Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

Lost in translation

November 17, 2009

A four-state research trip begins at Fiumincino in Rome, where on a Sunday afternoon the worst chaos I have seen in the Italian capital’s airport reigns. Hundreds of people are crammed into the main security area, a single incoherent mass that takes an hour to pass through the security check. Amid the crush, a British genius yells ‘You need to open more channels’ as if he is the only person in the room that this has occurred to. One guesses the airport cannot find enough people to work on a Sunday afternoon, despite an economy shrinking five percent this year. A couple of Italians lose control completely, screaming like lunatics at the security staff; one of them continues in the same vein at a policeman who appears on the scene.

My Air China flight is delayed a couple of hours because it has been snowing in Beijing, so I can afford to be more patient than some; eventually I get to the gate. Seated in economy I dread a sleepless night travelling east, followed by the jetlag from hell. But soon after take-off I doze off and sleep better and longer than I often do when given a business class seat-bed for a speaking engagement.

The reason for my plane’s delay is snow in Beijing – where I am going first – which closed the airport for half a day. The BBC reports this is due to ‘cloud seeding’, a technique developed in the United States but popularised in China. It involves using airplanes or small rockets to seed clouds with silver idodide that induces rain. You cannot make extra rain like this, as I understand it, but you can make rain fall in places other than where it might fall naturally. The Beijing area is perennially short of water. According to media reports, Chinese meteorologists failed to calculate that wind and temperature conditions on this occasion would cause precipitation in the form of snow. The same thing is said to have occurred in February.

It is a brief, one-night stop in Beijing. On both occasions that I pass through the airport, for landing and for taking off to Tokyo, I have a good look out of the window at the Beijing area. Stories continue to be published in the press that pollution has improved. But all I see looking out of plane windows is a cigarette-smoke yellow haze that sits like an inverted shallow bowl over the city area. A pollution report published by the US embassy in Beijing suggests that the pollution story depends on which pollutants you choose to measure; it focuses on fine particles and tells a less sanguine tale than the official Chinese one.

And so to Japan, where I am ever-more struck by just how little English people speak, even in big cities. I am headed out to the countryside to look at the history of land reform, in what promises to be a supercharged, bucolic version of Lost in Translation, minus Scarlet Johansson.

On the upside, I can read about a quarter of the characters I see in Japan, because they come from Chinese. On the downside, I manage to leave my ‘Survival Japanese’ phrasebook at the friend’s house in Tokyo where I stay the first night.

The car I hire in suburban Tokyo has satellite navigation, but only in Japanese. The one real break I get is that before driving out of Tokyo I manage to enter a marker in the navigation system at the place I am staying. If not, I doubt I would ever have returned.

As much as any place I have been, Tokyo has to be seen to be believed. The vast majority of this vast city is low-rise, clap-board style houses reached by narrow (perhaps six metre wide) lanes which, in my experience, are never cul-de-sacs. These lanes, which are all demarcated with white lines that set aside a little of the precious space on either side for pedestrians and cyclists, go on and on and on.

To prove the point, I leave Tokyo by randomly weaving – following a general north-west trajectory shown on the navigation system – and drive for more than two hours through the lanes until I have had enough and switch to a bigger road. Every so often I come across a market, a school, a group of small one-room restaurants and bars, or a railway line. The more central parts of Tokyo are charming. But the sprawl that connects Tokyo with a series of what claim to be separate towns and cities (you only know it from the names) is ugly and unpleasant. I had not realised before how much Japan has succumbed to the American acceptance of acres of malls, discount stores, fast food restaurants and car showrooms along every significant highway in the country. This has brutalised large swathes of a naturally very beautiful place.

Still, driving into the central mountain range of Honshu island, I eventually reach hills too steep for development. This is where the forest land that covers so much of Japan begins. And it is very attractive forest, comprised of many different tree species, part evergreen and part deciduous. At this time of year the colours are phenomenal. I stay a night in Chichibu, epicentre of a large-scale nineteenth century peasant revolt, and then head across to Niigata on the west coast, an area famed for Japan’s best rice (and hence sake). It is here that a small number of pre-Second World War landlord houses I want to look at are preserved.

Niigata City itself is a reasonably attractive place, easy to navigate, and with excellent food. It comes as a shock that three hours on the expressway through the mountains to get there costs Euro50 in tolls.

The lack of English thing isn’t getting any better. There are shops I go into where the staff appears to have not a single word of English among it. I wander out again, empty-handed. I stay in quite a reasonable hotel, but the English there is up to very little. Eventually I find a woman in the back office who speaks enough English to help me programme the navigation system to find the farms I want to see. I don’t think I have ever felt so cut off from people around me in a place I have visited. They are very friendly and polite. We just cannot communicate.

After a couple of days it is time to head back to Tokyo. Getting to the capital is easy enough. Getting across the capital to my friend’s house is where the navigation system marker turns out to be critical. On a Sunday evening I am led by the machine through a maze of flyovers, tunnels, and complex intersections that would have seen me make a dozen mistakes or more trying to follow a map. Even with the satellite system, I get back after five or six hours in the car remembering why I have come to loathe driving: it is all wasted time; you can’t do anything while you are controlling a car.

