Nellie and Hector in the woods behind La Faula!
Every morning we take the border collies for a walk in the woods behind La Faula.
In Florence in the 14th century began a change in human thought and perspective that led to what we now call the renaissance. What was involved was a change in how humans perceived themselves and the world around them and this led to a flowering development in most aspects of human endeavour. While the renaissance had the Greek and Roman classics as a font of know-how and inspiration, the changes that occurred in Florence we self-generated and they added significantly to human development.
On Sunday 4 December, a referendum was held in Italy permitting its citizens to vote on a series of proposals to change the Italian constitution that Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had guided through the legislative phase and which now required popular confirmation. Seventy percent of those entitled to vote, voted, and 60 percent of them voted “No” to the changes. In the aftermath of the vote it became plain that very many Italians who voted “No” voted out of personal antipathy for Matteo Renzi himself.
Matteo Renzi came from Florence. Prior to becoming Italian Prime Minister he was mayor of that city. He became Italian Prime Minister by presidential appointment. He was elevated to the highest executive role in the government without having received a single vote. He was a 100% Tuscan politician. He spoke no English and his experience of the world outside Italy was extremely limited. And yet he was a politician of a type that Italians had never seen before. And many Italians hated him for it.
A number of years ago I taught English language classes, on a voluntary basis, for local pensioners. At the time, in this diary, I mused on the lack of Italian language equivalents for the english words “right” and “wrong”. So Italian Politicians could never be heard saying, as Barak Obama did:
"You know you don’t have to be a husband or a father to hear what we heard just a few days ago and say, ’that’s not right,’" Obama said while campaigning for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in Greensboro, N.C. "You just have to be a decent human being to say ’that’s not right.’"
“When politicians insult Muslims, when a mosque is vandalized, or a kid bullied, that doesn’t make us safer,” the president said. “That’s not telling it like it is. It’s just wrong. It diminishes us in the eyes of the world. It makes it harder to achieve our goals. And it betrays who we are as a country.”
And lacking the apposite language, Italian parents don’t say to their kids “Don’t do that, it’s wrong” instead they say to them “If you do that I will call the Carabiniere”. It is common to hear Italian parents use phrases like this to their kids and it reveals that instead of instilling in their kids an internal sense of ethical behaviour, many Italian parents teach their kids that correct behaviour is determined by the intervention (or not) of an authority figure. Recently we were invited out to a restaurant dinner with a family that had two young and boisterous - but generally well behaved - boys. As we sat down the mother quietly said to us as an aside “I’ve told them that they have to be well behaved because you are both policemen”.
For the 20 years that Luca and I have been running our Agriturismo the relationship between firms and the Italian State, at every level, from the National, to the Regional, the Provincial and the Municipal, has been one of unannounced inspections, controls, oppression, warrantless searches and the like. Mario Monti was a particularly good exponent of this approach and it was during his government that the complete luxury ski town of Cortina was raided oneday by the tax authorities and military tax police.
When Matteo Renzi became Prime Minister this all changed. He made it clear that his government would not be a soft touch on tax avoidance but that treating the private sector as a priori criminals and tax evaders was not acceptable in a civilised society and it would ultimately be suicidal in a country that was in economic crisis.
But more importantly he tackled the Italians themselves. He asked them how they could justify the pension system that enriched one generation by making later generations pay for it. He asked how employees could think it fair that they held jobs for life and that they were largely immune from dismissal no matter how egregious their behaviour. He asked how politicians who had clearly failed managed to be continuously reelected. In short, he identified a whole series of elements of society that were not right and which were egregious wrongs and he asked the Italians how these things could be tolerated in a modern society. And here, he made a fatal assumption: he assumed that the vast majority of Italians saw things as he did, that there were these series of wrongs to be righted, but, in fact, the referendum result showed that the vast majority of Italians didn’t see things that way at all.
Renzi had broken with the narrative that the Italians are suffering victims of their politicians. When he challenged them about the gross injustices in the pension system, those who were retired didn’t care, and those about to retire just wanted their benefits to vest. When he asked employees under old style contracts how they could justify a system that rendered them unsackable by law while other people without those contracts had no legal protections at all, all they heard was that he was going to take those protections away. When he asked how the same old failed politicians carried on, year after year, he forgot that it was those same failed voters who voted them in year after year knowing full well their corruption, venality, self serving and self enriching proclivities. In short, this unelected politician from Tuscany knew right from wrong and he implicitly assumed that his compatriots were also, like him, for that which is right. The referendum showed that a vast majority were not.
And this is the great favour that Renzi has done this country. The Italians themselves, not their politicians, voted to keep a system that is the font of all wrongs. Renzi gave them a choice between right and wrong and they chose selfishness, self interest and self enrichment over any kind of common good.
(continued from 30 November)
So one of our neighbours dropped in a week or so ago. This neighbour often drops by. He is a skilled factory worker but the firm has been facing some tough times. He is quite a few years away from pension age. He has two great, smart and hard working kids who have finished their studies but have struggled to find good, continuous employment. He would like to have emigrated but it is too late to now. Over the last twenty years his earnings have dropped and his disposable income reduced. He has run up a bit of debt over the years. When he drops by, he invariably complains about how bad things are in Italy and how rotten the politicians are and how badly the firm he works for is run. This time, the referendum was very much in my mind. It was only weeks away. When he started complaining I said to him, “well, now you can vote for change!” “you can vote ‘Yes’ in the referendum”. His reply floored me “I’ll never vote ‘Yes’ in the referendum” “I hate Renzi” “I hate him, that communist” he said. I have to admit that my reply was less than civil and I could have handled myself with more dignity and decorum. I exploded “ever since I’ve known you, you’ve complained incessantly about Italy, the way it’s run, the dishonesty and self interest of the politicians. Now that you can do something about it you’re going to vote for things to stay the way they are” I shouted. “And whatsmore” I continued “You know that if this referendum fails there won’t be another one. That will put the lid on reform for a generation” He didn’t reply. His position was fixed. “Look” I said “I’m shocked! I’m going to put it to you this way. You know that having a business in Italy is a nightmare. The bureaucracy is oppressive, the rules mad and the taxes impossible. You know that without this referendum passing the chances of this changing are nil. And you say to me that you will vote against reform because you hate Renzi and he is a communist, even though he was a Democratic Christian and never a communist. Let’s put it on a personal level” I said. “What am I to think of the fact that you augur me years more of running a business in such a hostile environment? Where is the concern for what is right and just and, on the personal level, for us?”
I carried on “You have come here so many times and have complained about the general state of affairs in Italy and the particular state of things where you work. When the firm you worked for was in difficulty, I really empathized with your plight when you thought that you might be laid off. “Ah no, things have changed” he said. “We’ve got more work than we can handle. The firm is running three shifts daily and has taken on extra employees. “Yes” I said. “Now that things at your work are alright ….” and he finished the sentence “yes, when I’m alright, like all Italians, we couldn’t care less about the others.”
So that’s how things stand in the Friuli countryside now one week away from the referendum. Unlike the Brexit in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump in the United States, change in Italy will be sunk, if sunk it is, by pensioners, workers and white males without a university education. For most of the last 20 years, Italy has been run for the absolute benefit of these people and their conservatism. Of course, keeping the status quo in times of such great global and economic change has imposed massive economic costs on Italy. But those who support conservatism and resist change are obliged, a fortiori, to sustain and support those politicians who block change even if it is to their eventual detriment.
(continued from 28 November)
And here, it is necessary to mention an important cultural overlay that primes an enormous number of the Friulani to resist any change and it is the Cult of Mussolini. If you go into almost any newsstand in Friuli at this time of the year you will find Mussolini Calendars and other objects of fascist nostalgia. It is possible to buy bottles of wine in Friuli adorned with images of Mussolini and Hitler. Of course, most people alive today do not recall Mussolini but the strange development of the second world war in Italy left very, very many Italians who loved and admired Mussolini with a sense of grievous injustice at his deposal. Shortly after the Allies invaded Sicily in 1943, the Fascist Grand Council voted Mussolini out of power, following that, the King of Italy told him that, the war being all but lost for Italy, he, the King, would be appointing a Military General as Prime Minister. Shortly after the meeting with the King, Mussolini was arrested. For many in the North of Italy, and particularly in Friuli, this came as an unexpected development for which they were completely unprepared. Prior to Mussolini’s deposal, Friuli was a pro-clerical, pro-fascist region, allied to the Germans. Fascism had supplanted democratic institutions and so mayors and municipal council were suppressed in favour of the local Fascist leadership (Podesta). In many villages, the hierarchical and militaristic nature of fascism was appreciated as it gave a sense of security and certainty. But information was rigidly controlled by the fascist authorities and most of the populace, following years of positive propaganda concerning Italy’s prosecution of the war, were unable to make sense of Mussolini’s downfall. And worse, Italy’s exit from the war, the transfer of the King and military high command to the Allied Zone in the Italian South and the closing of the Italian military in its barracks rendered the Italian regions as vulnerabilities so Germany was forced to occupy them.
The occupation of Friuli by the German military and later by pro-Nazi Cossacks triggered resistance from some Friulani who were incipiently anti fascist but who had so far not resisted the Italian fascist authorities. These partisans who were not great in number mounted a guerilla war against the occupying German army. The Germans responded with reprisals: the destruction and burning of villages and the killing and executions of young men, women and children. Many Friulani, who still defined themselves as fascists and fascist supporters, bitterly resented the partisan activity and the violence that it brought to Friulano territory. Worse, as the Allies pushed up the Italian peninsula, the war came closer to Friuli, food became scarce and the repression by the German military more intense. Friuli’s position as a border region with Yugoslavia involved it in a mini civil war as communist Italian partisans allied with Tito’s communist partisan forces pushed for Friuli and Venezia Giulia to be incorporated into a communist Yugoslavia. Friulano partisans hitherto fighting the germans found themselves also fighting mixed Italian-Yugoslav communist partisans pushing in from Yugoslavia.
Eventually, New Zealand troops under the command of General Bernard Freyberg pushed up the Adriatic Coast and reached Monfalcone just outside the great port city of Trieste. There they blocked the incursion of Yugoslav partisans into Italy and for Italy and Friuli Venezia Giulia the war was over.
For the Friulani, in slightly less than two years, they had gone from being participants in the greatest Italian undertaking since the height of the Roman Empire to losing their Duce (Dux - Roman Commander) through betrayal, seeing their military retire to its barracks and their land invaded and fought over by foreign troops. For these people Fascist Italy didn’t lose the war. For them Mussolini was sold out and Italy sold down the drain.
At the end of the Second World War Italy was unstable. Italian communist partisan forces, especially in Emilia Romagna and Tuscany had been very active in resisting the German forces. The Italian communist party was strong and the nature of post war Italy was in the balance. But Italian nationalism trumped international communist ideology and in 1946 all the political parties agreed that to achieve national pacification and reconciliation there should be a general amnesty for all crimes relating to the war. In total, over a number of years, there were six amnesties, pardons, absolutions and exonerations that had the effect of relieving all Italians from the risk of prosecution or punishment for any act related to the war, including war crimes.
The generosity of blanket forgiveness gave an incentive to all Italians: fascists, communists and common hoodlums, to move on and it removed an obvious incentive to continued conflict and violence. But it didn’t create a blank slate. Rather like Italy itself, which neither won nor lost the second world war, within Italy no-one won or lost. So time moved on leaving everyone where they were in 1943 when Mussolini was deposed.
The effect of this state of affairs at the end of the war in Friuli was that the fascist regime had fallen, and it was recognised would not be returning in the post war order of things. Although the fascist overlay of civil society had disappeared and democratic institutions returned, bureaucratic structures and office holders remained almost unaltered from fascist times providing another incentive for the holders of powerful office to buy-in to the post war settlement. So, Italy and Friuli moved on. Those who had been fascist remained fascist and with a great sense of nostalgia. They remembered with fondness the State development that fascist governments brought in the 1930’s. The improved roads, schools, draining of swampland for fertile farms and the elimination of malaria. The peasants also remembered that for the first time they could sell surplus grain for cash. The1930’s had been a time of great structural development and many Italians gave credit to the fascists for it.
