. We are talking about reforms cynically not made. Privileges retained. Maybe, you don’t believe me?
How about this: at the time that the government was considering the form its labour reforms would take the issue arose as to whether Italian firms should be able to make employees redundant. Currently workers cannot be made redundant by law and managers can only be made redundant by payment of swinging indemnities which renders them effectively unsackable except in the cases of most egregious wrongdoing.
Of course, during the public debate the issue arose as to why the government should consider redundancy as a possibility for private sector workers while guaranteeing public sector workers a job for life.
The Minister of "Public Functions" Patroni Grilli ruled-out absolutely making public sector workers subject to redundancy. He said "one cannot make cuts in the public sector as in the private sector." "The public administration is a public good", "one needs to understand where the public and private sectors must necessarily diverge, so to use the appropriate tools for these differences, and where to intervene to ensure uniformity of discipline". "For this it is necessary to protect the public worker" etc.
So, the Italian public worker must never face the chill winds of economic difficulty as the private sector worker. And not only. The Minister went on to say:
"the question of the article 18 [redundancy for economic reasons] and its applicability to the State has developed into a debate at times incomprehensible, if not indecipherable. A piece of Italy is asking [the Government] to strike public workers as if there were some scores to settle."
So there you have it. One thing that Italians and non-Italians agree on is the poor quality of the Italian public administration and the stifling nature of the bureaucracy designed and applied by these very public workers. Many ascribe a significant part of Italy’s economic problems to the incompetence, malice, arrogance, and miserable productivity coupled with overweening power of the Italian public administration. It is true, as the Minister said, that many Italians have accounts to settle with bureaucrats even though a settling-up will never be possible. However, notwithstanding this, according to the Monti ’liberalizing’ government, the public bureaucracy merits special protection. Of course, the minister went on to say that public sector workers would be controlled for absenteeism and malfeasance and they could be reassigned other jobs but the State is a monolithic block; the private sector must respond to the economic environment but the State has no need to. This is, of course, economic illiteracy because State jobs can become redundant just as private jobs can. And as an economy changes so the State, which is a part of that economy, must change too.
Of course, the gross unfairness of this undermined the ability of the Monti Government to insist on changes to employment law in the private sector. And the reform, such as it is, not passed, satisfies no-one and cannot be described as the liberalisation that Italy needed to assist its private firms.
Perhaps ascribing mendacity to Monti may seem extreme. I should like to give but two examples of absolute falsehood promulgated by Monti personally. Monti claimed, when restructuring the pensions law, that he was doing it for the young. In fact he did it for the old. The old kept their pensions, virtually untouched. The young will have starvation pensions as they will either not have sufficient years of payments into the national pension fund to receive something decent back or, to keep the pension fund liquid, i.e. to reduce the payments made in the future, the ’notional interest rate’ applied to their contributions will be unrealistically low. This must be the case as the current contributions are being used to pay the pensions of today’s pensioners - what the young pay today is not being put aside for their tomorrow. This is theft. The pensions problem of Italy was that it was so generous that it was beginning to eat-up the national income. This has been capped and so weighs less on the overall economy. But at the expense of leaving nothing for today’s young when they retire.
Of course, the true response would have been to allow the young to opt-out of the State pension system and go completely private on a tax-efficient basis. But this would have left today’s pensioners without money. Monti’s lie is despicable in its cynicism.
The other lie of Monti is that he had come to liberalise. He had come to do no such thing. In Italy, many sectors have protection from competition because the law allows bureaucrats or local governments or professional bodies to set limits on the practice of a profession or craft or skill or activity. Often the numbers who may practice this profession or activity depend on a notional population density. For example, 1 notary for every 1,000 people. In many cases it is the professional body of the profession itself that manages the limits. So, for example, the notaries had over time allowed a deficit to develop of more than 1,000 notaries even according to the population parameters in force. In the Italian system this is fine because it is protectionist and in a corporatist State it is a key element of economic organisation.
Monti, of course, has not changed this system. For example, the notaries, a profession that is utterly parasitic on private enterprise, announced that they would bring-up the number of notaries voluntarily. The political parties have no difficulty with Monti’s ’liberalisation’ because it isn’t. Any changes that he has made are wholly superficial (I can’t actually think of what they might be apart from pension reform) and he has left the entire structure intact and unmodified.
So, Italy is a country that for decades has been run by crooks and mafiosi. The latest batch of politicians have outdone themselves in sacking and pillaging the nation but are determined enough not to pay the price: they are carrying on anyway.
The executive government is formed from unelected persons who have proved to be nothing more than seat-warmers and time-servers. But this has proved OK with the political parties because the Italian ’elite’ such as it is, had no intention of changing anything radically. To convince the Germans and the markets they knew they had to talk-the-talk but they knew already then that they were never going to walk-the-walk.
But this situation raises a number of important questions:
(1) Do the politicians and their political parties and the unelected executive of Mario Monti reflect the Italians?
(2) What sense has Italy as a nation if it exists only as a body corporate to be plundered by those in a position to do so?
Italians are very sensitive as to how they are viewed by others in the world (but not Romanians, or Albanians or Chinese or ’other foreigners of that type’). They know that swirling around the national Italian stereotype are some unsavoury connotations: that they are dishonest, untrustworthy, lazy. That sort of thing. And they don’t like it because they know that they are the descendants of the Roman Empire, one of the greatest, if not the greatest empire in the history of the world and they are just not like that. They are as good, if not better, than the rest of humanity!
I wrote previously about the Northern League President of the Province of Udine who said that gay people were not real Friulani’. There was a bit of an outcry so he explained what he meant:
"I don’t want our [Friulano] image to the outside world to be associated with homosexuality. "Typically Friulano" is linked to gastronomic products. We are famous because we produce prosciutto, cheese and wine and this brand identifies us with these products .... [Friulano] gay publicity gives an image of Friuli that is not ours, it seems that Friuli is full of gays and it favours the idea that to be Friulano is to be gay"
How jolly. The Friulani of legend and of their own stereotype are a taciturn, closed, hard-working and honest people who for all of history have lived on the margin where northern people have entered the Italian peninsular in search of sustenance, food, sun and space. Every great invasion of Italy was washed through the Friulani. They were oppressed, exploited and lived in constant uncertainty. Great wars have been fought on their territory. The life of the average Friulano for most of history was hard-graft, religion and drink.
So the explanation does seem a bit unlikely. But it is worth mentioning that the political party - the Northern League - to which the Provincial President belongs, and which justifies itself as clean counter-point to "Roman" (i.e. Southern Italian) corruption, has hit the international press in its own right but associated with theft, corruption and misuse of State funds on an egregious scale. Investigations show that the Northern League has been plundering Italian public funds and illegally investing them in ventures over the world. Not only, but the leader of the Northern League, Umberto Bossi and his son, treated the party as their own private piggy-bank and there are some nice intercepts and videos to show it. The Northern League has been caught cold and, just today, a big-wig in the Friuli Party was sentenced to 1 1/2 years in prison for misuse of his official car and driver. Only now has he announced that he will resign.
No, the real question that every Italian needs to ask is what do they do that creates a society such as well all know Italy is. No Italian today, no matter how proud to be so, can avoid affronting, and reflecting upon, the daily revelations of corruption, theft, exploitation, mendacity and bad-dealing that permeate the society like foul smoke wafts through the air. No Italian can negate the fact that the sum total is completely rotten and that we, as citizens, have been manipulated, lied to and ripped-off without pity by those very Italians that are our co-nationals. I often use this analogy to explain what I mean when I have to encourage some Italian person that I am dealing with to go that bit further and treat our business relationship with respect and decency instead of trying to gain only advantage from it: if a house is built from distorted bricks, in the end, the house too will be distorted. If a house is built of regular and square bricks it too will be regular and square. Every single Italian today, living in this national emergency that we call Italy, must decide whether they are a square or twisted brick. It’s not such a little challenge but change can only come to this society if enough ’just’ Italians can make the difference. If not, the game is up, without any doubt, for Italy and the Italians.
Now, just to be clear, Italy is a Roman Catholic country and for very many of the inhabitants of our village, Ravosa, the Church is a key part of their life. The Ravosa church is a beautiful church. When the Priest from the nearby village of Salt comes by in December, every year, and says to me: "Is your brother here?" without missing a beat I call Luca and we donate wine to the Christmas Raffle which supports missionary work in Africa. In rural Italy Luca is quite often "my brother". And when Giuliano calls with the envelope for the annual Ravosa church appeal we always put the right-sized banknote inside - just right; neither too much nor too little. Besides, Giuliano is a really nice guy: he was a miner on a big New Zealand hydro-electric scheme in the 1960’s and he’s always ready for a chat and reliving things that happened in rural New Zealand 50 years ago. Plus he has seen a Kiwi in the wild which is more than I can say! And when the lady, whose hair is cut so severely short that she seems to be a religious sister, calls-by every year to sell us a raffle ticket for a raffle supporting missionary work, again in Africa, we always buy a book. She is always friendly and brings little treats for the dogs who remember her because she also brings us honey that they make from the hives in the field next to La Faula (and which we serve in the Agriturismo).
Of course, daily life in rural North-Italy means mixing with supporters of the Northern League who knowingly put every problem with Italy down to the malign influence of the malingering and mafiosi ’terroni’ - people of the earth or Southern Italians. They’ve got it in for the Chinese, of course. And the Communists. Since the Northern League has spent 20 years in Rome, the vast majority of which was spent supporting and calling the shots in the Berlusconi Government, they have been a bit more quiet about Roma-Ladrona - Rome-Thief. They did, though, push the State broadcaster Rai into investing in a film about Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor. The film was directed by a friend of the leader of the Northern League, cost €12 million to make and earned, in total, between 9 October and 22 November 2009, the period it screened in the cinema, €830,000.
So it was that this morning, I opened the local newspaper, Il Messaggero, and on the front page, in big, black letters was the Headline "Fontanini Shock About Gays" "At the Northern League Congress: ’They Are Not Typical Friulian’"
Now, Fontanini is a militant Roman Catholic. And he is currently the Northern League President of the Provincial Government of Udine. In his musical-chairs political career he has held numerous high positions in the Regional Administration of Friuli and, as well, he has been a Deputy in the national Parliament as well as a Senator! Not only, he credits being cured of a form a leukaemia by Padre Pio, a Roman Catholic Saint who may have been "an ignorant and self-mutilating psychopath who exploited people’s credulity." but who is revered in Friuli.
Taken literally, what Fontanini said was completely accurate and as such was just a statement of the truth which should be without controversy. As a percentage of the total, gays are a very small group so in this sense they are not typically Friulian. But the reason that the comment got on the front page of the newspaper is that the real meaning of what he said is that ’gays are not real Friulians’ and that is a different thing altogether in a nationalist context coming from a political party, holding legislative power, motivated by an ideology based on the supposed racial purity - and superiority - of one ethnic population - the original inhabitants of Padania, the Po river-valley plane - over others such a Southern Italians, Asians etc.
Often, in this Blog, I have written about the shame and disgrace of a generation of Italians, collectively, who consumed twice as much as they produced with the intention of leaving following generations to eat only the ashes of a bankrupt and decrepit State. And I have written about the unconstrained emigration of the young and the highly educated from Italy to other countries where they can find personal and professional fulfilment. And I have speculated on the links between Roman Catholicism and Italian culture; ’why we are the way we are’.
And so it is, that in this country facing economic ruin, morally and physically bankrupt, corrupt and exploitative, a noted and powerful politician takes time out to remind those young Friulians who remain, and who happen to be gay, that they are not real Friulians after all. And, if hearing his message, that there is no room for them in Friuli, they draw the obvious conclusions and emigrate, driven out by their own kind, one can only conclude that they were not needed, neither by the Region of Friuli nor by the Country, and that, in an Italy full of old, ignorant bigots and facing a demographic time-bomb, those that do remain must be sufficient to turn the country around, invigorate it, give it new life and ensure its continuation. But worse, Fontanini’s attack has echoes of older, nationalistic times in Italy even though we know that today the stakes being played for are much lower than they were in 1938 when the Fascist administration introduced the Italian Racial laws.
In our kitchen, in a cabinet, we have an Italian Postcard from 1943. On the back is printed in bold ’Vinceremo’ - We Will Win" . They know only how to lose.
Our friend Loris is unable to tell a lie. The maximum that he can arrive at is being evasive but when it comes to dissembling he just can’t do it. So if there is something I really want to know I just ask him directly and he tells me. Loris has lived his whole life in Friuli. But his father emigrated to Switzerland to work when Loris was a child and when he returned it was with another outlook on life. Loris’ mum is from the Slovenian minority in Friuli. Our friend Federico also doesn’t lie. But he is in a constant state of bemusement at the venality, cynicism and moral bankruptcy demonstrated daily by his compatriots. Federico lived for a period in London. Carlo, a friend who I worked with in Milan, is as completely honest a person as one may meet. Carlo had worked almost entirely for foreign companies in Italy. He is perplexed by the numerous examples of amorality exhibited constantly in his co-nationals.
So it is clear that there are many Italians who are honest and truthful.
