I was relieved when the bill of lading came. The house I had found in the Alban Hills was no noble villa, but my family was small and it would do very well for a year. The lease had been signed; I had been initiated into the secrets of the carta bollata (the taxable paper on which Italian legal documents are drawn up); the notary had explained to me the contract’s more obscure clauses. Only one small detail was left: my baggage had to be brought through customs.
One morning I went to the appropriate government office, located in an old, seedy, barracks-like building on the outskirts of Rome. I let the taxi driver wait, because I thought it was all a mere formality – no merchandise, no valuables, just a few boxes with household goods, clothes, books. I spent three days of my life in this barracks – in a labyrinth of storerooms, offices, corridors, antechambers and counters – unbelieving at first, then outraged and finally embittered and demoralized. All around me everything was running like clockwork. Brisk, business-like but mysterious people with thick gold watches hurried past me, laughing and exchanging greetings and jokes with the officials. Countless cups of coffee were being drunk. I was the only person who had to wander from one counter to the next with my forms (five copies of each), with duty stamps, clearance vouchers, receipts and certificates. I pleaded my case a dozen times, was forced to wait, was put off with fine words, was sent from pillar to post and was ignored.
On the evening of the third day I received my possessions with a stony expression. There were no fewer than thirty-eight rubber stamps on my bill of lading and my customs declaration. I had fought doggedly and resentfully for each one. That was more than twenty years ago, but even today I’m gripped by an unreasoning repugnance when I catch sight of an Italian customs official.
Of course, I learned long ago that this absurd adventure was my own fault. If I tell my Roman friends about it, they listen with amusement but also with admiration and alarm in their laughter. What? You went there yourself? Alone? They treat me as if I had crossed the Alps on foot. I had broken the basic rules; I had behaved like an American from the Midwest preparing to set up a vegetable stall in the middle of Nepal. I had no idea that if a customs official tried to live off his salary he would be virtually condemned to death by starvation, and that by trying to deal with things on my own I was behaving in a dangerous way. An Italian would never conceive of going through customs by himself. Today I also know who the brisk creatures were who whisked past me in the halls of the customs house. They were the galoppini, the professional intermediaries and agents. Pay them and all thirty-eight rubber stamps can be effortlessly mustered in half an hour. Everything works out, everyone makes some money, everyone benefits.
The Broad Road And The Narrow
A foreigner will never understand all the subtleties, but the principle is clear: the direct route is not the direct route. There is no point, under any circumstances, appealing to rights common to everyone. It is more important to acquire a favour, an obligation or a privilege that then demands a deviation, a recommendation, a middleman.
A world of fabulous richness opens up, inexhaustible in its variety. We meet the fireman who always has a ticket for the sold-out performances at La Scala; the neighbour who, a friend of the janitor’s daughter, can find out in advance the test questions for the high school graduation certificate; the Mafia boss who has a teleprinter brought into his cell; the male nurse who obtains a turno for a patient – the numbered slip that allows him to attend a clinic for which others have been queueing since six in the morning; the industrialist’s wife who hasn’t a clue how to mail a registered letter or renew a driving licence, because a crowd of galoppini – her husband’s secretaries – relieve her of every conceivable errand; and the ironing lady who brings a chicken for this same woman, her employer, because her nephew is a dermatologist to whom the ironing lady now looks to cure her breast cancer (not his speciality), because she is frightened that the obscure, nameless machinery of medicine will kill her …
Yet everything has its price. It will take the outsider years to learn the rules of the game. It is easy enough to understand the 50,000-lira note (twenty pounds) placed between the pages of the passport, but what about the visiting card with a couple of friendly, vague lines written to the bursar? The visitor from the north who cries ‘Bribery!’ makes it too easy for himself. He lacks a feel for suggestion, an ear for words left unspoken. His brutal simplifications don’t do justice to the diversity and elegance of the system.
What, for example, is the significance of the flowers, strawberries, embroidered napkins and cakes – a whole tableful of offerings – that the wife of a personnel manager, who has moved from Milan to Naples, finds outside her front door the day after her arrival? Who laid all this out? What is the point of this display?
