Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Living la Dolce Vita

"Venice, August 20th - Here as a joy-hog: a pleasant change after that pension on the Giudecca two years ago. We went to the Lido this morning, and the Doge's palace looked more beautiful from a speed-boat than it ever did from a gondola. The bathing, on a calm day, must be the worst in Europe: water like hot saliva, cigar ends floating into one's mouth, and shoals of jelly-fish."

Robert Byron, 1933, The Road to Oxiana

I first went to Italy at the age of eight and remember it vividly. It was my first trip abroad and everything seemed alien and strange to me. I went with my father, who had been prescribed ‘mountain air’ by his doctor for a catarrh condition, and so we went to stay in a village in the Alps with an industrialist friend of his named Tito. I remember there being lots of snow and a ski lift and I remember almost knocking myself out by walking into a double glazed door (double glazing having not yet taken off in England). But most of all I remember staying with Tito’s family and being given a plate of garlic-fried calf's stomach as a ‘treat’, along with a glass of sheep’s milk to wash it down. How homesick I felt at that moment.

Thirty-six years later and it’s me bringing my daughters to see Italy for the first time. Italy, I should point out, is their quarter-country, as my wife is half-Italian. Visiting her relatives was one of the reasons we felt it necessary to go there. To achieve this we swapped our house in Cornwall with an Italian family living just north of Milan. Gone are the days of jetting off and staying in hotels – this is simply unaffordable to anyone on even a modest income – so a house swap using sites such as homelink.org is the way to get a free holiday. The town we found ourselves temporarily living in was something of a dormitory for that powerhouse of a city, and other than a nice palace and gardens there was nothing special about it. This suited me fine because I wanted to get a good look at normal everyday life in Italy, which by many metrics (not least of which is energy consumption) is in a state of precipitous decline.

What follows is a snapshot of my impressions.

On our arrival, driving along the motorway corridor between Milan and Bergamo, I immediately noticed a number of abandoned factories. “Aha!” I thought “a clear sign of industrial malaise.” But I shouldn’t have been too quick to jump to conclusions because contrary to my expectations this was really the only sign of decay I saw in two weeks. Because, on the whole, the entire northern portion of Italy seems to be extraordinarily well off. The motorways were packed with shiny new cars, condominiums and office blocks were going up and record numbers of wealthy tourists and businesspeople were filling the restaurants in which tables groaned under dishes of the world’s best foods. Crisis – what crisis?

The first week we stayed close to home, not venturing much further than the exquisite hilltop city of Bergamo. Despite being loaned a newish Suzuki SUV we quickly learned that heading out onto the motorways was asking for trouble. This being August, about half of the population of sixty million were on their holidays, meaning traffic chaos on the roads. And then there were the tolls. You pay to drive on motorways in Italy and the toll booths, where you must stop and hand over cash, cause some truly horrendous traffic jams.

And speaking of driving in Italy … something strange was going on. I’ve been to Italy enough times to develop a certain fondness for the devil-may-care attitude of its drivers. There’s a reason the Ferrari was invented there. But now, all of a sudden, everyone seemed to be driving slowly and carefully. What was going on?

“Fines,” explained a man who ran a hotel. “There are cameras everywhere now and you will get a fine if you go even one kilometre per hour over the limit.” He went on to say that the average Italian now pays the equivalent of an extra 2% of his income in traffic fines every year. On one particular stretch of road, he said, the police had lowered the speed limit the camera was set at, resulting in a five million euro haul in the month of July alone. “They have no money otherwise,” he explained.

And perhaps that was when I came to realise that the clean face (northern) Italy was presenting might just be concealing some troubling secrets. People we spoke to generally had no illusions – which was quite refreshing to hear after being immersed in the infinite recovery rhetoric of Britain. “Everything is shit here,” said a lady who owned a café. “People have no money, they are unemployed, corruption is everywhere and it gets hotter every year,” she moaned. I looked around at her customers, all of them - like most Italians in general - were smartly-dressed healthy and wealthy looking couples and families enjoying ice cream and coffee. “Really?” I thought. The woman said she wanted to escape the ‘misery’ and dreamed of moving to Glasgow. Glasgow? “Yes,” she said, she had seen it on TV. People were not corrupt there and it was not hot.

She had a point about the heat. We arrived just at the tail end of the worst heat wave in recorded history. With 40C (104F) temperatures being recorded across the country roads were melting and so too it seems were some cars. If the house we had been staying in had not had air conditioning I’m not entirely sure how I would have coped. Cold beer, ice cream and swimming pools certainly helped, but the heat at night was paralysing. We could certainly see why the family we had swapped with were overjoyed to be spending their holiday beneath thick grey British clouds – they even sent us a picture of themselves ‘rain bathing’.