But those of us who live in Italy know that we are surrounded by liars, cheats and con-men. And these are found amongst the people that we know directly as well as those, such a politicians, that we only know about. One cannot but confront the fact that there is a part of Italian culture and society where mendaciousness is normal, common, and practised as an integral part of life. This is not to say that all Italians are liars. But it is to say that in a country where mendacity has a following we are surrounded by a web of lies, falsehoods, half-truths, exaggerations, minimisations and distortions. To give an idea of this I need only mention the newspaper Il Fatto which is at the forefront of reporting honestly and accurately and without fear and favour. Unlike almost all other newspapers in Italy it doesn’t receive government funding. On its website it has the following titles "Politics & Palace", "Justice & Impunity", "Media & Regime", "Economy & Lobby", "Work & Precariousness", "Environment & Poisons". As these titles suggest, as practised in Italy even concepts like Justice, Politics, Media, Economy etc. are a lie.
The Monti Government is also showing itself adept when it comes to mendacious falsehoods. Probably the most grievous is to claim that what it is doing is for the good of Italian young people. This is a falsehood of the most wicked type: the Monti government has intervened to ensure the continued hegemony of the very generation that stole and borrowed and brought Italy to ruin. Under Berlusconi the comfortable lifestyle enjoyed by the vast majority of this generation most probably would have been put at risk if Italy was forced by the markets into austerity. Monti has bought time for this generation but nothing more.
Monti has not touched, nor has shown any sign of touching the Italian public administration. Last Thursday I wanted to burn some fine tree branches that I had cut while pruning a hedge. Being near the woods I needed to get a permit from the Forestry Guard Station in the nearby village of Attimis. No problems with this so I went to Attimis to the Guard Station. There I was rather surprised to find that the office was only open to the public for three hours a week: 8-10 a.m. on Tuesday and 5-6 p.m. on Friday. So I returned on Friday but found the office closed as the guards were attending a forest fire. No problems with that but I thought that I might drop by on Monday- it was raining - to see if perhaps they had opened to make-up for the fact they were closed Friday. Nothing. So, this morning, being Tuesday, I got to the Guard Station at about 5 minutes after 8 a.m.- But the office was closed as the Guards were in a bar having a coffee. So I had a coffee too.
When, eventually the Forest Guards were in their station and the door was unlocked I rang the bell and was bidden to enter.
"Buon Giorno" said the Guard. "Signor Paul isn’t it"?
"Well yes" I said. I didn’t know the Guard but he knew me.
"I’m here for a fire permit" I said "I’ve some branches that I would like to burn and now after the recent rain it seems like a good time ... less risk of forest fire!"
"Certainly" said the Guard, "Please step over here"
The Guard went to a desk and sat down. The computer was on and he pulled-up a document on the monitor.
"Identity card" said the Guard and I produced my Italian Identity Card.
"M..a..c..k..a..y P..a..u..l R..o..b..e..r..t born in NZ - NZ is the abbreviation for New Zealand?"
"Yes, I believe so" I replied but in the back of my mind I remembered that for the Italian bureaucracy the code is normally not your country code but the two letters EE. Still, it was just a fire permit.
"But don’t you hold a British Passport?" said the Guard
"Well yes" I said "I’ve got dual nationality"
I was flabbergasted. Here I was in the Forestry Station, where I had never been before, seeking a fire permit from a Forest Guard I didn’t know and he knew my passport details. And no, he doesn’t read this blog!
"You take the dogs for a walk in the morning" the Guard said
"Yes" I said "When the Agriturismo is closed the dogs tend to get bored so I give them a walk along the river-bank in the morning" "Is there anything else that you would like to comment on?" I though but didn’t speak
So, eventually the fields on the screen were all filled-in and he printed numerous copies. All of them he took into the Inspector’s Office to be signed by the Inspector. Then he brought them out and laid them on his desk. I went to take what I assumed was my copy.
"No" he said. "They have to be stamped" and with that he took the official forestry guards stamp and stamped the forms on his desk.
"There you go" he said.
"Thank you" I said and left.
And I thought about the great lie that Italy is a democracy based on equal protection of the laws and the rights of the individual. Italy is a monolithic State serving the interests of those who work for it, those who control it and those who sustain in power those who control it. If you are outside these groups you are manipulated, regimented and channelled and controlled and, ultimately, exploited to sate the avariciousness of those other numerous Italians, equal but better, who have captured, for their own enrichment and ends, the mechanism by which all State authority is exercised.
It is obvious that in such circumstances the young will emigrate, people will tolerate or find accommodation with the Mafia and any vibrant spirit, alive to the possibilities of creation won’t bother. This has already happened: Italy is a country of old people living well from where the young have fled, where organised crime has infiltrated regular economic activity and politics and where economic activity and entrepreneurship is in decline.
Last Friday Bloomberg news reported that the Italian Government had paid U.S. Bank Morgan Stanley $3.4 billion to exit from a bet on interest rates that had gone terribly wrong. The report went on to say that Italy has lost more than $31 billion on its derivatives at current market values.
The Italian Treasury has refused to comment on the report.
But it did bring to mind an article from the Economist Christmas edition of 16 December 2004. In an article entitled:
Why didn’t I think of that?
Were these the best financial trades ever carried out?
Italy appeared twice as entrant in the best financial trades ever carried out stakes and emerged as the clear winner. As the article concluded:
"Fittingly, as the winner of the “greatest trade” title, it requires only brief description. In 1996 and 1997 Italy (yes, again) was desperate to reduce its public-sector deficit so that the country would qualify for entry into the euro. One unintended boost came from the sale of the postal bonds described above—bizarrely, because they matured after the euro deadline, they were not counted as current debt. But the stroke of genius by officials in Italy’s finance ministry was to enter into a secret trade that simultaneously brought in cash, took some debt off the books and deferred the repayment of the cash and the debt until after the euro deadline had been successfully reached.
Many economists were amazed when Italy defied expectations to qualify for the euro. And its admission into the system has been worth an incalculable fortune. It has brought huge savings via systematically lower interest rates and greater economic efficiency. Had Italy not qualified, its economy might have crumbled. Certainly, its public-sector finances would be in dire straits.
The trade itself was fairly simple, though complicated enough to ensure that it came to light only in late 2001, when Gustavo Piga, an economics professor, stumbled across it while studying public-debt policies. Essentially, Italy used a swap to defer interest payments on an issue of $1.7 billion of yen-denominated bonds that it had made in 1995, at the same time taking an up-front payment for the swap that was later repaid with interest. Thus was Italy able to make it into the euro, merely at the price of a big repayment on the swap in 1998.
Think of the various elements of the trade. It was bold and risky. It relied on secrecy. It was brilliantly conceived to solve a specific, and apparently insurmountable, problem. It was executed with great skill. And, for a fee, it gave Italy the opportunity to be part of the euro system, with its incalculable rewards. Part of its appeal is that the profits came not from the counterparty on the trade itself, but from the economic consequences of the trade.
Of course, it was also thoroughly dodgy—had it been done by a company, the management would probably be in prison for cooking the books—though the Italians have always maintained that it exploited weak rules, rather than broke strong ones. But there is no need to be churlish. This was, after all, the greatest trade ever. Bravissimo!"
That Italy cooks it’s books should come as a surprise to no-one (at least to no-one who reads this Blog).
But what might come as a surprise, and it came as a surprise to me, is that Il Fatto Quotidiano has reported that the Director General of the Italian Treasury at the time was no less than Mario Draghi and the current Italian Vice-Minister of Finance in the Monti Government, Vittorio Grilli, was Head of the Commission for Financing Analysis and Privatisation. The Fatto report concludes:
"To conclude, there were no less that eleven people who without doubt had to be aware of the contract with Morgan Stanley, or to have designed it or authorised it: Ciampi, Barucci, Dini, Amato, Prodi, Tremonti, Berlusconi, Draghi, Grilli, D’Alema e Fazio."
This is the list of those who have been responsible for Italy’s economy over the last 22 years. Six of them: Prodi, Tremonti, Berlusconi, Draghi, Grilli, D’Alema are still in key positions of power today, none more so than Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank.
Now, of course, being a simple wine farmer in Friuli I could not possibly know what other contracts might be out there that were used to manipulate Italy’s public finances to help Italy get into the Euro and get it’s hands on more cheap financing which at the time seemed to be guaranteed implicitly by the whole Euro project.
But, the very fact that people, key players in managing Italy’s current financial travails, were also perpetrators of, or complicit in, the manipulation of Italy’s public finances to allow the country to enter the Euro makes them unfit today to have any public pan-European financial role and, of course, should render them unfit to have any position of public financial responsibility in Italy but this is but a pipe-dream in such a country as Italy is.
More than once I have written that Italy has a primary surplus, that is, excluding interest payments on its debt, it takes in more than in spends. Normally, this would be a good starting point for a country to renegotiate its debts or begin to increase the surplus to enable it to begin to pay-down the debt. In a profligate country such as Italy with populist governments and a corrupt and inefficient public administration a primary budget surplus would indicate some significant success in tax compliance and recovery.
Currently the Italian government and tax authorities are attempting to whip-up a frenzy against tax evasion. But the President of the Court of Accounts - the body responsible for overseeing Italy’s public accounts - recently reduced his estimation of the amount of tax evasion that occurs (from 18% of PIL to 11% of PIL) and said that at the predicted official rate of 45% for 2012, the fiscal pressure was too much (fiscal pressure - the ratio of what the government takes in taxes to gross domestic product). Unofficial estimates put the predicted fiscal pressure for 2012 to be 54% if planned VAT increases for October are factored in.
And the Privacy Commissioner in a report covering seven years of activity since the founding of his office defined the current activities of the government and State in combating tax evasion as a "serious tear in a State based on respect for rights" and that if this state of affairs were not to be simply an emergency to be corrected rapidly ’the spread between Italian democracy and that of other Western Countries would grow."
I have already written that I suspect that Italy’s gross domestic product is smaller than officially recorded which would make the public debt as a percentage of GDP higher than the official figure. But I am starting to think that it may also be that Italy’s public debt may actually be higher than reported due to ’off-balance sheet’ financing. Off balance sheet financing got Enron, Worldcom and many other companies into a great deal of difficulty in the 1990’s. If Italy had resorted to such financing, the current recession plus the unexpected and unforeseen Euro crisis may be putting the whole public finance ediface under the most intense strain. My guess is that, unable or unwilling to come clean, the only way out, now that Germany has ruled-out the issue of Eurobonds, is to find the money from somewhere. Mario Draghi is one of the few people who knows where the bodies are. And he provided the banks with liquidity to keep on buying Italy’s public debt. But Draghi created money where there was none. For Italy, directly (i.e. not via Draghi) this is not an option. So it is squeezing the population in a desperate and mad effort to to keep the edifice standing.
But as I have argued previously, the Italian government and its accomplice the Italian State are destroying the real economy. And without a real economy there is nothing. Really nothing!
The Roman Catholic Church is a pure Dictatorship (infallible Pope) with the aim of bending the individual will to doctrine and through that to enable salvation of the soul. The individual will, as experienced by that individual - individualism, is of no interest to the Catholic Church. That will is by definition sinful and the soul must be saved through conformity to Catholic teachings.
The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917 led, eventually in Josef Stalin, and perhaps to some degree previously, to the establishment of a one-Party Dictatorship with the aim of bending the individual will to sustaining the original socialist state. The individual will, as experienced by that individual - individualism, was of no interest to the Soviet State except in as much as it would not accept the authority of the State.
The Catholic Church is fundamentally concerned with suffering: the suffering of Christ (in the wilderness, on the cross), the suffering of Mary Mother of God, the suffering of the Saints (for their beliefs) and the suffering of sinners souls in Hell. At the time of the Bolshevik Revolution Italian workers and peasants knew about suffering - it was a part of daily life. The life of poor Italians - the vast majority at that time - was misery: malnutrition, disease, substandard accommodation, exploitation. The Catholic Church functioned to convince poor Italians to accept suffering today in return for paradise tomorrow (if they behaved well, that is).
The arrival of communist ideology and its practical manifestation in the Soviet Union, however, gave a real alternative to these oppressed Italian masses for the first time. And it told them that they needn’t accept their suffering passively but could take their destiny in their own hands. They no longer had to accept the order of things as being divinely predestined. And, obviously, very many Italians found this to be an attractive proposition. In addition, being based on Marxism, communism and the Soviet Union were hostile to religion.
The forerunner of the Italian Communist Party was the Communist Faction which began in 1912. The Italian Communist Party came into being in 1921. Political Italian communism, until after the Second World War, was directly linked to Leninist and later Soviet ideology including, explicitly, supporting the overthrow of the bourgeois state and merging Italy into the international Soviet Republic.
As a political force, Italian communism frightened many. Of course, it terrified the aristocracy, the rich and the bourgeoisie who felt threatened by it. But it also terrified those Italians who believed in the propaganda campaign waged by the Catholic Church against it new rival. The village Mass became a potent and powerful force to try to nip the spread of communism in the bud. That communists ate babies was a fact and to a devout, poor, ignorant Italian Roman Catholic Communism represented the unleashing of all the devils of hell. But communism was also viewed sceptically by many who were starting to benefit from the increasing literacy and from the availability of paying industrial jobs in the industrialising big cities. This last group, for the first time, were selling their labour for a wage and were able to lift themselves out of poverty. Having destiny in their hands, perhaps for the first time in two thousand years, they were reluctant to hand themselves over to a collectivist ideology.
