It was the former French actor Gerard Depardieu’s latest spoutings – former because he now considers himself to be a citizen of the world rather than French, and is so scathing about the industry he used to populate that we can only surmise that he no longer wants any attachment to it whatsoever – that have got me thinking about a country which remains deeply embedded in the patchwork of my life to date.
Speaking to Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera ahead of the publication of his book Innocent, he claimed “France risks becoming a Disneyland for foreigners, populated by fools who do wine and cheese that stinks for tourists.” But of Italy, though granted it was the country in which he was attempting to launch his latest “tome”, he was far more accepting: “fortunately, you have not lost your culture and your identity because you are a young country, born with Garibaldi.”
Italy is indeed a young country, but it is also an extraordinary country in so many different ways and different facets of that word. The sheer beauty of the landscape and historical richness are undeniable. Italy has 51 World Heritage Sites to its name, more than any other country on earth.
Italy is divided in 20 regions – autonomous entities with powers defined in the constitution – and then sub-divided into provinces. There have been 64 different governments formed in Italy since the end of the Second World War, with only one completing a full 5 year term. Trying to get one’s head around that figure alone goes some way to explaining the disjointed, regional chemistry of the country, with central government unable to stamp its authority and create any meaningful impact.
The country’s finances are in tatters. Government debt stands at just over 2.3 trillion euros, around 135% of GDP, with non-performing bank loans making up a massive 20% of issuance and the government no longer able to prize itself out of financial difficulty by devaluing its currency as it had done before the advent of the euro. Pretty scary figures by anyone’s take on a balance sheet.
Yet despite the doom and gloom of the bigger picture, the inefficiency of the political system, the deeply embedded corruption and the seemingly impenetrable bureaucracy which seeks to confuse and lengthen every aspect of daily administration, Italy to all intents and purposes appears not to have lost its culture and identity, at least not on a superficial level.
The Palio is still fiercely contested by the ten representative Contrade in Siena, the best mozzarella is still found in Campania, the smallest, sweetest basil leaves are still picked in Liguria to make the most outstanding pesto, Opera still resounds from the stunning Arena di Verona, Orecchiette are still delicately moulded by hand in the trulli doorways in Puglia, white truffles are still dug out from amongst the roots in Piedmont in the Autumn, revellers still peek from behind ornate masks in Venice and the very best pizza is still to be found in Naples.
In short, nothing in Italy has changed. It is still a beautiful, vibrant, diverse, exciting, historical and cultural country, steeped in tradition and driven by passion, tradition and a deep love and understanding of the good things in life. Long may these outweigh its considerable challenges.