One morning, hiding with my computer in the basement office to escape the heat, I came across an article on Bloomberg Business news that speculated about Milan pulling away from Rome. Milan, it pointed out, was economically muscular, whereas Rome – despite all its wonderful architecture and the Vatican – was a den of corruption, chronic unemployment and disintegrating infrastructure. Bloomberg, of course, approved of Milan’s ‘looking north to Germany’ mentality and the booming nature of its business.

But I wasn’t much taken with the flat parts of Lombardy, of which Milan is the capital. Of course, I wouldn’t expect an Italian holidaymaker to be taken with the area around, say, Birmingham. But Lombardy to me seemed like one giant printed circuit board of mega-factories, motorways, power lines and housing developments. Much of it is green, but it is the green of industrially grown maize planted in neat rows. I didn’t see any forests and – apart from the churches – hardly any buildings seemed to date from before the twentieth century. There were not many wildflowers and the garden of the house we stayed in had no birds whatsoever in it. It is sad and almost spooky to be somewhere with no birds. People, I noticed, had taken to fixing small plastic and polystyrene birds to trees and fences as decoration. Some of these had real feathers glued onto them. This is the price of Bloomberg’s definition of success.

Every evening we watched the national news on the family’s huge flat-screen television. I have a limited understanding of Italian (I can just about get the bits that sound like Spanish) so my wife interpreted for me. There were lots of stories about the extreme weather (baking heat followed by cataclysmic thunderstorms) but the big news was the arrival of the migrants from North Africa and the Middle East. Italy, by all accounts, is struggling to cope not just with the successful ones who have made it, but with the less successful ones who need to be rescued. Worse still, bodies were beginning to wash up on the beaches. One news segment showed a dead person lying on the shoreline surrounded by sunbathing holidaymakers who seemed unbothered by the presence of the corpse. Of course, it would be grossly unfair to pretend that everyone felt as unmoved as those people on the beach (and who knows, TV newsmakers can portray things however they want with the use of clever camera angles and timing), and most people interviewed expressed horror and despair.

[As an aside, a friend of mine got married in Sicily a couple of months ago and the wedding reception was continually interrupted by overhead helicopters coming back from sea with migrants dangling from them. Some children asked “What is going on?” and the adults comforted them by saying it was just some swimmers who had got into difficulty. When this carried on for two full days (Sicilian weddings being long affairs) the children must have concluded that practically everyone swimming needed rescuing.]

Perhaps because of this, and if one pays much attention to the writings on the walls, there was much worry about a resurgence of fascism and the security offered by a strong leader. One aspect of the area in which we were staying that I picked up on was a latent regard bordering on fondness for the legacy of Mussolini. The grand but soulless architecture in places like Brescia and Forli (my wife’s family’s home town, also the birthplace of Mussolini) is described with contempt by foreign guidebooks, but looked upon more favourably by local tour guides. It is interesting to note that the area of Lombardy was considered the hotbed of fascism, and also saw itself as the most forward-looking and industrious part of the nation.

Mussolini, of course, was eventually caught and killed trying to flee over Lake Como to Switzerland. We went to Como one day (actually we were only half an hour away) just to see what all the fuss was about. People will excitedly tell you that George Clooney lives there, but I can’t report that I saw him. There are several towns and villages clustered along the Italian side of the lake, and the hills are liberally endowed with the villas of the über wealthy. Places around the lake will be familiar to Star Wars fans as the home of Princess Amidala – and one can’t deny the starry romance of the setting. But encapsulating beauty within easy reach of a major industrial city can only mean one thing: high prices. We were just about able to afford a plate of chips and a glass of Coke before leaving. This is a place where people dressed in tennis whites drive sports cars and sit in chic cafés checking their stock portfolios on their iPhones. Many of the small beaches along the shore were the private enclaves of the grand villas but I found one that was open to the public. It was a relief here to be able to wade into the water - even if it the experience was akin to swimming in Robert Byron's hot saliva - and swim out for some distance taking care not to end up in the path of one of the many speedboats – the preferred way of getting around the lake for its monied residents.

One day we went to Venice. It was a hell of a long day (five hours of driving each way, much of it stewing in traffic jams of melting cars) but we wanted our kids to see this fabled city before it sinks beneath the waves. Of course, Venice is fabulous and there’s no way to adequately convey this short of actually going there. I had expected a horde of tourists, and I wasn’t disappointed. This year’s ‘must have’ it seems is the selfie stick. For those who don’t know what one is, it’s a retractable metal stick that you fix your smart phone onto, enabling you to make sure there isn’t a photo of a single architectural gem without your grinning face obscuring most of it. It is a sight to behold watching hundreds of people walking around and holding these things - literally filming themselves as they walked. I wondered how many drownings might have occurred as distracted selfie stick holders blundered into the canals. Future sub-aquatic archaeologists may find skeletal hands preserved in the sediment, still gripping their vanity sticks.