Next day I fly to Taipei, stay in a grotty airport hotel, and go back to the airport for an early connection to Manila. There I switch to a local flight to Bacolod, the capital Negros Occidental, a place that has been dubbed ‘Sugarlandia’. In the 19th century it was turned into a sugar estate monoculture by European and American families and has remained pretty much that.

As the plane descends, you can already see multiple fires where farmers are burning off the residue in fields where sugar cane has been cut. There is sugar everywhere, even around the airport. November is part of the cutting season and every road seems to have one or more big trucks piled high with brown cane heading towards the nearest Central, as the sugar refineries are known.

I spend three days trying to understand why the land reform programme introduced after the 1986 flight of Ferdinand Marcos has failed to change the lives of most farmers here. Many landlords have found ways to hang on to their estates – the biggest local player is Eduardo ‘Danding’ Cojuangco, perhaps Marcos’s number one crony, who has never been brought to book – while farmers who have obtained plots have often ended up selling them because of debts to usurers. They then become estate workers again earning, at current exchange rates, about US$2 a day. With the help of some well-informed contacts, I manage to visit land reform cooperatives that are being somewhat more successful. We travel into deep countryside that is as stunningly beautiful as it is poor.

Then it is time for a stopover in Manila so that I can obtain a difficult-to-come-by book, a recent biography of Danding Cojuangco. Reading this on the plane home, I am pleased to note a striking parallel between the late Filipino fantasist duce Ferdinand Marcos and current Italian fantasist duce Silvio Berlusconi.

It seems that not only was the latter embarrassed by secret recordings of his pillow talk. Back in 1972, just before Ferdy plunged the Philippines into more than a decade of martial law, recordings of his bedroom exchanges with a B-movie actress called Dovie Beams (who had been making a movie in the Philippines) began to circulate in Manila. The tape, recorded by the actress before she fled the country, featured Ferdy moaning, singing his favourite folk songs, and begging for oral sex. The University of the Philippines radio station took to playing the recordings over and over. Ferdy, as was his standard refrain, said the whole thing was a communist conspiracy and sought to have various journalists jailed. Now where else have we heard and seen that?

Video highlights I

October 20, 2009

Internet connection speeds in rural Umbria, which were are low as 11,000 baud (via a mobile phone) at the start of the decade, are now just about fast enough to watch video. If you are somewhere with genuine first-world communications technology, or in Umbria and can cope with a bit of buffering, try the two following, unrelated, clips.

The first features Bird and Fortune, British comics, explaining the financial crisis. Select the ‘Bird and Fortune’ entry on this Financial Times list of videos. The analysis seems to me at least as good as what you get in the regular FT, but it is quite a lot funnier.

The second video is an interview with the son of the two people whose untimely deaths I described in ‘Not so hip’ (a copy of which is here in the Parenting category). It is conducted by Italy’s own Beppe Grillo, best-known for organising crowds to assemble in town piazzas and shout ‘Fuck Off’ in unison at Italian politicians. Mr Grillo and supporters have come to the rescue of the son, Rudra, although it is my understanding that the Pietralunga commune did also offer his uncle a state job so he could look after him.

The surreal and the banal

October 11, 2009

A series of incidents in recent weeks makes me suspect that life is becoming weirder than ever. First, the locals around our house in the Apennine hills insist that two brown bears have been seen in the area. The central Italian brown bear, ursus arctos marsicanus, is supposed to be all but extinct, killed off (like so many dogs) by poison left by hunters, and by poachers. The bears may also be culturally unsuited to contemporary Italian life since they are famously monogamous. Still, the neighbours insist that two of only a few dozen remaining bears have made their way to northern Umbria from the national park of Abruzzo.Brown bear_rear_paw_print The local media blame the Aquila earthquake for precipitating a journey of many hundred kilometres. I suspect myself that the repeated visits of Silvio Berlusconi to the region may be a contributing factor.

 

Our son, now five, announces he will capture the bears and return them to their home. A quick online search reveals these bears weigh several hundred kilos and have claws up to 15 centimetres long, so I count myself out. Luca laughs in the face of the reported danger, and marches off into the woods, backed up by a sister and mother. He is increasingly assertive. Not long after this, I come back into the house from the garden to find him listening attentively on the telephone. ‘Who is it, Luca?’ I ask, assuming his mother. He holds up an arm, gesturing that I should not interfere. ‘Yes,’ he says gravely into the mouthpiece. ‘I see, I see… that is important.’ I go off into the kitchen while the conversation continues. After a couple more minutes, Luca comes into the kitchen and I hear him say: ‘So would you like to speak to Mr Studwell?’ He hands over the telephone. It is a journalist from Voice of America wanting comment on the latest Chinese corruption scandal. Next time I’ll just ask Luca to give his own view. This would suit the journalist, who is disconsolate when I say I do not know the details of the case and so cannot comment.