At least the Roman Catholic Church and Marxist-Leninism each had an ideology. Fascism, being a middle road between to inflexible dogmas, had no ideology at all. All know that Mussolini began his political life as a socialist. However, he was primarily an Italian nationalist and an extreme opportunist. He was also fetishistic and had catholic tastes in the way he collected ideas, symbols and signs that became what we think of as Italian fascism.
The creation of the Italian State - the resurgence of a nation existing but unformed - involved the removal of Rome and the Italian Papal States from the Pope. However, although the Pope no longer had his own States to rule he could, through his church, provide a counter-point to the power of the Italian State. And, at the time of the First World War the Pope did not recognise the new Italian State. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church was hostile to it.
And, the creation of the Italian State had been a major disappointment to virtually everybody. The new nation was continuously badly and corruptly governed and did little in itself to improve the position of the vast majority of the people. However, the poor were benefiting from the beginning of industrialisation and increasing literacy and, most of all by their agglomeration in the large cities, thereby escaping the control of rural landowners and the local Priest. In the large factories in the large cities they were, for the first time, exposed to ideas that placed their role in the universe in a radically different light. This light was not one involving the local village and the landowner who they share-cropped for or provided day-labour for. These people being literate and concentrated were the first mass Italian generation that could be swayed and motivated by ideas of Patria [Home-Land].
"Devoutly thank God every day because he made you Italian" is a saying attributed to Benito Mussolini
The Italian Government of Giovanni Giolitti opposed Italy’s entry into the First World War on the grounds that Italy was militarily unprepared. However, Italian nationalists, including Benito Mussolini, whipped-up a hysterical blood-lust for war and masses were brought onto the streets of the major cities demanding that Italy should fight the Austro-Hungarian empire to reclaim lands that were an existent but subjugated part of Italy.
The genius of Mussolini was to realise that he could mobilise the emerging literate working class and lower middle classes, those classes for which the link to village and region had been broken to further nationalist ideology and aims. Mussolini was not alone in realising this, a potential rival who wisely, later, removed himself from the stage was Gabrielle D’Annunzio. Along with others they increased the pressure for war. The Giolittian government fell, and its replacement went to war against Austria-Hungary.
Thus Fascism was a extreme form of nationalism. Constantly irritated by the need to reclaim lands it considered its own either by contiguity or history of sphere-of-interest, the pearl was the creation, probably for the first time of a State that most Italians recognised as theirs in one way or another. Fascism precluded communism however, lacking a real ideology, it realised that it had to come to terms with the Roman Catholic Church and the Lateran accords of 1929 between Mussolini and the Pope govern the relationship between Italy and the Church to this day.
Not being an ideology and neither having one, unless you were an Italian Jew or a Communist it was easy to be a fascist in Fascist Italy. And, when fascism fell it was just as easy not to be one.
The fall of Fascism lead to the re-establishment of the ’liberal’ democracy. Two forces struggled for control of that democracy. The Roman Catholic Church through the Christian Democratic Party and the communists through the Italian Communist Party. The leader of the Italian Communist Party was a man called Palimiro Togliatti. Togliatti passed the period 1939 - 1944 in the Soviet Union. Prior to this he had represented the Italian Party at the Soviet controlled Comintern.
Togliatti, had been deeply involved in the machinations of Stalin, especially against Tolstoy, and cannot have but known of the crimes that Stalin was committing against his own people. Perhaps because of this, but in any case, he was an Italian Nationalist and refused to support armed struggle in Italy to impose socialism. However, he remained determined to impose socialism democratically and under his leadership the Italian Communist Party grew to be the largest in Europe outside of the Soviet block.
However, history shows that notwithstanding the significant support the Italian Communist Party had and obtained in elections at every level, it did not have enough support to overcome the Church supported Christian Democrats buttressed by the United States.
So it was that until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 Italy had within it a large and effective political party committed to imposing soviet-style communism. The murderous crushing of the rebellions in Hungry and Czechoslovakia by Soviet troops showed this to be virtually inconceivable, however, the ageing leadership and party membership who held-on to power found themselves unable to enunciate, or even find, another idea capable of realistically addressing the increasingly obvious failings of the Soviet Model. And it became clear, as the 1970’s became the 1980’s, that the Italian communist party was existing just because it could - the Italian political spoils system gave it a comfortable existence but this could not lead it anywhere.
In 1991 the Italian Communist Party became the Democratic Party of the Left. Over subsequent years it rolled into the Democratic Party with a mish-mash of other left parties. The Democratic Party is the current party of the Italian left. If it stands for anything it stands for the unions. Unions are not workers. The Italian left is only leftist in the sense that it stands for the collective. Notwithstanding the passing of 100 years since the creation of the Italian Communist Faction, it has never been able to move-on from this.
And for this the Italian left is rightly despised. When Berlusconi talked of the Communist threat in modern Italy he was harking back to the times when communism was believed to be a real threat to many interests. And some people, probably older and with nostalgic memories of fascism, may have even believed him. But the vast majority of Italians knew that the truth was that the left had never had the courage in Italy to fight for what it believed in (thankfully) but had never had the courage to abandon those beliefs (shamefully). By remaining in play as a political party, supported by a conservative gerontocracy, the Democratic Party was morally culpable, at the least, of failing to provide any realistic alternative to Silvio Berlusconi and the Northern League, and at the worst of blocking the development of the Italian political system and the evolution of its culture and society. For this the party is rightly despised by those, appalled by Berlusconi, who would have been expected to support any viable alternative to him.
Finally, as a kind of closing-of-the-circle it should be noted that the Democratic Party is now the home of socially-conservative Roman Catholics. These Catholics find themselves at home in a party that respects the collective and not the individual and which has nothing to say about a modern economy and the freeing-up of individual enterprise and endeavour. Abhorring individualism and the free enterprise needed to put Italy in motion, these Catholics ensure that in Italy where the ’right’ will never support ’progressive’ social policies, neither will the ’left’.
Thus the Pope in Rome will never have to open his morning newspaper and find a photo of a newly married gay couple on the Spanish Steps!
Tonight, I’m going to explain how it was that Silvio Berlusconi managed to become and remain Prime Minister for so long in Italy notwithstanding his nakedly following his own self-interest, notwithstanding his alliance with the lunatic manipulative Northern League, notwithstanding the proven corruption and alleged mafia-links that swirled around his political party, notwithstanding the economic decline that he presided over and was responsible for permitting to proceed unchecked and notwithstanding just about every other form of decadence that you could ascribe to him with more than a dash of debauchery!
To understand this you need to remember that Italy is a Catholic country. At its heart is a man who is infallible and whose role it is to set-out the rules by which Italians (and others) must live. Historically this man touched the lives of every single Italian through the personal contact that each Italian had with one of the Pope’s representative: the local Priest, the Religious Brother, The Monsignor or Don, the nuns or fathers in the convents, schools, and orphanages.
The hierarchy of the church representatives mirrored the hierarchy of civil society. The village priest managed the peasants; the nuns and religious fathers educated and indoctrinated the children; the Monsignors cooperated with the landed aristocracy and gentry in controlling the peasants; the Bishops were the church interface for notables of the towns and the cardinals did the same job in the cities including Rome.
In this way the ethical, sexual and religious life was doctrinal and life for the poor, un-educated and low-status was rigidly circumscribed.
Italy, as a nation-state was born through the forceful incorporation of the various small states that occupied the Italian peninsular. What distinguished this agglomeration into one nation of the disparate and diverse peoples who occupied the new Italy was the ideology of Italian nationalism; the idea that this people formed one nation descendent of the Roman Empire and this was to be recognised in the resurgent Italian State.
"Fatta l’Italia, bisogna fare gli Italiani": a questo motto - attribuito dai più a Massimo D’Azeglio, ma da alcuni anche a Ferdinando Martini - avrebbe ispirato tutta la politica successiva alla spedizione dei Mille
"We have made Italy, now one must make the Italians" This saying, attributed to Massimo D’Azeglio and sometimes to Ferdinando Martini - inspired completely the politics following the commencement [of unification]"
So, to maintain its legitimacy as a kind of ’racial state’, that is, a state springing-out of a people, Italy had to fashion its people into Italians. This didn’t just mean imposing Tuscan dialect onto the whole population and calling it ’Italian’. It meant defining every part of what it meant to be Italian. And history shows that this struggle continues today. At the beginning of Italy, nationalist social architects despaired at the laziness and cunning and cowardice of the people they found before them. They felt them to be unworthy descendants of their forebears, the Romans of the Empire. Italy entered into the First World War largely because it was felt that the people had to be forged into a nation through the sacrificing of blood and life for the homeland [patria]. And this struggle continues to this day. Now Italians are categorised as blatant tax evaders and this will no longer be tolerated and the Monti government is stamping it out. What it means to be an Italian is always defined by someone else, someone else in power.
So the media are an instrument of control not of education. And the Italians are used to top-down control and indoctrination: it came to them like this through the church. So it was that State and Church worked hand-in-glove to maintain themselves over the people of the Italian peninsular and bend that people to their will.
The thing is that Italians have been abused, controlled and dominated cruelly for the whole period following the fall of the Roman Empire. Some human beings respond to such circumstances by hewing ever more closely to their oppressor. Many poor Italians gave every spare part of their life left after labour and survival to the Church. They lived for Christ and the Catholic Church and gained succour in their suffering. Some human beings rebel and the challenge to the Catholic Church posed by Luther and Protestantism seemed to offer something else but in Italy there was the Counter-Reformation and inquisition to deal with them. Some humans escape; the Italian peninsular has always been a place to emigrate from. But most, individual enough to recognize injustice and unfairness and hypocrisy, but accommodating enough not to seek to resist or flee, sought space enough to live a life where they could express themselves and find space to live and breath and permit themselves enjoyment. For the very poor this meant escape into drink and the pleasure of companionship with their fellows. There was little else.
For the first half of the 20th century life for very many Italians was really very bad. Italy was late in eliminating feudalism so very many peasants were themselves landless until after the Second World War when land-reforms gave, for the first time, land to those who worked it. Italy was late to industrialise so the industrial cities were limited and didn’t guarantee paid work for surplus labour from the countryside. Not to mention two world wars that were in every way disastrous for Italy.
But after the second world war remittances from Italian emigrants overseas, Marshall funds from the United States plus liquidity and inflation freed-up the productive capacity latent in a young Italian population, awash in surplus labour and the economy started to grow. It was not born at the time but from what I am told it was a kind of wild west: if you could make money from it you could do it. Even in 1995 when I came to Italy I was shocked at the laxity in regulation and normal civil administration. There were no refuse dumps, for example, so fly-tipping on roads and river banks was common. Houses had no earth-circuit. People routinely drank and drove when extremely drunk. When the Carabiniere came to make a check they would take away wine. We even gave free accommodation to an official and his mistress. In a very short time these things have disappeared, and it is a good thing too!
In the 1980’s Italy was under continuous pressure from the EU to behave like a modern European state. It improved the speed at which it transferred European Directives into Italian law and the State itself made clear that it was time to run a tighter ship. The trouble is that the Italian State is unbelievably dysfunctional, mindless, inefficient, Byzantine and pitiless. The laws are badly drafted, ambiguous and arbitrary in their application. In the old Italy ’work-arounds’ could often be found the ameliorate interactions with the State and its rules and laws and requirements. But as time went on, for people without power or connections this became increasingly difficult and many realised that the State, which in Italy is tyrannical, could not be neutralised at the local level and, as such, the risk of official molestation was ever-present.
In a society such as Italy was becoming by the 1990’s everyone who actually did something, who produced something, who created something, who built something was criminal in some way. As Berlusconi once said at a meeting of business people: "put up your hand anyone who hasn’t anything to hide" Nobody put up their hand and everyone in the room knew what he meant. Berlusconi railed that Italy was a Police State where communications are invariably intercepted and retained by the State (and leaked to the press) and where the tax authorities went beyond anything acceptable in a civil society in rooting-out tax evasion. Of course, most, if not all people knew, that Berlusconi was a crook chaffing at not being able to get away scot-free with his illegality as he seemed to feel he should be able to. But many also knew that what he said was true. The Italian State criminalises the morally innocent and it makes criminals of those who are behaving legitimately in every sense. For those, Berlusconi seemed the best bet to keep the weight of the State from their backs.
And then there were others. Other people who simply felt that crook-or-not, what Berlusconi said was true. And as he was the only politician prepared to say these things, they also voted for him. For those people he represented the lesser evil between having a crook in charge of the State or having a crooked State!
My next diary entry will be on why the vast majority of Italians despise the old-leftists and why they are morally even more frightening than Berlusconi (and that’s really saying something!).
Dinos Funeral - Ravosa
Photos of Dino’s funeral
The photos of today and the subsequent few days are, and will be, of the funeral of Dino Foschiatto.
