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!