Of course, now, few people are alive who can remember the second world war. Those who can were those whose memories were formed towards the end of the war when chaos, fear and uncertainty stalked Friuli. We know many of these people and they have little nostalgia for war and fascism. But there was a generation of fascists from before the war who had their children following the war as post war development was beginning to improve the lives of all Italians. These people looked back on fascism with great nostalgia while enjoying post war incremental but constant improvements in their standard of living. These people kept their houses and families fascist. They regaled their children with stories of how great Italy was under fascism and how destructive the betrayal of Mussolini. They taught their children that the allied soldiers who occupied their fields with their camps were invaders. These children are now adults in their 50’s and 60’s and they are fascist nostalgics even though Mussolini was but a memory by the time they were born.
Many of these fascist nostalgics are our neighbours. They are not neo-fascists. They are old style fascists. They are a social anachronism of the 1930’s in the present time. They believe in a strong, directive, State. They believe in strong “forces of order”. They believe in the greatness of Italy and Italian culture above all. Harking always back to a previous time, they believe strongly in conserving the present and resisting change. They hate communism reflecting the fact that since 1849 Popes had been teaching against communist ideology. In 1949 the then Pope approved a decree against communists which excluded professing communists from Communion. In Friuli, this decree forced communists to choose between their beliefs and social exclusion. The exclusion was imposed by the Priest, but it was sustained by their neighbours in the village church, centre of all major social events, a lesson not lost on anyone.
These fascists recoil from anyone who is different from the fascist Italian ideal. They are racist in the sense that Italian fascists were racist: coloured people being different are obviously inferior to the greatness of the Italian man or woman. Being from the north of Italy, they tend to see dark skin as a sign of inferiority. They hate perceived effeminacy in men and for them gay men are, by definition, effeminate. They dislike the English perceiving that the English don’t take them seriously and perhaps look down on them. And they like Vladimir Putin, and now Donald Trump because they are strong men.
To the fascist nostalgics this is the world as they know it. Being from a Catholic culture they know nothing of the reformation but they have imbibed the beliefs of the counter reformation. They loath liberalism although they don’t know what it is because they perceive that in some way it is the antithesis of what they believe. They know without doubt that Italian food it the best in the world and that proof positive of the greatness of Italy is that the whole world comes to see it. And for most of the last twenty years these people were governed by people that left them feeling right at home.
Berlusconi and the Lega Nord were reactionary forces that existed to resist, in Italy, liberal changes that were washing over the developed world. Berlusconi, with his black shirts and polo necks, his jaw-jutting poses, his macho behaviour and denigration of powerful women and gays assured Italians the he would be conserving the world as they knew it. Owning the principal television network and controlling the state broadcasting network perfectly placed him to be narrator in chief of where Italy would be going in times of such change. Berlusconi guaranteed no change and he delivered it. His core constituency of pensioners and workers knew that what they had obtained thus far would never be reformed away for so long as Berlusconi and the Lega Nord were governing.
So Renzi, for very many, Friulani provokes hatred and hostility. He talks about a world they don’t understand in a language they don’t understand. He talks about loosening things up, about the necessity for reform and unlike most before him he really means it. He pushed through a Civil Unions law for gay people which was an anathema to the Catholic Church and very many Italians. Renzi, himself, seems to them to be the very incarnation of the forces that Berlusconi and his government’s kept at bay so successfully for so long.
And this has been the shocking revelation to me: that the Italians who are so quick, so ready to complain are so determined to resist change. I suppose that it shouldn’t be a surprise that a people, living in a peninsular, exclusive territory of a religion that for 2000 years has demanded obedience to its dogma and doctrine, its hierarchy and which placed its leader as the earthly representative of God Almighty, should find it difficult to construct a personal world in which they must work it all out for themselves and cannot rely on some dictator or other human being to tell them how to behave. For when a people is required to follow a clerical religion such as Roman Catholicism or a political religion such as fascism that claim absolute monopoly in determining how they should behave it absolves them of having their own right and wrong and lifts from them the individual responsibility they, personally, owe their fellow citizens. For centuries in Italy, It was enough that the people committed allegiance to the authority that commanded them and followed its rules. So in Italy people can show the “bella figura”, be good Catholics in the sense of lauding the religion even if they are not regular church attendees and not care two hoots about their neighbours or other Italians.
So what has this all meant for me, personally? As I wrote, during my twenty years living in Italy, I have been a sympathetic listener as numerous Italians, I would say almost all, moaned, complained and bitched about the state of the country, the venal politicians, and the high taxes that inflicted them. Luca and I started a business from scratch in 1995, probably the point at which the Italian bureaucracy was reaching its apex. It was not pleasant and we have had to confront and accept many official unfairnesses and indignities, not to say humiliation, as the price of running a simple agriturismo. We too would complain and bitch about the state of affairs in Italy. But for most of that period there was no prospect of any change. In fact, as the economy got into increased difficulty, the burden of the State laid on businesses, in the form of taxes and unannounced inspections that could end in swinging fines augmented dramatically. By the end of the last Berlusconi government it was clear that the Italian bureaucracy was oppressing business in the absence of finding any other way to address its chronic overspend and ever growing public debt. Politicians of the left and right were convinced that businesses were sitting on an undeclared hoard of wealth and they were determined to have it. That most businesses in Italy declare themselves to be marginally profitable was taken as proof positive that they were evaders. Fines for non compliance of laws or regulations, of every level of government, national, regional, provincial and municipal, were increased massively to the point where they could cripple a business. It was a very rum state of affairs that was continued with even greater vigour by Mario Monti, the Prime Minister following Berlusconi. No reasonably informed person in Italy, or Europe or probably the whole world could not have known that running a business in Italy was a sisyphean task.
So, after 10 years of recession during which industrial production shrunk 25% and the overall size of the economy reduced 10%, youth unemployment reached 40% and the Italian public debt climbed to 136% of the national economy, Matteo Renzi presented the Italians with a national vote on whether to overhaul the political system or keep things as they had been since 1948. I imagined that our friends, acquaintances and colleagues would leap at the chance to vote for renewal. After 20 constipated years of whingeing and complaining, I imagined the cork being popped from the bottle of change. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
We live in the countryside in Friuli, a part of North East Italy. For most of the time since the fall of the Roman Empire, Friuli has a very backward and poor region. In more recent times it was under the domination of the Venetians who used it to supply wood for their ships and as a protective buffer to Venice.The venetian nobles or those owing allegiance to them dominated the towns. The Roman Catholic church was dominant and by the 18th century most of Friuli’s inhabitants were sharecroppers living and working at the pleasure of the local landowners. They were a miserably poor and ignorant people managed by the church and agents of the landowners to whom they had to hand over between half and two-thirds of what they produced. They held little property with the lands, buildings and livestock belonging to the landowners. Malnutrition and pellagra were common. Every village, no matter how poor, had a church and the Priest had de facto daily authority and management over the villagers who were themselves mostly illiterate and superstitious.
The population of Friuli was pro-clerical, anti communist and enthusiastically adhered to Fascism. With the fall of fascism, Friuli became noted as a stronghold of the Democratic Christians, the anti communist party aligned to the Vatican. Unlike in some other regions of Italy where socialist or communist ideology led to cooperative models of economic activity supplanting sharecropping, the Friulani generally rejected cooperative models of organisation restricting themselves to family farms and firms. Thus farming and artisanal activities remained mostly small and localised.
Friuli remained an underdeveloped and poor region of Italy until 1976. In that year a part of the region suffered a series of serious earthquakes focussed at a point where the Friulano plane met the Julian Alps. The villages in that area comprised houses and dwellings constructed of stone mortared with lime and they were completely unable to resist the tremblors. Slightly under 1000 people were killed in the earthquake. While the effect of the earthquake was devastating for the dead, their loved ones and those whose property was damaged in the quake, the overall effect for Friuli was the creation of a massive economic stimulus. Money poured in from Italy and overseas. Apart from the immediate need to rebuild damaged property there was an additional need to render existing structures more resistant to earthquakes. A building boom unlike any seen before or after took off in Friuli and lasted for well over 10 years. A shortage of labour in Friuli resulted in workers arriving from all over Italy. Many builders were self taught and became rich overnight. Other activities connected to the reconstruction took off. Makers of steel reinforcing, woodworkers, window and door makers, kitchen and furniture makers, tradesmen such as electricians and plumbers, ceramic makers boomed. Restaurants and trattorie flourished serving the working population flush with cash. And a wealthy middle class developed eager to eat and drink and leave behind them their memories of poverty and suffering of childhood. But most strikingly, the economic boom during reconstruction provided unlimited low skill jobs that paid very well and gave an overall poorly educated population a quality of life they could never have dreamed of previously. So children whose parents had been sharecroppers with virtually no property of their own and who had left school aged 12 years having learnt more or less only to read and write could have their own home, an apartment by the sea, one or more fine cars, fine clothes and the ability to eat out when they wished without regard to money. The pension system allowed them to retire on their final salary once they had paid 30 years of pension contributions so they could retire in their ‘40s with a guaranteed income for life. Notwithstanding an opulent lifestyle, their income exceeded their expenditure and, remembering poverty, they were careful to save what they didn’t spend.
But by the late 1980’s the boom was starting to taper off and firms that had grown with the reconstruction after the earthquake were being forced to find new markets. At the very point when the Italian North East was being lauded by foreign economists as a model of economic organisation to imitate, industry in Friuli was becoming uncompetitive and firms with the ability were forced to look to exports to sustain their business model. As I wrote previously, in 1992 Italy was forced out of the European exchange rate mechanism and the Lira was devalued three times. This proved to be the tonic that many struggling firms in Friuli needed. Firms poured into woodworking, the production of furniture, kitchen units and chairs for export relying on the weak Lira to make up for their high cost base and poor productivity. By 1997 it was claimed that Friuli was producing two-thirds of the world’s chairs. This hubris peaked with the creation of a massive wooden chair, three stories high which was positioned in one of the principal squares in Udine.
Unfortunately, beautiful as what Friuli produced often was, it was low tech, was produced with an oversupply of expensive manpower and it was vulnerable to cheaper foreign producers and an increase in the strength of the currency. So when Italy swapped the Lira for the Euro, at a time that coincided with China’s entry into world markets as a low cost producer of low tech products, including chairs and furniture, the Friulano economy took another hit. Firms found themselves uncompetitive in markets that they had once dominated or sat comfortably in. Some businesses survived but many failed. Those firms that survived were often those that had discovered the golden side to Euro entry which was that while the strong Euro made exports less competitive, it gave firms access to bank loans at low German interest rates. Italy was grossly overbanked and many firms were linked by personal relationships to their provincial or regional bank. A kind of a lending frenzy developed as banks encouraged firms to load up with debt at historically low interest rates. Many firms, unwisely, did this and when the recession of 2008 hit they found themselves unable to service their loans.
So this is the Friuli in which we find ourselves. And who are our friends and neighbours? Well, those who have managed to retire on fine pensions are content and satisfied with their lives. Their working lives were brief in relation to their whole life expectancy. They earned and saved well and retired in their ‘40’s and ‘50’s. They have generous pensions guaranteed by the State for life. They live like millionaires and their only real fear apart from risks to their health is that the State may reduce their pension benefits. They mainly supported Berlusconi who explicitly favoured pensioners and they resist any change whatsoever to the status quo. They mostly will not vote for the changes being proposed in the referendum.
Then there are those who work for companies that have managed to navigate the recent years of economic crisis and who have legacy employment contracts rendering them unsackable and who will still benefit under generous, if less generous than before, pension provisions. These workers are furious that the Monti government tightened the pension rules. They loath Renzi for creating less protected forms of employment contracts, even though they don’t apply to them. They will, to a man and woman, vote against any change whatsoever hoping beyond hope that they will reach retirement age without the firm they work for failing and without employment and pensions law being modified to their detriment.
