As I write this, the far edges of the winter storms that have flagellated northern Europe and the western side of Italy are bringing persistent rain to Friuli. It seems warm with the daytime temperature being around 11°C. In the morning the dogs romped and played in the sodden fields in front of the house. Then they decided that it would be just great to come inside to sleep. Somehow, being the less dirty, Annie and Hector inveigled themselves inside and are snoring at my feet. Poor Rett and Fritz, tiny with their wet slicked down fur, are curled up miserably in the barn. So coming back to 2013 at La Faula …..
This year we had four volunteers. Todd and Matthew started off the season from May until July. In July the other volunteers, Jonas and Ida, arrived. Jonas has been coming to La Faula as a guest with his family since he was five years old. Last year, when he was 15 and on holiday here he said that in 2013 he would like to volunteer at La Faula following his 16th birthday in June. We said yes as it was the only correct thing to do but I was deeply concerned that it had real potential for disaster and creating ill feeling where before there had only been friendship. The way that we integrate volunteers into La Faula now is wholly the result of our experience with Matthew when he was first volunteering here. Prior to Matthew coming to La Faula that first time, volunteers helped out with the breakfast, prepared the salads, set the tables, served and helped with the washing up. Of our own volition we would never have asked or permitted a volunteer to actually do some cooking or take responsibility for a dinner course. But Matthew, who is very able, and very clear in his mind, had grown up watching Chefs like Gordon Ramsay on Saturday morning TV and he felt, very strongly, that he should be involved in the cooking while he was volunteering. In managing the volunteers there is a real skill involved between knowing when to say “no” and knowing when to let something proceed to see if something good or new can come of it. Often I feel placed between the devil and the deep blue sea! In that case I decided that given Matthew’s desire to be involved in the cooking we should try to proceed with it and see if we could formalise it so that we could manage the risk of something going wrong. Matthew decided that he wanted to make the focaccia that he made at home. His mum e-mailed the recipe over and I, who had never made a focaccia in my life, looked up our Italian recipe books to see how they were made here. From this beginning came the prototype of the standard format for Faula recipes that we use now. Using Matthew’s mum’s recipe and those from the Italian recipe books, I created a draft standard with the ingredients portioned per the number of adults dining, referring to the utensils in the Faula kitchen and with the cooking temperature and time adapted to the Faula oven which is very old and large and slow. My idea was to leave little to chance so that the whole process would be guided from start to finish and we could be sure of actually serving the focaccia in the evening at dinner.
Well Matthew went ahead and made the focaccia. Luckily he was a good home cook so he avoided obvious pitfalls and made the necessary adjustments to suite the recipe for larger numbers of people. That evening Matthew’s focaccia was the starter. With much fanfare it was removed from the oven and taken to the small serving table under the pergola. Steaming hot, the focaccia was cut by Matthew and served by Ruth the other volunteer at that time. I had no idea how the focaccia would be. It certainly looked good but as it was being served directly to the guests there wasn’t really the chance to taste it first. I watched with some trepidation as the guests tucked into the loaf. Then, Andrea, an English lady sitting with her husband and two kids turned around and said to Matthew: “finally some Italian cooking at La Faula”. We all laughed and realised that the experiment had been a success. And from that point on the volunteers were involved in the cooking of the dinner courses using standard recipes which are more like food preparation algorithms. But the process of integrating the volunteers in the dinner preparation has been a long one and has involved hours and hours of work honing and improving the”recipes” and the constant incorporation of feedback from the volunteers who have to use those “recipes”.
So I was really quite afraid as to whether Jonas would be able to integrate himself into the Faula system regarding the dinner preparation. For one thing the “recipes” are in English. They are not complicated but they are a fully comprehensive - thus dense - step-by-step manual of food preparation: you start at the first word and by the time that you get to the last you are serving 26 people under the Faula pergola! It is a challenge for those not used to working in English. And it requires a mature and responsible mind. Childish fooling around must have already given way to a serious capacity to dedicate oneself to the task at hand with the objective of completing it to a high level of perfection. Of course, not all adults are capable of this, but one assumes that maturity is a factor of age and that teenagers, lighter in years, are less likely to have attained the necessary maturity.
Jonas arrived on a Monday and the first week for him saw him swimming in a nightmare. The English of the Faula kitchen was fast and accented: Matthew from Glasgow, Todd and myself from New Zealand. Working out what was going on at dinnertime was a gigantic jigsaw puzzle but without time to work out how the pieces came together; one set of operations were completed and immediately another set started. Everyone was working fast and Jonas was trapped in a thicket of linguistic incomprehension. And then there were the “recipes”. To fully understand the “recipes” Jonas had to “get” the system that was operating. After the gentle pleasure of being welcomed to La Faula, a tidal wave of information, of ways of doing things, procedures and responsibilities broke upon him. Of course, I knew that if Jonas gained mastery of the situation and met the challenge it would be of inestimable value to him both in confidence and in English but it wasn’t a certain outcome.
By the time Jonas reached the first Saturday night he was still suffering deeply but he had just begun to make sense of the challenge facing him. He could see the outlines of how things worked and he began to be able to anticipate what he had to do and be proactive even if the whole experience was a heavy burden upon him. On Sunday dinner is not served at La Faula and Luca and myself and the volunteers go out for a pizza. After breakfast Jonas disappeared into his room. We all knew that the week had been really tough for him and wondered if he would stay or would choose to go home. At around 3.00 p.m. Jonas emerged and asked me what time he should be ready to go with us to eat the pizza. I was really thrilled!
Jonas had hit the wall and gone through it! And from then on there was no stopping him. He had got the hang of how things work at La Faula and he powered forward. During the first week his ear had attuned to the different types of English he was dealing with and his comprehension shot up. He could now place the recipes in context and see commonalities and similarities between them. His confidence and enthusiasm carried over in his dealings with the guests and he was liked and appreciated. His sense of humour emerged. He was a real character and he made the best desserts ever made at La Faula!
In July Ida the fourth volunteer arrived. Ida was a 22 year old Polish student who had had extensive work experience. Ida was what every business dreams of having. She was intelligent, focussed, grasped quickly what she had to do, did it and then asked you if you needed help. Ida was a real professional. There was nothing complicated about Ida. She was good company, easy to be with and just made life easy in the kitchen.
I intend to write again about each of the volunteers later in a bit more depth. The reason is that the volunteers have become really important to La Faula. But not all volunteers align themselves with La Faula. For some it is just a job and way to stay in Italy in the summer time. This year all the volunteers went that extra mile for us. They took what we are doing at La Faula and made it better. When they left La Faula, they left it a better place than it was when they arrived. Each one of Todd, Matthew, Jonas and Ida was different but each had a generosity of spirit and they gave of themselves to La Faula, and the guests and to myself and Luca.
TO BE CONTINUED
The photo of the day is of the last courier delivery of Christmas Eve when Franca of Wiesbaden’s Christmas package for Hector, Annie, Fritz and Rett arrived. Tomorrow they will open it under their Christmas tree (but it may take a day or two for the video to appear on the Home Page!).
2013 was probably the best year we have had at La Faula since arriving here in 1995. Financially, it was not the best because the very cold and wet spring impacted on the beginning of the Agriturismo season. But this year saw at La Faula a wonderful confluence of people and events that we were, with a security and confidence gained through experience and learning, able to savour and appreciate in the moment. It was so good that every day was a special gift; we didn’t live for the tomorrow but lived in the day. It is hard to believe that something so good is likely to be repeated.
The elements that make up La Faula during the Agriturismo season are the place, the volunteers, the guests, the dogs and Luca and myself. At the beginning of the season it seemed like the year was progressing much as any other. The chill dark of winter gave way to warmer and longer days. After a period of preparation, the Agriturismo opened and received its first guests. Warm weather arrived and spring seemed to have begun. This was our 16th year with the Agriturismo so we slipped into an easy routine. But then it began to rain. And it became and stayed cold. It seemed that it rained every day until the beginning of June. It rained so persistently that it seemed, eventually, that it must rain for all the year. We lost the ability to imagine sunny, bright spring days. Now, of course, we know that we are not responsible for the weather. But we also know that people come on holiday to Italy looking for a warm mediterranean climate. It became a burden to come in to prepare breakfast, hearing the sound of raindrops on the vines of the pergola, the breakfast room seemingly lit against the darkness of the night when, in fact, it was only the darkness of the pergola under unremittingly gray clouds. I felt for the guests and I suffered.
But there was a point of light in all this. And this was Todd. Todd was our first volunteer of the season. And he arrived in May when summer seemed as if were going to be but a chimera. Todd came from New Zealand. He was in his late 20’s and so had work experience. He had decided to have his bit of time overseas before he got too old and through a mutual friend arrived at La Faula. Todd was an all-in-all enthusiastic, friendly, open, decent and jolly character. He was, of course, somewhat surprised to find that the Italy of his imagination, an idyllic summer paradise, was actually rain sodden, very lush and very green, rather like the tropical forests in the North of New Zealand but considerably chillier! But nothing held Todd back. His enthusiasm and enjoyment in being with the guests warmed the atmosphere and melted our defensive diffidence that had grown along with the appalling weather. And the guests too pitched-in and made something fun out of something that could have been a disappointment. Kids played games together in the dining room, they ran and played outside with the dogs until numerous bedroom windows overlooking the field in front of the house were thrown open and children, washed by the rain, were sternly ordered inside. And when they didn’t come in, barefoot half-dressed mums and dads raced out under driving sheets of rain to get them inside. And dinner times were fun, with everyone together in the not so large dining room, and drinking and talking together. There was warmth even though outside it was cold.
Working in the kitchen was very cosy. Todd quickly understood the mechanism of the La Faula dinners and derived real pleasure from serving great dishes to the guests. It seemed as if an angel had come to help us and so the beginning of the season, instead of being unremittingly dark became something cosy and enjoyable. We knew that it was good and counted our lucky stars!
Then, in June, the rain stopped. And it became sunny and warm and wonderful. And it stayed that way until October. And when the local farmers complained about the drought we didn’t give a fig. We had paid with our psyche for the wet spring. And now we accepted every sun drenched day under blue skies as our right! We derived pleasure from the Canadair water bomber that passed regularly over La Faula on its way to the sea to skim up water to fight the extensive forest fires that had broken out in the Alps and which were fanned by the strong hot Fohn winds of this summer. But those winds, gently persistent breezes when they licked La Faula, raised in the spirit some ancient but undefined memory of the pull that always brings mankind to the warmth. It was Italy as Italy should be in the summer. And in June Matthew arrived.
Matthew was our second volunteer of the year. Matthew was coming to volunteer at La Faula for the third time and he had been twice previously as a guest. Matthew added to the richness at La Faula. Open and friendly, Matthew was the very volunteer who those years ago had insisted that he would not be limited to washing dishes and preparing salads but would also cook. From Matthew’s first focaccia came the systems that we use in the La Faula kitchen today and the recipes that form the basis of the meals that we prepare. We owe a lot to Matthew. Matthew jealously guards his culinary expertise and he fine tunes his recipes until he gets them perfect. A course over, when the plates are brought back to the kitchen he watches like a hawk and if a plate comes back with food on it demands of the server to know who it was that didn’t finish the course and why! From my point of view to have someone in the kitchen that is so focussed on getting the dishes exactly right is of inestimable worth. Of course, the actual fine tuning remains Matthew’s secret but the basis is there and watching Matthew I try to pick up what I can to import that into the recipe’s structure!
With Todd and Matthew, and the summer, and the guests, friendly and accommodating, and the dogs and the kids and the space, the time rolled on, effortlessly and with its own momentum. I knew it was good, and I savoured it, day by day.
And the atmosphere flowed into Luca and Maritza, our cleaning lady, and this year, although they both worked hard, very hard, they enjoyed it and it was satisfying and fulfilling and not debilitating. It was the generosity of spirit of Todd and Matthew, the dogs and the guests and La Faula itself, for welcoming spirit it has, that came together to create at that place and in that point of time a small world in which all was more or less perfect.
TO BE CONTINUED!
Last Friday, we finally received the price quotation from the window maker. Now, I wrote previously that we particularly want this window maker to make the two new windows for the mezzanine floor of Room 2 as he had previously made all the new windows when we previously renovated La Faula in 1999 and we have been very impressed by the quality and endurance of the windows in the subsequent thirteen years. However, there were for sure going to be some delays in having the windows made as he was running fast to have all existing orders for windows completed, the windows mounted, invoiced and paid for by the end of the year otherwise they wouldn’t qualify for a 55% tax deduction under one set of Italian anti-austerity laws. So we anticipated delay, but what we didn’t anticipate was the price quoted to make and mount the windows. I can tell you that the price took our breath away! It seemed that the only thing to do was to ask Paola our Architect to contact the window maker and seek a discount. I anticipated some success with this approach as our architects, since the renovation of La Faula in 1999, had often used this particular window maker to provide windows for their projects. Normally, in Italy, approaches based on shared experiences and interests bring good results but the window maker’s response to Paola’s request for more reasonable prices was instructive in illustrating the key role that the Italian State has in wrecking the Italian economy.
Paola called me up and said that she had spoken to the windowmaker who was prepared only to offer “un scontocino” (a mini-discount). She explained further that on the one hand the windowmaker was full of work not only because he was making windows made that qualified for the 55% tax deduction for private citizens improving their houses but also because he was making windows for projects such as new Agriturismi and diffused-hotels funded by the European Community. Paola explained to me that the reality was that these factors had the effect of sustaining prices. But Paola also said that when she spoke to the windowmaker he had explained to her that his costs were very high, which they are. In Italy raw materials, labour and energy are incredibly expensive. So if the order was for a complete set of windows and doors for a new house, he had economies of scale which allowed him to offer better prices. But in our case, the two windows would be bespoke, they couldn’t be made in series, the machinery would have to be reset and their production would be more labour intensive. Finally, for the mounting of them, he would have to send his installers down to Ravosa from the Carnic Alps and this would cost him more. The windowmaker told Paola that as a sign of good faith he would offer a “sconticino” or mini-discount but that he couldn’t do more than that.
I told Paola to go ahead and accept the new offer when it arrived. The reality was that this is a reality that you have to face if you do business in Italy. I fully understood the position of the windowmaker because we, at La Faula, do the same. We don’t under any circumstances take guests for one or two night stays. The costs of short stays are just too high to justify them. The costs of cleaning and remaking rooms and of washing and drying the towels and linen not to mention the very real wear and tear inflicted by people who don’t anticipate having to stay long in a room make it economically unjustifiable at Agriturismo prices. Of course, we also prefer longer stays because La Faula is our home and we like to have guests who stay longer and get to know the place and enjoy it, something which is all but impossible for one just passing through. But Maritza, our cleaning lady, costs us a fortune in social security contributions, our electricity is at business prices and we pay the highest prices in Europe for it after Cyprus (40% more than the average). Water is expensive as we now have to pay for years of under-investment which left the public water supply in a bad state and the water companies are standard Italian public bodies, bereft of competition, inefficient and featherbedded. And finally we are hit by the myriad taxes: those that we pay directly and those that we pay indirectly because they are paid by our suppliers and increase the cost of our inputs.