Dino was of Ravosa and the photos are of the people of my village. Dino was connected to La Faula in two ways. One was that he re-built it after it was damaged in the 1976 earthquake. The other was that until one year ago, every morning at 6.30 a.m. precisely he would drive over the bridge, turn left, go about 100 meters down the gravel road and visit the little cottage, now used by his nephew, but which Dino’s brother, called Ismaele, had built and loved and died in.
Luca was at La Faula when Dino’s brother had passed away sitting under the porch outside the little cottage. That morning the brother, as was his practice, walked from the village, across the bridge and down the dusty road. As he passed Ermes, a retired motor mechanic passionately restoring one of the many vintage motorbikes he had, Ismaele had stopped and chatted. He had complained about a heavy discomfort he had running up from his chest to his jaw. He had already had the heart attack. But he walked on, and reaching the porch of the cottage sat down. And there he died.
When Ismaele failed to return for lunch Dino went to find him and found his brother, quite dead, peacefully seated on a chair at the little cottage. Dino returned to Ravosa and as many had for centuries before him, he alerted the church-keeper. The bells of the church began to chime and, it being midday, word quickly spread that Ismaele had died at the cottage down by the Malina river. The villagers came from their houses and walked down the road and they came across the bridge, more than one-hundred strong, to pay their respects to a man who was respected and liked by all.
So it was, that ever since, and until his illness confined him, Dino would come every morning to the cottage by the river and in front of La Faula. And he would check that everything was alright.
Dino, like his brother, was also a gentleman. When we came to La Faula we opened a ’frasca’. A little bar where we could sell our own wine for three months of the year. Dino would come, from time to time, with his friends from the village. He was friendly and welcoming. He made us feel at home here.
Of course, Dino had known Luca’s father and had shared with him the heart-ache of the earthquake and the challenges of the reconstruction. Both of them would recount the story that more concrete had been pumped into the walls of La Faula than in any other house. This was a procedure to reinforce the stone walls with concrete. I don’t know if this is true of not but when we restructured the house in 1999 the builders found a significant amount of concrete had squeezed into cavities and spaces, and ceilings!
Dino had a good sense of humour. Once, when we kept peacocks, he asked us if we could give him one for his friend the Maresciallo at the local station of the forestry guards. When he came for the peacock we had prepared 4 in sacks. He took them away and the locals in the nearby village of Attimis, where the station is located, claimed subsequently to have been victimised by wild peacocks damaging their vegetable gardens! Then there was another time when Dino came with his truck to collect some bamboo canes for his and his nephew’s vegetable garden. Dino’s request stimulated us in removing completely a stand of bamboo which we struggled to keep contained. Chuckling, he took away a truck full of bamboo canes, having come for only 10.
Dino was a good guy. His son is a missionary in Taiwan but his daughter Lucia runs the small local supermarket and bar in Attimis. She is a gentle person like her dad. Friendly, warm and welcoming. I often go up to their little bar and take a cappuccino, mainly because I enjoy the atmosphere.
Coming to Ravosa as a foreigner not speaking Italian let alone the local language, Friulano, was a challenge. I knew when I heard about the funeral that I wanted to photograph it; photograph it because a funeral is a time when the whole village comes together. I wanted, in my diary, to show the people of Ravosa that I live amongst. You will see from the photos that the people are old. Of course, the kids are at school and the younger people, unless directly related to Dino, would not take time off work. But, in general, Italy is an old country. These people in the photos are the reality for Luca and I in Ravosa today. And they are tough. Most of these people have known, hardship, hunger, war and violence, occupation, subjugation and civil war. Many emigrated and returned to the village in better times. They grew up in houses where the warmest place was the cow-stall, where they didn’t starve but hunger was a reality. The people they knew were often constantly drunk and violence, often of a desperate kind, was a reality. They are, of course, minimally educated in a formal sense. But mostly they are not ignorant and few are stupid. Circumstance pre-destined them for the life they led. But many were acute observers of the condition they lived in and they carry an innate compass of common sense that when allied with the teaching of experience makes them good company and astute commentators on the country they live in. I say ’they live in’ because for most of the people in these photos, they are of Ravosa or Magredis (the sister-village attached). This defines them and they are Italian only in the most formal of senses!
I was afraid, to bring the camera to the funeral. Of course, I asked Dino’s daughter, Lucia, if she would mind. She was completely relaxed about the idea. But Ravosa is a small village. And it is my village too. And I must respect the ways of the place. So even as I may rail against the iniquity of Italy and its ways at any opportunity, I respect the people I live amongst, I enjoy their company, and so did not want to give the impression that by photographing them I was treating them as exhibits. Of course, in this blog they are exhibits. But I hope of something special, and rare, and something which is disappearing as time progresses. Still, as I chose the photos to put in the web-site, I caught the suspicious gazes of those that had seen the camera. I was relieved that the Priest had not seem me photographing him. He is a Priest of formidable principles and, not having any contact with the church, I didn’t know how he would react. But, luckily, maybe, he was engrossed in his ministrations so didn’t notice me. The photos I shot rapidly and sparely. I hope that you enjoy them as much as I do!
Somebody wrote a couple of days ago:
Hi Paul, hi Luca,
how are you? As we can see on your homepage, everything is fine and Paul is in his "communication - modus". Clara wanted to see la faula on the computer and we enjoyed your nice video. And for this we have a little proposal: Maybe you know the old tv-soap "Falcon Crest"? It is so funny to hear the sound from the trailer in the mix with your video! Try it!
I did mix the theme of Falcon Crest with the Faula fly-over video. For those of you who haven’t seen it, Falcon Crest is an american TV soap opera that screened from 1981-1990. Set in the vineyards of California it featured the conflict within the powerful Gioberti family, owners of the vast Falcon Crest Winery. Watching the video with the new soundtrack, for a second I was whizzed away to a life where all is possible, wine pays enough to make one rich ..... But then, well, there was the Gioberti family and their conflicts ...and, well, I was back in Italy again. Maybe, I actually prefer La Faula, a simple life with a tiny vineyard, five jolly dogs and a Luca Colautti to keep me on my toes!
However, this was just an aside. The reason I quoted this part of the message was because it rightly identified that I am - or have been - in ’communication mode’. But now, the days are long, it hasn’t rained for over 75 days so the days are sunny and clear and there is no excuse not to be in the vineyard. So we work outside all day, return to the house at dusk and by the time we have dined and listened to the radio it already seems too late to write a diary entry. I think they will be coming less often from now on.
However, I am still, at least this evening, in ’communication mode’ so here goes!
On 6 March the Financial Times reported that:
’Italy’s treasury is to offer bonds directly to small retail Italian investors for the first time with a four-year inflation-linked issue ....
The head of the treasury’s debt management office said the “time was ripe” to target a product directly at Italian families, sensitive to the security of their investments. The four-year bond is to be linked to the Italian and not European rate of inflation and coupons will be paid every six months, with a 0.4 per cent premium for those who hold them for the full duration. A television advertisement has been prepared for the launch later this month.’
The Italian Government, unsurprisingly, wishes to insulate itself, as much as it can, from the Sovereign Debt Markets. First, Mario Monti came up with the wheeze of getting the Germans and other North European countries to guarantee Italy’s debt through the use of Eurobonds. This would allow Italy to proceed as before borrowing at - more or less - Germany’s interest rate. This would have been nothing more than a reversion to the previous situation whereby Italy insulated itself from making necessary economic and social changes by accessing the low interest rates that the common Euro currency afforded. The German government didn’t buy this approach.
So, now the Italian Government will push even further to tap into the savings of Italians. It is likely that this new initiative is not aimed at older and retired Italians who tend to invest in Italian government debt through Italian banks and their subsidiaries. This cohort also exhibits low internet penetration and use so it probably is true that the Italian Treasury is targeting Italian Families. Their future is already tied-up in the Italian economy and so getting them to bet their savings on the same is a small additional step.
The Italian Treasury is targeting Italian families because they are easy to manipulate and they won’t hold the Italian economy under a magnifying glass as will (or should!) professional investors. But this is a big mistake. The bond markets were the canary that stopped singing when it became apparent that the Italian economy was on a path to being overcome by low productivity, low investment, low education attainment, low standards in political life etc. Now Monti is promising to ventilate the economy with the winds of liberalisation and the canary is singing again. But, just in case, the Italian government wants to reduce the significance of the canary. No matter what happens to the Italian economy, private Italian savers will be powerless to help themselves or discipline the State. Their attractiveness to the Italian Government lies in the fact that being atomised in numbers their influence will be negligible, especially when compared to the influence exercised by the multinational players in the Italian bond markets.
The overall strategy of the Monti Government is by now becoming clear. First, we should be cognisant of the fact that Monti has not undertaken any great liberalisation of the Italian economy. His government’s proposals were tepid and they have been subsequently diluted by the political parties. Without any doubt his government’s actions do not match his rhetoric. In this sense, it is a depressingly familiar Italian story.
And it is a depressingly familiar Italian story in another sense. Resorting to taxation instead of cost-cutting, using propaganda and methods of a Police State to quell resistance to paying taxes at that rate so as to keep income up and for the money that remains in the bank accounts of tax payers offering an unbeatable investment in Italian public debt on favourable tax terms.
In 1994 Silvio Berlusconi was elected to office the first time. He lasted only a year. He returned to office in 2001 lasting a full term until 2006. Romani Prodi formed a government of the left from May 2006 until May 2008 and then Berlusconi returned until 2011 when he was superseded by the Monti executive. The fiscal strategy Monti is following is exactly that which was followed by Giulio Tremonti, Berlusconi’s Finance Minister and Vincenzo Visco, Romano Prodi’s Finance Minister.
Not only, but Berlusconi and Prodi each had an advantage that Monti lacks. When Berlusconi first came to power in 1994 the export boom provoked by the multiple devaluations of the Lira when it exited the European Exchange Mechanism was still running its course. And the Prodi government wallowed in the speculative boom that was to end in tears in September 2008. Both governments enjoyed raised VAT and tax revenues due to buoyant exports. Monti is facing the opposite and yet he is pushing-on with the same destructive strategy. Monti is squeezing a private sector that has nothing left to give. Now, Monti is feted as a sage who in a few months has re-set all Italy’s prospects. In reality he is the pilot who when he finds that ice on the wings has provoked an aerodynamic stall pulls-up on the joystick, willing the plane higher until speed washes off the wings, and the plane ceases to fly and it falls destructively to earth.
Italy is currently undergoing a national emergency that will lead it inevitably to an existential crisis. And, in good Italian fashion, we are now here in Italy, through the TV and newspapers, congratulating ourselves that the spread between German and Italian debt is back to comfortable levels and that we can put the recession behind us and think about growth (Monti’s words). I can but marvel at the courage, chutzpah, audacity of a Prime Minister who is so secure in the country that he is able to raise VAT rates to 23% in October next. Or maybe the hubris of saving Italy in only 100 days has blinded him to what is coming.
In any case the Monti government is yet another example of the 1941 postcard that I have in our glass display cabinet in the kitchen. Stamped across the back in bold is "We Will Win" [Vinceremo] followed by the Royal Crest. It would be funny were it not so apposite and tragic!
The destruction of the Euro will be an Italian affair. Italian in the sense that the head of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, has provided Italian banks with effectively free money to load up on Italian public debt. Italian in the sense that the Italian Prime Minister, Mario Monti who was permitted, effectively by the Country, to form a non-elected government to allow Italy to control the economic changes the sovereign debt markets were driving it to make, instead of having them forced upon it, has assured the continued destruction of Italian productive capacity. That destruction will, at some point in the not-too-distant future, expose that Italy is bankrupt and will never pay back its public debt in full.
At that point, to the extent that Italian banks are holding Italian sovereign debt, so will their balance sheets be holed as cleanly as the hull of the Costa Concordia. And history will note that not only was Italy unable to save its banks but that it was Italy, itself, that caused them to fail.
Many forget that the current Euro crisis ensnared Italy only because she was already dead-in-the water. Unlike the other PIGS countries, Italy for the period prior to the present Euro crisis ran a primary budget surplus, that is excluding interest payments the state takes in more than it spends. The joy of the ERM mechanism and then the Euro that followed it was that it enabled Italy to re-finance its borrowings at low interest rates due to the markets believing that Italy was implicitly guaranteed by the whole Euro project.
All recent Italian governments had decided that with anaemic growth being the reality, serious debt reduction would be too unpopular to implement so it was like a family with an interest-only mortgage at a low interest rate because the loan was also guaranteed by a rich uncle. Only that in the case of Italy there was no intention at all to repay the principal - instead it would be left to future generations. Italy’s number was called, however, when Greece got into difficulty and the sovereign debt markets started to reconsider the implicit guarantees that were believed to apply to Italy. Suddenly, with Germany being recalcitrant, it became a real possibility that Italy would not repay its debts and the self-fulfilling part of this prophecy was to drive-up interest rates to the point where they would become unsustainable.