Then there are others such as the tradesmen who do work for us: the stone mason, the plumber and the electrician. They are careful not to get into political discussions and so it is hard to know how they will vote. Then there are, of course, our neighbours who are cereals and dairy farmers. Their holdings are small and they depend on Agricultural subsidies to keep them going. Mostly they are culturally conservative and regularly attend the Catholic Mass but, running a low value added, subsidy sustained business, they are governed and managed by the agro-bureaucracy and so tend to resent the rules and interventions that come with being a farmer in the European Union. Some will vote yes, but most will vote against the referendum. Other neighbours who have vineyards and who make wine benefit handsomely from European Union subsidies and, having a high value product that finds a market both in and outside Italy, they tend to be more satisfied with their lot. Culturally conservative, most of them will vote for the status quo and so will vote against the referendum.
(Continued from 26 November)
The last Berlusconi government having fallen, the President of the Italian Republic then invited a grandee and ex EU commissioner, Mario Monti, to form a new government. As Monti was nothing more than a private citizen, the President appointed him “Senator for Life” thus giving him a political fig-leaf. But he had no democratic mandate to govern. Monti formed his government, the financial markets calmed, and knowledgable comment fantasised that Italy had finally broken free of the hallucination of the Berlusconi years and would now enter the real world of soberly living within its means and putting right years of misgovernment and national neglect.
Monti faced a real problem which was that Italy was living chronically beyond its means. Productivity in the economy was in inexorable decline and the economy had been mired in recession for years. Putting this entanglement drowned in a quagmire right was clearly for the long term so Monti went for two easy hits. First, the State was spending more that it received, so he decided to increase income. For a good number of years, commentators had identified one of Italy’s key problems as tax evasion. Increasing productivity and economic growth was too hard but squeezing more money out of firms, large and small, was something that the State could do through an exercise of will. And it did. Firms were characterised as evaders and economic criminals. High publicity raids were mounted by the military tax police; sometimes whole towns were raided. Normal business people found themselves treated like mafia dons. To categorize the private sector as economic criminals alienated business which already found dealing with Italy’s bureaucracy and tax laws an almost insurmountable challenge. But Italy is a heavily policed state and what the State wants the State gets. Tax receipts initially grew. But then, as businesses closed or failed receipts began to decline. The State sucked out more than much of the private sector could produce and and economy tipped into a vicious recession and by 2016 the economy had shrunk by 10%. The second easy hit of Monti was a cut into the generous pension system that allowed workers to retire on their final salary after 35 years of paying pension contributions. The pension system was wholly unfunded and in deficit. So, surrounded by much emotion, the government rebalanced the system so that gradually (very gradually) pensioners would retire later and on less. Eventually, Italian pensioners will get virtually nothing but this is in the really long term and young Italians today are not thinking about that. The Italian pension system does no longer need to worry about long term unfunded liabilities because there effectively won’t be any.
In the first instance of these actions, Monti was lionised and lauded by commentators and the European Commission for finally having taken bold steps to sort out Italy’s finances. Fear of the financial markets became just a memory. It seemed that the exercise of such boldness and courage by Monti had set him up to create a political party and actually run for office. And so he did. But rapaciously pillaging Italian firms to pay for the inadequacies and deficiencies of the country pushed Italy into a vicious economic death spiral for which he was justly rewarded by receiving a pitiful number of votes.
The President of Italy eventually invited Enrico Letta, a member of the left democratic party to form a government as it seemed that he would be able to form a governing coalition. The Letta government was sworn in but it seemed frozen in front of the mad, roiling economic catastrophe that had enveloped Italy. Eventually this blind stasis gave Matteo Renzi, mayor of Florence the chance to mount an internal party coup and he did so becoming Prime Minister of Italy in February 2014.
Mario Monti’s government proved two very important things. One is that even though tax evasion is, by definition, empirically an unknown, a determined modern technologically advanced State using all means can suck as much money from the private sector as it wants. It also proved that the effect of this in Italy’s case was to remove resources that would have been applied productively to economic activity and retire them in unproductive expenditure. It also proved that in Italy if a government announces a reform (in this case pensions reform) which will have a significant impact on the economic well-being of mid-to-low earners, but defers that reform, passing the burden onto a subsequent generational cohort, those whose position remains protected will be incentivised to resist any changes that may imperil economic rights that they feel have already vested to them.
So Matteo Renzi inherited a comatose economy, a dispirited and despondent private sector, and a working class suddenly fearful that benefits and protections until then taken for granted could be removed. He decided to take the hard road. A road that no Italian politician had taken in modern times, if ever. He announced that without economic growth, Italy’s economic and social health could not return to normal. And economic growth could not come without significant institutional and social reform. He announced that it was no longer acceptable to treat entrepreneurs as presumptive criminals and lawbreakers and that without them in a modern economy there was no hope. He also announced that he intended to set in movement reforms that would remake the Italian parliament currently consisting of two houses with equal powers, each with the power to block legislation. He explained that his aim was the creation of a lower house of elected members of parliament with broad legislative supremacy, overlaid by a smaller Senate, largely representative of the Italian Regions and with limited overseeing role.
Renzi explained that remaking the legislature was the most important of all reforms as it was the perfect parity of the two existing houses (which the Italian constitution treats as fungible) that stymied most reforms, led to bad laws resulting from poor compromises and legislative hostage taking and allowed unrepresentative forces to stymie laws necessary to reflect actual social change. A second and related change sought by Renzi was to bring back to the centre powers that had been spun off or tacitly allowed to go to the regions. Renzi saw that the problem with the Italian system was that national laws in many areas of economic life are passed by the national government. These laws are full and complete in and of themselves. But then, regional assemblies overlay the national laws with regional restrictions. In Italy, obviously, the national government is sovereign so regional governments cannot abrogate or defenestrate national legislation. But what they can do is add and encrust the national laws which means effectively adding restrictions to them, restrictions that the national legislature deemed unnecessary. Thus economic activity is hobbled from the beginning.
Revisions to the Italian Constitution were purposefully designed by its drafters to be difficult following the experience of the dictatorship of Mussolini. Substantive and significant revisions are very hard to achieve and three parliamentary commissions convened since 1948 to significantly modify the constitution failed for lack of political consensus. At first, it seemed highly unlikely that Renzi would be able to convince the upper house of the Italian Parliament to reform and reduce itself, effectively voting itself out of business as it knew it. But he succeeded in doing that although, unable to obtain a super-majority, the reform required confirmation in a popular referendum. This referendum will take place on Sunday, 4 December 2016.
In 1994 the first Berlusconi Government (sustained by the nativist “Northern League”) was sworn in. I arrived in Italy in 1995 and have lived here ever since. In 1992 as the result of speculative attacks, the Italian Lira was forced to leave the European exchange rate mechanism. Italy faced a debt funding crisis, the Lira was devalued three times and gdp fell sharply. In 1996 Italy was having difficulty coming out of recession but the Prodi government, which had followed the short-lived Berlusconi one, decided that it was imperative to insert Italy into the forthcoming European common currency, the Euro, from the currency’s beginning. In 1997 the Prodi government passed a budget aimed at allowing Italy’s return to the European exchange rate mechanism, a precursor to entering the Euro. This was achieved in great part by the one-off levy of a highly regressive “EuroTax” which had the effect of temporarily bringing the deficit down to less than 3% of gdp, a key criteria. In 1998 the Italian finance minister gave an undertaking that Italy would reduce its public debt to 100% of gdp by 2004 and 60% of gdp by 2010 and Italy was accepted as one of the founder members of the Euro.
In 2001 Berlusconi returned to power, again with the support of the Northern League nativist party, and he governed with them for most of the following time until 2011 when an Italian debt funding crisis was threatening the existence of the Euro itself and he was effectively made to step down as allies, looking into the looming abyss, deserted him.
From the first day that Berlusconi was in office until he was forced out, non-Italians asked how the Italians could repeatedly vote him as their prime minister. Lots of reasons were given. It was said that he was a businessman who had promised to bring business methods to government to the benefit of the country. That he was a liberal who wanted to bring anglo-saxon liberalism to Italy, such that he likened himself to an Italian Margaret Thatcher. He was a “straight talking” politician who made a pact with the Italians to simplify the tax system, halve the unemployment rate, finance and develop a massive new public works programme, increase the minimum pension and increase the number of police to address fears regarding public safety in the cities. Others said that with his black shirts and polo necks, determined jaw and right handed salute he signalled his support for fascist currents in Italian society. But the truth was that he was a complete failure. The Italian economy stagnated, unemployment increased inexorably, no massive public works campaign was undertaken and key public works projects were rife with corruption. He did, however, look after the pensioners who had benefitted from one of the most, if not the most, generous pension system in the world.
Berlusconi himself lamented that it was impossible to do anything or make any changes in Italy. But it seemed an enigma that a politician who, while not responsible for many of the structural distortions and cultural deficiencies that left Italy poorly and corruptly governed, amplified them and used them to his own private advantage, should be so favoured at the ballot box. To me, it was particularly perplexing because all of the people I know here, in Friuli in our little part of the world, were perpetually and consistently complaining and lamenting about the state of Italy, the State of Italy and Italy’s bureaucrats and politicians. One asked oneself, “if these people are so hungry for change, how does Berlusconi go on and on?” So when people visiting Italy would ask us “Why do the Italians vote for Berlusconi?” the rather lame answer was that he controlled all the television channels, was a massive player in print media, looked after the pensioners so probably the old people, who vote religiously, voted for him under all circumstances. It was probably true but as an explanation it was ultimately unsatisfying because despite an calamitous aged and aging demographic were there really that many old people to keep Berlusconi running the country?
In 2011 the Euro was in crisis and bond yields in Italian government debt were climbing reflecting increased appreciation by the financial markets to risk inherent in Italian government debt. It was felt by those that govern us that Silvio Berlusconi gave Italy a credibility problem that would have real effects on Italy’s ability to fund its public debt. This was not an unreasonable position to take. In his time in power Berlusconi had shown a marked reluctance to reform the economy, he was believed to be corrupt and motivated by favouring his personal and business interests over those of the country and he came to be seen as a poor interlocutor for Italy with the rest of the world. Under pressure from the French and German governments and with the active connivence of the President of Italy, Berlusconi realised that he was being abandoned by allies alert to the way the winds were blowing and with his parliamentary support evaporating he eventually resigned. He claimed that a coup had been mounted against him, personally. And so it had.
So in 2011 after having been voted into office three times over 17 years and still exercising a popular mandate, Berlusconi found himself against a wall and forced to swallow the bitter pill of resignation. He had not lost his popular mandate but evaporating support in the lower house, engineered through outside pressure, had forced him out. It was, in some way, antidemocratic.
We took the Faula Border Collies for a walk around the property on a lovely spring morning.
Annie Border Collie finds a cosy Faula wood box to sleep in!
The Faula canine soccer team is back in action (if you don’t mind playing with a holed ball!)
A beautiful spring morning at La Faula!
La Faula opened its door as an Agriturismo in 1997. Almost no-one in Italy was connected to the nascent Internet. E-mail was primarily internal within corporations and universities. Only one Italian Agriturismo website was hosted on the web. There was plenty to portend that change would eventually be on the way but most of us lacked the insight to understand the significance of these new but novel and naif ways of managing and presenting information and we harboured a deep and conservative incredulity that rendered us incapable of entertaining the possibility that our known realities could be overthrown in an instant.
Those of us born in the 1960’s in the English speaking world had known only growth, progress and stability. Great, destructive wars had been the reality of the two preceding generations and the desire never to repeat them led us to believe that tomorrow would be like today and the day after tomorrow like the one preceding it. Always a little bit better, with some setbacks, of course, but our belief was that the world would remain pretty much as we knew it. Of course, we lived in the shadow of the bomb, an articulated threat which faced an inarticulate response from the general population. The idea of mankind wantonly destroying the civilisation it had created seemed too monstrous to consider but, of course, we all breathed a sigh of relief when the Soviet Union closed for business.