When it all boiled down to it, we have begun the works on Rooms 1 & 2 and what matters most is that they are done well using good quality materials that will pass the test of time. But we know that the relationship between what we must spend and what that expenditure will earn is completely unbalanced. We are paying Rolls Royce prices for an Audi product, which is not bad in the sense that you have something of quality that is pleasurable but it is not in any way sustainable. Currently, in Italy we are being subjected to an intense propaganda campaign on the part of the Government that the economy has turned the corner and that growth has returned and we will all see its effects any time now. The Prime Minister and Economics Minister exhort us just to be patient and we can be sure that economic growth is diffusing among us currently as we carry on our daily activity. This might be true. At some point the contraction of the economy had to stop or within a short time we, in Italy, would all be running around wearing animal skins and carrying clubs. But it beggars belief that an economy in which new business investment is so expensive (unless funded by the European Community!) and in which prices are stuck by the fact of producers paying excessive taxes, can result in an economy capable of delivering sustained growth and improved living standards. In fact, what we are experiencing is the death grip of a drowning system which grabs at any value produced by the private sector to feed its desperate need for economic oxygen. Italy, not operating a communist system but one of generational exploitation, has always prioritised consumption over production. The generation born just before, during or shortly after the Second World War always consumed more than it produced, even when its members were active in the economy. Avid and ravenous also in retirement and represented by the political system that they maintained, they now demand that not only do we support them but that we also pay down the debts that they wracked up. They’ll be lucky!
When we decided to remake Rooms 1 & 2, Luca wondered if it was worth getting in our architects for what seemed to be a very simple remodelling. He wondered if it would not be enough just to call in a draftsman to do the designs and manage the plans and planning permission. I remembered that when we had moved into La Faula we had made a number of internal changes oblivious to the bureaucratic formalities. My reasoning at the time was that if we used local tradesmen, in particular those who had done jobs at La Faula from time to time, we could be sure of having the works done in the style and manner appropriate for a house such as ours. In fact, it did turn out to be the case that the changes that we made at the beginning and before we embarked upon the major restoration, were wholly in sympathy with the style of La Faula and so we avoided any obvious eyesores!
But since my naive arrival in Italy, I have learnt that there are many sharks in the sea and tigers in the woods so the assistance of a proven guide was to be preferred. I reasoned that even if the job seemed very simple there were probably enough unknown unknowns and known unknowns to stick with a proven professional such as Paola the Architect.
When we saw the designs that Paola prepared, we saw that she had, for the two new windows, departed from the existing style of the house. Into the external wall of the Room 2 mezzanine floor would be opened two large and long arched windows. Now, arched windows are no novelty in Italy, but in our part of Friuli arched windows are rare with the traditional layout being that the top floor of the house, being the granary, would have small windows under the eaves sufficient to allow the passage of air to keep the grain dry but not any larger than necessary. When I saw the windows on the design, long and arched, I knew that they were out of the predominant style of the house, and I knew that no draftsman would ever have put them in. But I also knew that we had hired Paola for her “eye” and ability through intelligence and creativity to bring forth a beauty that would not only be pleasing to the guests who would be using the room but which would enhance the pleasure of the house on the eye. Personally, I couldn’t imagine how the windows could aesthetically fit with the house but my lack of architectural imagination meant that I had to take Paola’s insight on trust.
Here in Ravosa-magredis, they say that if you have Gregorio as your stonemason you don’t need an architect. Gregorio’s father was a stonemason, as were his uncles. Gregorio has only ever worked as a stonemason and in his head he carries all the knowhow of centuries of building in the Friulano way. But he also went to school and studied building science so he knows the science and theory behind what his forebears and years of experience have taught him. To have Gregorio work for you is a lucky stroke. He is intelligent, precise and knows the Friulano farmhouse inside out. And Gregorio was completely against the arched windows, not to mention architects. As Gregorio told me, if you go to the Doctor’s and don’t behave yourself, the doctor will make you pay with horrible injections. If you don’t show respect to an Architect they’ll make you pay by making you redo all sorts of difficult things. But he just wasn’t having any of these arched windows. Now, as I wrote previously, I was also Gregorio’s labourer so I wasn’t in a great position to assert myself while I was being sent up and down the stairs taking rubble down and bringing concrete and mortar up! For me it was important that Gregorio not only make the window holes as Paola the Architect wanted, but that he do it with positivity and not in a begrudging way.
So Gregorio and I looked at the designs, walked outside and looked at the house up close then further away.
“No, arched windows just won’t look right” Gregorio said.
“They’ll look like eyebrows”
“And look, all the other top floor windows are small and tucked under the eaves. How can we have these long windows reaching all the way to the floor. And in any case you can’t have windows that reach all the way to the floor”
I persevered. I recounted all the buildings within a couple of kilometers of us that had arched structures. Luckily, since I had seen the designs I had been particularly alert for arched structures in the old farm buildings in the villages near us. It was true that over time, individual stonemasons had incorporated arched windows into farm buildings, mainly barns, but it was enough to prove that the arch was not an un-Friulano invention of our architect, Paola. Having established this fact, the main question was the height of the windows.
“The top windows have to be smaller than the windows on the floors below” said Gregorio.
“You can’t have two great long windows at the top of the house”
Now, Paola had left us designs showing the windows should be 180cm high. I knew that getting the window holes of this height was going to be a struggle. When it came time to make the window holes, Gregorio was on the scaffolding on the outside with the jackhammer. Much to Gregorio’s pleasure, we had discovered that the external wall at the height we were working was made of brick and not stone so making the holes was to be relatively easy. I was inside and as Gregorio vibrated the bricks out of the wall with the jackhammer, I would immediately grab them as they came free and put them in a pile next to me.
“Is this enough” Gregorio would ask me after every layer of bricks had been removed.
“No, no. The hole is too small” I would reply and Gregorio would remove another layer of brick. From the inside I could see where the apex of the arch should be and could see that getting there was going to be a struggle.
I decided to encourage him.
“Look Gregorio” I said
“I read a review on Trip Adviser where some guests had reviewed an Agriturismo badly because they were on the top floor and the windows were too small to let in light and air. They had even put photos of the tiny windows on the review”.
Gregorio has never seen a computer up close so there followed some time to bring him up to speed with travel sites in general and the concept of reviews which I explained to him in other countries also applied to builder, bricklayers and stonemasons!
“When people come on holiday to La Faula they have to find what they want” I explained.
“And people want to see the blue sky and the beauty around them. They don’t want to feel closed in”
This line of argument seemed to make the difference. No longer was the height and style of the windows solely an artifice of the architect’s caprice that we had somehow fallen for, but it was a real response to a pressing problem of our business. So Gregorio let me keep suggesting that he remove more layers of bricks until we reached a height that we both begrudgingly thought could be a good compromise. The windows are 140cm high so they have lost 40cm that Paola had planned for them. But they have made the back wall of the house. Looking at the back wall, the new window holes, arched and long, give a harmony and gentle charm that the previous workaday aspect of the wall lacked. Even Gregorio was taken by them.
And it turned out that Gregorio had made arches in the past because getting the arch right and keeping the concrete up until it hardens requires knowhow and technique and he knew how to do it!
to be continued
This morning I saw a strange thing. I was on my way to the OBI, a big Do-It-Yourself store, taking the wide newish road that runs from the Salt roundabout to the State Highway #13. It was a beautiful morning, sunny, limpid and warm. The broad sky was luminescent blue over the plane and the Alps gleamed white to the North. Ahead of me, I saw a small cluster of vehicles, each car almost clinging to the one in front. It was clear that the leading car was going slowly and the drivers behind were impatient and positioning themselves to overtake. Finally, coming out of a curve, a large black BMW overtook the car in front and powered away. Before the next car could move up and manoeuvre itself past, I caught sight of a roe deer coming from the left. It bounded across the road just in front of the cars and disappeared into the woods to the right. I thought to myself, “well there you have it. How fortuitous that the group of cars had been slowed by the one in front. Any faster and there would have been a collision with the deer”. It seemed a lucky event, both for the deer and the drivers and it reminded me that being stuck behind a slow driving pensioner is not always a bad thing!
But fate had not renounced the destiny awaiting the speeding BMW that had accelerated away just before the deer crossed the road! About 1 mile further up the highway I saw ahead of me, and on my side of the road, a roads authority tractor with grass cutting arm. It had clearly been cleaning the banks abutting the road but now was stopped. The tractor was peppered with flashing orange lights and was well defined with day-glo signs. Opposite the tractor, on the other side of the road, was a car that had driven nose-first directly into the grass-covered bank. In front of the tractor was the black BMW. Nobody seemed to be hurt but it seemed pretty clear that the BMW had passed the tractor into the path of an oncoming vehicle which, to avoid collision, had driven off the road.
By now, I was behind the slow driver who everyone had wanted to pass. As we traversed the scene of the accident another car pulled up behind me, almost pushing its nose into the back of our Ford Courier van. It seemed that the slow driver was provoking unwarranted road rage on this wonderfully clear and invigorating morning. Notwithstanding that we were passing the scene of an accident, the impatient drive behind gave a good honk his horn. But the pensioner in the car in front of me, two plush cushions on the rear parcel tray separated by a fluffy mouse with pink ears, carried on sedately and serenely. Maybe he was deaf or a bit absent minded so was unaware of all the effervescence he was creating in his wake! As we turned into a corner, the driver behind me could stand it no more and so passed both of us on the blind corner we were taking. Luckily for all of us, no traffic came in the opposite direction at that instant.
I suppose that most people would know that driving in Italy has a reputation for chaos, speed and ignoring road rules. When I lived in Milan in the mid 1990’s it was certainly like that but the plus side was that traffic lights were an optional which could be ignored when there was no opposing traffic. But Italy has changed much since the 1990’s and my guess is that drivers in Milan now generally obey the road rules. In Friuli they certainly do. But undoubtedly it is the case that when one sees cars overtaking on blind corners, which is not at all uncommon, one prays not to have the misfortune to be the blighted car coming in the opposite direction that finds itself occupying in time and space that of another!
The poor dogs! Life at La Faula without guests to entertain them, leaves them bored beyond belief. I certainly feel sorry for them as during the six months that the Agriturismo is open they have all the fun and stimulation that a dog could want. But once we close, and winter descends, they really don’t know what to do with themselves. Normally, Luca gets up first and lets Annie, Rett and Fritz out of their sleeping cage. Hector, being the daddy dog, sleeps in a cosy old wine-barrel placed under the eaves of the house and containing a scruffy old blanket. When I come down the stairs the dogs are grouped at the bottom waiting for my appearance. Even if one’s instinct to being mobbed by a small pack of frisky dogs first thing in the morning is to hang back, I tell myself that dogs are people too and I must be as enthusiastic to see them as they are to see me. So I descend into the furry mass, there is lots of jumping up and sharp claws on soft skin, but instead of ordering them to sit I draw them to me and tell them just how pleased I am that we are together again this morning and how wonderful it is for me to find them there and how much I appreciate their very being. If it is one of the three days of the week when there is no hunting, I tell them that we are off for our morning walk. Forbearing a cosy coffee, I move outside with the dogs, put on a jacket all the better to resist muddy paws of leaping dogs, struggle into my wellington boots which always seem too tight to easily contain the legs of my trousers, and we set off for our walk down the river stopbank. Even though we always do the same walk, until we reach the stopbank, there is lots of running forward then coming back to see if I am still there. The beginning of the walk is a time of great excitement, the dogs running madly around, running at me, sometimes jumping up, then running wildly away. We cross the little bridge in front of La Faula. I feel slow and lethargic but try to force myself to stride purposefully and vigorously ahead. The dogs wait at the other side of the bridge just to be sure that we will be taking the same route, just in case, maybe this one time we will take the stopbank to the left instead of the right. But I am too lazy to push out on a new route today. I’m happy with the one we always take so I turn right and the dogs having the walk’s route confirmed, hare off in a mad dash down the small rut worn in the long grass by the weekend’s motocross bikes.
The three male dogs, their morning adventure confirmed, disappear into the distance. I hear barking in the woods as they find the trace of some animal, probably a squirrel in a tree. Annie, however, stays with me. She runs ahead, sniffing and exploring the long grass but always runs back to check if I am there, sometimes sitting down for a cuddle or turning over for a tummy rub. I imagine that I am in the wilds of Alaska with my trusty dog. The air may be sharp and the environment hostile but man and dog resist the elements! Then I remember a recent news report about an adventurer just rescued from the hostility of the Canadian north who survived by eating the very dog that had protected him from the bears that had destroyed his canoe and eaten his food. Suddenly it seems much better to be on the stopbank of the Malina river with my trusty pooch and a hot cappuccino awaiting me when I return home!
Last Wednesday, our little walk took a rather unexpected turn. For the last week there has been a very low pressure area over the mediterranean sea between Sardinia and the Italian mainland. This created a cyclone that has devastated Sardinia and brought massive rainfall to the Western side of Italy. Here in Friuli we are in the North East corner and so have avoided most of the bad weather. There has been, however, regular rainfall and the rivers, although not flooding, are running high. My morning walk with the dogs takes us to a ford over the Malina river which runs in front of La Faula. The Malina is a torrent so most of the time it has little water but when there is rainfall in the mountains it fills quickly and runs swift and dangerously. The ford is the point at which Annie and myself turn and retrace our steps home to La Faula. However, if the ford is passable, Hector, Rett and Fritz cross the river and carry on exploring before returning home. I have always been impressed by the fact that the dogs know when the river is running too swiftly to cross and so return to La Faula with Annie and myself. On Wednesday, however, I got to the ford and found Hector, Fritz and Annie up on the bank watching Rett who was just reaching the halfway point of the ford. They knew and I knew that the river was too strong and in an instant Rett was swept off the ford and was in the frothing, churning water being carried downstream. My first instinct was whether I should go in to retrieve him but instantly put this out of mind: Rett is a strong dog and I could see that he was paddling well and keeping his head up. I was more likely to come to harm than he was.