 

Another stranger than fiction moment is the Italian government’s decision to give a state funeral to television quiz master, Mike Bongiorno.mike_bongiorno This is a little like Ken Dodd being carried on a gun carriage through Hyde Park on his way to interment in St. Paul’s, with the royal family walking behind in Knotty Ash outfits. The queen would begin a funeral oratory with the words ‘What a lovely day for sticking a brush up…’ and the congregation would all wear false buck teeth. I am not necessarily against such a celebration when Dodd passes, but in England it is not going to happen. Kenneth DoddIn Italy, by contrast, it does. Mike, of course, was a great defender of Silvio Berlusconi. He died in Monte Carlo.

 

Up in Trieste for a couple of days’ break with the wife, the surreality is capped when I turn on the television (for perhaps the first time in a year) and what should be showing but that interview. I find the added details of Berlusconi’s conduct deeply uninteresting. What fascinates is the studied unpleasantness of the two running dogs who represent him on the programme. They just look and sound, to me, so amoral and horrible. And this is the big point with Berlusconi: everyone who dislikes him tries to focus your attention on him – but it is not about the man, it is about what he reflects in Italy, just as what was most interesting about George W. Bush was what he reflected in America. The sharpest, cruellest and most provocative thing to have been said in Italy in recent months came surely from Berlusconi himself when he declaimed, with unintended import, that: ‘Most Italians privately wish they could be like me and recognise themselves in me and the way I behave.’ Ouch.

 

To be honest, I am feeling mildly sympathetic to Berlusconi as the constitutional court strips him of his immunity from prosecution. The political left has scented blood and is desperately trying to paint a monochrome picture in which Berlusconi is black and everyone against him is white. Yet Berlusconi is quite right when he asserts that the Italian judiciary is shockingly politicised and often deeply unprofessional (on this subject, see the upcoming review of The Dark Heart of Italy). Of course, he doesn’t quite put it this way. He just calls anyone he doesn’t like a ‘lefty’ or a ‘commie’. And he also doesn’t speak from particularly high moral ground since he faces more accusations of graft than Al Capone. So a reasoned debate about how to reverse the long-term decline of Italy and make it a happier place to live turns into the usual slanging match. The latest episode saw Berlusconi phoning up a late night television show to say the president should have used ‘his influence’ to get a different decision from the constitutional court. Challenged by a woman on the programme, he dismissed her as ‘more beautiful than intelligent’.

A few things, you will be relieved to learn, are running to form. What is technically the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development recently released its annual World Bank Doing Business report, which shows that as a place to set up a business Italy has dropped another 21 places in the past year, falling to 75th  in the world (but, hey, there are more than 180 countries in the world). As a place to run a business, Italy comes 78th in the world, one place below Panama (which, if you are interested, is deemed to be a far easier place to start a business). The World Bank report complements the latest International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasts which predict that Italy’s economy will shrink 5.1 per cent this year after contracting 1 per cent in 2008; the economy has grown less than 1 per cent a year on average since 2000. What is particularly striking about the latest forecast for Italian economic shrinkage is that it is substantially greater than that for either the UK or the US, the countries that are seen as the twin epicentres of the current global financial crisis. Perhaps this is all another conspiracy against Silvio. Perhaps.

England versus Italy

August 12, 2009

It turns out to be necessary to do one more week in Cambridge, wandering the towers of the gargantuan University Library and photocopying a 10-centimetre wedge of research material, which I now know is close to the maximum that my back-pack can carry; it has to be over a thousand pages, though I don’t want to think about this because I have to read them.

The week gets off to a good start with breakfast with Tim Clissold, author of the excellent Mr China, the stranger-than-fiction tale of investing several hundred million dollars in China in the mid-1990s. Tim trained as an accountant, then learned Chinese, then teamed up with a high-flying American investment banker who had raised (what was) the single biggest fund for buying businesses in the Middle Kingdom. I wrote about this in The China Dream, but Tim’s warts-and-all inside story turned out to be perhaps the best insider tale of China business that has yet been written. And in the meantime, he drew a good salary, invested wisely, went on to do a stint of investment banking with Goldman Sachs, and then launched his own entrepreneurial investment career buying and turning around small-ish industrial businesses. I live and learn.

For me, the remarkable thing about Tim is his ability to see the most outrageous, grasping, brazen scams as intellectual curiosities. In his first career in China he was threatened, kidnapped and daily deceived. His response was that of an astute provincial accountant confronted by a loutish child on a bus: faint bemusement and a simple determination to deal with the situtation, with or without the conductor’s help. He is very good at seeing the other person’s point of view; but also rather principled.

Tim’s latest adventure is carbon trading in China; he maintains an office of about 20 people. It is, he says, at least as scurrilous as anything he has dealt with before and more than likely the basis of a new book. Pay-offs, forged signatures, phantom projects — all are par for the course in securing cash for supposed pollution reduction under the UN-sponsored global carbon trading scheme. The evening before we meet he had dinner with one of the top executives at China’s largest thermal power firm whose (almost certainly) forged signature, Tim gleefully observes, has been attached to a deal he is currently reviewing.