‘If you eat even a single cherry from this cake,’ she explained to me, ‘then you’re in their hands. You’ve concluded an agreement that lasts a lifetime. Not one but three, four, five large families will demand that you get them work, get them into college, get them pensions. What could I do? I had no choice but to go out on to the balcony and proclaim loudly that I didn’t need anything, didn’t want anything, couldn’t accept anything.’
I have no ready answer to the question of how the unwritten laws of Italy relate to the written ones. The country’s legal traditions are impressive, its laws numerous and its hair-splitting achievements legendary. There is no shortage of standards, but they are so diverse, complicated and contradictory that only someone tired of life could dream of observing them all. Their strict application would instantly paralyse Italy. You would have to use a magnifying glass to find an Italian citizen living by the book. Anyone who tried to go by the rules, whether applying for a building licence, seeking a residence permit or trying to exchange currency, would suffocate under a paper mountain of files and official documents.
Every Italian, even the poorest wretch, is privileged. Nobody is a nobody. An observer might conclude that often these privileges exist only in the imagination – but they are the essence of life. A logician might object that a society consisting exclusively of the advantaged, in which each person is ‘doing better’ than everyone else, is an impossibility. But the Italians have made this miracle – somewhat akin to the Indian rope trick or squaring the circle – come to pass.
Five long-distance lorry drivers stand at a bar in Andria, and each one asks for a coffee: one wants it molto stretto (extra strong), another macchiato (with just a dash of milk), the next one con latte caldo (with warm milk), his colleague asks for cappuccino, but the last one calls triumphantly through the bar: ‘Un espresso doppio con latte aparte!’ (a double espresso with the milk on the side). He’s known in every truck-stop from Verona to Brindisi, and no barkeeper would dare deny him his desire. He’s not average, he’s special. The round of privileges begins harmlessly but it continues endlessly.
He says: ‘We hate equality. We despise it. We only like distinctions. Communism in Italy is a joke. Even the word “comrade” is hyperbole. We aren’t a collective; we’re an accumulation of free individuals. We loathe anonymity. No one feels responsible for the “whole”, everyone looks out for himself, for his clan, his clique, his gang. Of course, that means we feel contempt for our neighbours; we dump our garbage on other people’s doorsteps. There were two murders in our town this summer because noise had become unbearable in the heat. One was right next door. For nights on end the whole street couldn’t sleep, so one guy drew his gun and shot another who was making a racket. That’s normal. No one has a conscience about anything. We have left-wing rhetoric but no social super-ego. We don’t need any good shepherds, pastors or wardens. Too bad for you, you’ll say. Maybe you’re right. But I also think there’s something healthy in all of this.’
Attempts at Explanation. Hypotheses. Excuses.
It’s an old story, a very old story. It’s a consequence of the late unification of Italy. It’s related to the fact that the state always appeared as an occupying power, so the people resisted it. It’s the Mediterranean character, like the Spanish or the Levantine or the Greek. It’s a matter of capitalist attitudes, remnants of feudalism. It’s a rejection of the ‘naked cash nexus’ Marx talks about, of the impersonal power of money that forces an empty and faceless equality on people. It’s due to the traditional structure of the family, as it fought for survival in agrarian conditions. It’s a sign of our backwardness …
No, someone says, it’s none of these things. I’ll tell you what’s to blame: particularism, localism. There are no Italians in Italy, only natives and newcomers. As in art history, everyone defines himself by where he was born: il Parmegiano, il Veronese, il Perugino. And that’s how it stays. The man from Turin remains the man from Turin, even if he has been living in Cagliari for a generation. That explains why he’s so down-to-earth and meticulous and why he understands nothing about Sardinia. The poor soul doesn’t have a clue! The Milanese woman born in Giglio has to invite, put up and protect anyone who comes from Giglio, even if she left the island forty years ago, even if she returns only at Easter to visit her aged mother. Giglio will always be her capital, her metropolis. On the other hand, she can’t be held responsible for Milan. Her distinction is to have come into the world in this spot and nowhere else. One may admire other villages, regions, countries, continents – but envy? Or even love? Never! So every Italian town is the best, with perhaps one exception, on which everyone agrees. The exception, and I don’t know why, is Rovigo. (‘Oh, you’re from Rovigo? What a shame.’)
