LONDON – One of my many regrets in life is that my daughters will never see the Italy I knew. Other people probably feel the same about Greece, France, Spain or Portugal, recalling the age before everyone seemed to be everywhere. When even Florence was not that crowded in summer and the small towns and villages of Tuscany and central Italy — certainly the south — were Italian in every way: few foreigners and that uncompromised way of life.
An early start in the cool of morning, hard work followed by a good lunch with wine from a jug. Then the sacred siesta — a nap, or cuddle-up with someone else during the Italian afternoon, when everything is determinedly chiuso — closed. After the impenitent heat of day relents, the shutters reopen and evening begins for most with the passeggiata, Grandpa on the arm of his granddaughter, teenagers showing off, heated discussion over Gazetta dello Sport or the L’Unita. For others, back to work, for a few hours.
On Sundays: forget it — no, you cannot go and buy this or that. Those metal shutters are down and will remain so until Monday morning, possibly late Monday afternoon. Sunday lunch lasts from about 3:30 p.m. to past 11.
This is rose-tinted and ignores the appalling tribulations some people faced, but these customs still exist in Italy and across the Mediterranean and Aegean, just about. It is called the quality of life and it is how I lived — and worked — for a while during the early 1970s and (less relaxedly) as a correspondent in the 1990s.
But this popular civilization is endangered, because of a pincer movement by tourism and the north’s economic doctrines. That garage on the winding hill up to Montalcino is now a fancy Enoteca open all hours. In the big cities, Sunday is just not Sunday anymore. Meanwhile, the pressure is on southern Europe to stop the indulgences and heed northern Europe’s headlines about debt and deficit: CRISIS IN THE EUROZONE! AUSTERITY!
This week millions of people will leave Britain, northern Europe and America, heading for the lands where the olive trees grow. Most will find the cheapest deal at a beach or major “tourist destination.” Some will go to second homes converted from what were farmhouses in the days I used to ride my Honda 850 out for a picnic in the hills. Others will rent a villa; many will travel from place to place, either pounding the beaten track or seeking out ever more remote “hidden treasures.” And why not? Everyone deserves a break.
Many holidaymakers will enjoy playing at — perhaps even enviably gawping at — the way life is lived among the cypresses. Understandably, they’ll adopt a few local habits for this precious week or two: a quick morning espresso at the bar; a longer lunch than at home; a siesta, indeed; an aperitif in the square before dinner outdoors. They may be a little annoyed that the church or museum they wanted to visit is shut for the afternoon, but, walking around, will hear the echo of their footsteps off the old stone walls and admire the tenacity with which the town has gone restfully silent in a way no place in northern Europe does.
They may remark on the impact this way of life seems to have on people’s health. There is a sense of well-being, especially among the elderly, sitting out on the street for dominoes or totocalcio football pools, that evades people in the northern Europe, despite their obsession with keeping trim. Platoons of reporters have plodded around the “blue zones” in Sardinia and the island of Ikaria in the Greek Aegean, trying to unlock “the secret” of why people live longer in these places than anywhere else.
The island has a history of starvation and persecution that forced people to grow much of what they eat, and vice versa, which today is advantageous, but even that aside, the “secret” is obvious: Ikarians live mostly in the open air, they do not sit in offices; people work, but not unnecessarily. Fishermen in the port of Evdilos enjoy a long morning of backgammon on the quayside before launching their craft. No one fiddles with digital gadgets; the Internet is something you find in a cafe if you need it. Many watch black-and-white TV, partly because they cannot afford a color set, partly because they see no need for one.
It’s like the Italy I knew in the 1970s, including the extremist politics. There are worries too, of course; those of almost every Greek (Spaniard, Italian or Portuguese) about the economy, debt, unemployment — and now that very northern word, arriving on the chill political wind from London, Brussels, Frankfurt and Washington: “austerity.” And here’s the rub.
The few places left that have fended off mass tourism and preserved their way of life, such as Ikaria, the plains of Castile, the wilds of Abruzzo, are, in reality, everything that northern society, their managers, the International Monetary Fund, businessmen, politicians — both Euroskeptics and Angela Merkel — despise. The politics of the EU are nothing if not a grinding of southern Europe; bludgeoning the south into abandoning its lazy ways, spruce up, pay off its debt and BE LIKE THEM!
Yes, to adopt turbo-capitalist zeal in place of these languid Latinate ways; to conjoin their obsessive consumerism, their corporate mind-set, their worship of technology. Enough of these ghost town Sundays — where’s your 24/7 shopping, triple-A rating, stress medication?
And so August holidays on cobblestones and land where the vine grows become very weird, as people go to play at the way of life their leaders — maybe even they — are destroying. Many of those from Britain, America, Germany and elsewhere this weekend setting off to savor the southern life are the politicians, bankers, lawyers, managers, civil servants, think tank “brains” — newspaper writers indeed — who have decided, generally if not individually, that the Anglo-American way of capitalism is the only way to go. Fueled, it sometimes feels, more by some combination of cocaine, Red Bull and Viagra than aromatic coffee, a cool aperitif and an afternoon snooze.
But in August, they leave their frantic modus vivendi behind. “Oh, look at those little old men playing chess on the pavement — so sweet!” “Campari-soda per favore!” “Tasha, you MUST try the epoisses, it’s divine!” “I so love the way they whizz about on scooters without helmets and no one wears seat belts — it’s such fun!”
Then September comes, back to balancing the books, the shareholders’ interests, the “aggressively managed portfolio,” the stock market indexes. That’s enough Caravaggio and mortadella for one year, time for a new austerity package — those lazy bloody Latins.
Ed Vulliamy is a writer for The Observer and The Guardian.