The Clissolds have moved back to the UK from China, although Tim still spends much of his time there. In his own moment of weakness, he bought a large pile in Richmond in North Yorkshire, only to find it infested with rats apparently immune to all known poisons. The family moved out and were surprised to find another family of expats from the East willing to buy the rodent colony. The Clissolds have reined in their delusions of grandeur and now lead a more modest life amid the bizarre sociology of North Yorkshire: inbred RangeRover driving eejits on the one hand, a thankless rural proletariat on the other, nothing in the middle. Tim takes modest comfort from his local status as the stand-out eccentric. He paces the town with a dog called xiong xiong which, having been brought back from Beijing, responds only to commands in Chinese. The scene he describes when barking commands at this dog in a local shop or pubs is what you would expect.

Clissold tips me off to interesting goings on in the world of ultra super critical boiler technology and, thus enthused, I read three of the best PhD theses my supervisor has seen (trying to figure out what I am supposed to be doing) and copy the aforementioned chunk of clever scribblings. When I take the early Friday flight back to Perugia after four days full on in Cambridge, it is one of the rare times going back to Italy that I am not quite sure what the point is: for a moment, England (and abroad) seems terribly serious and interesting and grown-up by comparison. I supposed this is the conclusion that thousands of Italians who are now leaving to work overseas have reached.

Landing in Perugia, I am exhausted. This is the problem with doing four 12-hour days; I cannot be productive for a fifth. Also, it seems, I am on the wrong side of the plane. Instead of one of the most beautiful airports in the world, I see only the capannone — the concrete industrial blocks — of the Tiber valley. What, as one Italian friend asks, is going on with all these new structures in an economy that is currently shrinking more than the UK’s and at the best of times barely grows?

I decide to drive up to Moravola, which as I said before is the best restoration project I have seen in Italy, and get in the way of Seonaid and Chris. They are working like lunatics, trying to run their boutique hotel themselves while guest numbers build up. This appears to involve a 5am to midnight shift, seven days a week, but they remain in good humour. We chat in the kitchen and are soon joined by a charming, designer Swiss couple. These are the kind of clients you want at this stage: relaxed, appreciative of the extraordinary quality of the project and unworried by somewhat slow service as Moravola builds up its business and hence its staff. We set about a bottle of white and talk about Europe, Italians and children. Looking at the surroundings and at Moravola, the Swiss wistfully conjecture how nice it would be if they had a place in the Umbrian sun themselves. Of course they don’t know how much work was involved and how unbelievably expensive the project would have been if Chris, a trained Norman Foster architect, hadn’t become a builder, fabricator and carpenter and done much of the construction work himself. After six or more years he has even acquired a sort of idealised builder physique. Not that the wife is complaining.

Seonaid, on a topic close to my own heart, causes much mirth by relating a recent exchange with a Danish architect who is using Leo Petturiti as his geometra for a client project in the Niccone valley. According to the Dane, the clients are not entirely convinced that Leo ‘gets’ their project vision. So the Dane gamely suggested to Seonaid that he bring the scrofulous one up to Moravola to give him a few ideas about quality restoration work. Large mistake. Unknown to this Scandinavian, Seonaid has already had her fill of Little Leo. When she and Chris first came to Italy to look for a property they wanted to buy a ruin on the west side of the Tiber that was being handled by Petturiti and James Stephens. They agreed a price, signed a contract, and made the compromesso downpayment. Deal done. Driving back to the UK, however, they got call from Stephens’ office to say they couldn’t actually have the property unless they paid a lot more money. Petturiti and Fat Boy had gotten a better offer. To cut a long story short, the illegality of what the agents did was so cut and dried that under threat of legal action Seonaid and Chris were eventually compensated. But it tells you plenty about the way certain people do business. And so when the Dane mentioned bringing Leo up, the response from Seonaid was that Leo will not set foot on her property so long as she breathes.

We finished the bottle. And the sun shone.

Go and wait for me in the big bed

June 30, 2009

I am not a big fan of newspaper editorials, most of which are underreported and worth even less of your time than regular newspaper copy. And I am not a big fan of the regular newspaper copy of The New York Times, which I think is overrated by people who think The New York Times must be good cos it’s the NYT (notwithstanding occasional brilliance). Yet I am a fan of the editorial content of The New York Times. Strange? Here is a reasonable example of what their columnists do well, week-in and week-out. It’s a nice wrap, and a nice rap, about Our Silvio as opposed to Dear Obama. But before you Fedex Obama a cigarette, read Clive Crook in The FT who fears, as I have since long before he was elected, that Obama is destined to do what the left does best: disappoint. It might make you think that shagging a teenager or somesuch is the sensible middle road. Or not… (Apologies if you require a subscription to access the FT article; I have one and so cannot tell you.)

De-briefed

June 26, 2009

To the lawyer’s office for a post mortem on the case against James Stephens, Leonardo Petturiti and the building firm now calling itself Lacos. Laura, the lawyer, tots up the numbers. We first issued lawyers letters in the hope of getting our roof fixed without the need for a case in 2001, after non-lawyerly pleading had been ignored. A case was initiated in 2002 and accepted by the court in October 2002. It effectively ended in June 2009, with a settlement but no judicial decision, though there will be a final hearing to celebrate the archivazione of the case on 7 July.

