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!