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Italian Kaleidoscope



News from Calabristan

As Mr. Silvan Berluscoff, the Italbashi (Father of all Italstanis) stated when he was still prime minister, Italstan is a highly developed country because it holds the world record in cellphone ownership. Doubts have surfaced, however, if progress can really be measured in that way. These doubts were dramatically emphasized when the Deputy Governor of a southern province, Calabristan, was shot dead by two unknown gangsters in the local parliament building.

Italstan's media turned their attention to the southern province, and found astonishing things. Among the Calabris, a whopping 27 percent of the population of over 2 million is considered criminal, more than in neighboring Siculia where a puny 10 percent allowed the crime syndicate Our Thing to flourish and become the largest and richest employer in Italstan.

Calabristan can claim to be the world's first truly free zone, i.e. a region in which the state has for all practical purposes been eliminated, and all power now rests with spontaneous, family based popular associations called mafia. Finally, Italstan's venerable centenarian tradition of anarchist movements has found a homestead in the deep South which some sneering and racist Northerners love to mispronounce Saudi Calabria.

Fact is that there is no judicial system to speak of left over in Calabristan. The natural desire of the families to kill judges and bribe prosecutors has received strong support from the national capital, Tiberopol, where the Italbashi's government is waging a fierce battle against the judiciary and cutting its funds.

As signs of success, none of the 28 murder cases this year has been resolved. In fact, members of the families are said to be sure to commit any crime they desire with impunity. Their power is so absolute that, after the death of the Deputy Governor, none among the numerous condolences received by the widow dared to mention the violence of his death or point any finger at the most likely perpetrators. Even close friends limited themselves to poetically regretting his “premature passing.” The Italbashi himself forgot to offer his condolences to the widow, a widely noted omission. The Minister of the Interior, Mr. Pisanoff, visited Calabristan, found the state in full control and promised to step up the campaign against the families. That might not be easy, because all public prosecutors in Calabristan had been summoned to Tiberopol and were found to be too close to the families to be able to perform their duties.

Meanwhile, the powerful clans have grown from modest, folkloristic origins to global players. They are said to be represented in numerous countries in five continents and control, among other remunerative activities, the cocain trade. Their turnover is estimated to exceed the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Calabristan by 20 percent. They have even encroached on the territory of the neighboring Eto Mojo and are now considered the most powerful syndicate in Italstan.

While Calabristan is busy enjoying its state-free status, the national administration in Tiberopol has a problem.

The Italbashi was planning to apply for membership in the European Union and hoped to get in right behind Romania and Turkey. But Brussels let it be known that Italstan would not qualify for the strict standards of the European Union unless it cleaned up Calabristan and the other southern provinces, as well as pervasive corruption elsewhere.

One prime minister of a small Central European country has allegedly threatened: “We will veto the entry of Italstan if the more law-abiding Albania is not admitted beforehand.”

Democracy in Italstan

Little is known about the Central Asian republic of Italstan which, unfortunately, has neither oil nor a common border with Afghanistan. However, the country has a highly original system of democracy which is the pride of its former prime minister, Mr. Silvan Berluscoff who is in the local language also known as Italbashi or “Father of all Italstanis”.

Mr. Berluscoff is a daunting personality. Not only is he the richest man in his country but he also controls, directly or indirectly, all TV and radio stations which are singing his praise, day in, day out. Yet, he is a modest man. No statues of him have been erected anywhere; only his official portraits are exchanged regularly after he has become younger looking, or growing new hair on his balding forehead (the only thing growing in Italstan, a local newspaper recently found).

Not only is he modest but also extremely generous. He loves to distribute Christmas gifts among his followers, especially among the 180 members of parliament belonging to his party Cosa Italstani.