It total, there will have been 15 hearings over eight years of pre-trial and trial activity. However three of these are from recent weeks under the dashing Dr. Cenci (who, having resolved almost all of Citta di Castello’s outstanding legal issues in less than a year of tenure, is to move on this summer). If one subtracts the Cenci hearings and the period before the first hearing, then the core case averaged one ‘audience’ every seven months for something over six years. A good rule for a hearing, I think, is two hours of standing around followed by something over an hour of achieving not much, followed by lunch.

With respect to our standing at the end of the case, the numbers give the following reckoning:

Incoming

Fat Boy pays us:                                Euro3,000

Petturiti pays us:                               Euro3,000

LAME/LACOS pays us:                       Euro3,000

Total                Euro9,000

Outgoing

Lawyer, court fees, etc                   Euro4,500

Initial survey by new geometra

to substantiate our case                  Euro1,000

Court-mandated roof survey by

geometra who won’t go on roof *   Euro2,300

Total                Euro7,800

*(The submission of this  survey took 18 months, or three times the stipulated norm.)

So the difference is Euro1,200. That covers some of the cost of the materials required to fix the roof (including a replacement terrace flooring). But the majority of the expense on external repairs was in the form of labour. After Petturiti and the building firm had come back for a joke, one-day intervention in 2001, when they threw down some sealant borrowed from another site, I was so concerned with being ripped off again (and I think at the time also broke) that I worked myself as the labourer/operaio for a retired builder from Pietralunga in order to sort out the roof; it was he who taught me something about building and with whom I have enjoyed working ever since. In some places we laid new roofing felt and in others we variously used sealant and added a new line of tiles to cover a water run-off where felt had not been laid properly. It was not at every leaking point a perfect solution, but we worked carefully, and the roof has not leaked since. Frankly, once a roof has been screwed up, it is a difficult thing to remedy completely, which is why in many places (including northern Italy) roofing is a specialist job. In all, including the refinishing of a terrace, it probably took the two of us two weeks each.

In addition to this, the single biggest expense would be (if we had done them) repairs to internal damage – including discoloured oak steps on the staircase, which were damaged by leaking water before they were sealed, and streaks, stains and mould on painted walls. The latter is the most problematic because in our house, as in successive apartments we have had in Citta di Castello, we used a time-consuming and expensive painting technique involving a base of white calce, layers of calce-based natural colour, and a finishing layer of wax mixed with natural oils. The aesthetic possibilities of this technique are considerable, and the wax finish makes the walls cleanable, but if you get water coming in behind the surface, the wax means it has nowhere to go, hence mould. Given the cost, and the reality of three small kids in the house, we have redecorated only the room that was worst affected.

So what were the lessons from the case? The first, I think, is that if you have a problem with building work, take lots and lots of photographs of physical evidence yourself. I foolishly left most of this to the geometras who came to survey the damage. When I was covering one part of the roof in plastic to stop water coming in, and particularly while we were repairing different parts of the roof, there were ample opportunities to take more photographs to show exactly how roofing felt had been mis-applied. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems very silly not to have done this. I think that once we began to fix the roof I was just so relieved that something was being done that I lost my focus on the case. (I am not certain that photos taken while we did the repairs, when the case was already running, would be admissible; but they should still have been taken.) I also thought that another builder, who was then running his own firm, and who came up and saw (indeed explained) much of what had been done wrong, would provide clear testimony in the case.

That was lesson number two. Never expect a builder to provide testimony against another builder, never expect a geometra to provide clear testimony against another geometra. Lesson three is the biggest one of all. Don’t ever pay for anything until you are absolutely sure that you are getting what you are supposed to be getting. In many respects, deferred payment is the local solution to the absence of a functioning civil court system. Foreigners tend to hang themselves because they want to settle their accounts promptly. It would be better to take on board the local saying that: ‘For paying and for dying, there is always time.’ I, I’m afraid, fell into James Stephens’ trap of signing a delega to give him access to our Italian bank account. So by the time we actually came to live in Italy, and discovered our roof leaked, the builders, Petturiti and Fat Boy had long since taken their money and run.

Was the case worth it? In the sense that we could not get a decision, and the settlement barely covers the costs, clearly not. It is really the first of these things that is most depressing. When I started the case, and lots of people said it was a waste of time, my argument was that the justice system is slow, but in the end it functions (perhaps I meant that in the end surely it must function, ho, ho). I told friends that slow justice is not necessarily a bad thing if it discourages the kind of ambulance chasing you get in Anglo-Saxon societies. But in this case the justice system did not function at all. It was pretty unpleasant to see the studied inefficiency of the system at work. How magistrates arrived at a place where they do an hour’s work on a case every seven months I cannot imagine. It is as if management consultants had been called in and told the objective of the system is to achieve nothing.