We followed Rett down the river. He was paddling madly and somewhat to my surprise seemed quite buoyant. I imagined that his fur would weigh him down but perhaps it had air trapped inside so it kept him up. Eventually he got himself onto a clump of trees that normally are on the edge of the river but which were now an island in the middle. The dogs were still with me and we got to the riverbank opposite him. Rett was rapidly evaluating his situation and I did the same. To get to us Rett had to enter the river again. The river at this point was relatively narrow but it was fast and churning with white froth. If he could ride it he could perhaps get to the side. If not, he would be carried ever further down. Rett looked at us and then launched himself into the water. His head was up and he was paddling madly. He must have put every effort into that swim and at some point his feet touched the bottom and being four-legged he dragged himself out of the brown rush of water. He came towards us like a rocket, ridiculously small with his fur all stuck down. He was a dog charged with relief and happiness. He ran round us and when we reached our path flew like a bullet, down the stopbank and away from the place where he had faced such fearful circumstances.
Dogs, of course, are not people. But, like us, they make errors of judgment and, like us, sometimes those errors put them in mortal danger. Rett, in that churning water, was in imminent peril. But he showed tenacity and courage and wild relief and happiness when he was again on safe ground. We, myself and the other dogs, could only be bystanders. He had got himself into danger and had to get himself out. And he did. So what could have been a moment of loss and sadness instead became just another adventure and so, in the morning, when I come downstairs, and Rett jumps up on me and scratches me with his claws, I don’t order him down but instead tell him just how happy I am to find him there and how happy I am that we can, this day, go on our morning walk together!
I have written in a number of recent diary entries that Italy is in a deep depression. You would imagine then that there must be a massive amount of idle labour and capital just waiting to do our small renovation of Rooms 1 & 2 of the Agriturismo. In particular, one would guess that there should be no problems having the two new windows made promptly! Well actually, there are. In fact, our supplier is so busy that he is unable even to provide us with a quotation. Yesterday, Paola the Architect called me to say that she had just spoken with the owner of the factory who we want to make the windows concerning the absence of the quotation that had been promised two weeks ago.
“Lui ha fatto una scena propria Napolitana” she said
That is, he had made a completely “Neapolitan scene”. Now, to be honest, I don’t know exactly what a “Neapolitan Scene” is but knowing the reputation that the Neapolitans have in the North of Italy, I guessed that she meant something completely over the top: beating of breasts, tearing of hair, crying and screaming.
Of course, we could look around for other windows producers, but this particular factory, located in the Carnian Alps, made all the other windows during our restoration of La Faula and we are so happy with their quality and endurance that we really want to stick with the same producer.
Paola went on to explain to me that a key economic stimulus tool used by the Italian government has been to offer significant tax deductibility for house renovation plus a lower value added tax rate (10% as opposed to 22%) and that for one particular stimulus package the work must be done, invoiced and paid for by the end of the year. Our window producer, therefore, instead of suffering low sales and production finds himself under terrible pressure to have all jobs finished, charged and paid for by 31 December. Our two windows won’t even get a look in!
But 31 December is important with respect to our little job for another reason. The stonemason and plasterboard mounting company are subject to the Italian “Sector Study” tax regime. Under this regime, the tax authority sets the earnings that firms or artisans are deemed to have made in a tax year. The firm or artisan must declare at least this much income (with invoices to sustain the declaration) or risk real problems with the Guardia di Finanza (Finance Police) or Inland Revenue authority. Now our artisans have a real problem with this as the effect of the recession has been to leave them below their respective officially deemed earnings level. The plasterboard mounting company has had to lay off workers and the stonemason was himself laid off at the beginning of this year and passed a good period of time until he managed to get work coming-in as a self-employed artisan. But the genius behind the sector study regime is that it is absolutely non-personal: it applies across-the-board and is not concerned with the individual subjective positions of those to which it applies. So our artisans are worried and they have told us that the jobs must be invoiced to us before the end of the year. Payment can come later, but the important thing is that the invoiced amount will be part of their declared income for this year. You can imagine that in such a system any idea of doing some of the work “in the black” is inconceivable.
And what is the effect of all this? The effect is that the work we are having done is far too expensive. The artisans are required by the Italian State to declare a certain amount of income which is hard for them to achieve in the current recessionary climate. Afraid of under-declaring, they are all forced to keep their prices high thus negating the tendency in a recession for prices to fall. Effectively, the Italian State creates involuntary price cartels where all members are obliged to ask the prices necessary to give the State its demanded share. And, being orchestrated by the Italian State, it creates price cartels where none would otherwise be possible; the potential members being too numerous and too dispersed to effectively coordinate their economic activity. It is demented and is utterly destructive of the economy. And where is that money going? Well, that money is going into the great stimulus package that is the Italian pension system. In this recession, Italian State spending is around €800 billion or 51% of GDP. Of this, debt servicing consumes €80 billion. €162 billion is spent on salaries for State employees. But €220 billion, or around a quarter, is consumed by pension payments. When you add to this the fact that 51% of Italian public debt is held by Italians or their institutions, you realise that the pensioners are being paid directly in pension payments and also as holders of the public debt. But to this jolly mix, one must add another fact. That is that non public sector wages (public sector wages for a period must forego their annual increase) have consistently grown, and are currently growing, by more than inflation. Apart from the fact that this, absent unlikely productivity gains, renders Italy increasingly uncompetitive, it means that employed workers with secure positions can happily resist the current recessionary environment. And State employees, their annual national wage negotiations currently blocked, still benefit from the standard automatic seniority increases that apply across-the-board under their existing national contracts.
So it is, that Italy is in depression, is suffering rampant deindustrialisation and unparallelled numbers of business failures and closures but a very great number of Italians have never had it so good. Pensioners and the securely employed, whether in the private or public sector, can enjoy all the stimulus measures offered by the State, they can renovate their homes and put in new windows without worrying about the high prices: they can deduct these from their taxable income!
For the last 6 days I have been the stonemason’s labourer which has left me, every evening, feeling as if my arms have passed the day being wrenched from their sockets. The stonemason, who could probably out-Thor Thor, treats me as if I were a 16 year old apprentice and so I have spent most of the past days carrying mortar and cement up three stories and rubble and dust down! Gregorio, the stonemason, is from Ravosa. When we first arrived at La Faula from London, it was Gregorio who did a lot of the original building work necessary to get us going. I was 35 years old and he 31. My Italian was rudimentary and his instructions largely incomprehensible. But time lost in explanation was made up for by the fact that I was fit and active and a useful pair of arms. Now, I have to be careful of my back and heavy loads leave me feeling every joint and socket straining and the play worn into them after 19 years on the farm! Gregorio too goes red in the face as he pulls up heavy buckets of mortar with a rope and hook.
Still, it is nice to be working with Gregorio again and apart from the great job he did making the new window spaces for the new Mezzanine floor to Room 2 and doing the finishing work to the internal walls, he is applying himself to various jobs that have needed doing for a while but which were, individually, too small to interest anyone to come and do them.
It’s strange just how dysfunctional and distorted the Italian economy is. Italy is in a terrible depression. People are emigrating to find work. But I’d be buggered if I could find anyone prepared to do the little jobs that tend to build up around La Faula. Not for little money, but for any money! Ravosa and the neighbouring villages are full of retired stonemasons and bricklayers. But they receive a good pension and doing odd jobs could cost them their pension so they prefer to live the life of riley and do nothing. Artisans, on the other hand, find that little jobs tend to be niggly and that they can’t charge out their labour properly as the time spent doing them is disproportionate to what they can actually ask in payment. So they don’t do them.
So although Gregorio keeps me on my toes, it ensures me of the soundest and deepest of sleeps in the night and he is methodically seeing to various jobs that over time had become annoying cankers in the fabric of La Faula!
Before starting the work, we had a meeting at La Faula with the Architects, Paola and Oscar, the Engineer and the Smith who would be making metal support plates from which would be suspended cables necessary to sustain the mezzanine floor where the beams had been cut to make way for the new stairs. All of us had been involved in the original renovation of La Faula in 1999 when the bedrooms were added and all had been involved in the subsequent conversion of the pig stys into bungalows (2000), the building of the new barn (2001) and of the swimming pool (2006).
We had all aged. The engineer was still driving the same BMW that he was in 1999. Oscar, the Architect, apart from assisting Paola, was now the expert in acoustic insulation and would guide that part of the project and the Smith had changed the most from having been a teenager fresh from having completed his military service in 1999 and working in his Father’s and Uncle’s metalworking firm to now being the owner, with his elder brother, of that very same firm. It was great to be together again. There is something in human psychology that rejoices in joining again with others with whom one has experienced some challenging and cooperative adventure. The sense of continuity and context that being together with these people brought forth was secure and satisfying. We had all worked together on the various Faula projects, together we had faced challenges of many types, but those challenges had been overcome and we all had a sense of satisfaction of jobs well done and success attained.
But there was more to it than that. As we walked down the gravel drive beside the house and towards the carpark, chatting and laughing, conversation turned to the challenges we had all faced in our separate businesses and professions. And then we shared something else. Each of us, at different times, had faced existential difficulties caused by our dealings with the Italian State and Bureaucracy. Those threats, because threats they were, had led us to wonder in dark moments whether running our various businesses in the way we believed was best would be thwarted by the capricious, illogical and despotic exercise of power by those who have authority over us. That we were still here together meant that we had survived, and the greatest risk was at the beginning when we were all still innocent of the problems that the Italian State apparatus can cause a private business in Italy.
It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that it was a “Band of Brothers” moment. We were comrades because we had, each of us, survived travails and injustices and were still here to tell the tale. And this brings me to an important point in this blog of life at La Faula.
In our normal business at La Faula we encounter continual and unremitting problems with the Italian State bureaucracy. We have been shaken down, subject to abuse of power, faced by minor corruption and commonly have authority exercised over us by the grossly incompetent, disinterested or self-interested. Most of what we earn we are expected to turn over to the State which is desperately in need of money. If you have a business in Italy it goes with the territory. We have also been helped and supported by individual government workers with humanity, decency and common sense. But they were the minority. The authority that the Italian State exercises over a private business in Italy is that of an overlord and does nothing more than replicate the authority that was exercised over the people, who were principally rural and sharecroppers or day labourers, by their Lords and Lackeys until the land reforms and the pretence to the monopoly on the exercise of power by the renascent Italian State following the Second World War. Henceforth the Italian State claimed and enforced its monopoly on power to the exclusion of the great landlords who, by dint of their great landholdings and control of the means of subsistence, had hitherto principally exercised temporal power of the normal lives of most of the people. And as the people left agriculture and created businesses and formed corporate bodies to conduct those businesses, the Italian State stood in relation to them as the landlords had stood in relation to the peasants. The change was one of scale not of substance.
So it is that in this blog I prefer not to detail our regular travails with the Italian bureaucracy. It would be pointless and uninteresting. What is interesting is to analyse to what ends the State exercises its power. The great Landowners were very clear as to the why part of their exercise of power: it was to control the rural labour force to ensure a supply of ready and compliant labour to fund the lifestyles of the landlord and the landlord’s family. If one substitutes the “Italian State” for “Landlord” the result is the same.
TO BE CONTINUED
So it was that after an inspection from the NAS Squad of the Carabiniere, we found ourselves with a Maisonette with mezzanine floor that we couldn’t use. In addition, at the time that we renovated La Faula, in 1999, awareness regarding thermal and sound insulation was low and the range of insulating materials limited. Although the architects had attempted to soundproof the Maisonette with mezzanine floor (Room 1) from the Room below the mezzanine (Room 2) with felt and foam and cork, this had proved only partially successful and as time went on and the beams and planks dried and split and twisted, and the cork became brittle and gained the ability to transmit sound, noise between the two rooms became a real problem and we became restricted in how we could use the rooms.
Italy is in a depression, and has been for at least a year. Prior to that the country has been substantially in recession since 2008. The country is effectively bankrupt although it is inconvenient to the Italian ruling class and Eurozone to admit this. So the Italian State has begun extorting money from businesses in a very serious way. This is a real problem for us. Not only in the direct and indirect taxes and social security levies that we pay but in the way that the “pizzo” demanded of businesses in general by the State feeds into all and every stage of economic activity and dramatically increases every businesses and our cost base.
Our response at La Faula has been to dramatically cut our running costs and eliminate investment of capital (human or otherwise) in non profitable aspects of our business. So we have removed ourselves from the simple bed & breakfast, self-catering and short stay sectors of the Friuli Agriturismo market focussing instead on longer stays with half-board (more or less) and on return clients and clients who are likely to recommend La Faula to others. Like every business, we have to be focussed and unique but unlike every business in the U.S. or U.K. or Germany or Australia or New Zealand, for example, we operate, being in Italy, in an exceptionally hostile environment for private economic activity.
And while it was always imperative that we satisfy our clients needs, the anvil of the Italian economic environment and the hammer of Trip Advisor oblige us to ensure that every person or family that comes to stay at La Faula has the right, in the sense of 150%, accommodation for their needs. And this requires the maximum of flexibility with different configurations of rooms and configurations within rooms to match the differing family configurations that come to stay at La Faula. So, having Rooms 1 & 2 half “out of action” was a luxury that we could not afford.
CONTINUED MONDAY 4 NOVEMBER 2013
But remaking Rooms 1 & 2 in Italy’s current economic climate seemed also to be a luxury that we could not afford! Having building works done in Italy is unbelievably expensive and nine consecutive quarters of declining GDP have not resulted in artesans prices softening. Materials cost more than any real value they can have and Value Added Tax has just been increased to 22%. Luca and I were conflicted: on the one hand we saw the need to remake the rooms but on the other hand it would cost more than it should in any rational economic system and it would take away from the cushion of retained earnings that we are trying to build up to protect us in the bad times that we fear are imminent in Italy. To invest such a large amount for what is objectively a very small job imposed a huge hurdle for us to overcome. That is, to spend all that money and remove some of our financial security, the return on the investment, in financial terms, would have to be real and significant and for a small Agriturismo in a corner of Friuli nothing is guaranteed.
In the end we decided to proceed with the works. A key part of the work was sound-insulating Room 1 completely from Room 2 by building a series of plaster board walls, separated from each other, and with alternating dense layers of fibreglass insulation and mineral wool. Another part was connecting the mezzanine floor to Room 2 below by creating a stairway from Room 2 into the mezzanine floor. Two windows would then placed in the external wall on one side of the mezzanine to bring in extra light and afford wonderful views of the hill behind La Faula. The two existing kitchenettes - one in Room 1 and one in Room 2 had to go as they no longer meet fire and health regulations due to the wooden floor (health - food crumbs can fall into the spaces between the floorboards) and wooden beams and ceiling (fire - a fat fire caused by someone cooking would not be contained in the kitchenette).
I have to say that I really didn’t think that these works would bring tangible benefits to La Faula. I wondered whether making these changes would seem contrived and forced and not bring the improvements to the guest’s experience that we hoped for. We have all stayed in accommodation where modifications seem ill-suited to the space available or forced and inharmonious if not downright out of place. It seemed to me that this was the risk that we were running: creating a space that just didn’t seem “right”, wasn’t comfortable in its skin!