At this point two things happened. One was that the Eurozone countries started to tackle the problem and to give calm to the markets. The other was a change of government in Italy with substitution of the Berlusconi executive for a non-elected one led by Mario Monti. No one should under-estimate the challenge facing Monti. His job was to convince the markets that he would reform the economy to the point where economic growth would permit a steady reduction in the public debt. He could, in fact, have begun talks with lenders to begin the process of an agreed write-off which would have been by far the least worst of the alternatives. However, he began by announcing that he and his government would be making a generational change in Italy. It should be noted that two generations of Italians had emphatically resisted making such changes and his government only has 13 months in which to make them.
Not only, but it should also be noted that all Italy has to show for a public debt of 120% of GDP is a rich older generation with numerous houses, generous pensions and overall a good quality of life. That is, the money borrowed was consumed and not put to productive use: for this reason Italy is seeing de-industrialisation and continuously declining productivity.
I have written previously that this will all finish badly for Italy when it becomes apparent to all that Italy in incapable of ever significantly paying-down its public debt and that the debt will become an increasing burden on a stagnant economy. So be it. However, in such a situation, the last thing that anyone would want to do is to encourage the Italian banks to load-up on Italian public debt. But Mario Draghi did it.
Now, it should be noted that a key - if not the key - function of banks in Italy has been to buy the public debt and hold it and to procure it and push it on to the Italian public (including businesses and institutions). For this reason a very large part of the Italian public debt is held by Italians. But this has grossly distorted Italian banks other banking functions and has led to them operating as an officially condoned cartel imposing usurious costs on their customers (here I should mention that Monti is in the process of addressing this particular issue).
Now, both Mario Monti and Mario Draghi know that growth will never come to Italy in such strength as to permit the public debt problem to be addressed. Monti is squeezing the country for cash and will be forced to do so ever-more as the economic slump in Italy eats into tax revenues. First at the Italian Treasury and then as President of the Bank of Italy, Draghi more than almost anyone understood the relationship between the Italian banks and the funding of the public debt. More than anyone else he knows the structural weaknesses of Italy and he must know that it is not up to the task that it has been set.
A prudent European Central Bank would push the Italian banks to repair their balance sheets and reinforce themselves for the maelstrom that is coming. A prudent European Central Bank would leave badly governed countries like Italy to affront the consequences of their actions. Yet Draghi has, in fact, imported into the European sphere, what the bank of Italy did in pre-ERM/Euro days when it created money to alleviate the symptoms of Italy’s economic malaise.
One can only hope that at the point that the sovereign debt markets turn again on Italy the Italian banks will have reduced their holdings. Otherwise Italy and its banks will go down together. A true maelstrom!
Today something rather unexpected - even spooky - happened. Normally my diary entry is lucky to get more than 18 page views in a 24 hour period. During holidays or periods when people are at home and flicking through the web, the diary page can get up to 26 page views in 24 hours. But more than this I don’t think that it has ever got.
As I write this at 21.07 on Wednesday evening the number of page views is up to 73. Now, in the internet scheme of things this is less than less than nothing. But we are a small Agriturismo in a little corner of Italy and I write my diary partly to keep the web-site alive, partly to make sense of Italy for myself, partly as a conversation with guests who come regularly and partly to record ideas that the Italians we live amongst share with me. Some people who live locally give me information for my diary even though they, themselves, have never read it. The diary entry on young people leaving Italy was an example of this with a friend handing me the Gazzetino newspaper (which I don’t read) which ran the article on young people leaving the Veneto region. Some people here who know or follow the diary will say to me ’Why don’t you write about X in your diary’ and I condense or paraphrase their views and write them up on our website. Generally this is because Italy is a country with a tame and conformist press - there is always a line of the moment - free thinkers really suffer under this and in some way I am seen as a line to the world outside, a more rational world. It’s a psychological release.
So I was surprised to be up-braided on my diary entry of yesterday by two Italians who I don’t know and who have never stayed at La Faula! It seems incredible that anyone not connected to La Faula in some way would follow the website.
Yesterday I wrote than Italy, being a country with very many family-owned businesses and a a punitive and confiscatory tax regime was likely to have encouraged tax evasion to the extent that money saved by evading would be directly available to business owners either to reinvest in their business or to spend or save or hide-away as they wished. It is a no-brainer as far as I can see.
However, this view was attacked on three grounds. One was that there is ample evidence of politicians and public servants, and their friends and relatives, and many other hangers-on such as consultants unethically but legally gorging themselves from the public purse, enriching themselves, and so evasion had to be seen in this context. The other position was that tax monies went to support a hostile and value-destroying public administration that damaged the ability of firms to produce and compete. Finally, the point was made that illegal misuse of public monies, through corruption or organised crime, could do nothing but instigate evasion.
Now, every law-breaker has a good reason or excuse to justify their own transgressions. And if one took these arguments as justification to evade then no one at all should pay their taxes in Italy, or at the very minimum each taxpayer should decide how much to pay on the basis of the value they receive from the State. This is obviously untenable.
And we must remember that Italians are cut from the same cloth. Is it really true that Italians evade because of the objective iniquities in the administration of public monies or are they all just the same so just as politicians and civil servants abuse the trust placed in them so would your average tax-payer; that is, without the terror of the Guardia di Finanza and Equitalia Italians just wouldn’t bother to pay their taxes?
But what really happens if the iniquities in how public monies are managed by those in positions of trust are monumental in proportion. What happens in a society such as this? What really happens?
One of the laudable initiatives of the Monti government has been to require senior civil servants to disclose their earnings. I was, frankly, shocked to find that the earnings of top earners in the public administration have hitherto been considered secret. Notwithstanding this requirement only partial disclosure has been made. One of the people resisting full disclosure is the head of the Inland Revenue Service. And not only, it has become clear that top civil servants may, and do, hold more than one job in the public sector and they are sometimes earning more than one salary. There are Ministers in the Monti government who are earning more than one salary. To give you an idea of what a top civil servant can earn for one post I will tell you that the head of the Police disclosed that he is paid €621.253,75 per year. And this is just the head of one of the Italian police forces: there is also the Carabinieri and the Guardia di Finanza not to mention the Municipal Police and the Provincial Police.
Now, what about how these people treat themselves. In Italy there are 65,000 official cars with drivers for public servants. And, Monti has just announced that in 100 days he has saved €23.5 million of expenses in the Prime Minister’s office by reducing official state flights by 92%. Do these figures shock you? They certainly shocked many Italians from whom this abuse had been kept secret, and many remembered that next year the politicians who wallowed in these extravagances, and the extravagances by civil servants, paid for by others will return to the helm!
What about corruption. Private corruption is not a crime in Italy so we are talking about corruption by public bodies. The President of the Italian Court of Accounts estimated that in 2011 corruption amounted to €60 billion (yes, sixty billion Euros) and that Italy, by itself, accounted for one-half of corruption in the European Union. Now, these are estimates but he did say that in 2011 guilty verdicts were reached in trials for corruption amounting to €75 million. By itself, this is a shocking figure and one can reasonably infer that undiscovered corruption is greater.
What about links between politicians and organised crime? The Italian Anti-Mafia Police have sounded the alarm at the infiltration by Organised Crime groups into Lombardia and their links with politicians. Not to mention the ongoing investigations into negotiations between the mafia and the Berlusconi Government mediated by the Politician Marcello Dell’Utri. Not to mention either the fact that the last Italian Minister of Agriculture was actually at the time of his appointment committed to trial for being linked to the mafia. This is just a snippet of the never-ending stories of arrests, corruption and political linking to organised crime that are our daily bread in Italy.
So I think that it is a fair to say that irrespective of whether or not Italians would willingly pay their taxes uncoerced the point is moot as the Italian State has not proved itself worthy of taking and spending the wealth produced by private enterprise. This is a fundamental problem as the wealth produced by physical or intellectual exertion by one group of people is not to be squandered and appropriated by another. To do so is to reduce the producers of wealth to a type of servitude.
It is obvious that very many in Italy, not only politicians and civil servants, free-ride on the backs of the private sector. The numbers of free-riders seem almost limitless: pensioners who through design will extract more than they ever paid-in, civil servants who will earn more, much more, than they value that they bring to society can ever justify just to give two examples.
And this is an intractable problem: no politician in Italy is ever going to admit that the State, being effectively a plunder system, lacks the moral authority to levy and collect taxes even though it has the undeniable force to do so. In fact, the State does just the opposite. To obscure its immorality it mounts an ongoing campaign of vilification of tax evasion and those who practice it. The Italian State pretends that if people pay their taxes then taxes will be reduced for everyone. But it forgets that the people are also Italians and they know how their money gets spent: they know that the more money there is the more there will be to spread around and that the numbers of free-riders and rent-seekers in Italy grows in proportion to the wealth available. Craxi and Berlusconi taught them that!
For those of you that dip into this diary, I apologise for writing again on the Italian economy. It seems obsessive, especially now that Monti is at the helm and Italy has gone from being part of the problem to being part of the solution (his words). It seems that I just can’t let the thing go. The bond markets are calm, Italy is re-financing its public debt, again without problems. I’m obviously a gnarled know-it-all but ignorant farmer who can’t stop gnawing away at the same old bone!
It’s just that it is so clear now what is happening to the economy - what is being done to the economy - that the outcome, for the first time can be foreseen with little doubt. Now, telling the future should be left to clairvoyants, but equally we live and go-on because we can calculate the future effects of our actions. And the future effects of what the Monti Government is currently doing can already be ascertained without resort to cleromancy or divination!
Let’s start at the beginning. For many reasons, Italy following the second world war carried-on industrialising rapidly and developed a very powerful and successful export sector. By the time that it was three-quarters of the way through the 20th Century, Italy had a noteworthy and well-developed industrial and manufacturing sector. However, by the early 1990’s Italian industry was becoming uncompetitive, productivity was stagnant (or falling) and for many firms this meant an inexorable, if not instant, fall in profits. There was a consequent fall-off in business investment. The Italian economy stagnated, effectively, until the current date.
Italy has many large and internationally known firms. But the vast majority of Italian firms, including those subcontracting and supplying the famous brand-names, are small family owned and managed firms. The owners of these firms - and their families - live out of the firm, often in an informal way. In the boom times these small firms provided their owners with a great living, many got rich. Being family controlled and managed, tax evasion was a real temptation - gains through evasion would accrue directly to the owners and could then be reinvested, spent or salted away to Switzerland. This is especially true in a country like Italy where tax rates are high and capital allowances and deductions miserly.
Now, in a normal country unbearable tax rates would, of themselves, create a pressure to bring them down. However, in Italy, with a non-representative and fractured proportional democracy such pressure could not coalesce so businesses and their owners simply used evasion to reduce taxes to - subjectively - acceptable levels. On the other hand, Italy ran a populist political system and as employees - whether of the public or private sector - were historically the most numerous element of the voting public they were rewarded with lavish pensions, long holidays, lavish ’gold-watch’ retirement lump sum payments, 13-14 months salary for 12 months work, guaranteed jobs-for-life and the like.
As it impacted on private sector workers, the effect of this legislative largess was to increase significantly the cost burden on companies and inexorably to lead to a decline in productivity. As the same impacted on public sector employees it led to increases in public expenditure, increases in State intrusiveness into private business affairs and an overall reduction in productivity as numerous public employees performed no effectively useful function.
But the State began to cost, really cost and so, at the time that businesses were starting to struggle with their cost base, the Italian State started seriously hunting-out money. And this was well before Monti. And to assist the Italian State it has an internal revenue service with enforcement and investigative functions plus a complete Military alongside the normal Military - this Military is called the Guardia di Finanza and comprises land, air and maritime forces. The Guardia di Finanza is commonly translated into English as the Finance Police. But they are much more than a Police and much more than a para-military force. They are, in fact, a real military and one of their major functions is tracking down tax cheats.
So it happened that Italian firms found themselves squeezed between rising costs and an unrealistic tax burden. And at the very time that this was happening foreign competition - especially in Eastern Europe and Asia - broke like a wave over numerous sectors in which Italy had, up-until-then been a world leader (think textiles, chairs and furniture, pumps etc).
Italy has a medieval (figuratively speaking) bankruptcy code. Bankruptcy does not erase debts and those debts run with the estate on death. So most family owned Italian businesses don’t have bankruptcy as an option. They tend to keep on until they really do reach the end of the rope and they fail. And very large numbers of Italian businesses have failed in recent years. If the owners are lucky and can pay off all their creditors, employees, tax authorities and others who have a claim on the business they can close. As all things Italian, it is a bureaucratic morass but it is possible. And very many firms are closing. The advantage of the Italian pension system has been that it was a final-salary scheme with income guaranteed for life. Many business owners have retired and gifted their share to other partners or staff in recognition that their share of the firm has no value because the firm has no value. And finally, many firms are zombie firms - seemingly alive but actually dead. Italian firms of a certain size can negotiate with the State to have the State pay 80% of an employee’s salary for that employee to stay at home. The idea is that when things pick-up the employee will return to his or her previous job. But if things don’t pick-up then there is the possibility of having the State pay for longer. But, this must have an end and many firms are reaching it.
So the private sector economy is dire, and for this reason Italy has stagnated for the last 20 years.