I spent a lot of time during the case, especially when I had to go to the tribunale, thinking about how much decent people must be suffering because of this system. There is in fact some reasonably hard evidence that this is the case. Contrary to popular opinion, Italians score close to the bottom of the list in European surveys about happiness and satisfaction with their lives. What is particularly interesting is that when researchers attempt to figure out why this is – most often using questionnaires structured by psychologists – the clearest pattern that emerges is that there is some broad link between the level of trust in institutions in a society and aggregate levels of happiness. The latest iteration of a European survey project run by Cambridge University, published in April, had Italy right down at the bottom of the happiness table, the UK somewhere in the middle, and Scandinavian countries up at the top. One of those running the project remarks:

‘The survey shows that trust in society is very important. The countries that scored highest for happiness also reported the highest levels of trust in their governments, laws and each other…

Many of the happiest countries in the survey – the Scandinavian members, Luxembourg and the Netherlands – also come top of the World Bank Governance Indicators, which seek to assess the quality of a country’s government. Likewise those EU 15 countries that scored worst in terms of governance (Italy, Portugal and Greece) tended to come bottom in the happiness survey as well.’

Happiness surveys are notoriously difficult to do well, and one should not place too much credence in a single project. But for me, the findings are in line with arguments that have been made by people like Amartya Sen, and which I have come to find quite convincing. I used to think that important institutions – like a functioning legal system – were essential to economic development and hence, by logical extension, a developed country like Italy must have a functioning legal system (just a slow one). This line of argument is associated with some of the economists who practise what is known as New Institutional Economics, which has become quite fashionable in the past 10 years or so. However, after spending a decade in China, and almost a decade in Italy, I no longer believe in this reasoning. I think economic development can occur despite a highly inefficient legal system; indeed I think there are cases in China where the weakness of legal institutions has even (temporarily) contributed to economic growth by allowing narrow economic interests to trump social considerations. So instead of the ‘precondition of development’ argument about institutions, I now prefer an extension of Sen’s one about democracy. Sen has long argued that the debate about whether democracy is necessary to development is a sterile one, based on a false distinction. Democracy, he says, is a part of development, and so it is pointless debating whether it is also a condition for it. I suspect the same thing is true of some other institutions, including a civil legal system. A legal system in which people can trust makes for a more contented society; all societies seek to develop in the direction of greater contentment; what Italy confronts is in essence a developmental problem.

Anyhow, that seems to have taken us quite a long way from James Stephens and Leo Petturiti, but perhaps someone will follow my drift.

Housekeeping. I hope there will not be too many of these… A comment has been submitted which I am not going to post. The sender: Emilia Maccioni (the wife of Leonardo Petturiti). Reasons for not posting: 1. absence of any substantive content. 2. remarks likely to cause offence to anybody who has suffered, or who has friends or family who have suffered, from any form of mental illness. I don’t mind what people say about me, but general bigotry is off-limits.

Le tre vaselle (Torgiano, Umbria)

June 22, 2009

This restaurant is part of a small hotel in the centre of the village/small town of Torgiano, headquarters of the Lungarotti wine group, located south-east of Perugia, just off the E45. From Citta di Castello it is something under an hour by car…

I am not in a period of my life when I am much taken with expensive restaurants. I seem to get cheaper as I get older, or at least I place ever more value on things that are good and at a price that puts them within reach of (almost) everyody. Nonetheless, we had a good lunch at Le Tre Vaselle, which is quite pricey (though not, of course, by London or other big city standards). I can’t tell you what it actually cost because a Sicilian friend snuck out and paid for everybody, offering the lame excuse that as the only person born in Italy he was constrained to do this. Antipasti and primi are around Euro10-12, secondi more like Euro16-26. We didn’t drink wine, apart from a nice half glass of prosecco which they gave us unsolicited.

The portions are made so that some people will want to eat three courses and a dessert. We started with zucchini flowers stuffed with a light mix of lake Trasimeno freshwater prawns, passed momentarily under the grill; these and the accompanying sauce were pretty good. Then I went for pastry-wrapped veal (not had this in Italy before) with three types of pepper, while others had topinambour-stuffed half-moon ravioli with a truffle sauce, and bavette pasta (like tagliatelle, but thinner) with tiny prawns. Topinambour is what the English call Jerusalem artichoke; according to the wife, the Italians named it after a Brazilian dance troupe that was popular in the country when the root vegetable was introduced; whereas the English name Jerusalem is here believed to be a perversion — as a result of mishearing — of girasole (sunflower plant), to which family topinambour is related. Anyhow, everyone was happy, especially the consumer of the seafood bavette, which I always think is tempting but very hard to do well (the ‘amatriciana dilemma’ if you like). To finish we ate some cherries and shared a plate of cinammon ice-cream.

What can I say? We hadn’t seen each other for a long time and there was a new baby, so it was always going to be a good lunch. The restaurant has a somewhat institutional feel, but it was actually rather nice to be somewhere quiet and a little formal. And the food fits with the modest formality. The deal sort of reminds me of the Taverna del Lupo at Gubbio. We will, at some judicious moment, return.