If we had understood better back then, in 1997, Luca and I would have known that the Agriturismo that we now inhabited and ran was itself a brand new feature on the Italian landscape. Traditionally, if one holidayed in Italy one stayed in a pension or hotel. The lack of legal authorisation prevented hospitality being offered in the countryside and so the cosy country hotels and hotels of charm found amongst the farms that one finds in countries such as France and the United Kingdom never existed in Italy. But in 1985 the first Italian national law to manage and regulate the offer of hospitality on working farms was passed and the Agriturismo came into existence. In 1996 Friuli Venezia Giulia passed its regional law permitting the creation of agriturismi within its territory and in 1997 Agriturismo La Faula received its licence to operate.
In 1996 very many farms in Friuli were still very much family affairs: very small, supporting three or four generations, with some family members also working outside, mainly in public jobs that gave ample time to follow the farm. The idea was that there was an excess of labour available to provide simple but authentic hospitality on the farm so that while dad was out in the morning delivering letters as a postman, granny would be making steaming hot coffee on the hearth and serving hot homemade bread and jams to the guests. It was a beguiling vision but owed more to the romantic notions of rural Italian life of regional bureaucrats can the reality. Rural life in Italy had, until the second world war, been an experience of grinding poverty and malnutrition. Following the war economic growth, the abolition of sharecropping which gave those who worked the land ownership over it and massive State support of Agriculture which included mechanisation, generous subsidies for fertilisers and seeds and the creation of diaries and liveable housing for farmers slowed the movement of people from the country to the city and kept families on the land that they worked. The abundance of riches showered on those working the land, the ready availability of local authority and state jobs paid full time but with part time work allowed the farm to sustain more that its internal economy would otherwise have allowed.
But by the early 1990’s the party was leading to some hangovers. Overproduction of much agricultural produce in Europe had led to butter mountains, wine lakes and the pathological dumping of grains and cereals onto developing markets in the guise of aid but with the effect of destroying local production. Italy’s public finances had come under severe strain and the common agricultural policy was slowly being seen to be unsustainable. But the real problem was that this generous state intervention in Agriculture and the ability for full time farmers to work in state jobs blocked any rational economic development of Italian farms and kept too many people locked into their small farms unwilling to cash out but unable to expand through acquisition. Farming in Friuli was on a “handkerchief” basis. Farmers wanting to buy the few fields that came available on the market were forced to overpay and buy land far away from the location of their farm. Thus Friuli became a region where farmers commuted by tractor to their fields which they then worked for a few hours at the most.
To be continued.
Nellie and Blake enjoying spring 2016 at La Faula!
This is Little Blake!
Once Nellie started to get well again under the influence of the modified diet it occurred to me that the situation merited a serious discussion with the breeder who had sold us the dog. As things with Nellie had deteriorated, we had contacted the breeder explaining the situation and they had made their own vet available to us at no cost. As the breeder, and their vet, are around two hours away from us by car near Venice we decided to continue with our own vets and so didn’t take them up on their offer of having Nellie examined by their own veterinary surgeon. But once Nellie started to get well and we could see a path out of the uncertainty not to say despair in which we had been blindly stumbling it didn’t seem fair to me that the cost and weight of Nellie’s infirmity should fall wholly on us (and Nellie, of course!), I called the breeder and explained that I realised that buying a dog wasn’t like buying a car which was either repaired or returned at no cost to the buyer if it was materially defective. But I did feel that Nellie had cost us a fortune in medical bills not to mention the anxiety and emotional distress involved in the enigma of her illness. I explained that we loved Nellie and didn’t resent for a minute the money we had spent getting her well, but that it did seem a bit much that it all fell on us. I felt the coldness coming from the telephone as the breeder took in the import of what I was saying. “I don’t think that we were at fault or had any part to play in Morning Star’s (Nellie’s) situation” said the breeder. Conversations with the breeder about our Nellie were always a bit strange because to them she was “Morning Star” the name she had at the breeding kennels.
“Of course not” I replied. “But look, we were thinking of breeding Nellie but now that we know that her disease has a genetic component the only responsible thing to do it to sterilise her, which we will be doing”. “Things haven’t really taken the course that we wanted” I said.
“So, I was thinking that perhaps you could provide us with another Border Collie puppy in addition to Nellie” I said. The breeder relaxed at the other end of the conversation realising that I was not asking for money back. “Yes, that should be possible” she said.
“So, maybe the fairest thing would be a second puppy at half the price that we paid for Nellie” I said. I felt that this was a solution fair to us and to the breeder. We had gone to that breeder because they had bred Hector our old father border collie. We loved Hector’s personality and had been impressed by how well the puppies at the breeding kennels were looked after and the obvious affection that the people working there had for the dogs. When we had gone to get Nellie all the same people were working at the kennels which I took to be a good sign. The kennels were clean and spacious and they seemed to take their job seriously. I was sure I wouldn’t get cash back for Nellie because the last three years have been tough times in Italy and dogs are a luxury in tough times so what we had paid for Nellie was psychologically and physically banked and accounted for and I didn’t think that trying to unwind that would be worth the candle. But I did want another young dog as company for Nellie. Our old border collies, Hector, Annie and Rett formed their pack from the beginning and while they tolerated Nellie she could never be truly a part of their club. Plus, Nellie was young and frisky whereas the older dogs are gently slipping into retirement. To spare us her constant attentions and give her a companion the obvious answer was another dog. “A Male dog” would be fine for us” I said.
So it was that in November of 2015 we found ourselves back at the dog breeders to pick up a male border collie that the breeder had been thinking of using as a stud but had changed her mind. He was around eight months old. The little dog was brought out from the runs to the carpark in front of the kennels by the guy who seems to look after the dogs. When we got Hector this guy, an immigrant, was barely more than a teenager. Of course, he is still young but to see him gave us a start realising how much time had passed and how fast. Of course we feel that we got old Hector only yesterday ….! The guy played with the dog. The dog was obviously deeply attached to him and joyfully jumped up and played and ran with him. He was obviously a nice dog but being a bit older and used to the kennels was sufficiently developed to be suspicious of us. While experience has shown us that young dogs or dogs born at La Faula integrate easiest, I felt that this little dog had such a happy and affectionate character that this would eventually prevail over the fact that he was not instinctively friendly with strangers.
We said that we would take the little collie and we returned to the administration office to complete the paperwork and pay for the dog. One thing that most people outside Italy don’t realise is that the 2011 economic crisis during which Italy came very close to defaulting on its debt pushed the political and bureaucratic establishment, perhaps even the Italian State itself, into an existential fight for survival and tax evasion has been relentlessly squeezed from the economy. Self assessment for firms is largely replaced by assessment by the tax authorities based on assets of various types and analysis of the economic activity of different productive sectors. Calculating the income of a dog breeder is a doddle for the tax authorities so whereas, in the old days, the dog breeder would have tried to spread some of the loss of selling the dog at half price onto the State by not declaring as income the half that we paid now they gave us an invoice for the full value of the dog even though we were only paying half of the amount. It’s no wonder that the Italian economy never really takes off!
When we got to the name of the dog we saw on the documentation that he was called “Blay”, the breeder long before having run out of real names for the dogs they sold. “Blay” became “Blake” and we took him home. He waited until we were almost home, and were thanking our lucky stars that he hadn’t vomited, to vomit!
So, in summary, what can we say about Nellie’s ill health in the first year of her life? We can say as a fact that something or things in the normal Royal Canin, Purina (Friskies/Pedigree) and Carrefour brand dog kibble triggered Nellie’s Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). We can also say as a fact that the Farmina N&D brand 100% grain free kibble does not provoke any obvious ill effects in the dog.
One obvious difference between the normal dog kibble and the grain free variety is that the proteins that comprise gluten are counted towards the total protein count of normal dog kibble and that grains comprise the single major parts of the ingredients.
Celiac disease is extremely uncommon in dogs. We don’t know what triggered Nellie’s IBD but a working hypothesis could be that it was gluten in the normal kibble. On the other hand, a study with a small sample found that the most common allergen for dogs with food allergy was beef (followed by dairy) and none of the farmina dog kibbles contain beef as a stated ingredient. From where we stand now, we don’t know if the normal dog foods we fed Nellie that made her sick contained beef but given this absence of knowledge we should be wary of ascribing her IBD to gluten allergy.
Having, however, overseen a remission of Nellie’s IBD through diet management we can say that Nellie is intolerant of rice as it caused her extraordinarily sloppy stools and once it was eliminated her stools were those of a normal, healthy dog.
So, perhaps unsurprisingly, we can see that Nellie is a carnivore that happily eats and digests meat (leaving open the question of beef), wolfs down yoghurt and Kefir and eats fruit without problems (fresh apples and cooked Quince in her home-made dog food).
Now we have eliminated with-grain dog kibble completely from La Faula. One obvious reason, of course, is that we don’t want to risk triggering Nellie’s Inflammatory Bowel Disease if she should somehow get access to normal dog kibble we feed the other dogs. But that is not the principal reason. The principal reason is that we consider Royal Canin and Pedigree and similar dog foods to be a rip-off. They charge enormous sums for dog food that is full of non human food grade grains. They mislead by not identifying the percentage of animal and plant protein in their products. And for the same price we can buy the Farmina N&D dog food which is full of meat and has fruit and vegetables and no grains at all.
We feel that when we left the dog breeder and she looked at us and said “Make sure to feed Nellie a good dog food like Royal Canin” we were sold a pup!
While I was writing the previous diary entries regarding Nellie’s path from abject ill health to normality there was one niggling issue in the background. That was that while it was true that Nellie’s signs of Inflammatory Bowel Disease had gone, her recurrent infections had disappeared, she was eating well and had put on weight her stools were very loose and sloppy. It wasn’t really a case of diarrhea and it didn’t seem to have any obvious negative effects but notwithstanding those facts it didn’t seem quite right. After we had put Nellie on the exclusion diet we became quite expert on her stools as this was an important indicator as to how her intestines were functioning. On the exclusion diet Nellie’s stools had stabilised into good “doggy poohs” of the type you could scoop up and put in the rubbish bin. So far, so good. But in November Luca began pruning the grapevines growing over the pergola in front of the house. The autumn had been warm and dry and the grapes remaining on the vines were succulent and sweet and greatly to the dogs’ taste! So as Luca cut the grapes and woody growth down, the dogs, waiting below the ladder, would feast on the grapes. Although all our dogs over the years have been great grape eaters - we are a vineyard after all with grapevines running right up to the house - we were deeply concerned this year because our internet researches had revealed that there is a link between dogs eating grapes and renal failure. The cause isn’t known but it seemed to us that notwithstanding that the grapes had not caused our dogs problems in the past, probably in Nellie’s case her kidneys would be sure to pack it in. At around this time we discovered in a local pet store bags of cracked rice and as rice is one of the elements of the protein exclusion diet we decided to cook up rice and add it to Nellie’s diet. During this period Nellie’s stools became very loose but we put it down to the grapes she was eating even though the other dogs didn’t suffer such a reaction. As Luca was finishing pruning the pergola the fruits of the numerous persimmon trees behind the house reached maturity and the dogs, who love the sweet persimmon, would jump up and pick them then wolf them down. Nellie who is the most agile of all the dogs was able to obtain all that she could eat. And then, when the low hanging fruit were exhausted, the ripe fruit began falling from the trees so the dogs had all the persimmons they could want to eat. We put Nellie’s continued loose stools down to eating persimmons. This seemed especially likely in the light of what we had read on the internet that the seeds of the persimmon can cause inflammation of a dog’s small intestine! Every time we went to the internet to see what dangers to dogs lurked in our garden we came away more disquieted and apprehensive.