It’s hard to be in a place like Venice and not marvel at how much the nature of travel has changed since Robert Byron described it in the opening quote of this post. Back then it was a pursuit of the rich or the adventurous, whereas now it just seems to be a pursuit for the ostentatiously wealthy. The alleys leading off from the square around the Piazza di San Marco are stuffed with luxury brand outlets. Most tourists seemed to hail from China or the Middle East, and were dressed to impress with Gucci and Louis Vuitton accessories. This is quite a change from the last time I was in Venice –15 years ago to the day – when the stereotypical loud American (Hawaiian shirt, big camera around neck, crumpled map) was the most obvious visitor, and the thrifty see-the-world backpacker, sitting on church steps eating a piece of stale bread coming in a close second. Neither type of tourist megafauna were much in evidence this time around, perhaps a reflection of how much things have changed in the world since.

Other long distance trips we took included Ravenna – whose beautiful Byzantine mosaic artworks and easy way of life goes some way to restoring ones faith in humanity. Driving on the outskirts of the city when we arrived we found ourselves in the middle of one of the most ferocious storms I’ve ever witnessed. Like being under a power shower, I could barely see the road ahead for more than a few yards. Lighting literally crashed around us and I was quite fearful that we’d go up in a puff of smoke (despite rationalising that a car acts as a Faraday cage). “Is this normal?” I asked my wife’s uncle. “No, not normal,” he replied.

Italy does things by extremes. It has the world's most beautiful architecture sitting right alongside the ugliest aspects of modernity. There's the extreme wealth of the north, where the gated stuccoed villas keep out the riff-raff and the motorways are stuffed with BMWs and Range Rovers, and then there's the poverty of the south where mangy dogs snuffle around giant piles of burning trash and those refugees continue to wash up on the rocky shores, day in day out. 

Now I’m back here home it’s difficult to reconcile the prosperous Italy we saw with the knowledge that, like Greece and many others, the country is facing bankruptcy. You can mask financial and economic stress for only so long before something gives. And when it does come it is hard not to conclude that it will likely be the office and factory workers of northern Italy who find themselves in more of a precarious situation than those in the non-industrial south. But Italy has a long history of trouble and strife, and an economic collapse – which in any case will be global in scale – will be simply the latest chapter. But difficult questions remain for Italy, such as from where will it get its future energy supplies, and how does it deal with the increasing numbers of refugees arriving from destabilised and war-torn areas across the Med? And with these questions in mind perhaps all that remains is to ponder how long Italy can carry on living la dolce vita.


  1. Great Boots on the Ground report Hepp! I'm going to Feature it tomorrow on the Diner!

    Can't wait to get Ugo's take on this one!


    1. I'm sure he'd a agree with most of it. It was Ugo that pointed out how Italy is going for broke in the tourist sector to make up for the decline in industrial output. It's all a bit desperate.

  2. The selfie stick is the defining symbol for our times IMO. I can't think of anything more fitting. I thought that the phenomenon of the selfie itself was enough, but then the stick came out. Why is it okay and necessary to take an image of oneself for display on FB? I heard that the average American woman will take 8 selfies before deciding on the perfect one, and how many times a day does that happen? You don't just take one selfie a day, you update it as often as you feel necessary.

    I think it's fitting that just before the global shit storm gets undeniable the selfie stick comes out. I wonder if any of those refugees washing up dead on the shores of Italy would have wanted a selfie stick if given the chance to be in the socioeconomic scheme where owning one makes sense. If we're just going to be one big dumb ass and trite selfie stick wielding species than I guess Gaia should shake us off like flees. One need look no further to witness the collective delusion of our time than with this 21st century tribute to Narcissus himself.

    1. I gave my kids the challenge of coming up with something more banal, vacuous and narcissistic than selfie-mania. They came up with a special camera that takes pictures of your backside and then makes them look like a celebrity and posts it to Facebook. I was impressed - they will go far with that attitude.

  3. Love that beard! Is it real? You didn't bleach/dye it? (It would be just as narcissistic as the reds/blues/purples so tastefully common if you had.) (And I hope your wife or one of the girls snapped you, and not yourself, or the selfie-sniping would be a bit thin.) (Me? No phone, no camera, but I completely agree about the obnoxious self-idolatry and social degeneracy the "stick" evidences.) (Yeah, I know the post was about Italy, not the stick, I just finished reading Luciddreams.) I fixated on the heat and storms you described. This is already frightening, even here in reasonably-cool Canada. Trees started losing their leaves this year in mid-July. No one's ever seen it before. And hot. Oh shit, hot. I'm starting to read Guy McPherson a little more attentively. (From Tech-Sullen.)