After a long and difficult year of 2004 during which his MPs had to vote for many controversial draft laws they were regally rewarded by the Italbashi. Each of them received from the party a treadmill of the Technogym brand, worth 3,957 euro — said to be the same the Italbashi himself is using to keep himself in ever younger shape. After having charged the coffers of Cosa Italstani with the 180 treadmills, the Great Man himself added a Longines wristwatch worth 2,500 euro as his personal gift to every male MP while the lady MPs received from him rings and earclips branded Damiani studded with diamonds and black pearls which, according to rumors from the party headquarters, cost a few hundred euro more than the watches. A true gentleman, a “cavalier”, as they say in Italstan, who knows what he owes his ladies.

As a true patriot, the Italbashi loves tradition. Every year since 2001 he and his party had distributed nice Christmas gifts among the MPs. In 2003 they got a 21' plasma screen TV as follow-up on a DVD player the year before and a Nokia Communicator cell phone in 2001. Diamond studded bracelets and Piaget watches also helped maintaining the spirit of reforming Italstan.

Small wonder that Mr. Berluscoff can count on the unwavering loyalty of his representatives in parliament. Now he is working on a new election law which, according to watchful observers, might aim at making him permanently eligible.

Small wonder also, that the other parties — especially those of the opposition — are in terrible disarray. Look at what their MPs received from their party for Christmas: a box of wine and pungent cheese; or choice of a necktie and a shawl; a book by Ratzinger or a DVD of the Passion of Christ movie. One particularly adventurous bunch of MPs “adopted” a group of orphans in Burundi. Some even complained about the allegedly bad habit of distributing gifts.

As if gifts were not essential to grease the wheels of a truly functioning democracy.

Thank you, Rome

"Ooahh" is a male voice shouting, "ooaahh" a crowd of 300,000 responding. The brutal noise of the concert for Africa is wafting through the Roman midsummer night. What is good for Africa is good for Rome. Africa is a next door neighbor: many Roman families have friendship or blood ties to Africa. The Africans know how to respond: a big poster, clumsily written and carried among the rock crowd on Circus Maximus says "Grazie Roma", thank you, Rome.

While Italy is deeply stuck in economic and political woes, Rome is showing explosive vitality. The city is growing by leaps and bounds; new quarters outside the city boundaries springing up with high risers, shopping malls, large and mostly unfinished public works and highways. What is still rubble and chaos will, in a few years' time, have become overgrown with pine trees, cypresses, eucalypti and date palms. Oleander and bougainvillea will run riot in pink, white and red, and cover much ugly and abusive construction.

How many people are now living in Greater Rome? Three million? Four million?

Everywhere in Italy, tourism is lagging. Inflation is taking its toll. Italians are reducing the number of days they spend at the beach or in the mountains, and foreigners increasingly prefer less expensive countries such as Croatia and Turkey.

But tourism in Rome is exploding. High and sometimes even double digit growth rates year after year, as if the Eternal City was the capital of China. No limit in sight. All the world wants to visit Rome, and the tourism economy is booming with hotel rates higher than in Paris and London.

While historic downtown is, all year round, occupied by foreign tourists, Rome's daily life goes on unchanged in the myriad of neighborhoods just outside the center where no tourist ever ventures.

The local markets are full of marvelous vegetable and fruit, freshly baked breads and fish of dubious origin. Icecream is as delicious as ever; a double espresso will send you to the emergency room; and restaurants still have no English menu.

Yet, Rome is the capital of Italy. "The New Italian Miracle" was recently heralded by a local magazine. The miracle consists of the observation that Italy is now Europe's worst performer according to many economic and social criteria.

The official Bureau of Statistics ISTAT which has been openly accused of manipulating some of its data is now stating that the Italian economy is in recession. Even a few brighter spots turn dark at close scrutiny: a government agency discovered that medical drug prices in recent years, which according to ISTAT rose by a mere 0.1 percent, had by their standards risen by 16 percent. A criminal investigation is pending.

A reduction in 2004 in levels of unemployment resulted, according to ISTAT, partly from having legalized illegal immigrant labor in northern Italy, and partly from more women dropping out of unemployment statistics in the South because of lack of prospects of ever finding a job.