We turned to the Architects who had been responsible for the renovations we made to La Faula when we created the Agriturismo and who had designed and project managed the bungalows, barn and swimming pool. Our luck in finding these architects at the very beginning of our time at La Faula is a story in itself and the fact that La Faula is still here and is what it is owes a great deal to them. Having Cigalotto & Santoro Architects work for us also illustrates the importance of luck in how things turn out. Paola Cigalotto and Mariagrazia Santoro are competent, capable, honest, uncorrupt and professional and most of all, they act in their client’s best interests. To find all these elements together in an Italian professional is not so common and while I wouldn’t want to say that venality is the rule rather than the exception, one’s chances of finding a professional in Italy who doesn’t act in your own best interests are not insignificant. Our guardian angel was with us that night that I found myself sitting next to Mariagrazia Santoro at a dinner celebrating epiphany 1998!
Paola and Mariagrazia divided their work with Paola doing a lot of the design and Mariagrazia following the permissions and bureaucratic requirements. One had to be careful though, not to imply that Mariagrazia was any less of an architect because she followed the paperwork whereas Paola saw the to more “glamorous” part of designing the new project! That said, Mariagrazia is currently an appointed Minister in the Friuli Venezia Giulia Regional Government responsible for planning and public works so obviously her skills in dealing with the bureaucracy were not to be undervalued or underestimated! It was Poala who had originally designed Rooms 1 & 2 so it was Paola who was responsible for the designs for the changes that we now wanted to make. Mariagrazia following her ministerial duties in Trieste much of the time meant that Paola is currently assisted by Oscar, now an Architect in his own right, but who was fresh out of University in 1999 and in pre CAD days was doing the scale drawings giving life to Paola’s pen and ink sketches.
TO BE CONTINUED
Today I made thirty 500ml jars of quince and ginger jam. In the late afternoon Luca brought me an equivalent number of quinces to that I had just used for the jam. We have only one quince tree. It is small but this year produced the most abundant quantity of quinces. I guess that I will turn the quinces into compote which I will freeze- next year there will be plenty of apple and quince crumble and apple and quince pie on the menu!
In between making the jam, I was involved in following the first day of work involving the remaking of Rooms 1 and 2 at the back of the house. When we restructured La Faula in 1999 we had no experience of hospitality and our architects had no previous experience in designing hotels or Agriturismi. All together, we launched ourselves into uncertainty and it is all credit to our architects, and I guess to some extent luck, that what we created at that time proved to be almost exactly apposite for our business needs today. “Almost” because being uncertain as to what the La Faula farmstay activity would involve, our architects designed Room 1 as a maisonette with additional sleeping on a mezzanine floor to accommodate groups. The mezzanine floor, was actually the roof of Room 2 which had been comprehensively, if not effectively, soundproofed. Although the rooms layout was approved at the time by the local authorities regulating our activity, actual implementation of the law regulating Agriturismos saw us restricted in how we could distribute our guests. At the beginning we, and our architects, believed that provided we respected the fire regulations concerning sleeping numbers and fire escapes as well as the maximum number of guests able to sleep in the house according to our licence, we could distribute them as we pleased so, for example, if there was a girls volleyball team having a weeks training camp at La Faula, instead of dividing the girls equally amongst all the rooms we could, for example, concentrate them in various parts of the house according to their ages. And as we did host for a number of years a girls volleyball team on summer training camp this is exactly what we did at the request of the parents and organiser who wanted the younger girls to stay together and the older girls to stay together. So the very young girls would stay in Room 1 where they were comprehensively supervised by a coach in Room 2. Unfortunately, this was in breach of our authorisation as in Friuli each bedroom receives a specific authorisation that enumerates how many may sleep in it. Not to respect this authorisation automatically triggers a fine and most probably suspension of our licence.
So two years ago, in the last week of August, we hosted a weeklong camp by a girls volleyball squad, as we had for many years and we distributed the girls, as every year, as directed by the organiser, coach and parents. Basically the younger girls were at one end of the house and the older girls at the other. The week passed well and without incident and on the last Sunday, as every time, the parents came and took the happy and tired girls home. On the Monday we had an inspection by the NAS squad of the Carabiniere. The NAS is the “Nuclei Antisophisticazione e Salute and it is one of the organs of the Italian State that controls hotels, restaurants, food producers, supermarkets, farms and any other activity that involves public health issues. Unlike the Regional Health Department that applies Regional Laws and authorises our activity, rooms, kitchen etc., the NAS inspects to ensure that national laws impacting on health are applied and respected. I don’t think that I can adequately express in words the mix of feelings that this control by the NAS engendered. We were of course more than relieved that when they inspected the house it was empty of guests apart from one valiant couple who had stayed at La Faula notwithstanding the volleyball camp. But we knew that if the inspection had been only two days previously we would have been toast, and burnt toast at that!
We never hosted another sports group again and we scrupulously distribute the guests in the rooms according to our authorisation. The weekly girls volleyball camp that for so many years had taken place at La Faula to the satisfaction of all petered out after a try in another location the following year. So it was that Room 1, the Maisonette and Room 2, sitting under the mezzanine floor, were ripe to be rebuilt.
to be continued
Last night I determined to return to write my diary after a break of some considerable time! I intended to begin by saying how much I had enjoyed living in an analog world again these last weeks, delightful autumn activities having kept me away from the digital world of websites and digital communications. But first I had to get the photos of the day from my camera into my computer. And at this point the digital world came back and hit me with vengeance! I couldn’t find the correct USB cable that would connect to my camera! I searched high and low. I couldn’t even remember when I had last used it. Of course, my mind harboured countless images seen during the summer of black USB cables with the tubular ferrite bead at one end. I fancied that I had seen one in almost every place, every day, I searched drawers, “remembered” having retrieved it recently and having put it away ready for use, wondered if I had lent it to a guest during the summer, imagined that maybe I had even filed it by accident with the great jumble of leads and cables, collected over the years, no longer used but kept “just in case” but after hours had elapsed and I had traversed La Faula, the barn and various rooms numerous times without success, I gave up on the diary and hoped that I would have more success in the light of the following morning. In fact I did. I did find the cable and did manage to unload a surprisingly old selection of photos from my camera and so tonight, beginning with the wonderful shots of Annie running free on an autumn afternoon I return to my blog!
The last guests of the Agriturismo season departed La Faula about two weeks ago. They were two friends from Minneapolis, one of whom had already stayed with us in May while following the Giro d’Italia bike race. Finishing by saying goodbye to someone to whom we had said hello much earlier on in the year was a nice closure giving the sense of the wheel of activity having fulfilled its cycle over the summer thereby bringing us to a natural and pleasant ending. The thing is that our experience of the Agriturismo is so intense that the season’s events are a close packed jumble of people and events, nothing anymore in a clear order, just pictures and memories impressed upon the mind. The Agriturismo season at La Faula sees us meeting, re-meeting, talking to, socialising and following a flowing flux of people, all equally important and all deserving our best attention. Then there are the volunteers that help us out. There is the mutual getting to know each other, the need for rapid absorption of tasks and skills and finding comfortable insertion into the La Faula “family” no matter for how brief a period.
In past times the closure of the Agriturismo would have folded immediately into the harvesting of the grapes and winemaking. But this year, as in a number of previous years, the white grapes were ready while the Agriturismo was still in full activity. The weather was wonderful, we had a great volunteer to help us and so we kept on with the Agriturismo until the bookings finished. We were on a roll and were on the downhill slope so we went with it and got a neighbour to harvest the grapes and make the wine. The Agriturismo closed naturally at that point at which everybody who was to take a late summer holiday had and before autumnal trips had begun.
The great freedom that arrives for me at this point is not having to think about preparing, then preparing dinners. Days take on a languid aspect, pleasant and unconstrained by obligation. The vegetable garden and our produce can be contemplated and enjoyed in a way that is not possible during the haste of the Agriturismo season when organisation and efficiency reign. Hours can be spent with a sharp pair of scissors (I don’t like squishing bugs) hunched over the cabbages, gently pulling back all the leaves that bend, searching out the caterpillars and moth larvae that will deprive me of the perfect cabbage head that Luca will cook in the evening.
Over these last weeks I made pesto and tomato preserve. I made grape jelly from the grapes of the pergola and fig jam from our white figs. I made apple juice and apple conserve and as I write this there are two pressure cookers of quince cooling on the stove behind me. Tomorrow I will make quince and ginger jam. Next will be a gardiniera of green tomatoes, peppers and onion. It is delightful, and it satisfies some deep need, to harvest in autumn, as the days shorten and winter looms, wonderful foods, and to put them away in anticipation of their enjoyment, when all around is brown and cold and flat, in a bright kitchen, warm and cosy and secure!
being written - not yet completed
Today a new Italian Government was sworn in by the very President who had levered-out the elected Silvio Berlusconi from the Premiership in November 2011, who had then inveigled the Italian people into accepting an unelected executive government for a year, and subsequently, when the elected Silvio Berlusconi judged that the Italians had had enough of the unelected Prime Minister, Mario Monti, and withdrew his party’s support for the executive thereby triggering elections which Mario Monti, seriously overestimating the esteem in which he was held by the Italians, contested and lost, but the outcome of which was three mutualistically antagonistic parties with about 25% of the vote then, following a very brief interregnum when his mandate was expiring and his powers circumscribed by law, at the age of 87, managed to get himself re-elected President for another 7 year term by the morally and ethically bankrupt political class distinguished in its venality only by its incompetence, worked-up the eventual creation of a "grand coalition" Government between the party of Berlusconi and its enemy for twenty years, the principal party of the Italian left, being the very same politicians who were unable to agree on any other person for President (out of a population of 60 million) other than the current one, Giorgio Napolitano.
These are the very people who are to save Italy and whose government, the BBC reports has been greeted with "optimism".
It was reported today that six ministers, including the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister (who respectively belong to the Democratic Party of the Left and Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party) have their political roots in the Democratic Christian Party which imploded under the weight of its own corruption in the early 1980’s and that two ministers belong to the muscular Catholic Organisation "Communion and Liberation" in which Rick Santorum is a fellow. This last organisation has recently run into difficulties of its own in Italy as leading members, such as the ex-President of the Lombard region, have been charged with corruption, and Investigating Magistrates have executed search-warrants at the Organisation’s Rimini headquarters following fraud enquiries.
It’s not very good really. And it’s not logical. How can anyone realistically expect the very people who have been responsible for Italy’s decline, who are so tenacious in sucking on to power at any cost, who are so unprincipled and so incompetent, now to put things to rights?
to be continued ... this is going to be a long one!
By the end of the evening I couldn’t wait to get home. The uncertainty relating to Fritz’s whereabouts was wearing and the desire to get home and find him there great. Wanting to avoid the difficult feelings that would go with losing the dog, I hoped to find that everything was alright after all. As we came up the Faula driveway, and in front of the house, Hector, for a moment, in the gloom seemed to be Fritz. Everything was alright after all! But then we saw that it was Hector and Fritz was still away from home.
The night gave the possibility that in the morning Fritz would be back at La Faula and so comforted by that hope I went to bed. During the night I slept fitfully and woke-up when I heard Rett barking. Maybe Fritz was back? But in the morning, he wasn’t and it seemed that I would have to confront the fact that Fritz was gone from La Faula for good.
I imagined Fritz happily living with another family that he had followed on an Easter Monday walk and who, taking him for a lost dog, had brought him home and decided to keep him. Or I imagined his little lifeless body lying abandoned on some lonely grass verge beside a road where cars passed indifferent to the fact that he was our pet that we loved.
I had memories of our walks in the winter and the moment I let the dogs out of the cage in the morning and he does a scratchy roll on the gravel. I remembered how Fritz had cried when I went to see him after his hip operation two years ago. I thought of the little Belgian boy, Ossip, who had walked Fritz after the operation as part of his physiotherapy and who in a couple of days would be arriving with his family to see his canine friend.
I felt a great sense of loss but then it seemed ridiculous and out of proportion. Sure, Fritz was a great pet but he was only a dog. I thought of friends who had lost their child to Lou Gehrig’s disease and asked myself how I could permit such a welling of emotion for a small dog when people commonly face much worse. It seemed perhaps indulgent and a bit exaggerated. Then I thought of the expense of Fritz’s hip operation and how he had recovered so well with mobility and without pain. Now all that money would never be depreciated by years of Fritz running free with the other dogs in the fields and on the hill of La Faula. As I passed the paper-recycling bin I saw one of our new paper table mats with an image of the four dogs on it, done by a guest of last year who had been taken by the friendliness of the Faula border collies. Already just printed, the image was a lie as Fritz was no longer or was, at least, no longer of La Faula!
Anna, Fritz’s sister came up. "Come on Annie" I said
"Let’s go and have a look at the old shack"
I pulled on my gumboots (Wellingtons) and Anna and I walked across the field in front of the vineyard towards our neighbour’s shack. I had no hope of finding Fritz. It was a pro-forma action but had to be done just the same. I walked with Anna where I walk often with all the dogs who run and galavant with the pure pleasure of being alive, free, without fear and loved. By now I was getting pissed-off that it should have happened that Fritz was no longer with us. One doesn’t want bad things to happen and this was a bad thing even if he was just a dog. At the minimum, the money we had spent on his hip replacement had not been returned in full. And even if a dog is just an reflexively animated people pleaser, Fritz had given me pleasure and I did love that dog even if that love is, by definition, less than that we can express to a person.
Anna and I approached the shack. There was a tent in front, closed and I couldn’t tell if there were people in it or not. Quietly we moved past the tent and looked into another large, high-roofed white tent where, obviously, the party had been held. Only a couple of black bin bags, full, were present. I was impressed that at the end of the festivities the kids had cleaned everything away. Passing alongside the lean-to on the side of the shack I noticed some abandoned plastic plates with chicken bones. Fritz must have had a great party here! Anna was busy sniffing around, I guess wishing that she too had been at the party. I had hoped that Anna, being a dog, would in some way indicate to me the presence of Fritz, if he was nearby, perhaps hurt, but there were just to many good smells and interesting stories to occupy her!
I reached the door of the shack. I was unsure what was inside and whether there were perhaps kids sleeping there. I gently lifted the latch and pulled the door a little ajar. Inside it was gloomy with the light coming through one small, dirty window. In the dusky light I made out some rows of benches. There was a smell of fire and perhaps a fireplace in the middle of the far wall. But my eye caught a movement at my feet. I looked down. It was Fritz, his little nose pushing out through the opening!
I laughed to see Fritz pushing out through the door and looking up at me with a sheepish face. He was rotund as a sausage, black with soot and had the air of a dog that has had the party of his doggy dreams! "Come on Fritz" I said. "It’s time to go home!"