Eventually, however, the fruits of autumn came to an end and winter was upon us. Nellie was wholly on a diet of what I fed her but was still suffering from sloppy poohs. We focussed on the Kefir wondering whether this milk based product full of bacteria and yeasts might be giving her the runs. I reduced Nellie’s Kefir intake over time but to no effect. I reduced the amount of kibble. Again to no effect. On the internet I researched “dogs and rice” and found numerous and consistent reviews extolling the value of rice for dogs as being easily digestible and combating diarrhea. I resigned myself to the fact that Nellie would just be a dog with sloppy poohs and reflected on the extra work this would give us during the Agriturismo season when we are full of guests. Every day of the year Luca and I, each at different times, do a round of the house picking up the dog pooh. Normally, it is a fast and painless process - a flick into the pan then into the waste bin - but sloppy dog pooh around the place is yucky and harder to clean up. While I was dwelling on this thought I decided that no matter how positive rice seemed as a dog’s diet ingredient, I should be rigorous and remove it from Nellie’s diet just to be sure that it was not the cause of Nellie’s horrible stools.
I reduced Nellie’s daily intake of rice and the effects were immediate. So immediate, in fact, that after the second day I eliminated the rice completely from Nellie’s food and her pooh’s became doggy poohs as doggy poohs should be.
So there it is. Nellie, right now seems to be A-ok 👌. Of course, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, being an autoimmune disease never completely disappears and it can flare up again in the future. But after a year it is very fine to have managed not only not to have lost Nellie but to have found a stable equilibrium that allows her to proceed in what seems to be reasonable health.
When Nellie was very sick and we feared that she would surely die, it seemed a great pity as she was (and is) a dog of outstanding intelligence. Of course, because of her illness she spent much more time in close proximity to us than our other present or previous dogs so she became to some extent humanised by the process. But she did have the intelligence to develop a “fit” with us. She is the first dog we have ever had who vocalises feelings by developed “grunting” sounds when she is pleased or wanting to be communicative. She is cunning and can anticipate our actions. She can adapt our behaviour to fit her wants. For example, when Nellie returned to health the Agriturismo was closed and she was very active and requiring a lot of attention. Eventually, I got a couple of soft dog frisbees and would kick off a game whereby I would go to a high point on the farm and would throw the frisbee out over the drop forcing Nellie to run down to pick it up and then run back up to give it to me. My idea was to so thoroughly tire Nellie out that we would be free to carry on our activities during the rest of the day without being harried by her. Once Nellie started to get tired she would only carry the frisbee half-way back up the slope and then she would return to the bottom thus obliging me to walk down the slope to pick up the frisbee if the game were to continue. But perhaps the most interesting thing about Nellie is her coincidental likeness to the original progenitor of Border Collies “Old Hemp” (September 1893 - May 1901) (click on the link below to read about Old Hemp and see photos of him).
So Nellie, having been diagnosed with Inflammatory Bowel Disease, was now launched upon a protein exclusion diet under which she would be fed only one meat protein at a time to identify those that she could tolerate and, eventually, the protein that would trigger the inflammation of her gut. The discussion with the vet was wholly centered around meat proteins as he seemed to assume that the culprit would be a meat protein. As we finished talking with the vet he explained why there was no real long term medicinal solution in the case of dogs and that eventually her intestine would become permeable to proteins and that her chances of survival after that were virtually nil. At the mention of of intestines becoming permeable to proteins I remembered reading some years before an article in the New York Times about a kid who had some kind of autoimmune disease and I remembered that it had been written that when he was very ill his intestine had become permeable to proteins. I couldn’t remember what signs the child had but I remembered that his illness had been very slow and difficult to diagnose and that in the end he had only returned to health when gluten was removed from his diet.
When we got home we decided to continue Nellie on pig heart as the single protein as this had only just been introduced to her diet. In the pressure cooker I cooked up a big stew of pig heart, potatoes and quince. By the time it cooled Nellie was hungry as she had not eaten so far that day. I prepared a bowl of the stew for her. She sniffed the bowl suspiciously, sniffed again, took a lick then another and then she devoured the stew like an industrial vacuum cleaner. This dog who had treated so much of what we tried to feed her as poison had suddenly finished the bowl of stew and was begging for more! That day, Nellie ate eight bowls of the stew. We were of course astounded and exhilarated but I wondered how she would be the following day as it had commonly been the case that after having eaten a new dog kibble the following day she had refused to eat at all. But the following day she again ate voraciously. What can be said is that she had discovered the joy of being able to eat without problems and was making up for months living on just enough to survive. Within a week she had her first estrous. We still had guests and I was still in the kitchen cooking but now I had a small four legged customer who would come regularly into the kitchen begging for her stew!
Within three days Nellie had completely finished the stew that I had prepared her. Luca rushed off and bought more pigs’ heart and I made another stew of around 9kg in weight. Nellie finished this off in just three days. It felt like I was spending as much time cooking for Nellie as for the guests! I realised that going forward this was unsustainable as I just wouldn’t have enough time to be preparing so much food for the dog. My mind went back to the article in the New York Times about the poor kid who had seemed to have in incurable autoimmune disease but who had been brought back to health by the elimination of gluten in his diet. I went to a specialist pet shop near us and asked them, on a hunch, if they had grain free dog food. She replied affirmatively and took me to see their selection. Eventually I picked a 2.5kg bag of wild boar and apple for the (shocking) price of €27. I took it home and called Nellie. I offered her a handful of the kibble in a bowl. She sniffed it and took a tiny mouthful. She crunched it up in her mouth and then cleaned out the bowl. She crunched that kibble with such obvious pleasure that I guessed that she would still be eating it the following day - and she was.
But Nellie’s special diet didn’t stop there. As an afterthought just as we were about to leave the vets’ surgery upon getting Nellie’s diagnosis, I had asked if we could feed Nellie my home made yogurt as that seemed to be something that she really liked and which didn’t cause her obvious problems and had probably saved her life when she couldn’t eat anything else. “No” said the vet. “Yoghurt is not to be recommended because dogs are intolerant of lactose present in milk. Much better Kefir which is a more fully fermented product in which the lactose is fermented into alcohol”. The vet went on to explain that Kefir comes originally from the caucasus where sheep’s milk is preserved by putting it in a sheep’s stomach (without the sheep, of course!) where it supports colonies of bacteria and yeasts that effectively digest it and render it stable and inhospitable to other micro organisms that might cause spoilage. He referred to some “grains” that are the font of Kefir if you don’t have the sheep’s stomach at hand. You put these Kefir grains in with your milk - preferably raw milk - place the mass in a dark but tepid location, leave it for a couple of days stirring it two or three times a day and there you have it: a white liquid of microorganismally predigested milk ready to be incorporated into your organism along with all the bacteria and yeasts that have grown into massive colonies engorging themselves on the goodness of the milk and incorporating colonies of bacteria that came with the milk and which could tolerate the competition. It all sounded a bit mysterious. Especially the part where the vet explained to us that in its place of origin, the sheep’s stomach in which the milk was becoming kefir was appended above the door lintel and everyone who entered the house would give the stomach a good slap thereby ensuring the liquid stayed homogeneous and did not separate out.
Like many things on the internet, we discovered that Kefir has a loyal and devoted following and that all kinds of health benefits are ascribed to consuming this liquid which it is claimed hosts 30 varieties of bacteria and yeasts. E-Bay is full of people selling the Kefir grains (a combination of lactic acid bacteria and yeasts according to Wikipedia) so we bought 10 grams worth and hoped for the best. The 10 grams of tiny grains eventually arrived sealed in a plastic envelope with a whey-like liquid. Following the accompanying instructions we began the process of feeding the microorganisms contained within and on the grains. This posed a real challenge. True Kefir aficionados only make Kefir with raw milk claiming that bacteria naturally present in the milk enrich the bacterial flora of the Kefir. But what if the bacteria in the milk include Salmonella, E coli and Listeria? The theory of true Kefir addicts is that these dangerous bacteria, if present in raw milk, are out-competed by the absolutely predominant cultures of benign bacteria and yeast present in the grains. This could be true. For example, when wine making, to ensure that wild or non optimal yeasts are unable to ferment the grape must, a starter is made using must and selected yeast cultures. This gives the cultured yeast a head start and through the effects of competitive pressure they tend to outcompete and predominate over other less desirable yeasts naturally present in the must. But they don’t eliminate the other yeasts and sometimes the wild yeasts are so vigorous and favoured by the chemical composition of the must that they predominate in fermenting the sugars naturally present in grape juice. Plus, this may not be a valid comparison. In the end, it was clear that raw milk poses a theoretical risk to man and dog. But in our case, we get the raw milk directly from our neighbour at the moment of milking. We can therefore completely control temperature and cleanliness from the moment the milk leaves the milking pump until it is added to the Kefir grains. Most importantly, our neighbours milk is used in the local dairy to make cheese and so is tested weekly for bacterial load. We proceeded with the raw milk Kefir.
Well, nothing prepared us, men or dog for the effect Kefir has on one’s body. It is one thing to read about these 30 strains of bacteria and yeast contained in the Kefir but it is another to have them all working away in one’s gut! Before feeding Nellie the Kefir, I decided to try it out myself. Within half an hour I felt like a fermentation vat! The effect wasn’t unpleasant or analogous to having a stomach upset. In fact, it was the opposite. It was pleasant but my gut was literally boiling away. The next day both Luca and Nellie partook of the Kefir. That evening with the three of us in the sitting room the noise was only of gurgling stomachs! Eventually the effects reduce greatly but when one takes a glass or two of Kefir one realises that one is not alone but is sharing one’s digestive system with millions and millions of little creatures who, at that moment, are having the time of their (short) lives!
By now we were in September and the activity in the Agriturismo was gently winding down. We had been very busy with many guests in July and August plus one of our younger volunteers during that time had had some medical difficulties which had confronted us with some unexpected and unfamiliar challenges. All in all though it had gone well so I was able to relax a bit and enjoy the warm and sunny autumn bathed in warm satisfaction for a year that, to that point, had passed well. I also had the luxury of being able to devote a bit more time and thought to Nellie. The antacid didn’t seem to be having much effect and she still had her cough. I am wholly ignorant of medical matters and wanted to believe that all that was wrong with Nellie was a malfunctioning oesophageal sphincter leading to acid reflux but somehow it didn’t seem plausible. By now there were less kids in the agriturismo so Nellie was also taking things a bit easier. The only things that she ate with gusto were the yoghurt and pigs heart. For the rest it was obvious that her diet just wasn’t hitting the spot. She no longer seemed to be at the point of imminent death but neither did she seem to be set for a robust and healthy life. We had suffered when Nellie’s illness was a complete mystery to the vets. We had wanted to believe each hypothesis that had been tabled as it was better than the unknown but it seemed to me that the root cause of Nellie’s problems remained unknown At first we were dealing with an unknown unknown and this has led to piecemeal treatment of her symptoms. Now it seemed to me we were dealing with an known unknown. But what was it?
Roughly a week after the endoscopic examination of Nellie’s stomach and intestine, we received an email from the vet with the results of the biopsies conducted on the tissue samples removed from Nellie during the examination. We understood virtually nothing of what was written but we did understand the part that said that the villi in her small intestine were rounded, matted and flat.The vet said that we should make an appointment to see him.
To cut to the quick, it emerged that Nellie had Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). This is an autoimmune condition that comes in many flavours all of which result in inflammation and damage to the intestine of the dog. Pathogenic bacteria can colonise parts of the damaged intestine and over time the damage inhibits the correct absorption of nutrients. Sometimes it is thought that there is a significant genetic component, other times that the inflammation is the result of a food allergy. In every case it is better treated by diet as medications generally aren’t an ideal long term solution for dogs. So the vet suggested to us to immediately place Nellie on a diet of a protein that she is unlikely to have encountered before along with a neutral carbohydrate like potato or rice. He also prescribed for her metoclopramide, a drug that inhibits nausea, regulates peristaltic action of the intestine (the orderly movement of food) and enhances the intestinal muscle tone. Looking up IBD on the internet it was finally easy to see how all the various signs the Nellie had exhibited hung together. The various signs: the nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, fever, anaemia, weight loss were all the common signs of this disease! Finally, we had got to the bottom of it!