Not so hip

June 19, 2009

 A sad story gets sadder. Our friend Claudia calls to say that Roberta’s funeral is to be held this afternoon. Roberta was one of the many Italian hippies who live in the area between our house and Pietralunga. She died from liver failure related to hepatitis, and complicated by drinking — not least after doctors told her she mustn’t. She was Neapolitan, born to a well-to-do family and she chose the hippy life; she died in her forties. Her octogenarian mother, a quiet, diligent and practical woman who to many seemed indestructible, passed away in March. In October 2007, Roberta’s husband Aldo Bianzino (or perhaps partner, I never asked) died in prison custody after being arrested by police for growing marijuana; he was also in his 40s; a homicide case is, needless to say, outstanding. (There is an outline in Italian on this site and a short letter to the Italian government in English from a pro-legalisation group here.)

So in a beautiful, tiny and now rarely used cemetery in the nearby hills three graves in a row have been dug and filled in the past 18 months for the same small family. Of those living locally, only Aldo and Roberta’s son Rudra (lots of Indian names in Pietralunga…), still of school age, survives.

 Not being partial to a chillum before breakfast and doubting the power of their sacred fire statues, I didn’t know Aldo and Roberta intimately. But Aldo was a more than competent carpenter who made most of the doors and the very fine and very heavy kitchen table in our house. Indeed I wonder what he might have achieved if he hadn’t been so stoned: I once spent five minutes watching him trying to hang a door that he was holding the wrong way up; on another occasion he cut through both a piece of wood and the  tape measure he had laid out next to it with a circular saw, paused for several seconds, and then said: ‘Ooooooooooogh’. While Aldo was anorexically skinny and diffident, Roberta was frenetic, endlessly talkative and a lethal driver in the finest Neapolitan tradition. The two of them were capable of spectacular arguments. Our friend Lele recalls the first time he met them, when they came round to his house to talk about carpentry work. Earlier that day, Aldo had suggested to Roberta that she talked too much. So Roberta had cursed him and sworn that she would never in her life speak again. Lele opened the door to find Aldo, who then sported a mat of long dreadlocks and a bushy beard on top of his tiny frame, dressed in his modified Indian garb and covered from head to foot in sawdust. He said nothing. Next to him, a wild-eyed Roberta produced sounds but no words, and made zipping gestures across her mouth interspersed with occasional gestures towards Aldo. As I recall, they got the job.  

The site of the cemetery is below the house of Raidas, which is the nom de paix (or whatever hippy sobriquets are called) of one of the senior members of the group. In a previous life, he was Mario from Bologna. The house was a priest’s house, attached to a tiny church, and bought from the curia around 20 years ago. If Hollywood was scouting for a setting for a new movie called Love Children of the Appennines, the director could do worse than this place. Outside the little church is a shaded seating area with the biggest cherry tree I know, and below that a simple but elegant garden. There’s also an Indian temple thingy, all very tastefully done.

In reality, from what I have seen, however, the story of the group has not been Hollywood fare. Instead there have been suicides, other premature deaths, and pervasive depression. Of course one can’t make clear judgements, because one doesn’t know what experiences and what predispositions led individuals into the group in the first place.  But it hasn’t been an easy ride.

We follow the coffin from the house down to the cemetery. Although I would have thought that few of those present would claim to be Christian, one of the Pietralunga priests presides and most people participate in the Roman Catholic gesticulations. Roberta is laid to rest by the gate of the cemetery, which is walled. She is separated from Aldo by her mother which, while they undoubtedly loved one another, may be a sensible arrangement. Flowers, mostly those of ginestra, and candles are set out on the grave. It is swelteringly hot, but people take their time to say goodbye. And then they wander, in ones and twos, back up to the house. I talk with people I haven’t seen for some time. Lele chats with the lawyer in the Aldo homicide case. And then I make my excuses and leave.

The situation with respect to Rudra is potentially a huge mess, not least because of Italy’s patchy and idiosyncratic welfare state. But I suspect that it is one of those situations that is so horrible that somebody in the system will do something. Roberta’s brother is willing to move down permanently from Munich, where he has lived for many years, to look after Rudra while he finishes his schooling. But he needs a steady job in order to do so. My guess is that the Pietralunga Commune, which knows all about the case, will find him one.

Big and small boys’ toys

June 12, 2009

Pestered with the usual impressive application by my four-year-old son, we stop at a bar next to the Cerbarra petrol station for a pasta, and there meet Mario and Carlo from nearby Agrisystem, out on a coffee break. Of all the people I know who run businesses in the area, I think I like Mario and Carlo the best.

Why? Because they take responsibility for the stuff they sell. When you buy something from them, you know that if something goes wrong they will sort it out.

We pop over to get a can of pre-mix for the strimmer; it costs more but I find the petrol/oil mix from petrol stations highly corrosive of the plastic tank and tubes on my strimmer. The machine doesn’t consume much fuel, even with our large garden, and it starts first time with the stuff Mario sells. Since we are there, he invites Luca, 4, to select a tractor-mower he would like to drive from the large assemblage outside. Moments later, Luca cruises by in the biggest tractor there is. I get to stand around pretending I wouldn’t be interested in driving it myself.

Luca pronounces himself impressed with the number of buttons on the machine, which far exceeds the complexity of our own ten-year-old bottom of the range affair; focusing, as ever, on the critical issue, he informs Mario that we need a tractor with headlights for ‘night-time work’. Mario agrees that his father is indeed a fool for not having one.

