Sweet life sours in villages of Italy

Italy's economic travails have old and young struggling to cope

A future that’s hard to swallow

Jamie Dettmer

Far from tourist crowds savouring Italy’s fabled dolce vita, sipping cappuccinos and chilled Prosecco in big-city piazzas, the walled towns and hilltop villages of Tuscia, in central Italy, are seeing the sweet life disappear.

Tuscia, north of Rome and bordered by Tuscany and Umbria, is picture-postcard Italy, with pastures of sunflowers and poppies, abundant vines and rows of ancient olive trees. Despite the natural beauty, life here, based mainly on farming, has never been easy, but in recent years villages like Celleno, 80 km north of the Italian capital, prospered thanks to the advent of tourism and affluent northern Europeans and Romans buying cheap second homes.

That has all changed with the eurozone crisis. Austerity measures imposed by Prime Minister Mario Monti, who heads an administration of technocrats struggling to find ways to reduce Italy’s sky-high public debt, are now biting. Public services have been cut just as economic opportunities dwindle. Old and young are struggling to cope with pension cuts, tax hikes and the disappearance of jobs. The 1,000 or so inhabitants of Celleno are no different.

“A lot of ordinary families can no longer afford meat,” says Anna-Maria Bianchi. “They are eating more pasta and polenta. Few have spare cash to eat out.” Bianchi learned that she has to delay her retirement from her nursing job by five years, due to pension reforms. Like many Italians, she says the sacrifices are not shared equally. “A politician only has to be in parliament for five years and they get the same pension as I do after labouring 45 years.” She worries whether there will ever be stable jobs for her 23-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter.

The mention of pasta and polenta conjures up the dark days of hardship and poverty of the immediate post-Second World War years, when ordinary Italian families subsisted on the yellow maize and the average Italian consumed 60 grams of polenta a day. After the so-called economic miracle of the 1960s, Italians happily turned their backs on polenta and started gorging on meat. By the late ’70s, Italians consumed more meat than even the carnivorous Brits.

Not that the harsh 1940s or 1950s have returned full force to Italy. There’s still a social safety net, and Italian households have relatively little debt. But the bulk of their savings are in Italian bank deposits or Italian government bonds, and they fret their nest eggs will evaporate if the crisis worsens.

For the Cellenoese, who tried to shrug off their worries and recently celebrated the Festa delle ciliegie, an annual cherry festival, there’s little reassuring news around to inspire confidence in the future. Tourism has plunged in the region. The plan to turn a military airport in the nearby city of Viterbo into a commercial one has been shelved and a highway linking the rail hub of Orte to the ferry port town of Civitavecchia has been stopped 50 km short of completion.

In Viterbo, 13 km from Celleno, there are clear signs of economic woe, too. An increasing number of storefronts are boarded up. Even on weekends restaurants are empty. “I have properties on the books that have been on the market for three years, including some very good ones in the heart of the medieval quarter of Viterbo,” says real estate agent Massimo Proietti. “They would have been snapped up before the crisis. Nothing is selling, no one is buying. I have never seen anything like this.”

He’s not alone in wondering when this will end: “I ask myself what will become of Italy in six months or a year?” wrote Senate President Renato Schifani in an open letter published by a political daily on June 7.

Italy’s economic travails are disorienting, and not only for ordinary Italians. The stress of trying to avoid a humiliating Greece-style bailout is straining Monti’s cabinet, which has been battered by squabbles and undermined by an entrenched bureaucracy blocking the rewriting of generous public sector contracts and pensions necessary to keep budget deficit targets on track. In the private sector, too, organized labour is determined to obstruct reform of Italy’s rigid labour market that would make it easier for employers to hire and fire and provide short-term work.

The financial markets had placed high hopes on Monti, the former European competition commissioner, who was appointed prime minister after the implosion of the scandal-plagued and dysfunctional government of Silvio Berlusconi. Now the financial markets are wavering. Yields on Italian 10-year bonds have been hovering above the danger level of six per cent as Monti’s approval ratings have plummeted.

The strain of the economic crisis is turning conventional politics upside down. The main centre-left Democratic party and its centre-right counterpart, Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party, are fracturing. Support for fringe groups, such as the populist protest Five Star Movement of maverick comic-turned-blogger activist Beppe Grillo is growing, fuelled by support from the discontented young.

This economic downturn in Italy is different in a key way from previous recessions and crises: there’s no escape for the young, who in the past have been able to flee to big northern Italian cities or overseas for work. But factories and businesses are not hiring in the north and there are few job openings either in Europe or the U.S. According to Italy’s industrial confederation, 26 per cent of Italian graduates remain without jobs three years after graduating.

Among them are Walter Ippoliti and Sara Fargnoli. He graduated three years ago with an archaeology degree, and she a year ago in library sciences (Fargnoli is also a fully qualified book restorer). They have rented a small one-bedroom house in Celleno with 300 sq. m of land they worked hard to clear. They have planted an assortment of vegetables. “I hope it feeds us this summer and autumn,” Ippoliti says.

They are part of a growing number of young Italians returning to the countryside. “It is the only possibility for us,” says Ippoliti. Both have applied for dozens of jobs and courses but to no avail. Their latest disappointment was being turned down by a foundation that funds Italian graduates to teach abroad. The foundation has had far too many applicants. Fargnoli has been using her book restoration skills to make notepads she hopes to sell in local artisan markets, and Ippoliti takes on any odd jobs he can. This is our future, says Fargnoli.

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