Thursday, April 05, 2012

Living in interesting times in Italy

Lingering under the Tuscan moon last week, my travel companion and I had just finished an unforgettable meal in Siena. The 10 minute walk back to the hotel enlivened us and so we sat outside and wrapped up the evening.

What came out of this recent trip, which was punctuated by our conversation, is that Italy is in a dangerous but very opportune moment. Not any more dangerous than in 1968 or 1975 by any means, but the world in general has accelerated the risks we all are exposed to by just living in these times.

Violence can happen at any moment. That’s not new, but people’s access to news from across the world, whether it is from Toulouse or Oakland, can embolden even the meekest sociopath. Italy feels like it is teetering on that brink, like a match right before it runs across the sandpaper.

Food patterns. With drought in Italy, and France and America, the normal array of products, whether it be artichokes or strawberries, Sangiovese or beef, can be altered in a season. What the average Italian has grown to expect, an abundance of choice and high quality of selections, is not something that was the norm, 20, 40, 60 years ago. It is a new phenomenon. And it isn’t anything anyone should get used to. This winter alone the vegetation and crops in Southern Italy have been reduced in great percentages. People are going out into artichoke fields at night and stealing enough of the spiny globes to spike prices resulting in the reality that they won’t arrive to many tables this season. Artichokes. Imagine if it were something vital, like milk, wheat or fish?

Wine. Yes, Italy is one giant vineyard and the Italians live in this melting pot of grapes. Wines are still relatively inexpensive. But there are shortcuts being taken, from the lowest level of industrial production to the highest appellations. No one is 100% pure in the wine business in Italy these days, if only by association. The yeast a winemaker uses might be sourced from China by way of New Zealand. Genetically modified so that any number of grapes come out tasting the same. Science for the masses developed out of rice famine mentality. Necessary for 1.2 billion Chinese but appropriate for the 300+ grapes in Italy?

Politics. All the world is in motion in this area. As it always seems to be if one really pays attention to that arena. Personally, I find it grueling. Most politicians are opportunistically driven towards their self-interest and survival. They live in a world few of us inhabit. Parallel planets, like Superman and his Bizarro counterpart. Italy has seen political tumult many times; 476, 1796, 1922, 1946, 1994. America as well. France also. I cannot go there but to say not to turn a blind eye but not to let it run (or ruin) your life.

Society in general. Ennui? It seems like the young generation is trapped in a vacuum created by the much older generation who just won’t let anything go. And in the middle are the working stiffs who are just trying to get by. Of course, “getting by” still means taking the month of August off to go to the seaside or the mountains or Phuket or Havana. And two weeks during Christmas. And an extended week during the Easter festivities. And nice clothes. I think it was my friend Giulio who said if you took a 30 x 30 foot section of people randomly out of Vinitaly and added up the value of their clothes, that the value would be disproportionately higher than the same quadrant of folks taken from, let’s say, Grand Central Station in New York. Italians spending more on clothes (and food) but earning less, the Americans spending less on clothes but earning more on average. I agree with Giulio and think it a telling tale that the average Italian complains a lot about things but they still take their time off and they still dress above their ability to pay for their clothes. Probably something that has been going on since Roman times, by the way. But in a more connected world where everyone knows what everybody else is eating, earning, etc., something to ponder.

On my way out of Italy with a week to spend in France, before heading back to America, what I saw and felt in those few days around Vinitaly underscored what I have been seeing for a year or so. Italy forgets its great natural abundance and its ability to restore itself in a short span of time. But now the world is thinner, flatter and more competitive. And yes, dangerous. Italy needs to be ever more vigilant in not letting their country slip away from their citizens. This is a time to be paying attention to every nuance, not to slip into the easy route of complaining and blaming others. It is an interesting time, but in no way is it without serious consequences if the Italians lose their grip on reality. It has happened before. It is not outside the realm of possibility, however interesting it may seem.


Marco said...

What's the opposite of grueling ennui?
I don't really know. I do know what it is not. I believe it might have something to do with the soul's code, imagination.

Francesco Bonfio said...

Very interesting, Mr. Cevola. Many of your thoughts are very deep and precise. It will take longer time for me to understand all but I have the feeling it will be worth.
Thank you very much.

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