As I write this Fritz is curled-up outside the Yellow bungalow. Inside are our friends, who came originally as guests, and who lost their child to Lou Gehrig’s disease. These people who come to La Faula twice a year have been coming since October 2000. They have shared La Faula, the way we make it grow, and our trials during those years. They share a love of dogs and know and remember the Maremanni, Minnie, Spotty and Barty and the border collie Nellie, the mother of Fritz and Anna and Rett. During the time of our friendship we shared, incomprehensibly of the profound magnitude of the suffering, their loss.
So I suppose that all loss is a tragedy for those who feel it. And the size of the tragedy is commensurate with the magnitude of the loss. The premature loss of a pet is a small tragedy compared with other things that happen to people. But it hurts all the same.
So when I finish this diary entry, press send and confirm the "Diario modificato regolarmente." page and get up and pass Anna stretched-out on the mat, and Hector underneath the bench next to where I am sitting, and Rett stretched-out on the mat at the entrance to the dining room and then look across to the Yellow Bungalow where Fritz is waiting for his friends to open the door and - if he is very lucky - let him in, I will give thanks for a loss avoided and will savour this moment when all is as it should be and is right in our little world knowing full well that these moments, transient and ephemeral, are the diamonds in the rough of life!
Easter Monday was a busy day at La Faula. In the morning guests who had stayed for the Easter holiday period left and in the afternoon friends came and we sat around the wood-burning stove eating well, drinking and talking. There was lots of talking!
During our time in the room with the stove the dogs came in and out, begged food off us, got banished outside but then sidled in with the next person to enter the house. I was vaguely aware that Fritz was not among the dogs but assumed that he had found something better to do outside. Eventually our friendly and cosy afternoon in company drew to a close, our friends left and we had a short break before being due at the Trattoria Ai Cons where we had been invited for dinner. It was dusk and time to round-up the dogs and take them to their sleeping cage where they are the stars of the "Sleeping Dogs" webpage. Fritz was no-where to be seen. So we called and hollered but he didn’t turn up.
Now, it’s not so unusual for the dogs to make little visits to the fields around La Faula. If something interesting gets their attention such as a badger set or a field freshly sprayed with liquid manure they depart for a little adventure. But they are never out of earshot and a good bellow, such that the hill echoes with dog names, invariably brings them back. So it was perplexing, worrying and saddening when Fritz didn’t come back. We searched the ponds and recalled the people passing through La Faula on Easter Monday rambles. We hoped that in his friendly way he hadn’t attached himself to some other family and was about to start a new life with someone else. Worse, we recalled that our dogs are not familiar with roads or cars and we had visions of him slack and lifeless beside some road. We wondered if his hip replacement had given out and he was injured in some wood around La Faula. All in all it was pretty sad. But just before leaving for the Ai Cons trattoria we noticed that some local kids were having a traditional Easter camp in a shack in one of our neighbours fields. As Fritz likes to go and visit the neighbour when he is working the vineyards in front of the shack, it suddenly seemed probable that Fritz was there and enjoying plenty of pats and begging food off the kids.
It seemed so likely that Fritz was with the kids that we didn’t go to find him. The field with the shack abuts La Faula and there are no roads so we guessed that Fritz would make his way back home once the party was over and, the next day not being a holiday, the kids went home themselves. The kids were local and would have known that Fritz was from La Faula so we had no concerns for his safety. We didn’t really want to bust-in on th kid’s party so we departed for the Ai Cons where Elda and Alcide and the waitresses were relaxing after a busy Easter. But it was a case of salt having lost its taste. Normally I love an evening at the Ai Cons in the company of the usual’s who congregate there. But on that Easter Monday evening I felt concerned. When a dog is away, of course, one imagines that it will all turn out alright and the dog will come home. But one fears that the story may not in fact have a happy ending and in that uncertainty uneasy grows the soul!
to be continued.
To understand Italians and their society one has to be of them. If one takes them at their word one will never understand them as how they are, and how they present themselves, are two different things. In the way that they face the world Italians are directed by two obligatory cultural norms. The first is that they are bound to present the "bella figura", literally "beautiful figure". It is an Italian imperative that in their relations with the world, any world, Italians must present themselves in a winning and admirable light. To do otherwise is to display weakness, lose respect and risk opprobrium. But the bella figura is a relative concept and what is a winning and admirable light depends upon the ambient norms in which the Italian finds him or herself. Thus, the Italian is a chameleon recognising the colours of the environment it finds itself in and reflecting them back. But the chameleon itself is thus invisible.
The second is that they, the Italians, both together and individually are required to believe that they are by definition "brava gente" or "good people". And they do believe this. Being thus per se good people they can perceive their motives as being just even if the means by which they achieve their ends may be morally suspect.
And so non Italians outside Italy can find Italians to be persuasive, cognisant of non-Italian concerns and empathetic. Thus only a few short months ago the "Two Marios" (Draghi and Monti) were being hailed - by the cognoscenti no less - as the saviours of the Euro zone while the contrasted Silvio Berlusconi was seen as nothing more than a cunning, if buffoonish, crook who had led his country to ruin!
But an Italian knew that this wasn’t true. Because as all Italians know "l’apparenza inganna" "appearances deceive" and that Italians have amongst them very many "furbi" "sly one’s", "cativi" "bad one’s" and those who will often "fregarti" "screw you".
So the Italians knew that as Mario Monti was reaping pundits from the international cognoscenti (but not Wolfgang Munchau in the Financial Times) he had in fact declared war against the private sector demonizing entrepreneurs as inveterate tax evaders and racking-up the application of force against them by instruments of the State such as the Finance Police, the Inland Revenue and the State Revenue Applied Collection Agency (Equitalia) such that businesses were obliged to pay State-assessed taxes on income not earned. Increased excises and taxes were also applied to energy, assets and houses and land. But - and here is the real nub of the issue - not a single bureaucrat - not a single member of the bureaucracy that has since the inception of the Italian State suffocated and restrained the application of private initiative to capital to create growth and thereby wealth - was sacked. Two groups were protected. Pensioners with good pensions (those with poor pensions have seen their purchasing power eroded) and State employees.
And so the hero of the hour, Mario Monti, saviour of Italy and the Euro, deluded himself into thinking that the Italians also loved him their having being fooled by his lies and manipulation and he created a political party in alliance with the party of the Catholic Church and he plunged into the national elections of February past. But he foundered on the rock of truth. For the Italians, being Italians, know the other Italians. And they knew him for the moralising, manipulative, dissembling coward that he is. And Mario Monti went from hero to has-been in the space of 12 hours (whining that he now "can’t wait to get out of politics").
And this brings us to Silvio Berlusconi. Silvio is "an Italian’s Italian". Silvio Berlusconi knows nothing of the world outside Italy and Spain. He knows the cultural norms of his own country - through his TV channels he has helped to create them - and when outside Italy he has shown numerous times that he believes that other peoples have the same cultural norms as the Italians. Thus, coming across to foreigners as buffoonish and a clown he is in fact a much more interesting creature than the chameleon Monti because Berlusconi opens a door on what Italians are actually like. And very ,very many Italians believe that Berlusconi is like them and fights their corner. And one cannot say that this is not so even if he, as the result of having governed Italy for most of the last twenty years, is responsible for the state that Italy now finds itself in because what he did, as Prime Minister, was what a large number (if not a majority) of the Italians wanted.
Berlusconi, buffoon to the world, is at one with very many Italians. Monti just reflected back to the European and International cognoscenti what they wanted and so, a man without balls, he delivered the coup-de-grace to Italy, a country of 60 million people, in the process. And here I should say, aside, that Italy is finished. And not metaphorically but actually. Italy has been hollowed out from the inside and is no longer capable of supporting a rich-world life style. Italy is a dead man walking. But that is a diary entry for another day and one that I am reluctant to explore because it might - erroneously - give readers the idea that Italy is not a good holiday destination!
So today, following the political stalemate that resulted from Italy’s national elections a bigwig in the Italian Democratic Party of the Left, the principal leftwing political block stated:
"And [we must] quit this superiority complex, widespread within our camp, such that we pretend to choose the opponent [to try to find political accommodation with]. Whether we like it or not, Italians have established that the head of the [political] Right, a Right that has taken practically [the same number] of votes as us, is still Silvio Berlusconi. And with him we must talk. "
And so it is that the intellectually superior Italian political left has been reduced to negotiating, from a position of weakness, with the very man that they have spent the last twenty years denigrating and demonizing. And they have been forced to do this because enough Italians voted for Berlusconi to give him equivalent political power as the left. And the Italians voted for Berlusconi because the Italian left were intellectuals of nothing using the name of an ideology that they did not adhere to or believe in to cover their avarice and plunder of the State and of subsequent generations. Because the great winners of the last fifty years in Italy have been employed workers, civil servants and pensioners who were employed workers or civil servants. Berlusconi never, not even once, moved against their privileges sustained and defended by a corporatist union structure. He said it was impossible to move against the "Communists" because political power in Italy is too diffused to permit decisive and determinate action. But those very workers, expensive and unproductive, and those very State employees, incompetent, lazy and destructive of economic growth and those very pensioners, sucking-up the resources of those working to sustain their comfortable retirement, brought, in their totality, the Italian economy to ruin and suffocating under a mass of debt.
Berlusconi is a snake-oil salesman. But in a society where private initiative is distrusted and thus to be heavily managed by the State and regulated by the bureaucracy, he was the only game in town for those not wanting to adhere to the Italian tribal "Left". Berlusconi did nothing, and will do nothing, but promote his own business and private interests. But the Italians all know that. They know that he changed nothing. They also know that it is also probably true that real change is probably impossible in such a geronto-bureaucratic society comprised of competing, wary and distrustful fiefdoms of every kind, public and private.
Italy has its back to the wall and the only way out is to smash the wall. The question is whether the comic Beppe Grillo will be able to smash that wall. He can’t do it alone so he has to rely on Italians to help him do it. The real question now is whether there will be enough Italians with courage and clarity of purpose to bring that wall down even if it means crushing many vested interests whose only aim is to keep that wall standing!
So, at the end of the Second World War Italy flirted with civil war. The Italian Communist Party had an armed wing of Partisan fighters but partisan resistance in Italy was characterized by numerous partisan groups with multiple and sometimes opposing political orientations (communist, "actionist", monarchist, socialist, catholic, liberal, republican, anarchist). In Friuli the communist Garlibaldi Brigade partisan group was under the aegis of Tito and was working to ensure the absorption of Friuli into the foreseen future Yugoslav State. The Tito-directed Garibaldi Brigades were resisted by local "Republican" partisan groups. Civil war, if it had come to Italy would have been between those wanting a communist Italy and those determined not to have it. As Italian communism was Stalinist, a victory by the Communist faction would likely have seen the abolition of private property and the creation of a State modelled on the Soviet Union. Following the fall of fascism all was to play for in Italy.
There was no doubt, however, that a large portion of the Italian populace would have bitterly resisted communism, the Catholic Church saw resisting communism as an existential struggle and the United States and Great Britain were not prepared to have Soviet domination pushing down into the Adriatic. Civil war was averted when leaders of the Italian Communist party were incorporated into the government of national unity formed after the fall of fascism, were involved in the constituent assembly and writing of the Italian constitution and in return they renounced violence, embraced democratic means to achieve their ends, their "Garibaldi" partisans were disarmed along with the others and in June 1946 the leader of the Italian Communist Party, Palmiro Togliatti, as Minister of Justice promulgated a General Amnesty for crimes committed during the war.
In the first general election following the Second World War the communist coalition lost to the Catholic Church sponsored Christian Democratic but it took 31% of the votes. In 1946 Winston Churchill stated that "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent." But in Italy the opposing forces that were separated in Europe by the iron curtain were forced together in a narrow peninsular. Just as on the intercontinental scale, the risk of mutually assured destruction ensured that conflict was sublimated and restrained. The Italian Communist Party did not renounce its Stalinist views and thus retained the power to frighten capitalists, the middle classes and the petite bourgeoisie. Lacking the power of a contrarian libertarian ideology anti-communists were either forced into the logic of the Catholic Church or were left with their instinctive hostility to a collectivising ideology. Having just escaped a collectivist existence they were viscerally hostile to those who would propose its return. At this level resisting communism was, as for the Catholic church, an existential struggle conducted with real hatred for those who would take away a liberty so recently attained.
But in addition, there was a personal element to the hostility between the left and the others in Italy. Marshal fund aid and economic growth after the Second World War was a rising tide that lifted all ships. Thus Italian Communists started doing well and they themselves comprised their own petite bourgeoisie and workers who were earning well. Their involvement in the unions and presence in Parliament, the accommodation of them by the Christian Democrats and the willingness of the Christian Democrats to extend social protections to workers when prodded by those very communist unions led to them being seen as hypocritical. They didn’t practice what they preached and were despised for it. But worse, they occupied the secular moral high-ground in Italy. For a large part of the second half of the twentieth century Europe, and Italy, was awash with leftist intellectuals. The left in Italy saw itself as the secular intellectual elite. And it was because, putting the dogma of the Catholic church aside, the left was the only intellectual game in town. Italy upon its creation had to share space in the narrow peninsular with the Roman Catholic Church that it had defeated but not vanquished. Thus it inherited two thousand years of static Catholic dogma. The Americans of 1776 were able to claim that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed," For the Italians deference and obeisance to the Church and the Landlord were all that was required of them along with exertion of their labour.
Thus non-communist Italians felt deprecated and disdained by left-wing Italians who were living and benefiting from the system like everyone else. And as those not of the left had no historical standard bearer for liberty and the pursuit of happiness by making money, and were subject to being categorised by the left as self-interested, common and ignorant by those no different to themselves they saw in Silvio Berlusconi a saviour when he came onto the political scene. In Silvio Berlusconi for the first time there was someone, a "bigwig", who spoke like them and reflected their aspirations and their fears.
to be continued ....
["When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."]
In the recent Italian elections Silvio Berlusconi made a comeback. It had seemed, when his removal from the post of Prime Minister was engineered by the Italian President in a soft coup, that Berlusconi would simply disappear. Italy was in trouble when Berlusconi left and it seemed that he had, perhaps, got off lightly considering that he had governed for much of the last twenty years and bore much responsibility for Italy’s continual decline.
Berlusconi was replaced by a non-elected executive headed by Mario Monti who, it can safely be said, delivered the coup de grace to the Italian economy. The damage to the Italian economy inflicted by the Monti government cannot be understated. Monti was imposed theoretically to liberalise a sclerotic and corrupt economy lighting a resurgent economic vigour that could allow Italy to grow its way out of its financial problems. It was clear that if he was to be successful in this Monti would also need to deliver deep cuts to the State bureaucracy that has been culpable of suffocating Italian economic growth over decades.