    1. The beard isn't *that* grey - it's just the sun shining through it, or something. Yes - it's the third selfie I've ever taken in my life - without the benefit of a stick. Call it irony, if you like.

  4. Hi Jason. Thanks for the update, fascinating in a rather horrific and hard to turn away from sort of a way. I hope you had some time to enjoy your travels too? Your descriptions of the worst bits are sort of what you'd expect collapse to look like. It is not a fast thing, but a slow process whereby a few more people get chucked off the island each year - and you were seeing some of those people. They don't go away somewhere else out of sight and mind.

    Ha! 40'C+ (104'F)+ Shorts and t shirt weather! Hehe! Actually, that is pretty hot for down here too and the farm gets between 3 and 11 of those days every summer. It is possible to adapt to those conditions without air conditioning but a person has to keep out of the direct sun between about 12pm and 5pm. The real danger period is 2pm and you can only hope that the wind is not blowing too. Not good.

    Narcissim is a useful tool if you want to avoid reality - because that helps a person to ignore others, because they're not real people, are they? Selfies just feed into that drivel.

    Is this your darkest blog post yet? Hope that your harvest is going well. It is cold down here this year - the coldest winter in 18 years. Brrr. Still, I like winter and the farm is well set up for cold, wet weather.

    Cheers. Chris

    1. Dark? I thought I was being quite cheery. I almost entitled it "What I did on my holidays". I had a lovely time, anyway. I always do, wherever I go. Send me to North Korea and I'll come back happy. The world is so interesting - in fact, the only places I try and avoid are the bits that have been sterilised, such as holiday resorts, theme parks and all the rest of it. I'd hate to go to one of those.

      You're right about the heat and staying out of the sun. Unfortunately, as an Englishman with mad dog genes I can't seem to stay out of the midday sun. I think I managed to learn it after a few years of living in Spain, but when you don't know the next time you'll be getting a good blast of it then the last thing you want to do is sit in the shade.

      As for collapse - I'm still with Ernest Hemingway's description of how it feel to go broke:

      “How did you go bankrupt?"
      Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

    2. You're in Australia? Lots of cold? Antarctic vortex? The Arctic vortex seems to centre around Thunder Bay here in Canada and the whole centre of the continent is increasingly bitterly cold each winter. I even went to far as to google where the opposite 'pole' of Thunder Bay is, and it's somewhere in the ocean, just below Australia. Why doesn't everyone read Earth in Upheaval, (Velikovsky), and we could look at his ideas/questions without his fixation on Judaism. He asks excellent questions, and one of the things he points out is that for ice ages to accumulate, there needs to be almost unthinkable heat in other parts of the globe to evaporate the water that then condenses as snow. We're overdue for an *ice age*, not a rerun of Jurassic Park -- and I can't help feeling our breast-beating about our culpability for climate change is just more of our incessant hubristic anthropocentrism. It's too big. No one predicted these cold spots. No one predicted Manchurian herders would be iced out of their traditional migratory patterns. We explain it *afterward*. Isn't that how it's claimed trained fleas perform? The trainer watches what the flea is apparently going to do next and then commands it to do just that. Voila. Trained flea. Why does it keep getting colder and colder in these cold spots?; and hotter and hotter everywhere else? And I was *in* one of those Arctic outbreaks here last winter and it surpassed any cold I've ever felt or could imagine. It was like the cold had manic, malevolent consciousness. So I'm just waiting and watching. We don't know what's happening. That's the whole truth of climate change. We don't know. (From Tech-Sullen.)

  5. Loved the writing, loved this:

    “Everything is shit here,” said a lady who owned a café. “People have no money, they are unemployed, corruption is everywhere and it gets hotter every year,”

    Got to love honesty.

    So you have infinite recovery rhetoric of Britain. Here everybody is in a bright happy bubble. The price of passing for normal. But if you look at our local newspaper you find our forests are burning. The heat has been oppressive. Only in the ninetys Fahrenheit but for us that’s simmering and debilitating. The heat can dry out my garden in a day. We have had day after day without rain in summers before but not with such heat. When it stays in the seventies soil keeps plants moist but now everything is tinder dry.

    1. Yes, we have endless recovery rhetoric here. Just last night I overheard on TV the BBC economic editor explaining how China's woes won't affect the 'powerhouse' economies of the Uk and the US. It's all very wearying living with propaganda.

      In my experience, people in Italy, Spain and France invariably describe everything as being shit. The same used to be true in Britain until we were re-educated to say that everything is awesome. Anyone who doesn't get with the awesomeness is treated for depression and considered a troublemaker.

      Back in the UK now and it hasn't really stopped raining for over a week. Very damp and dispirited, but I remind myself that water is life - even if it does make everything go mouldy.


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