Monday, May 21, 2018

A Grand and Beautiful Italian Dilemma

I’ve been in Italy for three weeks now. It has been more than 40 years that I have spent this much time in Italy in one, uninterrupted period. As a result, my perspective on Italy is shifting.

For starters, life here is good. I know I don’t see the dark underbelly of this country, although I have seen some disturbing signs here. Nothing so troubling as what I see coming from America. But that is a larger subject from people who have much more expertise and decision making power. I’ll stick to Italy, my beat.

I’ve spent all the time in northern Italy, in Piedmont and in the Veneto regions. In the Veneto, I have spent time in Valdobbiadene, Conegliano, Treviso and Venice. Venice, because we had a group of visitors for whom there were some programmed activities there for them. But my base, in the Veneto, has really been Treviso.

I really like Treviso. It’s a laid back, mellow place, affluent, and operating at a high and tasteful level. The food here is good, the wine knowledge (and the access to good and great wines from all over Italy) is commendable. And the pace of life here is measured.

What I have noticed, simply by looking into the faces (and the often-diverted eyes of those here who come from the same generation as me) is a level of comfort that seems, to me, a bit of a tight fit. Not to say the Italians don’t wear their wealth well. But it was only a generation or two ago that this area, as well as almost anywhere in Italy, was transforming from a post-war scenario (recalling who the Italian leader sided with, initially, in the war). And with the destruction all around, the economic outlook was dim. In the countryside, it wasn’t as dire, for there was for many centuries a subsistence process in rural life in Italy. In the cities, while a bit more diverse in regards to the makeup of what the people did, there was the sense of impending change and the desire for people to pull themselves up. And as I have witnessed, and with camera always at my side in case I forget, the images that have scrolled past these eyes in the last half century now bring me to this point. And what I am seeing now, in the north of Italy, and let’s focus on the Veneto, is that there is great wealth. And with that reality, there is the inevitable stratification between those who have and those who don’t have as much as them.

And while it is subtle, it’s discommodious. I’ve seen enough nouveau riche in my life, from my childhood growing up in Palm Springs in the 1960’s to my early adulthood in the glitzy 1980’s of Dallas, Texas. I know what is looking back at me as I stare into the blinding brilliance of their bonfires.

Of the many visual signs I saw, over a day or so, this is what they whispered to me in my inner ear:

  • Suspicion. I’ve worked hard all these years and amassed wealth. Who is trying to steal it, to take it away from me? The government? My neighbor? The flower seller immigrant from Nepal? The tourist?
  • Boredom. I’ve become wealthy and affluent. Now what? I’ve built my special house with entrance only to those who pass their fingerprint onto a laser to permit a special few. My universe has gotten smaller, admitting only those into my world who I want. But it is a little bit boring.
  • Fear of death. I thought if I worked hard, even maybe only if it was I got lucky, that I would have the necessary tools to safeguard me from the ultimate - death. But now I am a multimillionaire, I have security guards, and houses in the mountains and by the lake and on the coast. And I still have allergies in the Spring. I thought this would help to make me free of illness and death.
  • I am now 70. My husband was a great executive, and he left me and the children with no worldly worries. But he was never at home. And when he died, I had spent a life in the shadow of someone I realized I never knew. Now, when I look in the mirror, I see a crumpled-up paper bag. Where did I go? The Botox, the collagen, the makeup, the eye liner, the blush, nothing can prevent this from happening. What can I do now? I have no material worries, but I am empty.
  • My shoes are made by an Italian craftsman. As are my shirts and pants and jackets. They are considered the finest clothing in the world. I eat the most wonderful organic food, from the local and seasonal vegetables to the compassionately raised pigs and rabbits and cows. My wine cellar is deep and has Barolo and Schioppettino and Brunello and Champagne. I have a wonderful German car that is flawless. I have arrived in this life. Why are you staring at me? Who do you think I am?
  • The tomatoes. I must go out to my aunt’s garden outside the town to check on the tomatoes. She’s getting too old to check on them herself. I must bring her some wine when I do.
  • The old dog. Her ears are bothering her. I wonder if she also has allergies from the blossoms of the springtime. I need to make time to take her to the vet, so she doesn’t suffer any more than she must.
  • My children’s children. What will they do with all those tattoos when they are my age? I can forget the folly of my youth. They will have it all their life, staring at them, to remind them of decisions they made that might appear, in the future, to look like foolish ones. Maybe they are more honest in putting them out there for everyone to see. While my generation conveniently forgot that we weren’t so idealistic as we thought we were and, in the end, we contributed to the world as it has become.

And so, you might ask, what in the world does this have to do with wine? Dear readers – nothing and everything. Life in Italy is not a single cell under a microscope. This is all interconnected. Yes, you say, you know this. And yes, I reply, I figured. But in our daily comings and goings, living in the present moment sometimes does not offer us the perspective or the connection, in the immediate sense, to see how this has something to do with a winemaker in the Veneto or Piedmont or even in the hills of Valtellina or Tuscany.

All of this meandering, what I am doing is really more for my need to put order into what is splashing across my visual screen in what seems an ever more rapidly moving rate of information. Italy, while so many people want to decry its day has come and gone, is not dead. It is very much alive and in the present moment. Maybe that is the message that has been transmitting to me all these years – my Italy lesson. That even a great culture, which produced such wonderful people and events and art and music and food and history – that in the newness of it all, it doesn’t stop. As well, the questioning doesn’t stop either. And for those of us around the world - whether it be in Shanghai or Sacramento, in Copenhagen or in Cape Town - know that with all the wringing of the hands and jeremiad (such as this one) we are living in a momentous and historical time that waits for no one. Italian wine is simply a metaphor for that larger, unstoppable thing, this life that has seized upon us and will not let us go until it is ready.

And what a la grande bellezza dilemma it is for those of us who are entwined by this and who return that embrace with outstretched and welcoming arms and spirit.

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