Italy may be a mess, but there’s a certain charm to its lack of ambitionby Anna Blundy / December 15, 2010 / Leave a comment
Tuscany is famous for its medieval villages, olive groves and dusty golden-pink sunsets. It is not famous for its dynamism, its prominent place on the world’s economic stage or the slick efficiency of its civic life. The motto there is “piano, piano,” which, when you are standing in a plumbing-disaster flood in your living room weeping, can make you want to kill.
It is not uncommon to see a baffled ex-pat (usually me) jumping up and down on the pavement in Bagni di Lucca shouting: “But it’s only 12.30! Just sell me the pair of trainers. Don’t you want my money?” The shoe shop will remain shutters down for three hours, while the very elderly couple who have run the shop all their lives enjoy a leisurely lunch. They have zero interest in improving sales (the display outside their shop, painstakingly set up every morning, features plastic shoes for hospital porters, boxes of rubber flip-flops and the occasional flammable-looking slipper). This is how they’ve always done things and this is how they plan to continue to do them. Piano, piano.
Nobody here, as far as I know, is planning to measure their happiness quotient in a Cameronian bid to halt their idolatory of material wealth. But, judging by the pitying looks they give me as I stand, baffled, in a deserted street at lunchtime, they are, on the whole, comparatively jolly.
So I was quite looking forward to moving home to Britain where there is a proper sense of grim-faced urgency; a feeling that it’s now or never; an anxious clamour for change at any cost.
Since returning in September I’ve been to a whirl of glittering parties, some with half the government at them, others with half the opposition, everyone talking about how things could and should be improved, from roads to children’s body shape. “I’d like to send her to an all girls school but then she’ll be anorexic.” “Everyone in my son’s class is so fat! When I was little…” I have chewed puff pastry things with prawns in and agreed or disagreed, depending on how much my shoes hurt. More/Fewer exams! Ban/Eat processed food! Better public transport/More roads!
I also recently went to a primary school reunion in a pub in Southgate. Tony, who I last saw 30 years ago, is a driving instructor with a gold tooth. I’ve got a photo of him eating a bun off a string at a Halloween party in 1980, his face painted ghoulish white, a scar crayoned on to his cheek, his Afro accurately dating the picture. “I heard you went to prison?” I said. He got in with some thugs at senior school, was in a fight in a pub and went to Feltham Young Offenders Institution for six months. Sitting at a sticky table, he acted out saying sorry to his mum through a sheet of Perspex and looked mock-mournful as he mimed being taken handcuffed to the cells. We all laughed. “You shouldn’t have moved away. You missed all the fun,” he said. “I didn’t move away,” I said. “I just moved into a parallel universe.” Private school.
And suddenly, Britain didn’t seem quite so dynamic any more. More tolerant and multicultural than Italy, agreed. The shops are always open here, absolutely. Someone will deliver curry to your door on a scooter! This should be paradise.
Yet at the private secondary school I went to, thuggery meant smoking the odd joint and driving your dad’s car. Falling off the rails meant not getting into Oxbridge. If you did get in trouble with the police (always drugs), Britain’s best barrister would defend you and you’d end up having to work in the media. If Tony’s mum had been rich either she, or a teacher at his stripy private school (with a one-to-four staff-to-child ratio, well-paid teachers and an environment conducive to giving a shit) would have made sure that someone as bright as him stayed glued to the rails and went on to study PPE.
Driving home, stuck (of course) in traffic on a depressing neon high street, I started to miss Bagni di Lucca, where policemen pull you over just to say hi and “Didn’t see you at the chestnut festival on Sunday?” Yes, Italy’s birth rate is morbidly low, the economy is stagnating, corruption is endemic, the rivers are full of plastic bags, it takes weeks of arguing to get car insurance and the only thing to watch on telly is an old man in a suit making jokes while a girl in a bikini and high heels stands next to him. But they are getting something right that doesn’t need measuring with a happiness index. When you ask children what they want to be when they grow up, they don’t say: “Rich.” Most people I know just want a long lunch, August off and a Fiat Panda.
When looked at this way, what has the British fervour for improvement in every sphere since 1979 really achieved? Perhaps, galling though it would be to admit it, piano piano might not be such a bad approach after all. And I’ll have a spaghetti carbonara while I wait.