Although the Berlusconi administration continues to be a tough fighter against global terrorism, some citizens think that even more needs to be done. The Public Prosecutor of Genova discovered that fascists, overeager police officers, shady free masons and intelligence agents had jointly formed a "parallel police" corps in order to fight terrorism, Islamists and sundry suspicious foreigners. Survivors of earlier foiled attempts to overthrow Italy's democratic government had formed this "special police department", had managed to tap ministerial data bases, and had adorned themselves with the insignia of a government department.

Rightly or wrongly pretending that they were recognized as a parastatal agency they patrolled Islamic immigrant quarters, spied on their activities and persecuted their population, delivered reports to security agencies, and helped police to repatriate undesirable elements. In addition, they had formed a new neo-fascist party since they were apparently dissatisfied with the performance of the right wing National Alliance party, a junior partner in Mr. Berlusconi's coalition.

Although the outcome of four years of Mr. Berlusconi's economic policies is depressing, he managed to win a major victory on another front: In the year to April 2005, for the first time in many years, Italy saw more children born than deaths recorded.

What has happened? Romance winning over consumerism and fear of the future? Or the end of the one-child fashion? No, it seems that most of the additional children were born to foreign parents in northern Italy, and some of the deaths did not occur in 2004/2005 because the heat wave of 2003 had caused a spike in mortality which had temporarily reduced the numbers of those at risk.

Anyhow, a glance at Rome's sidewalks instils the visitor with hope that, some day, bambini will again outnumber dogs.

Unemployment

Italy has finally found a solution for its persistent labor market problem. In the third quarter of 2004, unemployment has hit the lowest mark since 1992 with 7.4 percent, according to the official Institute of Statistics, ISTAT. A magnificent performance which puts Italy ahead of many other European countries, including Spain, France and Germany.

How did Italy achieve this goal? Is it heralding a promising future for other countries plagued by unemployment?

During the third quarter of 2004, Italy registered an increase in employment by 93,000, or 0.4 percent of the total labor force, mainly hired in northwest Italy where the construction sector is booming. A few were also absorbed by the tertiary sector whereas industrial employment continued its apparently endless downward trend. The total of jobs offered declined by 44,000 in 2004, indicating a tightening market.

Most importantly, however, ISTAT reported that an estimated 2 million Italians have lost all hope of ever finding a job and have therefore left the labor market. Especially in the southern provinces more and more people don't bother any more to register with the public employment offices because they see themselves as being without a chance. As a result, unemployment statistics are deflated.

Raffaele Bonanni, a spokesman of one of Italy's largest trade union associations, CISL, told the newspaper La Repubblica that Italy had resumed the trend toward emigration. "Like in the 1950s, at least some 200,000 unemployed mainly from the South packed up and left," mainly for northern Italy or to eastern Europe where they follow Italian companies setting up production facilities to exploit the low cost of local labor which also reduces the remuneration of Italian expatriate workers.

Several Italian politicians and trade unionists also warned that many people only manage to keep their jobs or find other ones by accepting lower wages or salaries and less favorable working conditions.

In conclusion, Italy's success in fighting unemployment appears like a pyrrhic victory. Still, it could be a precursor of what might happen in other European countries, as well.

Mamma li turchi!

Italy is essentially a country without Turks. And yet it is spearheading the fight against Turkey's integration in the European Union. Not all of Italy, fortunately. Only the Lega Nord, a partner in Berlusconi's government coalition, is crying wolf and clamoring for a referendum, much to Mr. Berlusconi's unhappiness.

The Northern League is always good for xenophobic overkill. Its leader once suggested to shoot with cannons at the rafts of boat people crossing the Mediterranean. But this time, the League really excelled in what the Italians call “racism” by mounting a large and noisy demonstration in Milan against Turkey's adhesion — after Brussels and the Italian government had given the green light. Shortly before, the Lega had caused a scandal in the Italian parliament by unfolding a large banner against Turkey's adhesion.