An Extremist (Continued)
He says: ‘Where does your equality get you? Of all the slogans of 1789, it’s the emptiest. Your equality is a phantom. It has never come remotely close to being realized. Or do you think there’s anything in the so-called socialist countries deserving of the name? What’s the situation at home, in the decent, well-protected, orderly north? Is there no selfishness, no muddle, no nepotism, no corruption, no privilege?
‘I know your objection. You’ll fall back on the formal equality of citizens and praise it to the skies. Equality before the law; the fact that even the rich pay taxes; the conviction that you have certain rights, just like everyone else, to which you are entitled without a letter of recommendation, without patronage, without a galoppino, “without respect of person”. Maybe you will extol the joys of anonymity, the impersonal exchange of services, commodities, ideas, jobs and administrative documents. You’ll tell me that alienation is a pleasure, that inconspicuousness is a release, that you live in the best of all possible worlds – a social machine that functions smoothly.
‘To me you’re like millionaires who don’t want to admit they’re millionaires, who travel second-class and run around in shabby jackets, enjoying their privileges in secret because they’re ashamed of them. When it’s a matter of life and death, then everybody, even in Frankfurt and Stockholm, wants the best doctor and the most expensive private hospital – but discreetly, of course. The radical English trade union boss sends his children to the public school whose abolition he champions. The truth is, you can’t bear the truth! Your social-democratic Utopias, your Swedish dream in which naked power dresses up in angelic white, are bleak and dreary.’
No important figure in Italy can be accused of resorting to such disguise. Power, the ultimate privilege, isn’t hidden. Invoked and exhibited, displayed and admired, it’s an inexhaustible topic of conversation. Its transformation, its nuances and its vicissitudes are discussed with passion. No one is interested in structural, impersonal or distant forms of the exercise of power. Power is experienced as real, and taken seriously, only when embodied in a person or encountered face to face. One can – one wants to – touch it; something of its mana, its electricity, is transferred to anyone who comes in contact with it. It’s the most widely used aphrodisiac. In the word potenza the political significance merges with the sexual. A famous Sicilian saying expresses this duality with matchless precision: ‘Commandare e meglio di fottere‘ (Ruling is better than fucking).
I’m sitting on a high, old-fashioned, black leather barber’s chair, which is being cranked further and further back till I’m almost lying horizontal. In the tall, peeling mirrors I see only familiar faces – the men from the village, sitting on a long wooden bench and waiting: the tobacconist, the priest, the wine grower, the man from the petrol station. They talk, they leaf through the newspaper, they smoke. Outside, dogs doze on the piazza in the midday heat. The barber, a toothless old man, has just lathered me. The clock on the wall says a minute before noon.
Then the door opens and a bald little gentleman enters. A freshly and carefully pressed brown suit, medal ribbons in his buttonhole, a watch-chain, pointed shoes brilliantly polished. He stands still and looks around. All conversation ceases. The barber rushes over to the new customer and greets him with enthusiasm. Astonished, I watch as the tobacconist takes his hat, the priest helps him off with his jacket and the petrol station attendant hands him his newspaper. The fat man doesn’t say a word. He only runs his long, pink tongue over his lips and solemnly sits down on the chair beside me. He’s quickly rubbed with eau de cologne, tucked up in hot and cold cloths, massaged, powdered, combed. No one bothers about me; I feel the soap slowly drying on my cheeks. I’d like to stand up and protest, but I can’t rise from my chair. It’s hot. I hear the scraping of the blade, the smacking of fingers on the fat man’s skin. A long time passes. Then the fat man jumps up and everyone thanks him. He doesn’t leave a tip; in fact, he doesn’t pay at all, but the barber’s apprentice kisses his hand. I stare at him with utter loathing because I’ve realized at last who this is before me – this puffed-up zero, this fat little man, is ‘power’.
