Italy: nice for tourists, but no country for the young
Rural life, which still revolves around feasts, cafes and church, is the envy of visitors but a deep frustration for young Italians, who have to endure an outdated education system and struggle to find work without local pull
Old country: Trevignanesi assemble to put the world to rights, at sunset by Lake Bracciano. Photograph: Paddy Agnew
Old country: Paddy Agnew by Lake Bracciano
Recently I had the pleasure of watching, via a cinema link-up in Rome, Covent Garden’s current version of Cavalleria Rusticana. While enjoying its splendid performance of the opera I was struck by a curious thought: Pietro Mascagni’s version of life in a small southern Italian town, set in this version in the late 1950s, in some ways looked like life today in my own village, Trevignano Romano, in northern Lazio.
Life in Trevignano still revolves around fixed markers that range from the Sunday-morning cafe scene in front of the town hall to annual rituals such as the Easter procession or the magical Feast of the Assumption, on August 15th.
In this celebration the Virgin Mary takes to the waters late at night as she leads an armada of small boats, equipped with Chinese lanterns, up and down Lake Bracciano to the accompaniment of prayer. The event is rounded off with a cathartic fireworks display.
Cavalleria Rusticana does not contain all of that, but it certainly has an Easter procession and a village street life dominated by church and cafe. Remember, too, that this is a work first performed in 1890.
Even just 50km from Rome, Trevignano retains a rural feel; many of the 4,000 or so permanent Trevignanesi grow fruit and vegetables and make wine, either for commercial purposes or for themselves.
To a large extent this is still a hard-working, early to bed, early to rise village in winter and one in which people are out taking a passeggiata at the lakeside late in the hot, hot summer nights.
This is still a village where the 1pm lunch appointment, often with Mamma, is a holy hour of relative quiet. It is also still a village where people take for granted two bakeries and two fresh-pasta shops, and where Bar Ermete, in the piazza, comes complete with its own pasticceria, turning out all manner of wickedly delicious sweetmeats. You could spend a long time in Trevignano without eating plastic-wrapped, processed food.
This seeming time warp, this rural lifestyle so far removed from the fierce pressure of the megalopolis, is one of the glories of Italy, north, south, east and west. For the foreign visitor, and indeed for the foreign resident like your correspondent, this is the charm of Italy.
Yet sometimes one wonders if the conservation of a particular lifestyle does not go hand in hand with the sclerotic growth rate of Italian social and economic life, particularly over the past 20 years. The charm that means so much to me, and to the 80 million tourists who visited Italy last year, tends to wear very thin on the 45 per cent of 18- to 30-year-olds who cannot find work, whether or not they have third-level education.
A job market where family contacts and raccomandazione – or pull – still count more than academic achievement is a deep frustration for many young Italians. Often their choice seems to be between underpaid, short-term contract work at home or a proper, full-time job abroad.
These days a lot of Italian undergraduates say that they want out and that their dream is to find work in London, Barcelona, the US, Australia or even Dublin. For example, more than 250,000 Italians now live and work in London. That is as many Italians as in the whole of Verona, making the Italian community in London Italy’s 13th biggest “city”.
Precarious employment in Italy usually means that no bank will grant you a mortgage, often forcing young Italians to continue living at home. (Forty-nine per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds still live with their parents.)
Five years ago Prof Pier Luigi Celli, head of Rome’s prestigious Luiss university, prompted public debate when he wrote an open letter to his son, in which he said: “This country, your country, is no longer a place where it’s possible to stay with pride . . . That’s why, reluctantly, my advice is that when you have finished your studies, you should go abroad. You should go where loyalty, respect, merit and results are still valued.”
Celli’s words also touch on one of Italy’s most acute problems: its outdated, inadequate public education system. Its archaic second and third levels, still largely based on oral rather than written exams, mean that, in these integrated European days of Pisa-OECD assessment, Italy often performs badly. Last year, for example, the OECD reported that Italian graduates were, on average, less skilled than high-school leavers in Japan and the Netherlands.
Recent governments, even the current one of the social-media-friendly optimist Matteo Renzi, have to acknowledge the Neet – not in education, employment or training – problem. Italy has a Neet rating of 26 per cent, the fourth-highest of OECD countries, while just 10 per cent of young people have a university degree.
The point about all these statistics is that in much of western Europe education has represented a way out, a chance to improve your lot, a vehicle for social mobility.
At village or provincial level, however, given the lacunae of much of the Italian state system, that meritocratic elevator simply does not exist.
When we first suggested to friends, 26 years ago, that we intended to move out of the madding crowd of Rome and head for the provincia nearly everyone applauded the idea. But many people warned us that we would face two huge problems: the 50km commute and schooling for our daughter.
We had already resigned ourselves to the negative implications of the commute: public transport can be chronically inadequate. To get to the University of Rome Tor Vergata from here by public transport, for example, necessitates an odyssey of shuttle bus, urban train, tube – 23 stops – second shuttle bus and, finally, a long walk. If all goes well you will make it in two and a half or maybe three hours, one way.
So, okay, we had accepted that there would be a lot of commuting by car – about 40,000km between the two of us a year. What we had not accepted was the education conundrum.
The state schools out here have been so far down the academic food chain that, reluctantly, we very early on opted for the viciously expensive international-school system for our daughter, Róisín. As foreigners we had that option. If you are born and bred here the idea seems too distant and, above all, too expensive.
To some extent it is only inevitable that there will be any number of infrastructural shortcomings in a country whose per-capita GDP has slumped in the past 20 years. Between 1999 and 2014 Italian GDP per person returned a rating of minus 3 per cent. Germany’s was plus 21 per cent, the UK’s plus 17 per cent and France’s plus 9 per cent.
As I write, a story doing the Roman media rounds is attracting attention. It concerns the arrest of seven officials, suspected of taking bribes in return for turning a blind eye to shoddy maintenance work on roads around Rome.
Would those be the same fellows who leave vicious holes in the roads around the lake, I wonder. The last time I drove over one of those holes, on a dark, wet and windy night, the bill for a broken axle came to well over €1,000. Infrastructural shortcomings, we call it.
Italy’s GDP figures are not much comfort to young people with no family or institutional pull, trying to make their way from a provincial base that may not even have decent broadband. (Only 60 per cent of Italians have access to the internet at home, via a computer or a mobile device.)
Last year the small town of Elmas, near Cagliari, in Sardinia, opted to resolve the “trapped in the provinces” problem by paying for 10 unemployed young locals to learn English and go looking for work experience elsewhere in Europe. That is no long-term solution, but it is indicative.
Mind you, sometimes that provincial base could do better. Provincial youth can lack ambition, and the provincial commercial class can be alarmingly conformist. I am always amazed by the number of shops and restaurants around the lake that shut down for the entire Christmas period. You might have thought that this would represent a moment to do a lot of business, particularly with thousands of Roman day trippers about.
Recently, a friend, travelling one Sunday morning in rural Sardinia, reported that she and her husband had found it difficult to find a bar that would make them a sandwich. They stopped in four villages before she finally complained to one reluctant bar owner, who was more interested in closing the bar than in making sandwiches.
“But, signora,” replied the barman, “this is Sunday lunchtime, and we all like to sit down at the table with our families for Sunday lunch, no?”
For good and for bad, the provincial time warp is still at work.