A couple of days later, I get a reminder of why Mario and Carlo (the mechanic) are people who make life easier. The tractor-mower’s ignition is broken. The grass is long, and growing. Mario would come out if asked, but we can get the machine on the back of the pick-up  truck (tied up, with the back door open). So I call him. He says he has every part that could go wrong with an ignition in the warehouse and he will put a new battery, which I have been avoiding buying (by jump starting when it is cold) for a year, on charge. I say I’m in a hurry and he says that if I come down the next morning, they will do the work while I wait. In the event, it isn’t necessary as I have other things to do in town. So I leave the tractor and pick it up in the afternoon. Carlo, as a matter of course, has sharpened the cutting blades and set the tire pressures.

Before we leave, there’s just one more thing: ‘Luca — which tractor?’ He goes for a mid-size yellow one, again with a lot of knobs and headlights, and loads of gears. I try to do my not-interested face.

Shitty ending

May 19, 2009

My premonitions about Dr. Cenci’s determination to reduce the number of outstanding court cases in Citta di Castello prove to be somewhat accurate. On the morning of May 19, 2009, our case against James Fat Boy Stephens, his geometra Leonardo Petturiti, and the building firm once known as LAME (boy does that look like a warning in hindsight, even though it means ‘blades’ in Italian) ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper.

It is at least fitting that Giorgio Merli, the frequently drunken builder who was probably most responsible for leaving gaps on our roof where water-proof roofing felt would more normally be applied, is present on the part of the now-defunct LAME (reborn as LACOS, in case they are on your roof as you read). On the other hand Giorgio is perhaps just one of life’s sad people; it is his brother who is studiously unpleasant and who perjured himself unashamedly in court. To Giorgio’s left is Fat Boy and to Fat Boy’s left is his bouffant court jester, little Leo Petturiti.

Cenci begins the way he means to continue: ‘Is it possible for the parties to arrive at an agreement? This case has been going on for nine years.’ He says this as if it is the fault of an organisation other than the one he works for.

Fat Boy’s Perugia lawyer offers Euro7,000. This is against an estimate (based on standardised, state-approved costs) of something over Euro13,000 that was calculated for the cost of repairs (most of them now done) to the roof. I say no, for two reasons. The first is that the Italian legal system being what it is we only brought one case against Fat Boy, when in fact we were unhappy about all sorts of things that happened at our house before we sacked him. This leads to the second, key reason, that what I really want is a decision by the court that says that what these people have done is wrong, legally wrong, and that ultimately we have a judicial system that establishes that.  The defendants haven’t been conciliatory for the past eight years, they didn’t give a toss when the roof leaked in 12 places and my wife was pregnant (Petturiti finds this remarkably funny), they have sought at every turn to prolong the case, and it is not really a question of money, it is a question of principle and of being able to say that dishonesty does catch up with you.

Unfortunately, Dr. Cenci and I don’t seem to be on quite the same wavelength. His overriding concern appears to me to be to get the case closed — at least I don’t like the faces he makes when I suggest the court moves to a ruling, which would involve reading all the files (it is quite clear he has not read anything so far). Fat Boy’s Perugia lawyer ups the offer a bit, Cenci talks about the case going on for many more years, my lawyer points out that if Cenci allows the other side to send the court-appointed geometra to our house a third time — as has been requested — it will likely be two more years before we get even an initial decision which, of course, they can then appeal.

Numbers are discussed in the background. I am fairly sure that at one point Fat Boy offered more than I actually accepted. I am not really concentrating. I am thinking that I can’t face more of this when we now have estate ageent Davide Leonardi of Leonardi SRL to deal with (more anon). After nine years I have all the evidence I need that the local court system is everything that caricature books about Italy indicate. I have what I need for anecdotal purposes and it is time to start doing something useful. For nine years I respected the court, waited for it to do its job, and did not publicise what Fat Boy and his crew get up to. The few preparatory entries on this blog have not been publicised and they have not, according to the blog software, been viewed. Now that can change.

I accept Euro9,000 and ask Cenci a question: ‘Why is it that with a system like this there isn’t more crime in Italy? Why doesn’t every thief in Europe come here?’ It is a cheap parting shot, but it is also a reasonably serious question. Luckily for Italy, the predictions of mathematised models beloved of contemporary social science rarely stand up to empirical tests — if it were the case, this place would truly be an anarchic hell.

Finally, the farcical addendum. There is, of course, inevitably, a farcical addendum. After we leave, our lawyer recommends that we apply for state compensation that exists for people whose legal cases exceed the current duration ‘norm’ (around three or four years). My immediate response is that there is no way that I am taking taxpayers’ money to compensate me for the incompetence and inefficiency of the state. The lawyer’s argument, however, is that this is one’s only available form of legal protest against a system that does not work. We discuss, and eventually agree to go ahead, on the basis that if we get the money we will not keep it. The compensation is around Euro1,500 for every ‘excessive’ year in court. If you would like to recommend a deserving local charity, please do so…


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