So now Monti has arrived and the offer that he is making to Italian businesses is this: They will pay all their taxes and in return he will modernise the tax code, make it easier to fire long-term employees - actually I’m not sure if there is anything else. On the other hand, the public sector, actually he will do nothing. He won’t make public sector employees sack-able, as they aren’t sack-able he won’t cut them. He will make them speedier in their bureaucratic applications by digitisation. That’s about it really.
So Monti is betting on extracting more wealth from the productive sector. A sector already on the rocks. It’s a 0-sum game - lose-lose. To the extent that the tax authorities succeed in extracting wealth from the productive sector so will they weaken it and increase the rate of its decline. This will inevitably lead to a decline in tax-takings so the authorities will try harder which, of course, will make things worse.
Italy is committing suicide and all the while the world is saying what a great thing it is that Monti had turned things around.
Now, I’m personally not convinced that by now evasion of taxes by Italian businesses is in the stratospheric proportions that the current propaganda campaign piloted by the Government, the State and chunks of the - especially left-leaning media - would have us believe. And, the Government doesn’t know more than I because tax evasion is by definition is unknown.
But what is known is that the Italian productive sector has been for a long time, and is in, decline.
So the story, I think we can be confident will proceed then finish like this:
Phase 1: Campaign to frighten tax evaders into paying their taxes
- good results announced
Phase 2: Production down, employment down, workers on stay-at-home on pay schemes up, exports down
Phase 3: Business failures and closures up and up
Phase 4: Tax takes diminish - increased anti-evasion steps announced
Phase 5: Economy doesn’t return to growth within envisioned time, when it does growth is insufficient to fund pay down the public debt (which in the meantime has been increasing)
Phase 6: Debt markets return focus to Italy as it is realised that its economic performance will not allow it to pay its public debt
Phase 7: Italy will leave the Euro
A quote attributed to Winston Churchill rather sums-up the position of the Monti Government:
"Some people regard private enterprise as a predatory tiger to be shot. Others look on it as a cow they can milk. Not enough people see it as a healthy horse, pulling a sturdy wagon."
Monti is intending to milk it for all he is worth!
La storia/ Lasciano il lavoro e partono per
l’Australia: «Una nuova prospettiva di vita»
Il Gazzettino 22 February 2012
The Story/ They leave their work and leave for Australia "A new prospect for life"
In three years 50,000 young Italians have landed in Australia.
Like this the best of youth leaves Italy and the Veneto Region, that which can no longer stand the incrustations of the ’Beautiful Country’ [Italy] and the excessive sly scoundrels that free-ride on the backs of the others. It’s a shocking exodus that carries away the fresh blood of the country: not only and exclusively "the young", but above all those that are prepared to put themselves in play, to risk and to roll up their sleeves. If from a small provincial town like Montebelluna have left for overseas more than twenty young people aged between 18 and 30 years, (confirmed by the local Utpull Travel Agency) it means that word-of-mouth is a river full to overflowing and that there is an entire generation with suitcase in hand."
"Here blows a bad wind, you feel the crisis upon you. I’m going away because I want to have the possibility of a life, I want to earn decently and put aside something to have a family, to have a horizon that is not simply a plodding forward day-by-day."
"I’m not going to Australia to stay there 6 months or a year. If I can make it there I’ll stay there for the whole of my life."
And the determination that you read in his eyes reveals that behind this phrase is truly a nausea for a country, our country, that can’t offer prospects and even less dreams. "Yes, I am also going to stay there - says Filippo - I think that it is a great possibility. We have nothing to lose. It can’t go bad."
The excerpts above are from an article that appeared in the Gazzettino, a paper of the Veneto - Friuli Regions. Emigration of young people overseas from Italy has reached immense proportions.
I guess that these young people will get a warm welcome in Australia. I wonder what the Chinese make of their welcome in Friuli. What follows are excerpts from Il Messaggero a newspaper covering Friuli dated 19 February 2012.
Manzano, the Guardia di Finanza [Finance Police] seizes Chinese Wholesale Shopping-Centre
Alleged lack of certification for the anti-fire systems of the centre. Evicted 30 families: "We had asked the owner of the building to put things in compliance with the law"
Yesterday morning around twenty Finance Police, commanded by Captain Dario Greci (with the assistance of two police patrol cars and two squad cars of the Carabinieri para-military police and a fire-engine) seized and put under seal the wholesale shopping centre and sent home around 30 Chinese families victims of a closure for which it seems they bear no responsibility. The seizure of the Shopping Centre was not the result of counterfeit goods or irregularities by the salespeople but rather the lack of a certificate relating to the antifire systems and other systems and the absence of which does not allow the workers to work in safety.
For the Chinese workers it was, however, an authentic cold shower: crowded in silence at the entrance to the carpark, they waited for hours until the Finance Policemen, who had arrived at 7.00 a.m., took them one at a time into their shops to retrieve at least perishable goods or those goods already sold and needing to be urgently shipped.
One must now ask where they will live and work the 30 families rendered from yesterday until today without their shop and without bearing any responsibility for what happened.
Yes. One may well ask!
In December, the European Central Bank created €489bn which it lent to Eurozone Banks on the basis of poor collateral. Italy’s banks were the biggest users of this facility. This operation triggered a significant improvement in Italian the government bond market. So it does seem that Italian banks did as President Sarkozy of France predicted:
“Italian banks will be able to borrow [from the ECB] at 1 per cent, while the Italian state is borrowing at 6-7 per cent. It doesn’t take a finance specialist to see that the Italian state will be able to ask Italian banks to finance part of the government debt at a much lower rate.”
In effect the European Central Bank has created money for which there is no immediate underlying value. It has a nominal value, of course, but it raises the real question as to the value of money and what it actually is.
In normal times a massive increase in the money supply would be a recipe for inflation. However, these are not normal times and when so much value has been destroyed by Italy which, after borrowing so much, finds itself with insufficient productive capacity to pay down its public debt and just enough productive capacity to pay the the interest on that debt, massive liquidity is required to encourage, maybe even bribe, the banks to continue funding that debt as doubts begin to seep in regarding the creditworthiness of the nation.
But the value is not there. It really isn’t there. Taking the money from the European Central Bank, the Italian banks can be bribed or coerced into reinvesting in Italian public debt but this is just buying time. The European Central Bank is gambling that in the time bought, and through the interventions of the Monti government, the productive capacity of Italy through growth will increase and allow it to concretely commence paying down its public debt. Thus, that which it can’t do today it will be able to do tomorrow and market confidence thus returned the crisis will be over.
As an aside, if this is the scenario and it is achieved it is hard to believe that we wouldn’t see serious inflation or the creation of other asset-price bubbles.
If, however, Italy cannot achieve the growth in its economy necessary to allow it to pay-down its public debt, and the market knows and begins to believe this to be the case, the result will be disastrous because Italy will be bust and the banks, to the extent that they hold worthless Italian public debt, will see their assets and capital destroyed. In fact, the strategy of the ECB which is unable to fund the Italian public debt directly is to do it via the banks but this is to spread the country risk to the banks as a matter of deliberate policy. It’s frankly madness.
It is clear to me that Italy will never have the growth in its productive capacity necessary to pay back its public debt. It’s an old, tired, conservative, badly-governed, badly run, often corrupt country with appallingly cynical politicians, a destructive bureaucracy, a massive old and poorly educated population, shocking demographics with youth-flight from the country and youth inactivity for a massive number of those who remain. A clear mind can but make one see that the debt was created precisely to guarantee a standard of living to a people who were unwilling or unable to productively obtain that standard of living by themselves. The public debt is in the assets of the old Italians (including in their foreign bank accounts!).
And Monti knows this and he knows well that when the statistics show, quarter after quarter, that Italy isn’t up to the task the markets will realise that the whole of that debt is not going to be repaid. And then the interest rates will go up and then the whole house of cards will tumble down. So he, of course, wants Eurobonds guaranteed by Germany. He wants Germany, through its productive capacity, to guarantee the obligations which Italy has incurred but which it is unable to meet. This is cynical and exploitative but it does conform to an Italian pattern of seeking foreign assistance to extricate itself from its own misadventures (German funding during WWII, Marshall funds, U.S. and Soviet funding during the Cold War).
It would be better if Italy abandoned its magical thinking, faced-up to the very real challenge of creating a country, and all that goes with it, fit to give all its citizens, of all generations a fair shot and a decent quality of life. Maybe Italy won’t even be able do this.
But the starting point would be the realisation that Italy will need to enter into negotiations with its creditors to reduce its debt-burden. Now, of course, that the Italian banks have bought more debt, and that a large part of that debt has found its way back to the European Central Bank, the task will be significantly more difficult. But the day of reckoning has actually already arrived. Denying this, and buying time hoping that something will turn-up is just piling risk upon risk.
Someone who read my last diary entry asked me if I really believe that the changes currently being made by Mario Monti’s Government will be insufficient to resolve the long-standing moribund state of Italy’s economy.
The answer is yes and for the reasons that were set-out in a letter sent to the Greek Government by Greek labour unions and business leaders opposing wage cuts. They wrote that Greece’s lag in competitiveness stemmed from structural problems, not wage levels: “Competitiveness on a [Greek] national level is affected more by factors like bureaucracy — which is fed by complex regulation, state intervention, the tax system, corruption and antibusiness mentality rather than wage costs,”
They could be writing about Italy. The fundamental problem is that Italian policy makers and bureaucrats don’t believe that the private sector can be trusted to pay its taxes and respect environmental, product safety and the numerous other laws that impact on the productive economic activity of a nation.
At the inauguration of the Italian 2012 judicial year the President of the Court of Auditors warned that "corruption, malfeasance and illegality are still very strong, much stronger than they appear. These phenomena, he said, "are present in the country to a significant degree and the size of which, presumably, are far superior to those that are, often painfully, brought to light.
He went on to say that just in the evasion of VAT alone Italy is top amongst European countries.
If we put aside, for a moment, the question of whether and to what extent Italian business people can be trusted to obey the laws, one thing we can be clear about is that in the eyes of Italian officialdom they can’t. That is, Italian officialdom views private economic activity as highly likely to be, as a minimum, evasory of tax, labour and work-safety laws and most probably as commonly harbouring worse i.e. corruption and crime.
Putting aside the question as to whether the Italian parliament has an effective system for drafting and considering laws, and also putting aside the fact that most laws are hurriedly prepared being the result of horse-trading between the political parties, one thing that we can be clear about is that those laws drafted will be aimed at restricting evasion and worse. So they will be controlling, prescriptive and impose heavy obligations on business that limit businesses freedom of action.
Putting aside the philosophical question as to whether, in a free-market democracy, the role of the State should be to encourage and support private economic activity, one thing that we can be clear about is that in Italy the State primarily sees its role as controlling all private economic initiative that occurs within its territory, each element of which can be hiding evasion, non-compliance, corruption and illegality. Obviously this isn’t so easy in the case of Organised Crime and neither is it so easy in the case of companies like Fiat that can create a real and plausible threat to leave Italy.
Putting aside the question as to whether bad laws, oppressively applied and rigidly enforced by people sharing the very same history and values as the subjugants of those laws and their application can lead to corruption to relieve the burden, one thing that we can be clear about is that such an environment is hardly conducive to healthy economic development and is more likely to lead to economic morbidity.
And that brings us back to the central conundrum in Italy. If the people - in their guise as entrepreneurs - cannot be trusted; and if that same people - in their guise as politicians - cannot be trusted - and if that very same people - in their guise as administrators, controllers and bureaucrats - cannot be trusted, the tiger eats its own tail and the country has no future.
It reminds me of a story I loved as a kid: an boy goes into the jungle and encounters four hungry tigers, and surrenders his colourful new clothes, shoes, and umbrella so they will not eat him. The tigers are vain and each thinks he is better dressed than the others. They chase each other around a tree until they are reduced to a pool of melted butter. The boy then recovers his clothes and his mother makes pancakes which they eat with the delicious butter. I don’t think Italy will have an ending even as half as productive!
Many of you will recognise Rina from the Photo of the Day. Rina was our cook for a good number of years. She is a great cook and I know that many of you will have fond memories of dinners prepared by her that you enjoyed at La Faula. Rina was at the opening of a news-agents that her son and his girlfriend have just opened in the centre of Povoletto.
You might think that the birth of this new business is an expression of the new vitality that Italy is experiencing under the liberalizing Monti government. You might have read that Italy is undergoing a period of austerity. Strange as it is to recount, Italy is not undergoing a period of austerity and while the government is certainly liberalizing more than probably any government in the entire history of Italy it is liberalizing Italian-style; that is, cynically.
Where Monti is refreshing is in the language that he uses. He challenges the false-beliefs and magical thinking conformistically forced down upon and into Italian consciousness. Many Italians were shocked when he pointed out that for very many people entering the workforce today, the same-job-for-life is not a plausible possibility. But this is nothing to do with the government. He was just stating a fact, but a fact to which many Italians remained wilfully ignorant. He has rightly pointed out that Italy is in need of great change - not because it is being forced upon the country by Europe or the markets but because Italy must change if it wishes to have a future as a vibrant and healthy society with an economy capable of sustaining a quality life for the vast majority of citizens.