Hardly has the door closed behind him than they all laugh and slap their thighs, pick up newspapers and light their cigarettes again. ‘And why doesn’t he pay?’ I ask. ‘Why doesn’t he wait until it’s his turn, like everyone else?’
The apprentice looks at me with astonishment. ‘But he comes here every day at twelve on the dot for his shave,’ says the old barber.
‘Why do you put up with it?’ I cry angrily.
‘It’s none of your business,’ says the tobacconist.
‘We’ll do what we like,’ says the priest.
‘Damn foreigner,’ mutters the petrol station attendant.
I jump up and run out of the shop. Suddenly I’m standing in the middle of the street in Milan, opposite San Babila, with the village barber’s white bib around my neck. Traffic racing past. A little boy points at me; others turn around and laugh. There’s still soap on my face.
Chewing-gum in your pockets, nothing but chewing-gum. Does the under-secretary of state still remember? Do my dear friends still remember?
Of course not. They shrug their shoulders. It is as if I had asked about King Zog of Albania or the slogan Tunis-Corsica-Djibouti, which a couple of million Italians got worked up about at the end of 1938: total amnesia. And yet the great small-change crisis, the epoch of chewing-gum and soup cubes, is only nine, seven, five years ago. The city of Rome, with its 2,200-year history of coinage, the country to which Europe owes the invention of double-entry bookkeeping, collateral loans and credit, balances and discounts, premiums and balance sheets. Even the word ‘bank’ comes from the Italian. Yet after the greatest boom in its history, richer than ever before, this country, the eighth largest industrial power in the world, was no longer capable of supplying its inhabitants with those round pieces of metal that have always been essential for the simplest everyday transactions. In those days, anyone in Italy who wanted to make a phone call, buy a couple of tomatoes, drink a cup of coffee or mail a letter had to be ready to accept caramels for change. And it wasn’t just for a couple of weeks because of a metal-workers’ strike, or for three months because the mint had burned down – chewing-gum was legal tender in Italy for five whole years, from AD 1975 to AD 1979, just as cowrie shells once were in the South Pacific and Africa.
In Switzerland, where the national currency is guarded like the Holy Grail, the government would have been brought down within a week. In Japan the minister responsible would have committed seppuku. Even in the sluggish Soviet Union a couple of heads might have rolled. In Italy governments presided over the débâcle without losing a moment’s sleep. The only people at their wits’ end were the tourists. The natives responded with stoic patience and nimble improvisation. After just a few months, the country hit upon a magical solution. The Italians let the Finance Ministry go on snoring and printed their own money. A new world, that of the mini-cheque, came into being.
Immediately millions of little scraps of paper in every colour flooded into the cash registers. The face value of these cheques is said to have amounted to thirty or 100 or 300 billion lire; every expert names a different figure. And it hardly matters whether an estimate is out by a factor of ten, for of course there was no trace of control over this national game of Monopoly.
Whenever there’s an element of doubt, the bank always wins such parlour games, but if the whole thing is to work, ordinary players must have a chance too. I enter the bank and deposit a few million lire in cash in my account. After all, there are still enough banknotes available – the printing presses are working tirelessly. In return the bank gives me huge quantities of mini-cheques, printed on blotting paper, in units of fifty or 100 lire. I put this small change into circulation in the shop, in the payroll, at the ticket office and in the restaurant. The bank is satisfied. It can work with the money I’ve deposited in a non-interest-bearing account. A fine piece of business. My cheques circulate. They’re torn, forgotten, thrown away. Perhaps two-thirds are redeemed, perhaps only half. It would be impossible to find out exactly how many, because who is going to insist on careful bookkeeping in such chaotic conditions? After a couple of years I go to the bank and ask how much money is in my account. Strictly speaking, no one knows. But somehow we’ll manage to reach an agreement. The easiest thing is simply to split the spoils – I and the bank, the bank and I. During the play-money years, not only did all the country’s financial institutions operate according to this system, but so did the cooperatives, the department stores, the highway administrations, the newsagents, the nationalized enterprises and the chambers of commerce – as well as, presumably, a fair number of bankrupts and bogus companies.