Luigino Vascon, 47, from Vicenza, MP for the Lega Nord, granted an interesting interview on December 17th to the newspaper Il Messaggero in which he repeated what an unusual witness for the Turkish danger, Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Ghaddafi had recently said. In an interview he had stated that Turkey was the Trojan horse of Osama bin Laden, and the European Union would be foolish to admit the country.

Bolstered by such a strong argument, Vascon saw Turkey as the bridgehead of Islamic fundamentalism. What to do, he asked the interviewer, when a bomb explodes under a stroller in the street or when bombs are hidden in milk bottles outside the door? He thought people were fed up with all this immigration. He sleeps with the gun under his bed, he said, and his neighbors are doing the same because as hunters they all have guns.

The fear of the Muslims is so strong in his area, he said, that not only the entrance doors of the houses are armored, but also the doors of the rooms and the bathrooms. He quoted a cousin of his who manufactures armored doors, making good money.

The Muslims even slide into the beds of the couples, he explained, killing the husband first and then the wife, and doing the same with old people.

Finally, he praised the local staple food of northern Italy, the polenta, and cursed the couscous.

There was a small problem with this argument which the Messaggero failed to indicate: Couscous is not eaten in Turkey but in North Africa, and polenta is called by the Viennese (who had in history some brushing with the Turks) Tuerkensterz, or Turkish grits. Maize (corn), from which polenta is mainly made, is called in Italian granoturco, Turkish grain.

Asked about the League's anti-adhesion drive, a Turkish actress, Serra Yilmaz, commented in La Repubblica: It's all a problem of ignorance. These people don't know much about Turkey and can't distinguish between Turks and Arabs.

Italy at the Dead End?

Finally, after two years, Italy's inflation policy is yielding the long expected results. Mistaking the euro currency for just another version of the old lira, Italy had followed its ingrained inflationary instincts as before.

Clearly, this could not be expected to last for a long time. In the absence of a government press printing money, the supply of euros did not expand as fast as the inflation required. For about two years, the rapid growth of consumer credit at the new, seemingly low interest rates, helped fill the money supply gap.

But now the moment of truth has arrived. Squeezed between very slowly rising or stagnant incomes, a rapidly rising cost of living, and the need to service old and new consumer credit, Italian families cannot continue to afford their normal standard of living.

According to recent figures published by the Italian Institute of Statistics ISTAT, about 47 percent of all households want to save but are unable to do so. Most of the remaining 53 percent are making some savings but only because they are afraid of the future.

While initially only the savings potential was affected, it is now the consumption which is also suffering. In October 2004, the Italians consumed 2.7 percent less than in the same month a year earlier. The reductions are going across the board, says ISTAT, affecting all sectors including medicine, food, clothing, computers and publications. Only one sector continues to grow: gadget technologies such as cell phones and video phones.

While the retail trade is whining and has in a few cases even started to cut prices — something unheard of before —, the state has not yet understood the message. An avalanche of higher taxes and fees has been announced for 2005 by central government agencies, provinces and cities. A round of tax reductions promised by Prime Minister Berlusconi are said to favor mainly the rich.

While government entities are busy running the economy into the ground, deflation is looming beyond the horizon. Italy has become, for the first time in postwar history, an expensive country for the average consumer. Northern Italians are flocking in rapidly growing numbers on shopping sprees to neighboring countries, especially Germany and Austria, where they find even typical Italian products such as clothing, shoes, olive oil, cheese and wine more cheaply than at home. Abroad, technical goods often cost only half of the Italian price. To handle the Italian invasion, downtown stores in Munich, for instance, have hired Italian speaking staff in addition to their traditional Turkish and Greek sales personnel. In central and southern Italy where there are no neighboring countries within easy reach, consumers are left to tightening belts.