But Monti has also said that there is no longer any need to worry about Italy because it is now on the right track, he has said that he intends fundamentally to change Italian society in the remaining year of his one-and-a-half-year government and he has said that the changes that he is making are to give young people a chance. Italy is certainly on the right track compared to past governments so this is half-true but Italy remains a train-wreck happening. Italian society can certainly not be changed, let alone fundamentally changed in one year by an un-elected government so this is untrue. Some of the changes that the Monti government has made could certainly be seen as necessary but not sufficient conditions to assisting entrepreneurial vigour in young people. But the changes have fundamentally been made to guarantee the status and quality of life of the two great favoured Italian casts - pensioners and workers in the public sector.
If Italy had struck serious difficulty raising money to fund its borrowing, young people would have pretty much found themselves in the same desperate situation that they are in now. Businesses are currently also in a desperate situation. Starved of profits to reinvest and privy of bank funding; crushed by poorly designed and un-pityingly applied legislation, subject to an unyielding and confiscatory taxation regime they are failing and closing. As things are now, for the private sector they could be little worse. But life goes on as before for the pensioners and public workers. This has been guaranteed.
One only has to look at Greece to see that when a government really has run out of money and options cuts must be made to pensions and public workers. Like Greece, Italy has a coterie of pensioners well-paid by unfunded State occupational pensions based on 80% of their final salary (not to mention the incredibly generous unfunded ’gold-watch retirement bonus’ and at-retirement promotion to a higher-paid grade!) and a bloated, inefficient and hostile public workforce, unsackable, that probably more than anything else has destroyed Italy like termites methodically destroying the productive fabric of the society. Yes, the corrupt and dysfunctional politicians may be like the wind that brings the house down but it was the numerous corrosive individual insects that brought it to destruction.
Monti has made three calculations, unfortunately that are plain wrong and my guess is that he - like Berlusconi before him - will still be in power when the house comes down around him.
Monti has calculated first that there is a large pot of wealth called ’evaded taxes’ that he will be able to get his hands upon without damaging the productive capacity of the country and which will be sufficient to sate a significant part of Italy’s on-going funding needs. My guess is first that the pot is much smaller than believed and that, to the extent that those resources can captured and transferred from the individual companies to the Italian State, they will drive companies out of business and restrict re-investment in productive activity. Taking money that would otherwise be put to productive use and giving it to hoarding pensioners or public workers to carry-on their work of suffocating the productive sector is value destroying. The Soviet Union was value destroying. Its end will also be Italy’s.
The second calculation that Monti is making is that the changes that he is making will be enough to stimulate growth. This is plain wrong. The restrictions and inefficiencies that Monti is addressing are real enough and in the long term changing them is a necessary condition to stimulating economic growth. But it is not a sufficient condition and the liberalizing must be a real freeing of the ’animal spirits’ of the productive sector. Those animal spirits were running wild in the after-war years when ordinary Italians found that by the application of intelligence and hard-work (and often cunning) they had more than a fair chance of becoming well-off and a shot at being rich. But a Roman Catholic country (which Italy is) cannot countenance for long wild Bacchanalian spirits, the will must be bent to the authority of the State and besides Italy is an old and tired country run for old and conservative people. The free young leave.
The third calculation that Monti is making is his greatest mistake. When Italy was run by Prodi the Italian group-think was that Prodi was a good man, with an uncorrupt government (at least compared to that of Berlusconi before) and he was a good pair of hands to have on the economy. Whereas Prodi’s government was wholly morally corrupt based as it was on the buying of the allegiance of smaller parties with rewards of positions and posts and many in it were legally corrupt and were forced to resign. Prodi governed during the two-years in which Italy experienced its greatest growth in a generation due to the liquidity boom of 2006-2008. He spent it. When the Berlusconi-Tremonit axis returned (Tremonti being the Finance Minister) the group-think was that Italy was doing fine, probably better than other countries and was an admired example in the world community of nations. Well, we know how that finished. We should remember that Prodi and Berlusconi were feted in world capitals. Berlusconi was a faithful ally of President George Bush and addressed both House of Congress.
Now we must submit to the group-think about Monti. That he is liberalizing Italy in a ’German’ way, that he is motivated by the future of Italy, especially that of its young people and that he is inflicting a generation change on the country. In fact, he is making those changes that he thinks he can to maintain the status quo. As the Prince says in that great novel Il Gattopardo "everything must change so that everything can stay the same" Monti, an aristocrat in the current system (for this reason he was chosen by the President Napolitano to perform this role) is giving nothing to the young and he is taking away from the productive sector.
So Monti is calculating that the truth of what he is doing will remained cloaked from those who count objectively if Italy is to have any good future. The fact that those Italians, conservatively glued to their television thought-boxes and reading reliably (partially) State-funded nationalistic newspapers, be they of the ’left’ or the ’right’, will reliably regurgitate whatever the line of thought is of the moment will not compensate for the fact that those upon whom the whole edifice depends - entrepreneurs who risk their capital and the workers who give their mental and physical labour and the young who have the energy that an enervated country lacks - will see the lie. And they will know that Monti, despite most probably being a good man, is just another Italian leader unable to level with his society and tell the truth. The private sector and the young will smell out Monti’s partiality to the status quo.
Seeing the lie, their resources confiscated to the State and its two great casts, the old and the public sector, the Italian productive sector and the young will drain away. All that will be left will be the carcass of the great party that was had by a whole generation on many generations-worth of public debt!
[The next diary entry will be on how, by funding the Italian banks to load-up on Italian public debt, the European Central Bank, under the Italian Mario Draghi, has ensured that the banks are effectively bust. When it becomes obvious that the Italian economy will never be able to sustain repayment of its public debt, the extent that the banks are still holding that debt will be the extent of their exposure]
Our website has been still-in-the-water for around four weeks. It still showed but it was not possible for me to add photos or diary entries. For the last couple of weeks the webcam images were stilled. It is nice to have it back again and live!
The problem began when the webhost notified me that I was reaching the limit of the 5GB disk space available under our hosting plan. Two years ago when we had reached 3GB of web content I was able to increase the maximum to 5GB, at that time the limit of what was available from this particular company, and I hoped that by the time that we reached this maximum the web-hosting world would have moved on and significantly more space would have been available. However, it was not to be. Upon receiving the automated message informing me that our website was out of room I contacted the company and asked them if they could increase the disk space available. They refused and offered me instead a virtual server package costing around 12 times more than the hosting. I wrote back saying that, actually, all I needed was more hard disk space and it would be good if they could provide it as otherwise I would be forced to transfer the hosting. The reply was curt: I could not expect them to tailor hosting packages to individuals! Now I should mention here that, always being afraid to lose our domain, faula.com, by forgetting to pay the annual renewals, I had prepaid the hosting until mid-2014.
Then followed a time of searching out other webhosting companies. The main question was whether to stick with an Italian company or go to one of the many international webhosters whose offers are significantly better than most of those from Italy. Now there is no reason at all when you are thinking of webhosting to stick with a local company. I come from New Zealand and have lived in the United States and United Kingdom so I certainly have no inate reluctance to use a non-Italian webhosting service. But......well.......you know......yes, in the end irrationally and without any basis in fact I decided that it would somehow be more secure to go with an Italian web hosting service.
With the internet everything is local, but what really motivated me was the very real belief that there were sure to be problems with the transfer and the unfounded and probably unjustified assumption that having something Italian would make the resolution easier. While I was searching and deciding on the best webhosting company to transfer to I was unable to add content to the website as we were at the point of running on empty regarding disk space and so it seemed prudent to leave the website unaltered until the transfer had occurred.
Eventually I decided on a company and asked a friend of Luca’s nephew who is in his 4th year of computer science at Udine University to give me a hand. Having decided to transfer to an Italian webhosting company obviously it made sense to have an Italian assist me in the process! We made a full back-up of faula.com as at 31 January. This would be the version that would eventually go live in the new hosting. Everything that occurred on the site after this date would disappear at the point that the back-up version went live.
I registered with the new hosting company. Unlocked the domain from the old hosting, obtained the transfer code, followed links and compiled on-line forms until it seemed that all there was to do was to wait. The domain transfer authorisation was issued on 2 February and specified that the transfer would occur within 7 days. Having done everything that I had been required to do it seemed that the process would be wholly automatic. Well...
On Sunday 12 February I did a WHOIS search for faula.com and saw that the transfer had occurred but the reality was that the version on the web was still that of the old hosting. This was incomprehensible so on the Monday morning 13 February we opened an assistance request with the new hosting company. These requests are just simple messages that pass to-and-fro between the customer and the technical assistance person. The Italian that was helping me opened the request explaining the anomaly we had found that the website was still the version on the old hosting. The reply was polite and informed us that the transfer had occurred correctly as was shown by the WHOIS record which the tecnician had helpfully pasted-in. We wrote again, apologising that we had not been clear but pointing out that we had expected that the web-site should have transferred to the new hosting. The reply told us that the DNS was still pointing to the old hosting and gave us a link to a knowledge-base article. The knowledge-base article explicitly stated that the transfer of the domain is automatic but included a brief description of the A Record and CNAME configuration should the DNS have to be done manually. Now, the A Record and CNAME configuration determine how other computers can see your site and we certainly didn’t want to get into this so we wrote back to the technical assistance asking why if the process was automatic we had to undertake a manual configuration. The reply came back that the domain name transfer was automatic but we manually had to configure the pointing. I had a headache.
The process went on a few times. It was like a shell game. Our questions never elicited a clear answer but could elicit another reference to the knowledge base. Eventually we had run out of rope. We understood that we would manually have to configure the DNS and that if we got it wrong the site would go down (and even worse we would then be back into another round with the technical assistance!). The whole day had passed and we were feeling a bit ragged. With the help of Wikipedia I eventually managed to work out that the configuration should read (in English) [the] world wide web name is faula.com at A Record XXX.XX.X.XX.X
Having worked this out our first problem was that in the ’control panel’ where one configures the website there were three fields but the code we had seemed to demand only two. Eventually we made a punt and entered the DNS configuration and waited to see whether the site would go down or transfer.
I have to say at this point that when I realised what the script was saying: that on the world wide web the name was faula.com but its address could be found at X, I felt a tremendous satisfaction. It was like cracking some code and the answer was so simple. And then we saw that the other name servers of the web were applying the change and in hours the site was changing from the previous to the new (which was actually much older as it was the back-up that we had made on 31 January). It was a kind of magic.
And when I went into my e-mail I saw that I had received an automatic e-mail confirming the old MX, A Record and CNAME and the new. The e-mail was also automatically sent to a named technician in the hosting company. I wondered if this was the person we had been communicating with all day.
The following morning the young Italian computer science student dropped by and we reviewed the site to see what glitches had occurred following the transfer. There weren’t really any major problems, some new pathways had to be defined but it had gone pretty well. I said to the guy: "I was amazed at how unwilling the technical assistance person was to give you the answer. He (or she) just gave the minimum. The technician could have done it himself in a flash. I wonder why he made us go through all that?"
And his reply was: "It’s always like this. And this time we were really very lucky because the replies came promptly. When you have to wait, days can pass before problems get sorted".
I thought back to the shear unhelpfulness of the original Hosting that had not been prepared to allocate more disk space to the site.
"I’m leaving" the young Italian student said. "When I finish my degree I’m going to travel overseas to study on the Erasmus programme. And I’m going to stay there. I’m not going to stay in this country."
I couldn’t help but think that he was right.
The photo of the day for today entitled ’Cold Snap’ was not taken today but before Christmas just past. It was, in fact, taken in December when we were without heating and waiting for our new wood-burning boiler to arrive. I was somewhat shocked to see from the photo that the ice was on the inside of the window! Luckily the new boiler did arrive and has functioned better than we envisaged so the cold snap that seems to be on the way tonight holds little fear!
We have arrived at the maximum disk space available as part of our web hosting contract. As there is no possibility with our current web host to increase the maximum hard disk space available, we need to transfer to another provider. In theory there should be no problems and the transfer of our domain from one host to another should happen seamlessly and be unnoticed by users. However, the truth is that often there is a period when the website disappears for a day or two.
Already this evening, the start of the process was not completely auspicious as it proved more difficult than expected to compile the hosting-transfer web-pages required to kick the thing off. Our website has been going for years and I lacked some important historical coordinates to complete the process. It was clear that if you are in the website business and do tens of transfers weekly or monthly it must be as easy as falling off a log. However when it is for the first time it is more like going over the Niagara Falls in a barrel!
So, if you read this and then find that our site is gone, it should only be temporary (gulp!!). We should be back on within a day with the webcam time-lapse covering the whole of last year in HTML5!
With all the jollity of the Festive Season now only a memory our noses are to the grindstone, figuratively, as we get-on with the pruning of the vines. The days have been luminous, the skies limpid and the sunsets colourful. It is a wonderful time to work outside. But it does mean that in the evenings I find myself comfortably fatigued and all to often give-in to the warmth and cosiness of bed rather than adding to my blog. I did, however, come across some interesting comment in today’s Messaggero Veneto - the Local Rag.