I recall that, on a night flight over Asia, I met an Italian-American banker working for the International Monetary Fund. In the dim light – the other passengers had curled up and were asleep – the pale, gaunt, loquacious Genoese, who couldn’t stop fidgeting, explained the importance of the Italian billions to me.
‘Utterly absurd! The mini-cheques are a preposterous way of expanding credit, and they have an inflationary effect too, that’s obvious. But my countrymen – please don’t quote me – like inflation. They complain about it, but you mustn’t pay attention to their complaints. The more zeros the better. Anyone can become a millionaire. Other countries would have revalued long ago, at a hundred or a thousand to one. But in Rome the so-called lira pesante, a lira that would be worth something, doesn’t have a chance. That would smack of austerity, of restrictions, of doing without! But inflation – that’s the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the solution of economic problems by magic. It’s an irresistible temptation! The truth is, we’re living beyond our means and have been for twenty years.’
‘An admirable characteristic,’ I said. ‘You’re just very generous people. Luxury, the good life, where else in Europe can you still find them? Only in Italy …’
‘Nonsense. It’s nothing but vanity. In Italy extravagance is not a national mania, it’s a social compulsion. The cars are always a little too large, the restaurant bills always go into the hundred thousands. We’re all beggars wanting to play at being lords.’
‘But the level of savings,’ I objected. ‘More than 12 per cent of income! Higher than the Japanese! How do you manage to throw your money out of the window and save it at the same time?’
‘By the ultimate trick, by the magic of multiplication: inflation! The disappearance of metal money is no more than this operation’s physical expression. Metal is annoying, it’s too hard, too palpable; it has to be dissolved; it becomes blotting paper, chewing-gum, the little piece of chocolate that melts in your pocket … And what’s best of all is that no one’s surprised, no one’s worried, no one gets excited.’
No one? On the contrary! I remember years of embittered ‘discussion’, commentaries, parliamentary debates, protests, revelations, editorials, appeals. The small-change scandal was a wonderful opportunity for quarrelling, an ideal hotbed of rumours, theories and jokes. In the fall of 1976, a judge in Perugia ordered the seizure of all the mini-cheques in Italy – an action that, if carried out, would have kept the Italian police busy for months. Later a judge in Milan quashed the order with an even more ingenious justification. The assistant state secretary in charge of the matter, a dentist from Vicenza, explained to Parliament:
With reference to the legality of the mini-cheques … um, um … The government has, well, always taken a negative position. There are anomalies in their issue … mm, mm … which, at least in the material sense … [scrape, scrape] … represent a clear infringement of current regulations in the area of circulation of cheques. Ahem. Inasmuch as these can in no way serve de facto as substitutes for cash.
This rhetorical gem indicates rather precisely the course the government intended to take – that is, dull-witted denial of the facts. The public, meanwhile, displayed a quite alarming adaptability. To cope with the shortage of small change, the retail trade simply rounded off its prices to the nearest zero. On the black market, legal coins were traded with a mark-up of ten to fifteen per cent. Of course, that meant that the few coins still remaining were hoarded systematically. Public transportation was an especially good source of revenue for the black market. When the company running Venice’s buses and vaporetti ordered its employees to hand over the change they had taken in, rather than sell it, the conductors threatened to strike.
But how did it all happen? Had the Italians gone mad? Had they forgotten the art of punching out round pieces of metal and putting inscriptions on them? I assembled a small collection of the most popular explanations, which I can now pass on to the reader:
1. ‘There was no metal left’ (bank employee, Venice, 1977).
2. ‘In Japan and Singapore they made buttons out of our fifty-lira pieces, and that’s why the coins disappeared’ (theatre critic, Rome, 1983).
3. ‘It’s the trade unions’ fault. They’ve ruined the whole country with their demands. That’s why the mint doesn’t work either’ (taxi driver, Milan, 1976).
4. ‘The foreigners who came for Holy Year took away our small change as souvenirs’ (the finance minister of the Italian Republic, 1975).