There is no doubt that this would have been a herculean task. Taking on entrenched interest groups in the private sector, with their links to the political parties of left and right, could perhaps have been seen as futile from the beginning. And taking on the bureaucracy that comprises the Italian State would have involved real risks as it is the bureaucracy that runs Italy while the politicians enrich themselves and pass populist laws and laws that favour, partially, the interest groups that sustain them.
If Monti was unable to fulfil his mandate he should have resigned. He was not popularly elected and only had the mandate to govern that he had been given at the beginning. Instead, Monti decided that there was an easier way to calm the international financial markets. His government launched a propaganda campaign announcing a break with the illegality of the Berlusconi era with its tax amnesties and amnesties for breaches of planning laws. He declared war on tax evaders which, of course, was essentially entrepreneurs and artisans as employees pay payroll taxes. I believe that he really thought that there was a pot of gold to be found in every self-employed persons garden. Under his aegis raids were made by the tax police on the basis of geography such as those executed in Cortina and Porto Fino and economic activity such as those executed on Agriturismi on the May holiday of 2012.
People who were not Italian breathed a sigh of relief. Italy was being relieved of the pervasive illegality of the Berlusconi era and would return to the normal community of European nations. But as the recent election showed it didn’t turn out like this at all.
And to understand this and why Berlusconi did so well in the last elections one needs to understand the Italian left and how so much of the Italian right is a reaction to it!
Italy industrialised only at the beginning of the 20th century. The feudal system only left Italy completely after the Second World War. Before industrialisation began, the vast majority of Italians lived in abject poverty working for local landlords, aristocracy or the Pope. Prior to the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, and for a period after, the Italian peninsular was a patchwork of principalities, states and regions, often poor and, apart from those ruled by foreign powers such as Austria, generally weak. Lacking the reformation but being subject to the Catholic Church’s response to it, the thought of normal Italians was dominated and controlled by force of the dogma of the Catholic Church. The Italians were seen, by their own countrymen, as passive and accepting, so much so that their passivity was seen as inimical to the creation of the Italian state. Italians were abject, exploited and ill-treated but the instinct to rebel had been cauterized from their psyche by their Church leaving to them only the resistance tools of cunning and slyness.
During this time normal Italians, apart from those in domestic service, had little contact with their landlords. Their principal contact with authority was the village Priest. The other was the overseer of the landlord whose role was to ensure that they met their obligations to produce and that they didn’t take or keep-back anything to which they were not entitled. The Italians were a beaten people, held down, and this created in some deep resentment and hostility at the nexus of Church and landlord. A people lacking the ability or will to rebel, ill-treated and exploited, resentful but trained from infancy to accept authority and revere with all their heart and soul God’s representative on earth, direct spiritual descendent of the Apostle Peter, the Pope, contained within it large numbers of individuals ready to change their allegiance to another infallible leader, Joseph Stalin.
The First World War saw the development of Italian industry on an enormous scale and the creation of large industrial companies from what had effectively been artisan-al activities. Large numbers of workers were required by the factories and so, for the first time, Italy saw the creation of an industrial working class. In parallel, the war created a capitalist class and denuded Agriculture of labour as enormous numbers of young male peasants were killed and maimed in the conflict with Austro-Hungary. Communism gave an ideological framework to the working class and it promised emancipation for agricultural labourers. The new capitalists and the old landlords, and the Catholic Church, were threatened. Communism promised to destroy the economic basis underpinning agriculture until that time and to remove the gains so recently obtained by the new capitalist class. Failure of the capitalist class threatened the middle class that was growing up around an industrialising economy. The time was right for fascism to redefine the Italy that had emerged changed following the First World War.
The communism implemented through revolution in Russia implemented the Marxist-Leninist ideology of, amongst other things, common ownership of the means of production. Rapidly, Stalin was the dictator at the pinnacle of the society exercising powers of life and death. The creation of the Soviet Union was deeply disturbing to many Italians and they had no competing ideology of their own to justify Italian social structure and maintaining a capitalist/landlord lock on resources.
Nationalism created Italy where no Italy had previously been. But having obtained a State it begged the question of whether this was enough and what it meant to be Italian in Italy. Fascism, an idea thrown-up by Benito Mussolini attempted to put flesh on the bones of Italian nationalism but it was dressing, not an ideological skeleton. Fascism has no ideology. It is a state of being. It was invented constantly on the go drawing fundamentally from the experience of the "Arditi" storm-troopers in the First World War infused with the glory of the Roman Empire. So it involved uniforms, great rousing rallies, a drawing-in of the people to the State, a State justified by the greatness of the Italian people and thus Great itself and deserving of the rewards that should thus attain (such as empire).
But as it was the greatness of the Italian people that justified the State the Fascist State did not see itself as being at war against its own population. Private enterprise was respected and this, of course, first attracted the landowners, capitalists, artisans and the middle classes to it and cemented their support. Conveniently, once fascism was established it would take over failing businesses often with the payment of generous recompense to the owners. Fascism became a practical, but not ideological, challenge to the communism that was sweeping Europe and which was finding fertile ground amongst the Italian masses. Fascism was a particularly Italian thing: impressive to look at, wonderful design and spectacle, a great dose of nastiness but not unrestrained and infinitely malicious but, in the final analysis, underlayed by a dodgy justification and operating in a chaotic and disorganised manner that placed a block on true excess. Fascism, of course, did not tolerate challenges to it but economic and social power remained diffused and there were other poles of power that the fascists had to consider including property owners large and small, the Crown, the Bureaucracy, powerful families and the Catholic Church.
Fascism then was the game in town as Italy continued its industrialisation and its transformation away from being an agricultural economy. Fascism had as one of its aims the improving of the lives of ordinary people and families and it marshalled the resources of the State to eliminate malaria, turn marshes into farmland, provide workers housing among other things. It also involved itself in the welfare and self-improvement of workers. For this reason fascism still gets credit for development that improved the lives of many ordinary people in Italy.
The Italian Communist Party (originally the Communist Party of Italy), however, was Stalinist, its leaders were Stalinists and, in particular, Palmiro Togliatti, one of the Communist Party founders and General Secretary had a close personal relationship with Stalin and during his time in Russia (when the fascists were in power in Italy) he rose to the leadership of the Communist International (in 1935 when Stalin began his first purges). There is no doubt that the Italian Communist Party sought to further Soviet interests. Togliatti entered government in Italy in 1944 as Minister without portfolio and in subsequent governments went on to become vice-premier and Minister of Justice. In the General Election of 1946 the Italian Communist Party received 19% of the votes and 104 seats in the Constituent Assembly.
Thus Stalinist Communism was a feature of Italian politics both before and after the Second World War. It survived fascism and it frightened many Italians. The problem was that Italians who turned to communism were primed to accept it unreservedly, they revered Stalin as they had been taught to revere the Pope. They replaced one religion with another and so even though the Italian Communist Party renounced violence as a means to its aims and supported democracy very many Italians remained suspicious and hostile to it. The fact that Italian communists adhered to Marxism-Leninism and Stalinist dogma gave them an intellectual structure and organisation that other Italians lacked. Italy had never been a liberal society sustaining private property and free markets as a matter of political philosophy so entrepreneurs, artisans, and citizens who valued their property, no matter how meagre, felt vulnerable. Most of these people had come from nothing, through hard work they had attained something and they were afraid of it being taken away. The ability to earn from ones labour and capital was for very many Italians a benefit only recently attained; previous to this they had worked as share-croppers giving the benefits of their labour to others.
to be continued ...
Beppe Grillo received one quarter of the vote in Italy’s recent elections. Today Time Magazine published an interview with him. Whether you are interested in Italy or not it is worth reading. Italy is 60 million volatile human beings. It played a key role in the development of European nationalism in the 18th century, an extreme form of that nationalism developed into fascism, it was a belligerent in two World Wars, the weakness, corruption and illegitimacy of the Italian State created fertile ground for criminal organisation like the mafia and camorra. It will probably bring down the Euro and it is a running experiment on how one generation can steal all from those following and kick the ladder away undermining their material prospects and denying their aspirations. It is inconceivable that there could be a generational civil war that would pit children against their parents but the inequity of the current situation and the desperation of the disenfranchised could well find expression in chaos and violence.
Given that Grillo is a political actor in Italy and his comments are intended for wide dissemination I think that it constitutes fair use to repeat some of them here:
"The county is divided in two. Those who voted for [the other parties], they’re people who don’t want to change things. Because they have high pensions. With the crisis, the prices are low. Maybe they have two houses, and you take away their housing tax. We have 18 million pensioners, 4 million state employees, that’s 22 million people. Not all of them, but a big part, don’t want change because they’re surviving. The state is their employer.
But the discussion will change, because soon there won’t be public salaries or pensions. No money. The big industry is gone. From computing, mechanical, chemical, there’s nothing left in this country. The small and medium enterprises were holding on, but they’re closing by the thousands. How do we go forward?"
[Read more: http://world.time.com/2013/03/07/italys-beppe-grillo-meet-the-rogue-comedian-turned-kingmaker/#ixzz2MsK7O6eY ]
"I channel all this rage into this movement of people, who then go and govern. They should be thanking us one by one. If we fail, [Italy] is headed for violence in the streets. But if we crumble, then they come. Everything started in Italy. Fascism was born here. The banks were born here. We invented debt. The mafia, us too. Everything started here. If violence doesn’t start here, it’s because of the movement. If we fail, we’re headed for violence in the street. Half the population can’t take it anymore."
[Read more: http://world.time.com/2013/03/07/italys-beppe-grillo-meet-the-rogue-comedian-turned-kingmaker/#ixzz2MsKTGBA1 ]
I discussed this with my friend Loris. They’ll "copâlu" he said to me in Friulano. With a chill I realised that he is right. Grillo is taking on a complete generation and threatening to remove their spoils illicitly and illegitimately obtained. He’s taking on a generation without scruples or morals. They won’t let him. It’s a bad story. Grillo has been compared erroneously to Mussolini. This is slander. I hope that any comparison with Giacomo Matteotti never comes to pass.
On 13 February, I wrote a diary entry reflecting on how behaviour within the small confines of the Faula Golf Club could be seen on a larger scale in the behaviour of Italy’s enduring political class. Those of you who read this diary will know that I believe that it is a great error - the greatest error that a country can make - to treat popularly elected politicians that, as a class, are incompetent, corrupt, venal, mendacious, and worse as an aberration, a type of cancer in an otherwise healthy body politic. Joseph de Maistre wrote that “Every nation has the government which it is fit for" and my argument is that as the Italians are governed by Italians that they elect - "people like us" - until there are enough Italians that have had enough of "furbizia" ("slyness") and are prepared to live in reality, face facts, reason with their own mind instead of having their thoughts provided by others, demand accountability for incorrect behaviour by others and take responsibility when they do wrong" there is no possibility of Italy improving and it faces inexorable decline.
To pass the blame for the national disaster on the politicians, as very many Italians are wont to do, deflects them from having to look at themselves. It is all too convenient. In the diary entry subsequent I wrote about how stimulating it can be to spend time in the company of the old farmers, artisans and factory workers, all retired, around our village of Ravosa, because many are smart, astute, have a clear eye, and a healthy scepticism and they bring a keen personal analysis to what they have experienced and what makes up their society and country. These people tend to tell it like it is! Many Italians, however, see themselves, intrinsically and per se, as fine people and without need to judge themselves by their own behaviour and motivations. Thus many Italians behave in ways that are wrong and, seemingly, without limits. I ascribed this in large part to the manipulation of the Italian people from birth, by the Italian State to form and maintain a populace quiescent and nationalistic and identifying with being Italian, an idea invented only 150 years ago. Italians are not taught to question authority, the State or the nature and functioning of their social organisation. They are not encouraged to reason lest that reasoning bring them into conflict with the beliefs and stories that underlay their national existence. But they are taught that what they do have in common is something very special, that is that some of their progenitors were the truly great Romans of antiquity and others by their creativity led to the renaissance of Western culture at the end of the Middle Ages.
In addition, Italy, is a Roman Catholic state and Roman Catholicism requires that its dogma and authority be followed and not challenged. This religion, as practised in Italy with its extensive network of churches in every community and the binding ties between Church and State, does’t accept challenge and doesn’t encourage Italians to think for themselves. Thus, in total, Italy is an extremely conformist society where the populace are used to being directed and guided. With its nationalism and Roman Catholicism it was a State primed to invent fascism just as much as it was ready to be manipulated by Silvio Berlusconi through the medium of TV. [See Il Conformista - The Conformist - by Bernado Bertolucci]
Now, there are very many fine Italians, honest, hard working, generous. But there are too many who are crummy. At the beginning, when we started La Faula, we had real difficulty accepting the Italian system of continual inspections and controls of businesses by layers and layers of police and other State officials. At the beginning, I would complain to the inspecting officers. Very early on an officer of the Guardia di Finanze [Finance Police] said to me "Look its no use your complaining. The Italians are "furbi" [sly] and if we didn’t continuously inspect they would do what they want." And he was correct.
When the new President of the Golf Club got professional advice he was shocked to discover that all the structures that they had put on our land were in contravention of the criminal law ("penale") - not misdemeanour’s - and that there could never be the possibility of an amnesty to regularise them and that they would have to be removed tout suite. Not only, but as the owners, we i.e. Luca and myself, were liable. So after four years of assurances that everything was in order it turned out that nothing was in order.
What happened then was heartening. The new President and a member of the Golf Club committee got into action and removed one of the portakabins (Porta-camp) immediately. We provided some storage space and they emptied the other portakabin and this was also removed. In the next days they will dismantle the covered roof of the driving range. By the end of next week everything will be legal and in order and the Golf Club will re-launch.
I don’t wish to push the allegory too far but it did somewhat remind me of Beppe Grillo and his 5 Star Movement that seemed to come from no-where and got one-quarter of the vote in last weeks election. The undeniable truth is that the two main parties, the Democratic Party of the Left" and Silvio Berlusconi’s "People of Liberty" have given Italy nothing but stagnation based on self-interest, dishonesty, corruption, disorganisation and lack of imagination cemented together by a rigid stasis - the inertia of Italy at rest. All they had to offer us was more of the same which is decline into entropy. They reflect the stasis present in Italian society, a generation of haves determined to maintain the status quo at the cost of disenfranchising the young and large swathes of the middle aged.
Beppe Grillo has said that he should be seen as a force for stability not the opposite because he gave the disenfranchised in Italy a way out other than radicalism and perhaps terrorism (which has happened before - the Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro was killed by the Red Brigades terrorist group). Nobody knows how the Grillo 5 Star Movement will behave in exercising its power. But in this election, just passed, it did give the disenfranchised a home. And here I should tell you that amongst the disenfranchised are not only the usual suspects of students, people without work and those lacking social protection. Under Monti, in particular, but also before under the governments of Berlusconi and Prodi, businesses, all businesses, were pumped dry to support the style of life of those already retired and to pay for the debt they left behind and to keep those already in the public administration in the manner to which they are used. Businesses lost the right to enjoy the fruits of their labour. This has been at the cost of destroying the economy. Berlusconi gave the private sector his sympathy and promises but only looked after his own interests. The Left slandered entrepreneurs as serial tax avoiders and exploiters of labour, seeing them as a necessary evil in society but bereft of intrinsic interest or estimable social value.