It was a bit longer than a week before the blood test results arrived. They had been extremely thorough, and expensive, and when we read the results we were amazed that it was possible to test for so many things! Of course, we understood little of the technical terminology but in the accompanying email the vet said that the tests hadn’t thrown up anything in particular so we would now need to proceed with the endoscopy of the upper part of Nellie’s gastrointestinal tract along with an accompanying series of tissue samples which would be biopsied to provide further analysis. As the vet was imminently departing for his summer vacation, it was established that the examination would take place three weeks later during the first week of September. During the three week interval Nellie’s health stabilized but she was a little skinny waif of a dog and we started to wonder if we should augment her diet with raw meat. We fixed on raw meat because we remembered that when we had been to the Dog Breeder’s to choose a puppy, the breeder had rewarded the two puppies in the display room, one of which was Nellie, by giving them some pieces of raw meat. We decided to do the same. We opted for pig’s heart, mainly because it was muscle without fat and didn’t cost much! I sliced up the heart muscle very fine and we added it to her diet. Like the yogurt, Nellie quickly took to the pig’s heart and ate it with relish. But when we examined her pooh we saw that it had not in any way been digested. We had never fed our dogs raw meat, always cooking it first. Having grown up in New Zealand in the 1960’s where the predominance of sheep and sheepdogs made hydatids (Echinococcus granulosus) a real problem, I had had it drilled into me that dogs should never, ever, be fed raw meat. The internet, on the other hand, was full of raw-meat-for-dogs enthusiasts on the basis that this was more in line with the wild Lupine diet.
Eventually, the three weeks passed and the morning for Nellie’s endoscopy arrived. We were still full of guests so Luca and Davide, a neighbour’s kid who often helps us out, took Nellie to the vets’ surgery. That morning passed very slowly as I was beyond curiosity by now in wanting to understand just what was causing Nellie’s illness. When Luca and Davide returned I was relieved that Nellie was up and about and glad that she had not died under the anaesthetic! Luca said that he had seen the DVD of the examination and that the vet had said that the gastrointestinal mucus seemed fine, that there was no obvious damage to the small intestine that he could see but that the sphincter between her stomach and oesophagus seemed slack and the muscular corrugations of the tube undeveloped. He said that as the endoscope passed Nellie’s trachea he saw that it was massively inflamed and said that this was almost certainly caused by acid reflux from the stomach. As he said: “This can be a problem in humans who stand vertically, imagine what it is like in a dog where the stomach and oesophagus are horizontal and the lungs lower than both!” Luca said that he had got the idea and, at least the cause of Nellie’s constant cough was now identified. In the meantime, the vet prescribed Nellie omeprazole and antacid drug.
A little later Luca and I watched the DVD of the gastroscopic examination together with Luca explaining to me the various stages. It was true, the mucus coating the stomach and small intestine seemed nice and abundant and clean and sticky. There wasn’t anything except a few pieces of grass in Nellie’s stomach. The point where the endoscope passed the trachea was fairly clear because the tissue was bright red but all in all it looked like a clean and orderly stomach and small intestine. There was no obvious smoking gun and it was hard to reconcile Nellie’s terrible illness and symptoms with some acid reflux!
When I had first taken Nellie to the vets’ surgery she had been very relaxed and calm while she was examined. Over time, after numerous visits during which she was prodded and listened to and looked into and having countless thermometers stuck in her backside (only one each time, of course!) she grew very resistent and eventually had to be firmly held if a vet was to examine her or draw blood. The vet asked me to take Nellie and bring her to the x-ray room. I placed her on the table underneath the x-ray generator head and the vet helped me to put on the lead lined protective apron. “Stay there Nellie, stay there” I said as I was placing my arms through the apron, afraid that she might make a run for it. But the room was dimly lit and she stayed where she was. “OK, lie her down and turn her on her side with her legs facing the wall” said the vet. Nellie didn’t want to be pushed down and resisted my efforts. Luckily she is a small dog so I was able to get her in position as the vet prepared the machine. “Now, it is important that Nellie stays still while we take the x-ray" said the vet. He reached over and stretched out her legs and positioned her exactly where he wanted her. “Good girl Nellie” I said. Stay there, stay there, brava!” under instruction from the vet I stepped back and to my relief Nellie lay there and didn’t move as the machine hummed and clicked. “Good” said the vet. Now roll her over to her other side” I rolled Nellie over and she lay as still as a church mouse, barely breathing. “Excellent” said the vet returning to finesse her position once more. And again the machine hummed and clicked and it was all over.
“If she has ingested a piece of wood or plastic which cannot be expelled and hangs around creating inflammation then of course we won’t see it with the x-rays. But you never know, so it is worth having a look in case something show up” the vet said. He helped me remove the heavy protective apron and we returned to his office. He sat at the computer and pulled up the x-ray images of Nellie that he had just taken. He examined the images closely, referencing between the two, looking closer at the screen or enlarging parts that interested him. “No, there is nothing here” he said eventually. “Let’s take some blood”.
Nellie was sitting on the examination table and I was locked in a firm cuddle with her knowing that she had the capacity, if she wanted, to jump like a little black gazelle. As the vet took her leg to shave with the electric razor poor Nellie tried to climb up and over me, anything to get away. She put her front paws on my shoulders and tried to pull herself up and out of my grasp. At this point Luca took her hind part and we laid her down and held her firm while the vet shaved her leg then applied a rubber band to inflate the vein and finally inserted a needle and removed some phials of blood. Being subjected to this procedure certainly caused Nellie some suffering but I felt that, finally, we would begin to get to the bottom of her illness and hopefully from there to a cure so it seemed on the whole completely positive. “OK” said the vet. “It will be a week before we have the results. I will email them to you and your vet once we have them. At that point we will have a better idea of what to do.”
We took poor little Nellie away, a raggedly, rag-like, waif. She was afraid of the other dogs in the surgery waiting room and the city traffic outside with its movement and noise left her uncertain and insecure. She was glad to reach our van and willingly climbed into its familiar interior. The day was sunny and the afternoon warm. On the trip back Nellie vomited as usual but the mountains were majestic in front of us and the evening would be long and we felt better about Nellie than we had for a long time!
In July I was sleeping on the top floor of the barn. The top floor of the barn has a rough wooden cladding with space between the boards for air to pass. The design was to allow grapes to be dried if we wanted to create very dense and concentrated wines. Dense and concentrated wines, however, don’t find a ready market and so we have this great space that turned out to be a wonderful place to sleep. The summer was very hot but the barn was always gently aerated. My bed was hard against the low concrete wall that defined the side of the barn and to which the boards were attached and Nellie slept behind my head on the ledge which was the top of the wall. She would look out of the gaps between the wooden slats until eventually she fell asleep. But she was unwell. Her cough was continuous and she had an unnaturally atrocious breath. She was restless during the night and slept fitfully. I left the low gate to the barn ajar so she could go outside if she needed to and sometimes she did. If dawnbreak was chilly, she would snuggle up against me and gently lick my face. I hated being licked and was terrified of getting some infection from her but in the face of Nellie’s suffering I felt that it was something that I had to endure. I had little to give her and to turn away from her at this time seemed as if it would be an act of unconscionable egoism. When I held little Nellie against me I felt her bones as there was no fat to soften their outline.
When I got up, Nellie often stayed in the barn and would only come down to the house later. I would give her a big bowl of yoghurt which she would wolf down. Nellie loved the children who were staying at La Faula and was very caring and gentle with babies. In front of the house is a large pergola and in front of this is a little sandy football field. The field is tiny but it has goals and is fenced off to keep the dogs outside. Hector, in particular, our oldest dog and father of Annie and Rett, has never been trained to play with soccer balls so the first thing he does when he gets one is to destroy it. This can happen surprisingly fast so we have this little field where the dogs are kept outside and small kids can play football without it all ending in tears. Whenever kids were in the field, Nellie was on the outside tracking the ball as it moved too and fro. Sometimes, overcome with excitement she would leap gazelle-like over the fence and carry the ball away to cries and shouts of concern and dismay. Luckily, this was all happening outside the kitchen where I spend a lot of time in the summer so I would sprint outside aiming to get the ball before one of the dogs destroyed it. If Nellie had it still, the ball would be in perfect condition as she would carry it gently in her mouth to no ill effect. If Hector had got to it, however, it was often a case of tears and disappointment! But very quickly Nellie learned not to remove the ball from the field. Instead she would jump the net and race between the players before jumping out and over the net on the opposite side. This became her great game and she would do it for hours. Her illness, eating only yogurt and running for hours reduced to to skin and bones and we felt sure that she was really at the end. By the evening she would be exhausted and spent. Waiting for me, she would lie drained on the half landing between the dining room and the kitchen where the stairs go up to the first floor looking out the window to what was going on under the pergola. I felt terrible not knowing what to do with her. Sometimes I felt myself emotionally drawing away from Nellie in preparation of her death. But for this I felt terrible: to pull away from little Nellie at this moment, to leave her to face this time alone just to protect myself from inevitable hurt seemed like gross selfishness. And yet it was a recurrent instinct that had to be overcome.
Towards the end of July Nellie developed another infection and Luca took her to our vet. Our vet prescribed a course of antibiotics and arranged an appointment with a vet gastroenterologist at the nearest pet hospital. We took Nellie to the specialist and he said that the first thing he would do was arrange a series of exhaustive blood tests. While we were there he would x-ray Nellie to see if there was anything obviously untoward. Then if it was necessary, the next step would be a gastroscopy with tissue biopsies from her small intestine. The problem was that it was August and he would be on holiday for two weeks towards the end of August. The specialist explained that in Udine there was only one other vet who conducted gastroscopies. He asked us if we were prepared to wait or would like him to contact the other vet. At this point a distinct play of the human mind kicked in. Being with this vet who had the means and ability to see what we had all been guessing at for six months was like, in a way, being saved. Probably the rational thing to have done would have been to see the other vet. But we were so relieved to be in the presence of this specialist that we were reluctant to give him up for some unknown quantity. So, “yes” we said. “We would proceed immediately with the blood test and x-rays” and would wait for him to get back for the gastroscopy and biopsies.
Nellie started on a 20 day course of doxycycline the powerful antibiotic. The vet said to return at the end of the 20 days. Almost imperceptibly, Nellie began to improve. She continued to eat little but the quality of her coat improved and incrementally, in the smallest way, she began to put on weight. Over the days, her constant cough became intermittent and eventually disappeared. She was active and playful and although she remained skinny she was looking good. We were of course pleased but it was hard to credit that all these months of problems could have been due to a bacterial infection, especially as no one seemed to know where it could be. Previously, Nellie’s reluctance to eat and her cough had endured even when she was between courses of antibiotics. Plus her intermittent anemia seemed to be a sign hard to reconcile with a simple bacterial infection. Somehow it didn’t all hang together but here she was, under our eyes, measurably getting better. At the end of the 20 days we returned to the vets’ surgery. “I’ve got some bad news” said the vet. “Nellie hasn’t got lyme disease. The blood test is negative so we are back where we started. At least if she had Lyme’s disease we would know where we stand.” I was disappointed. It felt strange to be disappointed that Nellie didn’t have Lyme disease. Normally one is pleased to discover that a feared illness is not present in fact. But to be pitched back into the uncertainty and doubt regarding Nellie’s health, to live with the hope of cure but the reality of decline, was becoming interminably oppressive. “I’m going to put Nellie on another 20 days course of doxycycline” said the vet. At the end of this any bacterial infection, no matter where it is, must be eliminated.”
I left the vets’ surgery strangely disheartened. Nellie was in pretty good condition. Her cough that had been right from the beginning was gone. Her atrocious breath had improved. She was skinny but had added a little bit of weight. She didn’t show obvious signs of sickness. Since being on the antibiotic Nellie hadn’t vomited or had night fever. But the cure still seemed too simple for the extensive symptoms she had exhibited. It was like repairing a broken down car by cleaning the spark plugs! By now the routine was well established. From the vets’ surgery I returned home. Nellie suffered from car sickness so by the time I arrived at La Faula she had vomited mucus and the grass that was always present in her vomit (another bad sign). I departed immediately to get to the pharmacy before it closed at midday. If the pharmacy didn’t have the particular medicine it would be ordered by the pharmacist and I could pick it up in the afternoon. This time the antibiotic was in stock. I already knew the price and gave thanks, yet again, that at least for human medicines there was a national health service to cover most of the cost of medical treatments. Between the vets’ visits and medicines, Nellie was costing us a small fortune. Of course we paid willingly but not blind to the weight it was putting on our financial resources.