OUR DAILY BARBARISM
[La Nostra Barbarie Quotidiana]
Pier Aldo Rovatti
More than once in the past months I have been asked: “What do you mean when you say "we, the barbarians” I have sought to explain myself, but now, the incredible sinking of the Costa Concordia on the reef of Giglio Island is worth more than any word. Not so much because of the frightening tragedy of the dead, the injured and the missing but more than anything the dynamic of the event, all that happens in front of the eyes, starting with the Captain, called Schettino, that abandoned the ship and his ineffable telephone calls with the incredulous and dismayed officer of the Coast Guard of Livorno.
This Captain, currently under house arrest, is emblematic of our strange Country: not mad, or one who has suddenly lost his head, on the contrary he represents a certain normality, a way of being quite diffuse and such a way, normal and diffuse, is the actual barbarism, at least as I see it. And he is not there by chance or error: his behaviours, his gestures, his words are not of some variable crazyness, we must rather admit they are a mirror of a part of us and in short carry the air of familiarity. By now it is accepted that this bloated ship (a true and proper city on holiday, a microcosm divorced from reality) would ’make a bow’ to picturesque locales that it encountered during its voyage and he, the Captain had done it in person only that he erred in the manoeuvre. It seems that he had called to his side the head cook, originally from Giglio in a populistic urge and for fun, that is the same ethos for that floating city, and that was the reason behind the stunt: festive evening airs, joy sustained by alcohol, the collective desire to joke. They are all there for that, packed in that monster of glass and steel and the Captain personifies perfectly the climate of the situation. He carried on playing his part even when the party had turned to drama and panic. He minimised and didn’t want to know: he didn’t give the alarm, to the contrary he avoided the topic for as long as he could, almost as if he didn’t realise “Get back on board” “ But it’s dark” “They are already dead” “How many?” “It’s you that must tell us. Get back on board. Fuck! It is an order!”
The Captain didn’t return to the ship, already inclined at 90°, climbing up the rope ladder to the prow as he had been ordered. Now they tell us that this Captain from Sorrento always loved adventure and the unexpected, perhaps challenging the rules, such as the time he decide to move from the port of Marseilles with an incredible manoeuvre notwithstanding a storm sea.
It would be too easy to leave it there. It would be more honest to admit that through the barbaric behaviours of Schettino we have a glimpse of a world we know.
When I came to La Faula in 1997, notwithstanding not speaking Italian, I rapidly came to realise that Italy is a madhouse. In 1995 when Luca arrived, La Faula was a property with a tatty vineyard and a large old farmhouse. It had not been a working farm since 1950. In 1958 Luca’s father had bought La Faula and kept it as a hobby-farm.
What Luca and I did was exceptional. We created a viable business where one had not existed for 47 years. The fact that we managed to do it at all in Italy was heroic. Acquiring Italian language drew away a veil and I was shocked by what I saw and experienced. Italy, and living in it, was so far away from my experience of living in New Zealand, the United States and Great Britain that I started to write about it in this blog. Italy, I realised, was the negation of all the key social developments that had occurred in the English-speaking world in the time I had been alive. And Italy was a basic contradiction of the principle that a nation should exist to enhance the welfare of all of its inhabitants and should exist to secure their unalienable rights of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
But I never knew how the story of Italy would finish, at least in the immediate future. I knew that a country like Italy, based on a lie and where falsehoods are in the very air that we breath, could have no good future. But it seemed to keep on going, even though it shouldn’t have, racking up debts that anyone living here knows cannot be repaid.
Of course, investing in sovereign debt is like pass the parcel or musical chairs. It is fine unless you are the one without the prize or chair. And recently the markets got nervous about being uncovered. First they asked for more interest to reflect the risk. But eventually they will know that loss is certain and will turn away from Italy’s begging cup.
But now I think that it is very clear how Italy is going to finish. The problems that Italy will have in off-loading its debt are not the problem. Just the reflection. Italy’s problem is that it has followed a path of de-industrialisation which must be close to reaching a critical mass. That de-industrialisation has been enhanced through wanton neglect and bad policy.
to be continued ......
Below, with the help of Google Translate, I have inserted an English translation of the 2 January 2012 blog of Massimo Fini published in the on-line edition of Il Fatto Quotidiano. Normally I don’t read bloggers but scrolling the page what caught my eye was the title "Better German than Italian" It caught my eye because no Italian ever believes that it is better to be anything other than an Italian. Italy might be dysfunctional and its politicians corrupt and self-serving but the Italians believe in their own innate superiority as descendants of the Romans, as founders of Western Civilisation, as saviours of that civilisation’s decline in the Middle Ages ("dark ages" in Italian) through the Renaissance. Italians are the inheritors of the Venetian empire not to mention discoverers of America and inventors of banking (hmmm, that last one ....). All around them stand old remnants of their past greatnesses and current structures expressing the elegance and beauty of their architecture, art and design. In history and by form the inhabitants of the Italian peninsular have been capable of astonishing greatness. They took a religion from the middle east two centuries ago and made it theirs then exported it to humanity, and for better or for worse kept it going so that it is today powerful, vibrant and alive.
From the day that Italy was created in 1861 the Italians have been told what a special people they are. So special, in fact, that they were obliged to live together in the Lucky Peninsular in One Nation. So special that having invented nationalism and flush with the thrill of it they threw themselves as protagonists into two world wars. From Catholicism they crafted the temporal religion of Fascism. It caused a lot of problems but they forgot about that.
So it seemed almost unbelievable that a man with the name Massimo Fini could write that it was better to be a German than an Italian. In fact it was. His mother was Russian. Anyway, the blog entry makes a good read!
BETTER GERMAN THAN ITALIAN
We hoped that with the government of the bankers, professors, and others from the Bocconi University at least there would have been granted a reprieve. We hoped that for a couple of years the politicians would disappear from the scene and from our sight, having emigrated, at least for a while, in New Zealand to go and hide under the long-haired and impenetrable merino sheep. But you can not turn-on the TV in the morning, afternoon, evening, without seeing them all still there, Gasparri, Cicchitto, Romani, Romano, Bersani, Finocchiaro, Rutelli and even Ignazio La Russa, to perform, to pontificate, to exchange the usual accusations which they then use to absolve themselves from responsibility, as if nothing had happened, as if the "government of technocrats" (which no other country has resorted to), does not mark the failure of this and not only this, but an entire political class of today and yesterday, say the last thirty years.
And then you realize that, after the brief experience of the Bocconi alumni, it will begin all over again. The only one to keep a low profile is Silvio Berlusconi, who, one must recognize, being intellectually honest, is a few steps above the others. The big guy has become even moderate. He does not attack the judiciary any more. Meanwhile in the basement of the shaky St. Raphael hospital [subject to Berlusconi’s patronage - now bankrupt and embroiled in corruption allegations] someone under the supervision of the criminal Don Verzè [just deceased friend of Berlusconi], is crafting the elixir of life (120 years minimum). Berlusconi works quietly preparing for his triumphant return. He is convinced that the people love him again. And he’s right. In fact, it was not the Italians who threw him out, nor the left with their congenital bloody stupidity who have on many occasions favoured him and will continue to favour him. But it was the Germans. Seeing when the house was on fire and a fire extinguisher was urgently needed, Berlusconi sent instead the impudent "letter of intent" that postponed all indefinitely, hoping, like all his countrymen, right and left, in the star of Italy [that represents the good fortune that is believed to have accompanied Italy in, its many, moments of difficulty].
And who could replace Berlusconi as prime ministerial candidate of the People of Freedom (of crime) now that his best man, Giulio Tremonti [ex-Finance Minister], has gone bag and baggage to the Northern League? Alfano? We do not laugh. Cicchitto? There is a limit even to the more indecent shamelessness. Scajola? It would be possible to buy him, without his knowledge, half of the Prime Minister’s Palace. Berlusconi will be back and say, "I saved Italy for the second time." And to those who ask why, he will say, "I fucked off [translating Berlusconi’s colloquialisms] at the right time, passing the buck to others, to the insipid, boring professor who has never given you such a good time as I gave you myself. And this proves my high sense of responsibility and love that I have for this country of shit which it does not deserve and for which I have sacrificed so many of my evenings [words of Berlusconi]." In two years, Italians, as always says [Marco] Travaglio, a people without memory, will have already forgotten who it was that brought us to the brink of the precipice and will remember instead the joy and revelry that we lived before the Wehrmacht came to put us in line. We have risen high in recent months because we have surrendered our national sovereignty to the German, Angela Merkel. I would bet that it was the " unfuckable lard-arse." [Berlusconi’s words] that did it. The thought that the Germans [may] tire of paying for the slackers from around the Continent makes one’s blood chill. In any case I prefer a Europe ruled by the Germans to an Italy ruled by the Italians.
So I explained to Loris that I was afraid of not being paid by the wood-cutter but that I couldn’t just rush in and treat the guy as if he were a delinquent!
’Of course’ I said ’If we had been obliged to cut the pines by the Forestry Guards in all probability we would have had to pay someone to cut the wood but ...’
’Non voi essere preso in giro’ said Loris inserting the phrase that I couldn’t quite find. Yes, ’preso in giro’, played for a fool, I didn’t want to be played for a fool. In this community being played for a fool is never the best but as an outsider, more than anyone, I have to show that I can avoid this. In Italy when one ceases to be worthy of respect life with the others becomes more difficult, much more difficult. Once one has been well played for a fool, like sharks feeding themselves to a frenzy, there is a risk all will play you this way. Many of our interactions rely on a certain level of trust and if we’re seen to be easy prey there is a real risk of being taken advantage of. Uneasy sleeps he who the others feel able to exploit!
A couple of days later the wood-cutter turned up at our house.
’Here. I’ve got the weight of the wood and according to the size of the logs I have calculated how much I have to pay you for the timber that the logging truck took away the other night’ he said. ’If you’re OK with this I will pay you within the week’
Now, the wood-cutter is young, fit, good-looking and has a very easy way. He is naturally friendly and open. In his dealings with us he has been clear and precise about the terms of our agreement. Given my previous fears, I was, of course, very glad to see him.
’That’s great’ I said when he told me the sum we are due to be paid. I went on ’But look, more than anything I want you to be satisfied with the monetary split between us. You came to me, I didn’t come to you. You proposed the price and I accepted it. You must be satisfied with our arrangement and then there can be no excuse to take wood on the sly or under-report the tonnage you cut.’
’You’ve made the running’ I said ’And I’ve accepted it. If you’re happy, I’m happy. I’m not a dummy and if I find out that you’re haven’t dealt straight with us well ..... well, I’ll have to leave Italy as you will have ruined my trust in all Italians!!’
That was pretty lame wasn’t it? ’I’ll have to leave the country as you will have ruined my trust in the Italians’ That must have put the fear of the devil into him!
In Friuli there is a steady succession of arsons to businesses. Warehouses, tractor depots, machinery all go up in flames. Occasionally there are cold-blooded assassinations. This is life in the North East of Italy. The crimes are never solved. The victims express themselves perplexed and shocked that anyone would want to do this to them. About 100 metres from La Faula is a cute little cottage. It is a meeting point for the local hunters during the hunting season. This year it was done-over and vandalised three times. The owner blamed the gypsies but the gypsies never come to Ravosa.
Vendetta is an Italian word. Through brute force the Italian State has frightened us into not taking the law into our own hands. But that same State has not provided us with an accessible legal system that keeps people honest and makes them respect their agreements. To enter into a financial arrangement with someone you don’t know is, every time, fraught with risk. Honesty in Italy is a personal, not a social thing. And sometimes, for some Italians, justice is also a personal, and not a social, matter!
Carried on from 30 December 2011
A few days later I was comfortably disappearing into the sofa of my friend Loris from the village. In another place, time and circumstance Loris would be a doctor or a lawyer, living comfortably with a good profession. But he was the only male born to three brothers: his father and two uncles. These three brothers and their wives and daughters farmed together an undivided mixed farm of milking cows and cereals. Loris’ arrival coincided with the beginning of mechanisation. The brothers had acquired their first tractor and found it strange and unfamiliar after the horses and oxen that they were used to working with. So it was that from twelve years of age Loris became the tractor driver on the farm. School seemed of little import and his labour was exploited shamelessly. But in those times the world outside Ravosa was very far away and he enjoyed farming and being so key at such a young age. That was his destiny.
Loris is lucky. He really does love farming. And he is good at at. He applies his intelligence well and with satisfaction. Loris has helped us a lot since we arrived here at La Faula. But over time, in some way, he lost the ability to see the world as the Italians see it. He doesn’t have a computer or internet connection. He lives at home with his mum and the outside world arrives through the distorted and partial world of Italian TV. He doesn’t even see so well so reading is a real challenge. But he has a clear, clear mind and he can apply logic and think rationally. He is not prone to magical thinking and he does not defer to the apparent wisdom that flows from self-serving Italian opinion formers who so lazily and effortlessly find a following audience amongst the ill-educated and ignorant who are pretentiously gratified to find that by unthinkingly adopting the facile ideas of others they too can be intellectuals.
So when I find myself with a knotty problem of an Italian kind I discuss it with Loris. He is my insurance against crossing some unseen cultural line or taking a risk with the ways of another people that could bring home problems.
to be continued .....