“With this headline alone, you can begin to understand the current state of affairs in 21st Century Italy”, my boss proclaimed as he passed me the newspaper across the green plastic table. We were sitting at the restaurant he had eaten lunch at every weekday for the past eight years – the Blue Cross café in Le Sieci, just outside of Florence. This man was adamant to teach me not only about how to produce wine, the subject of a two month internship in Tuscany as part of my university Year Abroad, but also about the Italian psyche and the reasons behind Italy’s supposedly incessant decline. Before me lay a column entitled ’50 years ago we dreamed, today at best we can hope’. Not my idea of light lunchtime reading…
The 1960s were the Italian boom years. For the first time, almost everyone could afford a car, more often than not the iconic Fiat 500, and the economy was charging forwards having made a relatively speedy post-war recovery. Today, with almost unbelievable levels of youth unemployment (43% at the last count), ever increasing doubts about EU membership, and countless African migrants drowning off the coast of Lampedusa in an effort to follow their dreams, Italy reeks of decline.
Yet this isn’t the déclinisme Simon Kuper spoke of in his recent article on the French mentality in the FT Weekend Magazine (13th September). That is certainly a symptom of what is going on here, and many lament the direction their country is heading in, but the true culprit is the omnipresent Italian characteristic of pride. For those with a trained eye, pride is everywhere you look. It is one of the reasons that the Italians are so obsessive about the consistency of their pasta sauce, the cause of their genuine shock when you inform them that you’ve never visited Bari, and it lies at the heart of that key Italian principle of campanilismo, which inextricably ties every Italian to their hometown.
In some ways it is also what is holding Italy back. Their pride in the past, their historical, artistic and scientific achievements to date is more than understandable, but it serves to heighten their fear of an uncertain future, and they feel powerless. As with several European nations, Italy sees itself as a shadow of its former self, and it’s taking its toll. The Italians still feel special somehow, and there is no denying that they live in a special place, but the judicial, political and administrative rules found elsewhere on the continent must still apply. Doing things ‘the Italian way’ is what got them into this mess.
There is something sinister in the way in which they are handling the situation. As is often the case, the politicians are taking a great deal of the blame, in many cases rightly so. Pick up any Italian newspaper and the first ten pages will be filled with dramatic changes in the political scene that are hard to keep up with. Stability is foreign, and a cabinet is doing well if it passes the 2-year mark.
Collective guilt, however, is hard to come across, and debate on the scars left over from the period of terrorism in the 70s or theories on bribery in national and international football is kept between close friends and family. At the shared meal table, discussion of politics is taboo, and for good reason. Tales of neo-fascists, endless corruption scandals and ‘bunga bunga’ parties are enough to ruin anyone’s appetite. It’s probably best to stick to complimenting the food.
Genuine pride is beginning to look dented and battered. When I tell people I meet that the most well known modern Italian figure outside of Italy is not some crooning male singer or TV personality, but probably Silvio Berlusconi, they shudder. Here image is king, but marketing this country is becoming an increasingly difficult task, and it’s going to take a more than planting a few more Cyprus trees in the Tuscan hills to turn it around. With the Italian economy recently back in recession, the concept of confidence comes to mind. If the country is to recover, they must up their game and start looking forwards rather than back. Pessimism may continue to reign free, but the Italian dream is not dead. It lives on for tourists who arrive in their millions every year to experience La Dolce Vita.
Illustration – Asher Klassen