For the next 20 days it was possible to say that Nellie was OK. Gradually it seemed to be the case that she was cured, if only because the cure was so long that we got used to a healthy - if food adverse - dog. It became possible to convince oneself that the nightmare for Nellie, and for us, was perhaps over: that things had been restarted and could now proceed smoothly and without difficulty. As it seemed that the antibiotic had produced the cure it was obvious to think that the infection was gone and that Nellie was now free of whatever parasite had been ruining her health previously. It would be true to say that we approached the end of the course of antibiotics without trepidation and with a confidence that she would proceed healthily as all our other dogs did.
For a week or two once she had finished the antibiotics Nellie’s health stayed stable. But then the cough returned. And then over time she showed an aversion to eating that seemed wholly inimical to living. We tried different brands of dog food. Soft and crunchy, all flavours, all guaranteed to be perfect for one’s pet. At first, for a day or two, Nellie would eat the new food she was introduced to. Then after a couple of days she would definitively refuse it. She only ate when she was starving. She lost weight precipitously. I moved to sleep in the barn with Nellie so that if she needed to be sick during the night she could get to the grass. Nellie would sleep in the ledge that runs down the inside of the top floor of the barn looking out through the slats in the wooden cladding to see what was happening below. Normally I rose at around 05.30 in the morning and then went down to the main house but when Nellie was poorly she would stay up there barely moving. Eventually we knew that Nellie could not survive if she didn’t eat. Normally it is advised not to give dogs cows’ milk products as dogs are lactose intolerant and can also be allergic to the casein protein that it present in cows’ milk. But one morning I was putting the yoghurt that I make at home in the serving jugs and I decided to try it out on Nellie. I got a bowl and put some yoghurt in it. I put the bowl near Nellie. By now, Nellie showed such aversion to what we offered her to eat that she would approach the bowl of food as if it would do her mortal harm. Normally she would sniff then not eat. This time she sniffed and sniffed again. She gingerly gave a lick to the yoghurt and stopped. Then she licked the yoghurt again, and again, with an enthusiasm that I had never seen and in a flash the yoghurt had disappeared. I gave her more and she gulped it down.
The month was May. Spring was ripe, the mornings started early and the sun was warm already by 6.30. The light was fresh, the air limpid. Winter was but a shade of the past; plants were reborn with bright new foliage and the birds happy and noisy in their courting. At 7.00 a.m., as promised, the vet arrived. I took him into the staff room. Nellie was on the bottom bed of a bunk bed set and her little head was abjectly poking out from a blanket. She looked so sad and pathetic the vet’s heart went out to her immediately. “Oh you poor little thing” he said “And they’ve covered you with a blanket to keep you warm” he reached in and rolled back the blanket. He looked at Nellie’s gums, around her eyes. He gently got her to stand up and took her temperature. He took out his stethoscope and listened to her heart and breathing. “Well he said” what she has is not going to kill her immediately. What I mean is, she is not going to die now but there is something wrong here, something not right.” He went on “It’s clear that she hasn’t ingested rat poison, but there is something not right about her. Something underlying that is provoking these recurrent illnesses.” He lifted his head up with a start and caught it on the wooden frame of the bunk bed above. It was a good whack and must have hurt. I felt terrible. Here he was, disturbed from his sleep, helping our little dog and he got a whack on the head for his efforts! “Oh, I’m sorry” I said not knowing what else to say. “It was nothing” he replied and began to pack his instruments back into his vet’s bag.
We walked outside, the vet and me. The morning was by now warm and beautiful. The wonder of the morning and reassurance of the vet’s intervention had removed the desperation and panic that we had suffered earlier when we saw that Nellie was, yet again, rapidly declining into illness. “Bring the dog to the surgery at 10.00 a.m. when we open. I’ll tell my colleagues what has happened. We need to examine this matter more deeply. The dog is suffering from some underlying condition and we need to work out what it is. My heart sunk. By now I knew that this dog had a problem, a defect that couldn’t just be cured with an 8 day course of antibiotics. “What do you think it might be?” I said. “I don’t know” replied the vet. “It looks a bit like leukemia. But I really don’t know. But maybe leukemia is worth considering”. I bade the vet farewell, his car tires crunching on the gravel of the carpark and with an unhappy heart returned to the house. I knew that if it was leukemia Nellie was finished. But somehow leukemia seemed unlikely. Her sickness up until then had been a series of cycles with illness followed by a period of normality followed by illness. Not knowing anything, I felt sure that if it was leukemia the decline would have been more linear, irreversible and distinct. But for the first time I was presented with what happens when a living creature is sick and the cause of that sickness is a mystery. In our normal life up until then symptoms are followed by diagnosis and treatment. Relatives, people we knew, people in the village got sick. If the illness was serious like an aggressive cancer they were treated and either got well or died. But everyone knew what the stakes were. People had heart disease. They either got treatment or had a heart attack and, often, died. It all seemed very clear. But here we were with little Nellie, a fur covered, bundle of sick medical mystery.
I went back into the staff room. Nellie was sleeping. I sat there with a heavy heart gently stroking her little head.
At 10.00 a.m. Nellie and I were back at the vet’s surgery. She had improved a little. As she sat on the examination table the vets gathered around her discussing the case amongst themselves. Leukemia was ruled out more or less immediately because if this was the problem she would already have been dead. They took blood samples. Prepared slides. Finally Nellie’s principal vet said to me. “I’m going to test for Lyme’s disease”. In the meantime I’m going to put Nellie on a course of doxycycline, an antibiotic that can penetrate the blood brain barrier. If we are lucky, we’ll find out that she has Lyme’s disease although her symptoms are not a perfect match. Otherwise, we will have reached the end of what we can do here and she will require a gastroscopy and biopsy carried out by a specialised vet.” By now the uncertainty and open questions were starting to weigh a bit. Seeing Nellie sick was dispiriting and the mystery of her condition portended more problems, more trips to the vets and more expenditure, because by now the vet’s interventions and treatments, especially out of hours, were starting to build up. The story was becoming heavy and tiresome and we dreamt of it having a happy ending although the difficulty to get even this far was starting to create a grain of doubt in our mind as to whether there would be a happy ending. At the edges of our thoughts the possibility that she might die hovered, still inchoate, but its outline indistinctly beginning to take form.
When we began life at La Faula in 1995 Wikipedia didn’t exist. The Internet did but only for those in the know. So we brought up our first dogs - Maremmano Sheepdogs - using general books about owning a dog, advice given us by our vets and stories and legends absorbed over our lives up till then. As knowhow, true or false, was so rare and difficult to access, it tended to stay in one’s mind. When someone recounted a story that could be relevant to one’s life, one tended to remember it. It happened that early on in our time at La Faula the dog of someone we knew ate rat poison. That person called the advice line on the poison packet and was told not to worry as the poison was warfarin based and a small amount ingested by a medium sized dog wouldn’t do any harm. Of course, by 2015 the first thing that I did when I got home with presumptively poisoned Nellie, was to access Wikipedia and look up “warfarin poisoning dogs”. Rather to my horror I saw that life in the rat poisoning business had not stopped still in the 1990’s but like everything else had moved on. The tolerance of rats to even higher doses of warfarin had led to the development of even more effective anticoagulants that were combined with warfarin. These anticoagulants do not have an antidote.
While I was frightening myself with the internet, Luca did the rounds of the rat bait boxes. They were all in place and intact. One tends to take the advice of one’s Vet as being authoritative so the whole thing just became a mystery. Immediately after Easter we took Nellie back to the Vets’ surgery where we found Nellie’s normal vet. He read Nellie’s notes prepared by the emergency vet. He noted that her gums were grey and eyelids lacking bright red colour and the tongue a mild pink. He also saw that she was running a temperature so ran a blood test and saw that she had an elevated white blood cell count. He extended the course of antibiotics and gave us a further prescription for vitamin K the warfarin antidote. We took poor Nellie home and she was a vision of abject suffering.
Over the next week Nellie perked up. We obsessively checked her gums and tongue which remained an obstinate gray. By now we knew that it was best to avoid calling the vet after hours if we wanted to finish the year with any money left, so when Saturday came we decided to take Nellie to the Saturday morning surgery. I pointed out that although Nellie had improved, her gums, tongue and eyelids remained grey.
“OK” said the vet “We’ll do another course of vitamin K, it’s a vitamin after all, it won’t do her any harm”
but by now I think that the vets were starting to doubt that rat poison was the problem.
The weeks passed and Nellie perked up but she refused to eat and became thinner and thinner. By now we had a fair number of guests and Nellie loved playing with the kids. When the smaller kids were playing with a soccer ball in the little fenced soccer ground (fenced low, but enough to keep the dogs out) in front of the pergola, Nellie would run around and around the exterior perimeter tracking the movement of the ball. Sometimes in a fit of enthusiasm and excitement she would leap, gazelle like, over the net into the soccer ground then leap out again. Sometimes she was tempted to take the ball with her but cries of alarm from children and parents would quickly dissuade her. The combination of all this activity and Nellie not eating started to convince us that maybe we would lose her.
As Nellie was unwell, we were reluctant to leave her by herself during the night incase she needed to be taken outside or helped in some way. I moved down into the little room we have in the services area for volunteers to sleep in during the summer. Nellie took to sleeping at the end of the bed snuggled up to my feet. I was always alert for strange movements or restlessness on Nellie’s part and one morning, very early, around 4.00 a.m., I became aware that Nellie was shivering. With the light on I saw that she was listless and clearly ill. Shivering passed in waves over her. I woke up Luca and we decided that we would wait and call the vet at 6.00 a.m. We covered Nellie up and waited. The time passed very slowly but eventually it was 6.00 a.m. and I called the vet.
Calling a vet at night or early in the morning is a funny thing. On the one hand, it seems a big thing to disturb a sleeping vet for a dog and until Nellie we had never done it. On the other hand, we had learnt with the death of Little Fritz (I’ll write about this at some later time) that waiting can be fatal for an ill animal. The sleepy vet - the one who had seen Nellie on Easter Sunday - answered the telephone. I heard a female voice complaining nearby. I apologised profusely, explained who I was and who the dog was, and said that I was afraid for the dog’s prospects if I waited for the surgery to open at 10.00 a.m. The vet remembered little Nellie and said that he would be at La Faula at 7.00 a.m.. Nellie lay on my bed, covered but shivering. It seemed like a story without end!
As 2015 began, there was nothing to make us think that the year would be particularly different from those preceding it. Of course, being an Agriturismo in Italy, we hoped for warm and sunny weather. We hoped for many and good bookings and for happy guests. We had confirmed the volunteers who would be assisting us over the summer and were happy with them. In December 2014 we had chosen a new little Border Collie and she would be ready to come and live with us in February. We have had many dogs over the years and so assumed that the new dog would be a pleasant but unexceptional addition to our lives.
But it didn’t work out like that. Yes, the weather was fantastic. We had many and happy guests. Two of the volunteers were fantastic; the third one posed some special needs but life is like that and we grew through the experience. But Nellie the dog roared into our life as a 3 month old puppy and grabbed us emotionally and physically and took us on a voyage of love and suffering, hers and ours, that left us, and her, breathless and shaken.