Chances are that it will take a full generation to wean Italians from their inflationary habits, heralding years of economic stagnation due to chronic shortage of purchasing power. Decades of government and local policies that blocked the modernization of the retail sector are now backfiring. The darling of the politicians, the myriad of mom-and-pop stores, are unable to handle the crisis and are forced to close down or operate at a loss, and there are no Wal-Marts around to come to the rescue of the hard pressed consumer. Even the few stores in Italy operated by foreign European retail chains such as Metro and Carrefour are usually more expensive than in their home country. A brave exception are the few stores of the German grocery discount chain Lidl where Italians are looking bewildered at German made mortadella sausage and mascarpone cheese, wondering if this is heralding the end of Italy's food culture.

Tazio's Children
Mancato uso sterzo perdono 4 punti patente (Modern Italian poetry)

Few great men have left such a deep impression on Italy as Tazio Nuvolari, the king of the motorcycle and car race tracks for nearly three decades. Ferrari, Nuvolari and the Targa Florio are as fundamental to modern Italy as pasta, gelato and espresso.

With typical cruelty, a bunch of obviously non-Italian Europeans polled recently considered Italians Europe's worst drivers. Which only shows that foreigners are not Tazio's children.

An Italian, it has been said, is cutting curves even in his dreams. Typical nonsense uttered by a foreigner because an Italian would not even notice when he (or she) is cutting a corner.

It is obvious that Italian traffic must differ from that in other countries. After all, Italy has more motor cars per thousand persons than any other country except the U.S.A. And Rome's number of cars per thousand people topped 48 major world cities recently studied. Since the Eternal City probably also has the highest density of motorcycles and scooters, the average Roman owns two thirds of a car and half a scooter, plus 1.7 cats.

It is interesting to note how driving has changed over the decades. On the whole, it's gotten faster. By now, the number of horses pulling the average car has more than doubled since 1970. Many cars offer top speeds of over 200 kilometres/hour (125 mph). Pity that speed limits are spoiling the fun most everywhere.

Despite the multiplication of horses under the hood, Italian drivers have on the whole become more considerate. It now uncommon to see cars exceeding double the speed limit, although motorbikers in town tend to feel less inhibited.

Pedestrians are now more respected and not deliberately chased as in past decades. If they wait at the crossing until the stream of motor vehicles is thinning, and then cross quickly, they will be tolerated. Jaywalkers, however, will still be chased.

So what are Italian cars made for? It can't be beauty or elegance because most models lack both. It can't be durability and strength either because Italian manufacturers are said to be making most of their profits on spare parts. Instead, Italian cars are made for overtaking others.

More than sex, food or making money, passing others seems to be the Italian's top pleasure in life. The average inhabitant of the pensinsula might lead a restful life, with many relaxing visits at espresso bars, long restaurant meals and extended shopping. But once he or she gets on top of two or four wheels, Tazio's reflexes wake up and time becomes critically short. Are Italians overtaking because they are short of time, or are they in a hurry because they enjoy passing so much?

Your reporter recently followed one of those new fast trucks on Via Pontina from Rome to Latina passing lots of cars and frequently changing lanes. Not once during the 45 minute trip, however, did the truck driver use the blinkers. There were two possible explanations: either the driver considered blinkers an instrument only to be used by poor drivers unsure of themselves, or simply: they were not working.

Which brings up the story of the driver of a tractor-trailer who ran out of money when in Sicily. In order to get home to northern Italy, he sold his brakes. He succeeded to get past Frosinone but near Rome he caused an accident. Police were flabbergasted.

Something strangers find difficult to understand is the fact that the national sport of overtaking can be practiced with almost any vehicle if Tazio's blood is running in your veins. A well known Italian motor journalist who is driving choice sports cars of the top bracket recently confessed that despite all the horses under his command, whenever he finished a trip he remembered that he had at least once been passed by a Seicento (one of Fiat's smallest models).

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—— Giorgio Ascoltone