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The Future of Italy

August 21st, 2014 · No Comments · Italy, tourism, Travel, UAE

We have been joined in San Gimignano by an Italian couple and their two young children.

After a dinner (barbecued sausages and a half-dozen skewers of meat and peppers) and some very nice wine our visitors brought us, we sat down in the living room to talk about life in the UAE … and it soon turned to life in Italy.

The question, “Where is Italy going?” launched a discussion that carried into the wee hours of the morning.

It was earlier this month that Italy slipped back into recession, for the third time since 2008, producing a notion that the country is well on its way to “a lost decade”, economically.

Italians are well aware of the financial doldrums that grip the country.

Our visitors, who live on the Adriatic side of the country, identified government corruption as the No. 1 problem in Italy. “It is worse than ever,” the husband said. “Worse than 10 years ago. Someone gets elected, the first thing they do is make sure their family has enough money so that they never have to worry again. And then if the politician is not elected again, his son or his brother or his nephew is, and it goes on forever.”

They said they could not think of a single politician they would trust with their money — aside from Matteo Renzi, 39, the youngest prime minister in Italy’s history, breaking the record of a certain Benito Mussolini. “But already he is being punched into a corner,” the husband said.

Italy remains a country of significant beauty, with a mild climate and cultural and historical treasures around every corner.

It also remains known, for good reason, as the home of individual craftmanship, innovation and design. Think “Ferrari” and “Versace”.

But more than most western European countries (or North American, for that matter), it is not coming to grips with the economic realities of the 21st century.

Factory jobs have all but disappeared here; labor and social costs are far lower in most of the rest of the world. The government also is perceived to create legal systems so complicated that not even lawyers understand it, and to be antagonistic toward start-up businesses.

The VAT (value-added tax, on most transactions) stands at 22 percent, which certainly doesn’t help the consumer, and the average Italian seems to believe the government only takes, it does not give back in services and infrastructure. Civic institutions are failing.

Young people, often well-educated in Italy’s crumbling (but still well-operated) schools have trouble finding jobs. Even more so than in most EU countries, children never move out of their childhood homes. They are unemployed or underemployed. One of our visitors outlined a scenario of “papa and mama upstairs, the children downstairs, and all of them together scrape up a thousand euros a month”.

Italians also have become home bodies like never before.

The country sent millions of immigrants to the New World in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but now, we were told, they prefer to stick it out in Italy rather than chance a new life in Australia or Canada or the U.S. “We are afraid to leave home,” he said.

What that leaves, they said, is individual enterprise, and the half-dozen Italians with whom we have spoken during our stay all had that in common.

“You have to get up and make yourself a success; the government is not going to help you,” the husband said.

He is a wine distributor. She is in marketing. Our friend Paola runs, with her husband and son, a small hotel in Florence. Paola brings in additional money by leading tours of the city. She speaks five languages, and language skills are becoming an increasingly common indicator of potential success, for Italians.

The hope for Italy is a country where individuals rise up to find a place for themselves, creating, building, welcoming — holding together a country that still is so very attractive to outsiders, and maybe improving it.

“Even after all that,” the husband said, “I am optimistic. Maybe I am crazy.”



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