When Nelli arrived she was just three months old and has immediately weaned from her mother. At La Faula, for six months of the year we have guests. We have cows and chickens that we butcher. We have bits and pieces and bones and leftovers that we pressure cook together to create the “faula doggy soup” which we feed to the dogs along with broken up dried bread. This had seemed perfectly adequate for the last 19 years and our dogs seemed to have thrived on this diet. Branded dog kibble came in handy in January and February when the ingredients for the doggy soup became scarce but otherwise we had tended not to use it. But over time we began to wonder if perhaps feeding our dogs leftovers, albeit leftovers with meat protein and vegetables, was selling them somehow short. That maybe they really did need regular dog food to supplement their diet with protein, vitamins and minerals. So we began sprinkling dog kibbles on the dog’s dinners.
Thus it was that when we took little Nellie from the dog breeder, we were very receptive to her admonition: “be sure to give Nellie a good puppy food, like Royal Canin”
We knew that one of the historic motivations to our not feeding our dogs on dog food but on leftovers was the price and so, given that we guessed that Nellie would probably be one of the last dogs to come to La Faula with us, we decided we would make up for this “neglect” by sparing no expense to give Nellie the very best. The very next day following Nellie’s arrival Luca went out and bought a 12kg of best Royal Canin puppy food.
We feed our dogs in the morning. They anticipate the feeding and gather round and mob us until we go up to the barn where the dogs’ fridge is and serve them their meal. We assumed that Nellie would be the same. Puppies are generally hungry little beasts and among the many terrific moments in their young days is feeding time. But Nellie wasn’t like that. I prepared a bowl of broken dried bread, doggy soup and dog kibble and proffered it to her. She approached it gingerly, sniffed it and walked away. She didn’t want it.
I assumed that once Nellie got used to the place and the feeding she would get over her reticence and eat, as do the other dogs, as if that meal contains the very last food left for them on the planet. But it didn’t happen like that. Nellie approached each bowl of food with trepidation. If she was very hungry she would eat but then immediately go to the verge above the red bungalow and eat grass. She vomited often and her feces were loose and unformed.
I cut back on the bread and the doggy soup not questioning for an instant the integrity of the Royal Canin dog food. But when this went on we tried other brands of branded dog food, in particular Purina/Friskies. Then we tried the Carrefour branded dog food but Nellie never wanted to eat. Occasionally I would try just feeding her bread and faula doggy soup but she didn’t want to eat this either. I started giving Nellie raw eggs thinking that this would be a good source of nutrition and it was, she loved them. Nellie started taking cow manure from the field where we have our cows and eating it. She ate chicken faeces and wolfed down moist clay. She would steal any eggs she could find that the chickens had laid outside the coop during the day.
When Nellie arrived it was February and cold. As Nellie was an outsider we wanted to make her feel accepted and secure in her new home and give the other dogs time to get used to her. Nellie was pretty small so we put a box next to the bed, on my side, and when we went to sleep we would put her in the little box. Being experienced in this we knew that it would only last a couple of weeks and that as a puppy isn’t toilet trained, during the night one has to have an ear always open for the moment the dog gets restless and starts moving in the box. Then starts the urgent operation to scoop the puppy up in one’s arms and rush it down the stairs, open the door and get it outside before it begins it’s pooh. More or less immediately the puppy learns the routine and then it is possible to train it to do its business prior to going to bed by taking it for a walk on the grass outside immediately before bedtime and praising the dog to the stars when it randomly does a pee at that time. Dogs are primed to be toilet trained because they have an instinct not to soil their living area so something that seems like it could be really difficult easily slips into place. In the case of Nellie this just didn’t happen. She couldn’t hold it in and many times at 3.00 or 4.00 in the morning I was there with a dustpan and brush, swathes of kitchen roll and a mop smelling of chlorine cleaning up her mess.
Then one night she developed the shakes in her little box, she was weak and Luca guessed that she had a fever. I felt that we had to do something otherwise she might die so we took a (canine) antibiotic that we had leftover from another dog and pushed a double dose for her weight it down her throat. I was tired and resigned to the fact that there was nothing we could do until the morning so Luca took her and her little box on his side of the bed and fortunately the shivering stopped and reedy breathing became regular and she was still with us in the morning. At this point began the calvary of Nellie and the vets.
When the veterinary clinic opened in the morning we were waiting outside. We explained to the vets what had happened during the night and the problem of her uncontrolled bowel habits. A blood test established that she had an infection, somewhere, so the vets decided to continue her on the antibiotic that we had administered during the night for the standard period of eight days. During these eight days her fever subsided and her health returned as before but she still only ate when she was desperately hungry and she never seemed to be able to control properly her bowels.
Then Nellie developed a cough, a deep, husky rasping that built up to finish in a great retch. Her breath became foul, she didn’t eat and she was increasingly skinny. Normally, once a dog is acclimated to La Faula it gets put in the cage at night to sleep. Although Nellie was too skinny and unhealthy to put in the cage all night, we wanted her to get used to being caged sometimes as this is important in dog control and safety. We decided to put Nellie in the cage for the hour that it took us to do our evening run. But once in the cage Nellie panicked and became increasingly distressed, clawing and biting at the tough galvanised wire until we feared she would do herself harm. Inexorably we were being bent to Nellie’s illness and she was bonding to us in a unique and dependent way.
On Easter Sunday of 2015 Nellie was lethargic and overcome by lassitude. She seemed to have fever so we wrapped her up in a blanket and called our vet’s emergency number. It was Easter Sunday but the vet agreed to see us at the clinic at 10.00 a.m. Our vet’s practice has a number of vets in it covering dairy and pig farms and domestic animals. The vet who does most out of hours work we had never met as he follows mainly dairy and pig farms but we knew of him by reputation and being the principal agricultural vet of the practice, I had always imagined him to be an older, distinguished, James Herriot type of vet with grey hair and a phlegmatic manner. In fact, he turned out to be young and friendly and empathetic to Nellie who was passive with sickness. A measurement of Nellie’s temperature and it was clear that she was battling an infection. The vet rolled back Nellie’s lips and peered intently. He pulled back her eyelids. “Yes” he said
“the dog does have an infection but it’s this that worries me”
he was indicating Nellie’s gums.
I looked at Nellie’s gums and didn’t know what I was supposed to be seeing.
“They are grey, there’s not enough blood, they should be bright pink” he said
“I think that she might have eaten an anticoagulant rat poison. We have to move fast as she may be haemorrhaging internally.”
I immediately searched my mind to understand how Nellie could have got hold of rat poison. That winter had been very mild and damp and had been a great season for the rats. Luca had had to use all his cunning preparing irresistible foods containing various poisons and only after weeks of great patience during which the natural suspicion and reticence of the rats was overcome by the great culinary offers made by Luca were they completely eradicated from the area around the chicken pen which was a kind of rat paradise.
I see that my last diary entry was in April 2014. And then I went off the radar. I stopped writing my diary because rather suddenly and unexpectedly my perspective changed. I’ll explain. When I wrote my diary it was as an outsider looking in at Italy, Italian society and culture. From the point of view of an “Anglo-Saxon”, as native english speakers are known here, Italy can seem strange, chaotic and just out-and-out weird. But the climate in terms of the weather is generally benign and pleasant, the food is wonderful and the landscape quite beautiful and these elements can render palatable the less savoury aspects of the Italian way, at least for an outsider. So in my mind I was always more of an observer, not feeling really in any way linked to the Italian way of being.
But in late 2014 that changed. Since 2008 Italy has been experiencing gut wrenching economic decline. A shocking amount of productive capital of every kind has been destroyed, or idled, or wasted. At the peak of the Euro crisis in 2011 Italy itself was calm but was politically in roiling turmoil as Berlusconi was deposed by the Italian President and replaced by unelected Mario Monti, who then presented himself to the electorate and lost the election so was replaced by Enrico Letta who although from the moderate left was supported by a type of coalition of left and right because the political establishment was fearful of what might happen if there were to be another election. In any case, Letta was effectively deposed by Matteo Renzi, Mayor of Florence, who has never been elected to parliament but who remains as Italy’s Prime Minister two years on. The subtext behind all this change was that Italy had reached the end of a road made up of statism, corporatism, populism, bureaucratism, gerontocracy, profligacy, irresponsibility not to mention out and out incompetence, corruption, rabid rent-seeking among others. It was felt in Italy that Germany was primarily pushing for a new broom and each Prime Minister after Berlusconi promised to be the key that would unlock the changes that would release the genius, creativity and dynamism of Italy such that Italy and the Italians would be the “locomotive” of Europe and be admired and respected the globe over.
The Italian response to the economic crisis was not to reduce spending but to increase taxes. The weight of taxes and social security contributions fall mainly on the private sector which found itself operating in an extremely challenging global and national environment while being bled ever more to sustain the “Italian system”. The Monti government did one thing, however, to partially balance out the generational favoritism that lets those who hold the vast majority of Italian wealth (the retired and elderly) avoid paying the vast majority of taxes. That is, under pressure from the EU, the Italian government finally applied a property tax to owners of land and buildings. In Italy the generation that holds the majority of land and homes is the generation born before and in the decade following the Second World War and the fact that such a tax would be extremely unpopular with that generation who are regular and diligent voters convinced numerous Italian governments to increase taxes on production, consumption, labour and virtually anything else one can think of but not land and homes!
If you have a business in Italy, like us, the system seems intolerable. You feel that it can’t go on. The Euro crisis showed that it couldn’t go on and the private sector was unified in thinking that maybe our time had finally come. That at a minimum, reforms to free up the economy would release us from a suffocating and stifling blanket of bureaucracy and regulation and that a rebalancing of taxes and social security payments would see the generation who have the wealth paying their fair share. Many of us felt that the pressure that Germany put on Italy to overhaul itself would bring Italy into the modern world and save us from a slow decline into relative and absolute poverty.
Well, it was not to be. The European Central Bank under its Italian Chief adopted the tried and true Italian approach to a speculative attack on an unsustainable currency, first promising to and then creating unlimited money. To this it added of buying back Italian government debt which has effectively mutualised it as it is effectively written off. So the pressure came off and the prospect of profound and necessary reform disappeared like a mirage in the desert.
Now this is not to say that Prime Minister Renzi does not seek reform. It seems very clear that he does. But absent a real and present pressure to reform he lacks an effective mandate to do it. As I wrote previously, Renzi has not been elected to the parliament so he is a lay-appointee running the government. In a democracy this is, in fact, a real problem but in Italy only someone who was not elected would have even a minimum chance of reforming bits of the country. Shortly after Renzi became Prime Minister there were European Parliamentary elections in which the party of which Renzi is a member did very well. Ex post facto, this was treated as a proxy election for Renzi himself and he thus gained a fig-leaf of legitimacy. Running with this legitimacy he began the first steps in a series of complicated and tortuous electoral, administrative and governmental reforms. Unfortunately, a series of regional and local administrative elections in 2015 saw a significant drop-off of support for the party of which Renzi is a member, especially in the cohorts of the retired and state employees while the ballots were effectively boycotted by younger voters. This has had the effect of making apparent just how limited Renzi’s mandate for change is and to get any change through he must be extremely careful not to alienate older voters and state employees.
Thus the property tax placed with such difficulty on first homes has now, in the latest budget, been removed as has the tax on agricultural land even if that land is not farmed by the owner and is held as an investment. Public spending has been reduced almost not at all and consequently the deficit is growing as is the Italian public debt which is expected to reach 133% of GDP.
So, when one has been witness to the decrepitude of Italy laid bare for all to see, its failure as a nation made obvious and the inability of its populace to work, to accept less and to strive for the common good illuminated by the hot light of economic insufficiency and yet these vices result in substantive retention of the status quo with the disasters to come pushed off, yet again, on the next generation, one knows, and we know, that when the Titanic goes down we won’t be in a lifeboat but will be sitting in a deck chair as the frigid water takes us.
So in summary, I realised watching this drama play out in Italy, that it was a drama in which I was intimately involved as is every business owner in the country. I was no longer a tourist having a great adventure in an ancient and sunny country but was running a business to pay for the lifestyle of those who took more than they produced, who stole barefaced and who had no hesitation thieving from subsequent generations and who used the democratic process to protect their privileges. As you might imagine, this realisation left me a speechless and so I lost the voice with which I wrote my blog.
Well now, that voice is back!