Sea story: Italy, then and now (1956-2019)

my wheels then

my wheels now

Not counting port visits during Mediterranean deployments, I have lived in Italy four times: 1956-1965; 1972-1974; 1985-1988; 2015-2017. Returning to live in Formia almost 30 years after living in Pozzuoli and more than 40 years after living next door in Gaeta has allowed me to consider what has changed in the country where I grew up – and what has not. 

When I lived in Rome, Gaeta and Pozzuoli, the Cold War was still raging (in its own way). International politics and the news were all about the face-off between the USA and the USSR. 1976-PCIThe Communist Party was the opposition party, and the second strongest in Italy. However, Italian Communists had little in common with their comrades in the rest of the world. Since then, Italy has changed its Constitution, disbanded its old parties, and altered the educational system, the courts, and many other aspects of society. 2015-5stelleWhen I visited my high school chum, Luca, in 2016, he gave me a rundown on what happened to the old familiar lineup, how the DC, PCI, PSI, PLI, PMI, MSI, and PRI had been replaced by Forza Italia, Lega Nord, Partito Democratico, Five-Stars, and others I did not recognize. Divorce, abortion and gay rights were the current social issues.

Today, the hot political topics do not focus on the Americans or the Soviets: the economy, the banking crisis, immigration, unemployment, and the brain drain of university graduates leaving to find work abroad. Russians vacation on the Adriatic Coast. I can cross the former Iron Curtain to ride my bicycle in the former Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe.44B-Cicero

Italians have always had a flair for the theatrical, with a tradition dating back to the orators of Ancient Rome (e.g., Cicero, Formia’s native son). Until the Second Republic and the new Constitution, the politicians pretty much looked alike: stodgy white men in tailored dark suits. 2016-BerlusconiToday, the theatre and the actors have turned to comedy and sometimes farce. One must laugh to keep from crying. Yet, they are all serious, and most really want to deliver on their promises. 2015-5stelle grilloBut, oh, what promises!

Italians have always been rightly proud of their food, and that concern today is shown in the supermarkets, where the provenance of every food item is carefully shown. 2016-lattuga“Shop local” is a way of life today, as Italians try to avoid the headache of additives and unfamiliar ingredients in outside food. In 1986, Italy had some of the strictest food safety laws in the world, but standardization under the European Union has diluted some of that assurance. It says much about their attitude that food tampering is entrusted to the Carabinieri military police and their network of advanced food and drug testing laboratories.

Italians are not immune to the magnetic appeal of fast food and convenience shopping. Italians are facing an obesity epidemic as McDonalds and its lookalikes grow their European markets. Heart disease, diabetes, and other lifestyle chronic diseases are on the rise, as more people drive everywhere, breathing diesel fumes (60% of Italian cars are diesel), when they used to walk to the bus or train.

In 1987, I could still find plenty of Italians who did not speak English. But today, English is so pervasive that Italian scholars and linguists are worried about the impact of anglicismi, which includes the use of English words, often replacing perfectly good Italian words that used to be more familiar. Indeed, Italians have even established a “correct” way to use English in their language, and they very often give the English imports a new connotation lacking in English. For example, one never uses a plural form: one computer, two computer; one slip, two slip. slip, by the way, is not a lady’s undergarment; it’s a man’s thong or brief.

The internet and the wireless phone are even more pervasive than they are in North America, and not just among the young. Almost everyone has a cell phone and uses it. Italians enjoy better internet coverage and mobile data service than Americans. In the cities, coverage is complete from at least four major competing providers; in the country, at least one or two of them will cover everywhere. I have been without bars in large parts of North America, but never in Italy.

Italy is officially a Roman Catholic country, and at least until 30 years ago, 96% of Italians called themselves Catholic. But there has always been a strong anti-clerical sentiment among much of the population. Today, I find that there is less anti-clericalism and more apathy. Italians of all ages and both sexes simply ignore the Church as not worth their energy or their passion. Those that are not practicing Church-goers still profess that they believe, but they don’t feel bound by the rules and authority of the Church. The unbelievers seem to get along with the practicing Church-goers, in that happy Italian way of accepting differences that has allowed them to survive so much history. But Italy is slowly becoming the secular state that its Constitution promises. Lifelong partners may raise their children without getting married; women’s rights and gay rights are center-stage and making headway; and while the Church is still very powerful (and Pope Francis remains popular), opposition by the Vatican is no longer certain death for legislation introduced in Parliament. Or so it seems to this ignorant observer.

1976-sportelloThe digital age has made many processes in Italy more efficient and has certainly increased the ease of travelling and living in the country. I have found almost all bureaucratic gauntlets faster and simpler to run, from applying for an ID Card or a Sojourner’s Permit to buying a train ticket or paying a utility bill. I remember when the simplest encounter with a government agency meant several trips to service windows where countless paper documents had to be typed up while you stood there, and often you had to come back. 2016-sportelloThe steps today are often the same, but each one is faster, as the bureaucrat types on a keyboard and gets results and approvals on the spot.

I am not sure that it is progress, but many things that were run by the government are now completely private or operated as a corporation with the government as a major shareholder: utilities, trains, postal service, wireless, internet, many bus lines, airlines, salt, alcohol, etc. The shift has not been clean. I can feel the weight of the bureaucratic tradition in these newly privatized “companies” in the attitudes and tendencies of the employees, and in the quirky little rules left over from the days of State control. For example, three of the four major wireless providers offer their services completely online and accept all major credit and debit cards and PayPal. But TIM (the service provided by Telecom Italia, formerly, the State telephone company) still requires paper at the front end, and won’t accept a credit card not issued by an Italian bank. And don’t get me started about the trains: for a good read, check out Italian Ways by Tim Parks. It’s more fun.

One thing that has stayed the same is the ability of Italians (and most Europeans) to get something done quickly, once the decision is made. Italy switched from analog television to digital terrestrial television (called “HDTV” in the USA) in just 18 months – the whole country. They banned smoking on the trains with near perfect compliance overnight. And as of 2017, they were still the most accepting, hospitable and friendly people in the European Union, both to foreigners and to each other. The level of ethnic resentment I observed among Italians would not register in France or England. This is a generalization to be accepted as such: I am talking about an atmosphere and the tone of the public discourse I observed, not individuals or groups.

IMG_20160727_221741The present government of far-right populists shows that a significant portion of the population favors racism and narrow-minded exclusivity (what Italians call trumpismo in honor of the American President). However, the strength of the outrage against the heavy-handed policies of the Salvini government reveals that liberal democracy is not dead. The memory of the Mussolini years is still fresh, inspiring both sides of the political discourse.

There you have it: a taste of my sense of what I found as I rode through the land of my youth so many years later. My apologies to any readers that I may have offended, but if this blog elicits some commentary, that is for the good. Thoughts, anyone?

Smooth roads and tailwinds,


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