My guess is that the Italian economy is in a much worse state than it seems. So much of the economy is fed by the Italian State - pensioners, State employees, workers on stay-at-home schemes - that it has a momentum of its own, sustained by incurring debt, even when the productive sector that should be fuelling it has dropped away. I am sure that the productive part of the Italian economy is both smaller and weaker than the official statistics suggest and the collapse when it comes will be sudden and shocking.
To be continued!
Last Sunday, as every Sunday while the Agriturismo is closed, I went for a cappuccino at the trattoria Ai Cons, just down the road from La Faula, run by our friends Alcide and Elda. After the early Mass finished, the usual crowd arrived. The tiled stove was lit and the atmosphere was warm, cosy and friendly. Everyone present had been born in the 1930’s. Most went to work after finishing primary school when they were 12 years old. These people experienced, in their lifetime:
- share-cropping poverty
- Italian fascism
- occupation by Nazi and Cossack forces when Italy in 1943 switched to supporting the Allies
- the civil war at the end of the Second World War when Italian communists tried to create the reality on the ground for Friuli to be absorbed into Tito’s Yugoslavia and were resisted by those wanting the North-East of Italy to remain Italian
- the economic collapse at the end of the second world war and the depreciation of the value of the Lira
- forced emigration to find work
- the economic boom that began in the 1960’s
- more money than they could have believed it was possible to have
- a secure old age with assets, money and a pension allowing even the poorest of them to live in dignity without fear.
These people, before they retired, were farmers, artisans with small businesses, skilled factory workers. They are able, brave and to be admired.
In "Why Nations Fail" by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson the authors state:
"The price [that] nations pay for low education of their population and lack of inclusive markets is high..... They have many potential Bill Gates and perhaps one or two Albert Einsteins who are now working as poor uneducated farmers ...."
So it is that if one spends time with the older folks around Ravosa, where I live, it is possible to learn amazing things about the way Italy was and is as keen intelligence is applied to broad and deep experience. Most of the folks around Ravosa don’t have even a high-school diploma but they have seen and experienced enough to know that they must proceed through life with a keen and powerful common sense and a healthy cynicism about what they are told and have not experienced directly.
So it was that while I was at the trattoria Ai Cons last Sunday my friend Gino got my attention, and that of everybody else, by saying:
"Eh, we know that you think that Italy has no future .....
it’s true, but we know how to die well!"
I wondered what he meant.
Gino continued: "Mussolini went to visit Hitler in Germany. It was time for Mussolini to review the German troops. At the end they stopped near a tall tower upon which was a German soldier. ’Now’ said Hitler to Mussolini ’ I’m going to show you that we Germans know how to die unflinchingly and with courage. ’Jump’ said Hitler to the soldier. The soldier jumped without hesitation and was killed.
By this time, everyone knew the joke and crowded around making little corrections and ensuring it was accurate.
Gino continued: "Sometime after, Hitler came to visit Mussolini in Italy. They were in Milan. The troops were being reviewed by Hitler. ’Now’ said Mussolini I’m going to show you that we Italians know how to die!’ ’You’ he said indicating a soldier in the ranks. The soldier looked at his watch. "It’s 9.00 a.m. and I’m already drunk!" the soldier thought.
Everyone roared with laughter at the idea of the German pointlessly sacrificing his life whereas the Italian had already enjoyed his first drinks of the day
"Look!" Gino said waving his arm. "It’s true, Italy is a disaster. But we really know how to die!" and it was hard to disagree. The place was warm, there was a communal feeling and everyone had a glass of wine!
These people grew-up under fascism, in poverty, but fascism brought them schools and roads. They lived in a country that justified going to war as part of a German-Italian Axis and for most of them the mobilisation and excitement of the period 1940-1943 was the best thing they had ever experienced. But then in 1943 they were told that it was a mistake and suddenly the German troops were occupiers and they brought Cossacks who had fought against Stalin as their proxies in Friuli. And then the communist partisans started provoking and attacking the German troops to no benefit except that it led to reprisals against the civilian population, principally women, the old and adolescents. The men were gone. Then the Germans and Cossacks retreated and in the void before the Allied Troops reached Trieste and blocked Tito’s forces, the Italian communist partisans tried, by force of arms, to prepare the subjugation of Friuli. A small civil war broke out and atrocities were committed principally by the communist partisans. The Allied troops arrived. Near La Faula by the Malina river the American troops were encamped. Amongst them were many Italians, they had chocolate and cigarettes and they were friendly to the kids that hung around the camp. A couple of kilometres further along the Malina river, in Magredis, the British troops were encamped. They were hostile and sometimes taunted the hungry kids. There was a lot of prostitution.
In the period of profound social disintegration following the break with Germany of 1943 many vendettas were settled and created and many things happened that people don’t do in normal circumstances. The kids saw where the bodies were. And those kids of those times are our neighbours today. They know what it means to be manipulated and they know, with a clear mind, the level of degradation that humans are capable of. They know what happened and they know that Italians are not a master race and this forms the basis of many of many of their jokes.
In the Northern Italian cities, however, the situation was different. During the First World War the cities had ceased to be simply administrative centres for an agricultural economy and had become centres of industrialisation. If Italy was still primarily an agricultural society between the First and Second World Wars, the cities were centres of industry on large and small scale. They had a population density obviously higher than the countryside and they needed a more educated workforce.
Italy was only put together 150 years ago by the Kingdom of Savoy. Its creation involved the conquest and integration of many smaller states, principalities and regions belonging to other states including Austria and the Papal States. It was a conquest with a nationalist justification, that being that the Italians as descendants of the ancient Romans should live in a nation coterminous with the Italian peninsular. A constant preoccupation of those who governed the Italians was that the Italians themselves don’t identify themselves as such, defining themselves by their location, dialect and culture. This was particularly true when the Italian State was still nascent and it led to Italy unnecessarily entering the First World War in the hope of creating the rebirth of the nation in blood. During the fascist period Mussolini became preoccupied by the fact that the Roman Catholic Church continued to deny the legitimacy of the Italian State and so he obtained, by bribery, the support of the the Holy See with the Lateran Accords of 1929.
Thus, one of the key objectives of education in Italy is, and was, nation-building and the moulding each individual into the model Italian. This was much harder to do in the countryside where the people had little formal education and where the unorganised nature of their work made them less subject to formal moulding. It was in the cities, however, with their mass of labour that the creation of the ’real Italian’ actually happened. In general city kids attended school longer and were thus subject to nationalising influences through education for longer. The organisation of classes of workers into groups, or social factors, also served the purpose of locking them into the idea of being Italians in an Italian nation-state. And, fortunately, there was a glorious story to teach children who were fortunate to find themselves living in the society that was the reincarnation of the Roman Empire and which had let to the rebirth/renaissance of Europe after the fall into the dark ages.
After the Second World War, Italy again risked a crisis of illegitimacy: the fascist regime of Mussolini had fallen, but many Italians felt this was a bad thing and although the partisan struggle, supposedly by a populace wanting to throw-off the fascist yolk, served to justify the new State many in Italy did not believe it. And in any case most of the State institutions, with their actors, carried on as before with no change. During this period nation-justifying propaganda reached a fever pitch. There was real fear among many Italians of a communist takeover. The role of the State fundamentally in this time was to guarantee stability in a nation that had not exited the Second world War with a unified view on what had happened while avoiding succumbing to a communist takeover. Luckily, the Italian communists at the time were more nationalist than communist so agreement was found in which there were to be no trials or witch-hunts. After the summary executions of fascists in the last days of the war, everyone was eventually pardoned, no matter how horrific their war crime. The war was to be blamed on the Germans as the Italians, by nature, are ’brava gente’ ("good people"). The Italians, communist, ex-fascist, republicans, Christian Democrats would get on and avoid putting at risk the severely weakened nation. And the Americans lubricated this with Marshall Fund money and the Italians found that the "Dolce VIta" was much more enjoyable than anything that had come before.
In 1954 a potent tool arrived to keep Italians thinking Italian: television. Television in Italy took as its principal idea that of the village, or quarter, where family and friendship relationships prevailed in warm intimacy but on a bigger scale. TV was an organ of the State but it convinced Italians that it brought into their homes (and restaurants and pizzerie) the shared experience of the "real Italy". Thus it was, and is not, seen as rude to leave the TV on when guests call by. The TV is one of the family and favourite presenters go on longer than the Pope, until death, as their familiarity is taken as friendship and their presence in the home as connectedness to others. The genius of Silvio Berlusconi is that he understood this early and realised that such an audience was voluntarily and enthusiastically captive and in a nation of conformists he could control a big part of the populace simply through his television channels.
Today, as I write this the national TV channels in Italy are divided between the State broadcaster RAI and Berlusconi. There is only one other national channel and that belongs to Telecom Italia and is on sale. TV for a certain generation of Italians represents continuity, reassurance of their conformity, participation in the national life and confirmation of the Italian narrative. As such, there is absolutely no demand for plurality and diversity, in fact change would be resisted. Change did come, but to another, younger generation, and in the form of the internet. But this is another story and involves Beppe Grillo!
In summary I think that it would be true to say that the vast majority of Italians would say of themselves that they, the Italians, are good people ("brava gente"), to the extent that they have defects so do other peoples ("tutto il mondo e paese") but they have the superior qualification in that their ancestors were the progenitors of Western Civilisation, and they deserve respect from other Europeans for this.
On the 27th February of this year the Italian news media reported that the Italian President:
"Cries. Is moved. He says: "We demand respect for our country." Giorgio Napolitano from Germany defends the pride of the nation ...."
President Napolitano was responding to the report that German politician Peer Steinbrück, of the Social Democratic party (SPD) had referred to Berlusconi and Grillo, two winners in the recent Italian, election as "clowns". Napolitano has in a previous visit to Germany referred to Italy as the source of Western civilisation.
And this is the heart of the matter. Probably most Italians don’t view themselves as anything less than brava gente with an illustrious past. They consider it absolutely unacceptable that they should be judged by non-Italians for their present state, mafia, chaos, disorganisation, corruption, dishonesty, which they see as recycling offensive and derogatory national stereotypes by those who would do them down or treat them with contempt.
And the nub is that Italians expect to be judged on who they think they are (think Romans, renaissance) and not what they are (think chaos, dishonesty, corruption etc). In many other societies one is judged not on who one is, or thinks one is, but what one actually is. The insistence that one should not be judged on what one is leaves Italians unable to confront the reality of themselves, their behaviour and the consequences flowing from their actions. If one is in a State of Original Perfection it is difficult to confront the dark heart that beats within!
A bit more than a year ago the Euro was in crisis. Greece was near an exit and the cost of borrowing for Italy and Spain was reaching unsustainable levels. The Italian Government of Silvio Berlusconi was frozen immobile, transfixed by the economic crisis that seemed imminently would break over and engulf Italy and absorbed by Berlusconi’s personal legal travails. It seemed that Italy would soon drown in a wild sea and would drag the Euro and Eurozone down with it. In the face of this real and present danger the Italian President, Georgio Napoletano, organised a soft coup to force Berlusconi from the Prime Ministership and replace him with a non-elected grandee who could form an executive government of non-elected specialists able to smash through the paralysing inertia and, harnessing the drama of the moment, force on the country a series of reforms necessary to free the economy that in normal times could never have been made. It was a make or break moment for Italy. It turned out to have been a break moment but at the time the account was never rendered. Very soon the account will fall due and Italy will be out of the Euro, unable to pay its public debt and will decline into poverty. It will become the third-world country that it always has been but which it has been able to hide by unsustainable borrowing.
In two weeks time there will be an election in Italy. Berlusconi is back with his usual strategy of identifying with perfect accuracy the problems and telling the absolute truth about the others, promising to put right that which is wrong and meanwhile positioning himself to do nothing more than further his own interests, personal and business. The leader of the party of the Left, Bersani, is straddling so many fences that one awaits his win with delicious anticipation to see exactly in what way his lies will see him tied down, then hung-up, drawn and quartered. The outgoing Prime Minister, Mario Monti, technocrat turned politician, fruit of an opportunistic power-grab by the Roman Catholic Church, is mendacity incarnate and has probably done more than Berlusconi to remind Italians of the double-dealing, untrustworthiness of those who would claim to represent them. The protest vote goes to the Comedian Bebe Grillo who talks of trashing the old order. But the old political order won’t be trashed and, in any case, true power in Italy is held by the State, not the deep-State, just the State. And Grillo will never get a grip on the Italian State and, in any case, his protest movement is made up of Italians and that is where the true problem lies, with the Italians.
In 2003 the author Sebastiasno Vassalli published a book entitled "Gli Italiani Sono Gli Altri" (The Italians are the others) in which he chronicled the normal Italian habit of ascribing Italy’s malaise and woes to the Italians, but always the others. Italians are adept at complaining about other Italians and illuminating and enumerating their defects. But the blank refusal to accept individual responsibility and accountability for one’s actions and the desire to obfuscate the truth by confusion and duplicity runs deep in Italian culture and thus in the psychological make-up of individual Italians. Of course, not all. But enough to render Italy what it is today and what it has been in history. And this is what I want to write about. A little story about the Faula Golf Club and how it came to resemble Italian politics!
In the winter of 2006 we were approached by the husband of an acquaintance and introduced to an Italian Golf Professional who had just retired from the professional circuit and was looking to create a golf club and needed a modest amount of land upon which to create a driving range and a minimal number of holes to train fledgling golfers.
We were open to the idea and were happy to provide the land without asking for a rent. It seemed to us that creating a small golf facility would be anything but simple and that, in the long term, it would be in our interest to see the club flourish and become financially independent and that this would be easier if they were free from having to pay for the use of the land. In addition, I foresaw that at the beginning it would not be easy for the club to accumulate funds and so to avoid the risk of having moments of non-payment and stress we preferred to give the use of the land free.
The club was established and the husband of our acquaintance became President. He remained President of the club until last week when, along with the Vice-President, he resigned. The Golf Pro worked hard to get the fields into some kind of order. It was a tough undertaking. He was lucky to find near the driving range a portacabin, a portable building of the type used on building sites. When we were building our barn and restoring the main house, we had moments when we had nowhere to store our tools and machinery so we had purchased a portable building to provide temporary storage. In 2006 we no longer had need of the building and we decided to sell it. As the building was, at the time, near the driving range, the Golf Pro decided to use it to store his golf implements and range tools. We warned him that the area of the driving range fell within an area of protected natural beauty and that he would have to regularize the building if he intended to keep it there, but the Golf Pro was fully occupied trying to get his club up and running, keep the fields and greens in order and provide golf lessons and the issue of the legal status of the portable building went by the way.