5. ‘It’s a conspiracy by the banks, which are making a huge profit at the expense of the little man’ (Communist trade unionist, 1977).
6. ‘Coins cost too much, and Parliament didn’t want to pay’ (assistant in shoe shop, Como, 1983).
6. ‘The 100-lira pieces were taken to Switzerland in huge trucks, and the companies there made watch-cases out of them’ (La Stampa, 1976).
7. ‘The coins are just stuck in the vending machines, which aren’t emptied often enough’ (waiter, Naples, 1976).
8. ‘In the mint’s present facility it is impossible either to increase production adequately or to guarantee minimum conditions for the health and safety of the workforce’ (Senate Committee for Finance and Treasury Affairs, 1976).
9. ‘What do you expect? That’s just how we are … Siamo negati per queste cose (We’re hopeless at things like that). You can’t do anything about it. It’s all a mess, un paese di merda (a shitty country) … All these politicians and civil servants from the south. Actually, it was a mistake to throw out the Austrians’ (vox populi, 1975-1983).
Three things about these remarkable explanations: first, they are, without exception, wrong. Second, they all completely ignore the state of affairs they’re supposed to explain. Only one, that of the Senate Committee, says anything about the mint’s operation. And third, they’re evidence of an imagination untroubled by facts. They tend towards either anecdote or abstraction, but in every case towards mythomania. A degree of paranoia is evident in most of these stories. Dark, anonymous forces (‘the system’, ‘the banks’, ‘the trade unions’, ‘the civil servants from the south’– i.e., the Mafia) are made responsible for the small-change crisis, or else it’s the greedy tourists, the evil Swiss, the inscrutable Malays, the slant-eyed Japanese, who have taken the hard-earned 100-lira coins away from the Italians.
The dull reality, of course, was quite different. Devoid of any such secrets and conspiracies, it centred upon the obvious question: how is it possible to strike more coins? There was no getting around the issue. There was also nothing new about it; the problem had been foreseen for decades. All that was needed were a few readily available figures, a sheet of paper and a pencil. In the industrialized countries coins averaged around 8 per cent of the money in circulation (6 per cent in the Federal Republic of Germany, 8 per cent in Great Britain, 10.5 per cent in the United States). In Italy the percentage had sunk first to 3 per cent then to 1.8 and finally to 1.2 per cent. The catastrophe was entirely predictable. Only the ‘political forces’, blind as moles but lacking the energy and instincts of those remarkable animals, were incapable of such an analysis.
In the faraway year of 1968 it had nevertheless dawned on an unknown civil servant; a faint suspicion had arisen in him and he had drawn up a bill. A new mint! Why not? said the MPs, and agreed to make three billion lire available for this worthy purpose. Then for eight years nothing happened. In 1976 a further twelve billion was voted for the phantom new mint, and the municipal administration of Rome adopted a new development plan. A piece of land was found on the Via di Grotta Gregna in the eastern part of the city. And in Parliament an under-secretary (not a dentist this time) declared, ‘We shall now be in a position, taking into account all the limitations I have mentioned, to undertake an examination of the plan for building a new mint.’
And there the matter rests: with the examination, the limitations, and a plan gathering dust in the drawers of some ministry or other.
Which is it, then? The opera or the Mafia? A cappuccino or bribery? Macchiavelli or Missoni? Whenever anyone says that something or other is ‘typically Italian’, I want to jump up with impatience, overturn my chair and run out of the room. Could anything be more barren than the study of ‘national psychology’, that mouldy garbage heap of stereotypes, prejudices and accepted ideas? And yet it is impossible to dislodge these traditional garden gnomes with their naively painted faces: the taciturn Scandinavian, blonder than straw; the obstinate German, beer stein in hand; the red-faced, garrulous Irishman, always smelling of whiskey; and, of course, the Italian with his moustache, forever sensual but regrettably unreliable, brilliant but lazy, passionate but scheming …
The notion of the typical also seems to be indispensable for home consumption, for the elevated purpose of self-criticism – a genre to which Italian authors have made outstanding contributions. In Alberto Arbasino’s furious diatribe Un paese senza, one can read: ‘It must be recognized that regardless of every kind of survey technique, behavioural pattern or grid, an ancient, archetypal, and cunning meanness predominates in the behaviour of the Italian … The anomalies, monstrosities, madness and outrageous crimes of contemporary Italy – yes, even the ‘typically Italian’ horror stories – can hardly be said to be anomalous, monstrous or shocking when considered in their “normal” context.’ How did Arbasino’s countrymen respond to these 350 pages of merciless abuse? They elected the author to Parliament three years later!
