From Our Baltic Logbook: A Glimpse Of Tuscany From A Post-Communist Perspective

Our editor Mateusz Zatonski travels to Tuscany in order to prepare for a language exam and discovers the peculiarities of crisis-stricken Italy, which seems rather similar to Poland – at least to some extent.

Speaking Italian can make you depressed. This is a conclusion you come to after spending two weeks preparing for a language certificate exam in Tuscany, one of Italy’s most famous and wealthiest regions. This is, of course, not synonymous with ‘visiting Italy can make you depressed’. After all, how can 14 days of pleasant evening strolls along the beach, touring some of the world’s most beautiful medieval towns, and being persistently stuffed with delicious food I could only dream of in London on my student budget, make one depressed? No, it was precisely ‘speaking Italian’, i.e. communicating with the locals of the Boot in a language they felt comfortable in, that made me cross the Austrian border at Tarvisio with a rather grim thought drilled into my head…

‘Italy is going to hell, any Italian will tell you that’, repeated the elegant 50-something year old gentleman I chatted with over lunch. He was right. Over the two weeks spent in Tuscany, alongside conditional forms of verbs, another form of common knowledge was relayed to me by the locals – that the country of my mother’s ancestors is facing imminent doom. Not one Toscano I spoke to has failed to mention the severity of the economic crisis in Italy within the first 5 minutes of our conversation. ‘There are no jobs’ quickly became a recurring refrain of my conversations.

Other frequent themes of my Italian practice with the locals were the collapse of Italian artisanship, the decline of tourism, evils of East European immigration, the decay of the mezzogiorno, and the takeover of Italian industry by foreigners. The latter include John Elkann, the New York-born heir of the Agnelli industrial empire, the founders of Fiat, who, to the horror of my Italian grammar teachers, cannot even properly use the subjunctive in spoken Italian (the fact that Fiat is moving many of its production plants from abroad back to Italy seemed less important for her). My Swiss classmates, most of whom hailed from the Italian-speaking Ticino canton, willingly joined this exercise in commiseration. ‘Yes, they’re just flooding Switzerland. First it was the ones from Sicily, then the ones from Rome, now even the ones from Milan.’. My quip about those damn Swiss taking the jobs in the City from the Londoners wasn’t kindly taken.  ‘We once were a proud and rich country’, sorrowfully concluded my Italian conversation teacher, ‘now we are the laughing stock of Europe’.

Beautiful Tuscany - © Mateusz Zatonski

Beautiful Tuscany – © Mateusz Zatonski

Despite my initial skepticism towards this doom-mongering, the passion with which Italians reported the horrific effects the economic crisis is having on their country soon made me a convert. Why was I even bothering to improve my knowledge of the tongue of those ruined people?

Only after escaping the clutches of italophony could I rethink what I have been told and what I saw without being constantly exposed to this ‘propaganda of failure’. As I embarked on the journey back north I listened to some other tongues on my car radio. This remedy proved to work wonders. First, on a literary show on the Italian public radio, the Israeli intellectual Eyal Weizman, joined by a number of Anglophone writers, spent half of his allocated time praising the quality of Italian publishing houses and book translations, rating them as the most efficient in the world. This reminded me of a peculiarity of Tuscany I have never seen anywhere else – every town I visited, no matter how small, had a large bookshop which was brim-full of customers. (Incidentally, in the same radio show Roberto Saviano, the author of Gomorrah, complained that no one wants to speak about mafia in Italy any longer, as the economic crisis takes all the headlines).

When the radio slipped into the less mellifluous and less familiar Germanic tones as I entered Austria, I quickly gathered that I was listening to an ‘Italiano Samstag’ radio show, with the choice of songs ranging from Al Bano’s Italo-disco favourites to the cult song-writer Lucio Dalla. As I reached Vienna, and the Italian music was replaced by Bavarian sounding sing-alongs I promptly moved to Hungarian airwaves. There I was welcome by the newest song of the Italian rapper Jovanotti. After that I was not even particularly surprised when every third song on the Czech radio proved to be a remake of an Italian classic, and that when I arrived to Poland the first show was an interview with a Polish fashion designer talking about the persisting strength of Italian fashion firms such as D&G or Versace. It seemed that the non-italophone media were all desperately trying to contradict what I have heard time and time again during my stay in Tuscany – that Italian soft power is fading away into nothingness.

Tuscan Hillside Town - © Mateusz Zatonski

Tuscan Hillside Town – © Mateusz Zatonski

This was topped off by a facebook message from an Italian friend that was waiting for me once I got back home. She was inviting me for a concert of the célèbre Yugoslavian musician Goran Bregovic in Calabria, at the very south of the Italian boot – a region that my Tuscan interlocutors attempted to convince me is a cultural desert, a foretaste of the fate the rest of Italy will imminently meet. The concert is to be held in an ancient Greek amphitheatre on the seaside, recently renovated precisely to hold such events. La crisi indeed.

I started reviewing the few observations I have made through the crisis-coloured spectacles my Tuscan interlocutors handed me for my stay. Where the beaches really empty because people don’t have any money, or rather because it was only may, and weather-wise this spring has been the worst Italy has seen in decades? How about those beggars on the streets of Tuscan towns? Should their growing numbers really be seen as a symptom of the crisis, as the locals insisted, or rather of the persisting belief that this is a country rich enough for its people to be able to share their money with the mendicants – none of the drifters I met were Italian, most were East European and/or Romani.

The ‘there are no jobs’ refrain was also always thrown at me by people who were clearly employed – from teachers, through restaurant-owners, to advocates and doctors. The most curious case was that of a dottore commercialista (which, as Wikipedia informs me, stands more or less for ‘tax advisor’) who over his 1.5 lunch break in a Florentine restaurant brimful of locals complained to me how the crisis made it necessary for him to pay for his daughters Master’s in Economics at Cambridge in two instalments, rather than in advance.

While Italians are undoubtedly undergoing one of the most difficult times in the last decades, it remains very difficult for someone coming from the post-Communist world, even from a dynamically developing country such as Poland, to fully empathise with much of their grumbling. This is especially true in Tuscany, a region of less than 4 million inhabitants, visited annually by over 14 million tourists, with one of the strongest brands in the world in fashion, culture, crafts, cuisine, and much more.

As it turned out, my stay in Tuscany was summarised most aptly already on the day I got there. As I stopped in a seaside Tuscan town to recalibrate the GPS, after less than 30 seconds I heard a knock on the car window. The ‘knocker’ was an aging women with a bicycle, who of course turned out to be Polish, and a recent economic migrant to Italy. Asked how she’s enjoying life her new country she said, ‘it’s as you see – the weather is great, the country is much better organised than anything you could hope for in Poland, and there is plenty of work for those who are willing to take it. The only thing I don’t like is how much the people here complain – they’re almost as bad as the Poles!’.

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