Monday, December 08, 2008

italy two years later

A couple of years since my last trip to Italy and not much has changed . . . for the better. It's still the nicest place in the world to visit. The rituals alone--the coffee paid for at the cashier with the receipt left on the counter together with a small tip; the groups of twelve and fourteen people going to dinner together, including children who never seem go to sleep; the ambivalence, not to say absurdity, with respect to any kind of rules (there's no space without a reservation, wait yes there is, well maybe if you don't take too long)--are worth the trip on their own. I'm in Perugia in central Italy today (did you know it was Immaculate Conception Day?) and everyone looks straight out of a Renaissance painting. Roger Cohen has a column in the IHT saying that Paris is no longer Paris. It's too clean, too anglo-saxon, isn't the city he used to know. Italy is still Italy, and it probably won't change any time soon.

That, of course, is the problem. Take immigration. Italy has a an aging population and a lot of people want to come here. So making it easy for newcomers ought to be a no brainer, right? Think again. It's not just that Barack Obama wouldn't get elected prime minister here. It's not clear he could operate a successful cafe. In theory the country is open and tolerant, but in practice it is hostile or at best indifferent to outsiders, who remain very much at the margins of Italian society, in a cultural and almost a physical sense. That the same word which was often used for Jews in the 1940s (extracomunitari, outsiders) is often used for new immigrants gives a sense of the problem.

Housing is a further example. It's expensive and there isn't enough of it. So you would expect to see a lot of new housing being built, right? Except that for a lot of reasons--lack of creativity in the financial markets, local regulations, people's unwillingness to leave their native areas--it by and large isn't. (One bright side: the mortgage default and related financial problems are generally less pronounced here than in other countries.)

One can open the newspaper and find numerous other examples. The two main stories in Corriere della Sera today were a war between local prosecutors and the opening of the new season at La Scala, including commentary on the new tenor (good voice, wrong physique) and the dress worn by Milan's mayor, Letitia Moratti, to the opening. An inside story related the declining lifestyle in the larger northern cities, suggesting that one must flee to smaller centers (like Perugia) to find the good life.

The problem, of course, is that the good and bad elements are hard to separate from each other. Italy is so pleasant precisely because of its ambivalent attitude toward modernity, because it refuses to change its rituals and continues to value things like family, region, and religion more than other countries. (Marxism, or what remains of it, is simply another religion, at least as practiced here.) Yet one has to wonder if there's not a middle ground. I saw a billboard on my last trip arguing against the TAV (the superexpress train, the Italian TGV) on the grounds that slow trips were, as a matter of principle, better than fast ones. Not that speed had to be balanced with other virtues: that slow was, as a philosophical matter, better than fast. One has to wonder if better trains, or housing, or government would really compromise that much of what is good about this country. On the other hand, it's four o'clock, which means I'd better head to a caffe and think it over--very slowly--before deciding.


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