But the unsuspecting foreigners, on the other hand! As long as a handbag isn’t actually snatched or a car broken into, their enthusiasm remains unbounded. Take Gisela G., for example, an unemployed teacher from Munster in Westphalia. She has retired to taste the joys of solitude, i.e., to the obligatory farmhouse in Tuscany. A couple of dropouts from Dusseldorf – former marketing experts – have built an extension on to the nineteenth-century villa on the hill. A commune of hippies from Berlin is living in the old school building amid empty wine bottles and dirty dishes. A mysteriously named ‘Study Group for Transpersonal Therapy’ has installed itself a few doors down; for a weekend fee of 600 marks (£200), tired branch managers and sports-writers can re-arm themselves for the struggle for survival in Frankfurt. And a Swiss photographer is said recently to have bought the manor on the other side of the river.
Anyway, Gisela G. writes to me (and I have no idea how to reply):
I feel sorry for you! I don’t know you can bear to go on living in those ‘well-ordered’ German surroundings. I’ve been unable to cope with them for a long time now. In the north we’re constantly being terrorized – by money, by technology, by discipline. Too much property, too many neuroses. Life here is simpler, more natural, more human, not so anonymous and cold – and not just because of the climate. I look after the garden, I meet the people from the village on the piazza … I’m simply happier here.
Good for you, dear Gisela! Best of luck. It’s just that your ingenuous letter is completely plagiarized, a compendium of platitudes that have figured in European literature for 200 years … Your Tuscan idyll is nothing but a feeble recapitulation. A great love for Italy was first kindled in the sensitive natures of certain visitors in the middle of the eighteenth century. Since then it’s become the basis of a billion-dollar industry. It has remained an unrequited love from the start. No Italian would dream of moving voluntarily to Munster in Westphalia or to Trelleborg or the Hook of Holland without a compelling practical reason.
At home, dear Gisela, you were always getting worked up about acid rain and the arms race – but in Tuscany you wear rose-coloured glasses. Or haven’t you noticed that the Italians don’t give a damn about the environment and think pacifism is a fad? You complain about the wealth and greed of the north – but what would you do if the monthly cheque from the cold north stopped coming and you had to earn a living in Poggibonsi? The local people are friendly as long as you can pay. They tolerate you, just as the whole country accepts the permanent invasion from the north, and I admire their patience. I don’t find it surprising that they pluck you clean as a Christmas goose, charmingly, ruthlessly and with an irony that escapes you entirely.
In fact, I understand you all too well, because I share your stubborn love of Italy. We can’t survive without this refuge. It’s our favourite projection, our drive-in movie theatre, our all-purpose Arcadia. Now, as 200 years ago, we can compensate for our defects here, load up with illusions and dig among the ruins of an ancient, half-forgotten Utopia.
Have it your own way. But why must this love be so ignorant, stupid and narrow-minded? Why does Gisela so persistently overlook everything in Italy that cries to heaven? If she came home to cool, boring Munsterland and found conditions there like those in Mestre or Avellino, she would be outraged by so much cruelty, harshness and indifference to others.
Every doting love has its reverse side. Tourism can’t exist without a double standard. When the visitor from the north has spent his last lira and returned to the German, Belgian or Swedish autumn, doesn’t he after all heave a secret sigh of relief because everything in the north – the central heating, the state, the telephone – works so well? Then when he opens his newspaper and reads the latest horror stories from Italy (chaos, Camorra, corruption) he leans back and thinks, It can’t happen here. And this pious belief is the final proof that he hasn’t understood anything.