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