After two years, the Golf Pro found the running of the whole shooting-match to be too much and so he passed the lease of the land to the Golf Club itself who took over the responsibility for the property of the club and links. The Golf Pro remained with the club as the club professional and things progressed well. After a short period the President of the Golf Club brought in his friend and neighbour as Vice-President. We were pleased at this as this fellow was a specialist draftsman / planning consultant whose job was to prepare planning permission applications. He was also a jolly fellow and did a great grill. We explained to the Vice-President/draftsman the position with the portable building and he was very reassuring that we didn’t need to concern ourselves with these matters as he would take care of them. It seemed terrific that the club had the services of a planning professional to assist them. Our swimming pool is located in the same protected area of natural beauty and getting all the relevant permissions to construct it had taken six years.
Fairly quickly, the club built a covered wooden structure to allow the driving range to be used in inclement weather. The Vice-President/draftsman had prepared the documentation that Luca as legal representative of La Faula had signed and everything seemed just fine. A couple of years passed and there were discussions in the club concerning the desirability of having a building they could use to prepare coffee and take shelter in if the weather turned bad. I strongly pushed them in the direction of a wooden building as I assumed that it would have to pass the body responsible for planning applications in protected zones of natural beauty: the Superintendence for the Beautiful Arts. But it seemed that a wooden building, even if portable, would be too expensive for the club and the Vice-President/planning consultant secured, for free, another portacabin or portable building of the type already present at La Faula. This building was placed behind the driving range near the entrance to La Faula. The club, under the aegis of the specialist Vice-President, expert in all matters concerning planning permissions, then connected the building to our electricity and water supply!
By this time we were becoming concerned. I knew that Luca had not signed any documentation requesting official permission for the siting of the building so I started asking why. I was reassured, in a very convincing way, that everything was OK and I didn’t need to worry. I raised my concerns with the President but he assured me that everything was legal and we shouldn’t preoccupy ourselves with worrying. But I was worried because as the owners of the land we bore ultimate responsibility for any breaches of planning laws. When I heard that the club was about to sink two tall steel ex-electricity poles each into a cubic metre of concrete and mount a sail-like cover I knew that things were getting out of control as the land is zoned also agricultural and it is a crime to cement agricultural land without permission which is invariably never given away from farm buildings.
At this point I called the President and told him that I was sure that planning laws weren’t being respected. "No, no, don’t worry" he said "Everything is being done correctly". "In that case", I replied, "I want a letter from the club giving us a warranty that all legal obligations relating to the siting of the covered structure and the portable cabin have been respected and all necessary permissions obtained". Of course, the letter was never forthcoming.
Now the difficulty was that this was all taking place in a climate of jollity and friendly cooperation such that the President and Vice President of the Club had only to make light of our concerns. I attended two of the club committee meetings and raised my concerns but they just couldn’t see them. It was explained to me that the Vice President was specialist in these things, more than any of us, so we shouldn’t be second-guessing him. It was a real problem because in such a climate of reasonable friendliness and whole-hearted reassurance it was very difficult to ratchet things up to a level of confrontation. And I didn’t want confrontation with the club so I decided upon another strategy.
Italy, historically, and currently, has a real problem with people not respecting planning laws and houses have been built in many areas of natural and archaeological importance. This is a live and on-going problem so one of the ways that it is combated is that it is impossible to get an electricity or water connection to a structure that is not on the land register or which doesn’t have a valid building permit from the council.
During a meeting with the President and Vice-President of the club I said that I felt that it would be better if they had their own electricity and water connection instead of using ours. I said it would keep things clear and they could then decide how much they wanted to consume without reference to us. The request was so completely reasonable that the President affirmed it without a moment’s hesitation. The Vice-President knew where things were going, however, and resisted, suggesting that it would be much better if we kept things in our name and they simply reimbursed us. But the idea that the Golf Club should have its own account with the electricity and water companies was just so obvious that after being agreed there was no going back for the two of them and when the documentation eventually arrived for the connection of electricity and water directly, the Golf Club was, of course, unable to furnish the necessary building permissions!
Now, at this point you would think that things would have become clear. Structures had been sited on protected land without planning consent. But nothing was clear. The Vice-President said he would go to the local Council and find out what to do. He duly reported that there were no problems with the Council and we would simply have to submit a declaration of "initiation of works". Of course, when we read the documentation that the Vice-President/planning consultant had prepared for us, it contained a declaration on the part of Luca, as legal representative of La Faula, that the land was not subject to any protected area restrictions. This was false. And in any case, when Luca went to clarify this with the Council employee responsible for planning he was given a map detailing the extent of the area of protected natural beauty and told that the Golf Club would have first to submit a request to the "Superintendence for the Beautiful Arts". Luca duly reported this back to the Vice-President who undertook to have the request prepared. At this point I called the President of the Club and said that I felt that we had been saved at the last minute but that I felt that they should get a specialist in the field (other than the Vice President, obviously) to manage the matter as it is a rule in Italy that unless there is an amnesty one cannot get planning permission retroactively for structures already placed illegally. The reassurances and entreaties not to worry were warm and effusive but I knew that the request to the Superintendence for the Beautiful Arts would have to be accompanied by accurate certified photos showing empty fields and I wondered how they would manage this.
We were handed the pack of documents containing the request to the Superintendence for the Beautiful Arts at the Golf Club Committee meeting we were invited to to clarify, among other things, the issue of the structures. The meeting was warm and friendly and the President apologised to us on behalf of the Golf Club saying that they hadn’t behaved as good and respectful guests and, in retrospect, they had rather taken advantage of our good nature. He handed over an envelope containing €300 as partial compensation for the domestic-supply water they had used to water the golf greens and promised, when their finances allowed, another payment in compensation for the electricity they had used. Eventually the discussion moved onto the question of the two portable buildings and the wooden structure. The Vice-President/planning consultant explained that everything was OK, that the request to the Superintendence for the Beautiful Arts had been prepared and he had it with him for us to sign and that it was covered by a law called the "free construction derogation". I felt obliged to say that this seemed very unlikely and that I felt that all the constructions were likely to be illegal and as there was no current amnesty for abusive construction I didn’t see how things could be rectified.
One of the committee members asked me if I was saying that the Vice-President/planning consultant didn’t know his profession. Of course I demurred but reiterated my opinion. It was ignored. The meeting completed in a good-natured and friendly fashion with the Vice-President asking Luca if he could immediately sign the documents. Luca, of course, promised to look at the papers and sign them later and so the pack of documents sat on a table for a couple of days until my curiosity got the better of me and I decided, finally, to see just how the Vice-President / planning consultant of the Golf Club was planning to manage the planning request to the Superintendence for the Beautiful Arts having already sited the structures, in breach, I imagined, of the law. I expected something more sophisticated than what I found. There were the obligatory photos and declarations that these were an accurate, true and complete reflection of the real situation. But they weren’t. All the structures had been photo-shopped out to reveal empty fields. The job had been done badly and in one photo the entrance gates had been removed as well and in another the telephone pole. Trees were in different order in the different photos. The declarations prepared for Luca to sign included one that no work had been begun prior to the request and others relating to the veracity of what was being requested. Luca was being instigated to present a false declaration, an act, in and of itself a crime in Italy!
It was a Saturday afternoon when I examined the documentation prepared for submission to the Superintendence for the Beautiful Arts and they revealed their falsity. I called two of the Golf Club committee members and the Golf Professional and asked them to come around. They all arrived at La Faula at the same time and I gave each a copy of the doctored photos. I explained that we would not be able to sign the documents and, moreover, the documentation proved, unequivocally, that the buildings and structure should not be where they were and that they would all have to be removed.
One of the committee members called the President and explained that the documentation presented by the Vice-President / planning consultant was deceptive. They agreed that they would talk about it the following week. On the Sunday afternoon the Vice President dropped by to ask us again to sign the paperwork. He stated that it was the only way to regularise the situation and that it was normal to doctor photos in such a way. He talked vaguely about a "protected natural beauty commission" in the local Council who would be able to deal with it. It was all rubbish and I refused. He asked for the documentation back and so I gave him what I still had, keeping a copy for ourselves.
A few days later the President and Vice President of the Golf Club, claiming over-taxing commitments, resigned.
Now, the most interesting thing is the position of the Golf Club Committee Members following the resignations. Only one of them, who is not ethnically Italian, was shocked at the attempt to get around the planning laws labelling it as "a typical Italian rip-off". For the others this was a non-event not worthy of moral calculation. Apart from one, the non-ethnic Italian, not a single one of the committee members was prepared to judge or hold accountable the Vice-President. Of the ethnic Italians, not a single one was prepared to concede that the vice President of the club might have done wrong. Rather the Vice-President was exonerated with his claim that he was only following the law and local Council advice being taken at face value and without applying a discount for probability. More tellingly, although the committee members were, in fact, jointly responsible for the decisions of the whole committee they saw themselves as wholly extraneous to the situation, without responsibility for the way things proceeded and without accountability for how things turned out either to the club members or to us. The fact that they were also responsible for ensuring that the Golf Club obeyed the law eluded them.
So it is that the perpetrators of the problem, instead of having their feet held to the fire and instead of being forced to take responsibility to put right what they had broken have slipped away in good humour and spirit. Those committee members remaining have accepted the burden of dismantling and removing the structures and explaining this to the golf club members who have already paid their subscriptions for 2013.
And so it is that although a series of physical structures were sited on land of protected natural beauty in contravention of the law, and notwithstanding repeated challenges by us as to the legality of what was going on, in the end when it became clear that they had to be removed no one was responsible and no one was accountable. Everyone good friends as before.
And, in some ways it is a good solution. No one loses face. No value judgements have to be made. No one is responsible and no one accountable. No one has to render account either morally or practically for what occurred. No one gets judged. Life can go on peacefully as before.
And so it is that Italian politicians lie and steal and destroy their own country, they negate responsibility and accountability for their actions and those who sustain them, in their various tribes, refuse to expect or demand from them the responsibility and accountability that should run concurrently with the exercise of any power no matter how great or how small. For if a golf club committee, in the exercise of a power so trivial, so minor and so restricted, asserts that exercise to be without responsibility and accountability to the law, to the golf club members and to others, it is futile to expect any other Italian to hold themselves to a higher responsibility. Unlike how most Italians like to portray themselves, the Italian politicians are a mirror image of those they represent. It is the Italians that set the tone and they vote into power those that reflect them, don’t challenge them and who comfort them. A vast number of Italians, even if not all, know that just as they themselves will, instinctively and habitually, avoid assuming responsibility and taking accountability for their actions and will resort to mendacity and dissembling when the truth is problematic so too will other Italians. So just as they don’t expect to be held accountable neither do they expect others to be. Viva Italia!
As I write this Luca is stretched out taking a snooze on the couch. We are in the "fogolar" room, the old kitchen of La Faula with the open fireplace. The open fireplace now hosts a very efficient wood-burning stove and its gentle crackling is keeping us company. I am sitting on one of the benches next to the stove, my computer on the drop-leaf table that once hosted, and sometimes does still, a carafe of wine, glasses, a salami and loaf of bread.
Under the bench the border collies, Rett and Anna are stretched out dozing. Heavy dog sighs and occasional grunts are mixed with the light whistling coming from their long noses. Hector, being the daddy dog, is curled-up on the mat and Fritz is trying to get as close to Luca as he can without disturbing and being sent away!
It is snowing outside, a heavy wet snow that becomes water in an instant. The sky is grey and the colours mute. Last night we had friends around to dinner. It was a hospitable night, warm, friendly with each enjoying the company of the others. Luca cooked-up a great Friulano feast: he started with mixed cured meats, salami, prosciuto and mortadella. The first course was a serving of gnocchi with home-made tomato sauce and pasta shells with lentils, garlic and olive oil. The second course was two types of sausage made by our neighbour, Nichola, served on a bed of turnips pickled since the grape harvest in the pressed grape skins then grated and cooked long. Big bowls of local fresh chicory and steamed winter vegetables accompanied. The meal ended with the carneval sweets frittelle and crostoli accompanied by grappa and coffee!
But we have to say, that after a certain age, a dinner like this takes its toll. When young, one wonders at the rigidity of the old clinging to their fixed and certain regimes. As one becomes old, one realises that it is those fixed and certain regimes that refurnish the structure that an inexorably degrading physical existence is eroding. The young are fully autonomous. We older one’s are autonomous only within limits. Ten o’clock really is a good time to go to bed and a moderate evening meal of pasta and vegetables really does go down better. In any case, the night was fine and the day, wet and grey, gave us the excuse to stretch out, with the dogs, and do nothing.
But there is another aspect to this story. I am gratified that Luca has chosen to stretch out here and enjoy the warmth of the new stove. At La Faula, Luca is the holder of the purse, the "Mr. No" of expenditure. Every business needs a "Mr. or Ms. No" who asks "Do we really need this?" and "We can’t justify spending money on this at this time". It keeps the business focussed and honest as there will always be someone ready to spend. I like to think that I am not reckless in what I want to get for La Faula. But it is true that my ability to convince myself that expenditure is necessary or will bring significant benefits tends to run ahead of the reality. I have more faith that everything will turn out OK in the end and that I can trust things to fate. Luca doesn’t share this magical thinking being one of Italians who emigrated away to find a life more meritocratic, less corrupted and less degraded than what was on offer in Italy. Having returned to Friuli he knows that in Italy nothing turns out OK unless it is managed. Italian chaos inexorably moves towards entropy and the coldness of emptiness so one has to marshal one’s resources to resist the drag into nothingness. In Italy it takes one’s life force to resist the omnipresent badness that swirls around motivating others to behave in illogical, unpredictable, untrustworthy and dishonest ways. It is a miasma of badness, bordering on evil, but too banal and too present to merit such an appellation.
So it was that in October 2012 when I suggested getting the stove Luca replied with a non-negotiable "no". Here at La Faula we are adrift, bobbing about in a sea full of mixed and turned tsunami detritus: relics and remainders of a society built beyond sustaining that has collapsed and is swirling about in the forces of decline and degradation. "All true", I said, "but if I have to be in a country in terminal decline, at least I want to be comfortable and warm". Luca would not move on this one. There was no business justification for the stove so the cold would have to be endured. Remembering that the cricket played and sang in the warm summer evenings while the ant forewent but built a buttress against the cold void of winter, I did wonder if I was making a mistake. Who knows? Until another season has passed and we have filled the hole in our accounts left by the stove one cannot say. But one can say, with certainty, that we have passed a bloody good, cosy and warm winter. It couldn’t have been better no matter what follows!