From Italy II: 1 dicembre 2003

“A sort of inland island, still curiously isolated and grim.”

That’s D.H. Lawrence calling the kettle black. Actually, he’s talking of Volterra, and I have to admit he got it right. Wandering the tiny, medieval streets this morning, dodging the persistent rain and trying to make out the green-and-mustard landscape through the fog that blew up from the vast Val de Cecina below, I couldn’t help but think of Alcatraz—a good place for a prison, in other words, if you’re that way inclined.nebbia

In fact, during my accidental walk, more-or-less along the northern edge of the completely intact ancient wall, I came upon a modern chain-link fence with a sign that read, in English, “State Prison.” I’ve absolutely no idea what that could mean. It isn’t a state prison, from what I can tell, but the Norman castle, which you can visit if you happen to be here on a weekend. And there are no state prisons (because there are no states). Could be a bad translation. Could be a joke. Could be I made the whole thing up in my head.

The fog was disorienting, as was the wind, which moaned in a truly baleful manner when I ducked for cover into one of Volterra’s tenebrous, entirely deserted churches. If this isn’t a good place for a prison, it’s certainly a good place to set a murder mystery, though it’s sort of hard to imagine anything quite as passionate as a murder happening here.

voltfog copy
I was watching a bit of an interview this evening with Rupert Everett, who seems to have embarked upon a new career as a goodwill ambassador for homosexuality (actually, I think he’s become a singer), who opined that Europe was “in the midst of a great anguish, trapped in the past, yearning for the future, and unable to live in the present.” (I’m translating liberally from the newscaster’s liberal translation from English.)

Well, who isn’t. But if you saw Volterra, you’d think he had a point. There are virtually no young people here, though I passed an elementary school today, and you can hardly walk from one piazza to another without finding some inscription in medieval Latin. I went to the Museo Etrusco and saw all 600 of their funerary urns, most of them discovered within a radius of not more than half a mile of the Centro.etrusch

Viewing the results of the Etruscan death industry wasn’t as depressing as it might sound, but it is fair to say that, once you’ve grasped the general theme, you have more-or-less seen them all.

But my point lies elsewhere. The fact that there are fewer young people here is hardly surprising. There are fewer young people in Italy in general; it’s got the lowest birthrate in the world. Not just in Europe – in the world.
On Saturday, I went fossil-hunting with a very nice young man named Fabio and his friend, Francesco, who are both students (of paleontology and philosophy, respectively) at the University of Pisa. I had just read that morning in Il Tirreno that a law has been passed granting a €1000 bonus to any couple that has a second or subsequent child. Apparently you get the bonus for as many kids as you can manage to have. You have to be married, however, and you can’t be an “extracomunitario,” the euphemism for goddamned foreigner. (God knows, they’ve got no problem having kids.) Fabio and Francesco didn’t believe me, so I was glad to find a second copy of Il Tirreno lying on a table when we stopped at a caffè later for panini and coffee. (Even when you hunt fossils, you need panini and coffee. No, really. You do.) They seemed embarrassed by the idea of the bonus, so there’s probably something I’m missing.

Still, there was a debate on TV tonight about why so many Italian couples are living together (la convivenza!) instead of getting married. The consensus of the men was that it was because women are now able to pursue careers and afford their own cars and their own homes and don’t, in consequence, “need” men, which attitude, though certainly widespread, has always struck me as a really disturbing indictment of heterosexuality. But the interesting thing is that Italy is so twenty years ago—no, make it thirty—when it comes to social issues of that sort.

The poor, sweet bisexual boy I met in San Miniato, for instance, could have walked out of one of those ubiquitous coming-out novels of the late 70s, except he’s never going to come out. Instead, he wants to lead a “normal” life.

Well, who doesn’t. But he kept saying it like that—a “normal” relationship, a “normal” life—until I told him he was offending me, and he apologized abjectly. Part of it, I realize, is that he doesn’t have any other language for what he’s talking about, which isn’t wholly his fault. But what is his fault—or, anyway, his cross to bear—is that what he means is that he wants to be able to go to the comune (the city administrative office) one day and apply for his €1000 bonus. He wants sanction. That’s the scary thing about the “Have a kid, earn a grand” plan. It reeks of Fascism. Actually, Mussolini did exactly the same thing. Parenthood— well, Motherhood—seems to be the refuge of the despotic mind.

The need for sanction—the need not to stand out—is one of the scary things about Italy. It’s a nation of terrorized conformists, except that there are also lots of strange people here; so, among other things, it’s also a nation of great eccentrics. Maybe that just means it’s exactly like America.

But anyway: What an irony—in the country where the Pope regularly denounces birth control as evil (famously, he also recently issued his stinging declaration that condoms don’t prevent AIDS, which strikes me, among other things, as just a little late to the dance), the birth rate is the lowest in the world. Obviously, a lot of people aren’t listening. In quite a few towns, there are 24-hour condom vending machines outside the Farmacie in case you’re in need at a time when they’re closed.

So there you have it. It’s become cliché to talk about the way Italy is full of contradictions, but you can’t help but notice them. The more I’m here, the more I realize you can never, ever be Italian if you aren’t born to it. And it’s probably why my Italian friends in the US so often seem sad and slightly adrift. It must be immensely reassuring, at some psychological level I can’t quite grasp, to be so deeply rooted. And, conversely, traumatizing in a way I can scarcely imagine to have those roots deranged.

I passed a bank today—one of the larger ones, with branches in every city—on whose doors was gold-leafed this legend: “Founded 1472.” When even your bank is 531 years old, it’s probably hard not to feel, for better or worse, that your feet are firmly planted in the ground. An interesting coincidence that might mean nothing or might mean a lot: the word in Italian for your historical or cultural foundations is retroterra. It’s not just your background—it’s the earth you go back to.


Posted on 1 December 2003, in Italy, Italian, Italians (in that order), Tales from the Road. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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