Freakonomics Italian Style
The topic selected by our group of bloggers this week was: “Weird questions sent to you by bat-shit crazy readers.” Potentially good stuff, but I must say, at first I wasn’t totally thrilled by the choice.
Why? To remind everyone, until recently, I was the only male in the bunch, and the oldest by at least 20 years. So I don’t get the juicy inquires about “hooking up with an Italian” or “the late-night club scene” or even awkward questions about the practice of non-circumcision in Italy. No, unfortunately I get pummeled day after day after day with the boring and mundane, like: “How do I obtain an Elective Residency Visa?” or “How do I find an English teaching job in Rome?” or “How do I change the transmission fluid in my 1983 FIAT Panda?” This last one is particularly vexing, since I don’t even own a car in Italy.
Then not long ago, I received another such email, which at first glance struck me as equally dull, not to mention vague. The reader wrote, “Rick, last month I re-visited Italy for the first time in over ten years. Not that I was disappointed, exactly—we had a lovely vacation. But I don’t know, something seemed ‘different’ to me. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but if you’ll allow me to say it, Italy felt less ‘Italian’ then what I remember from previous visits during the 80s and 90s. What do you think it is?”
Vague, yes. But after some moments of contemplation, I decided that perhaps he was onto something. What precisely has changed in Italy during the last decade (or two)? Well above all, there’s the economic crisis. It has placed financial pressures, not to mention international scrutiny, on the country that otherwise might have been handled by some patchwork of internal jerry-rigging. If they still had the lira, they could devalue the currency, cancel the vacations abroad, and simply wait it out. But no, with the European Economic Community looking over their shoulder, it’s now more complicated than that.
This rumination led me to recall a popular book that I read several years ago called, Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt, a distinguished professor of economics at the University of Chicago. To sum up the content for those who haven’t read the book, basically he took his complex economic theories and used them to explain social phenomenon. The one that gained him all the notoriety (and scorn) was his theory that suggested a direct link between legalized abortion and lower crime rates in the U.S.
So it was with this idea in mind that I decided to reverse the equation, and look at Italy from the opposite end of the telescope. In other words, I wanted to identify some social phenomena that might help explain the economic situation. Let’s call it Freakonomics Italian Style.
Submitted for your consideration is my silly theory, in three parts, for measuring how much “Italian-ness” remains in Italy, and what effect it might have on the economy. Any foreigner who has lived in Italy, or who has visited Italy repeatedly over the last two decades, has likely noticed a certain degree of “globalization” (for lack of a better word) which has diluted some of its charms. Everything from food choices, to tastes in music, to fashion sense, to religious practices. No question about it, Italy is changing. But how much of this change is for the better? And how many opportunities for positive change are being ignored in favor of the status quo?
The Coffee Bar
While in Milan last month, we stopped at a place called Arnold Coffee just a few steps from the city’s impressive Duomo. This joint makes no attempt to disguise their intentions to copy the Starbucks formula. American coffee in big pots, free Wifi with any purchase, Hip-Hop music playing just a bit too loud. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought that I was in Seattle. Interestingly, their website is only in Italian, so clearly they are NOT targeting American/foreign tourists.
I tried to order a coffee and the barista couldn’t have given me less attention if I were an insect. I had interrupted her cell phone conversation, which had made me persona non grata in her bar for the morning. I say “her” bar, but obviously she was a low-paid employee in a bar owned by a large corporation. The key difference, however, is that Starbucks, despite bad coffee and questionable tastes in music, gives friendly, efficient service. The Starbucks employee knows that if he/she works hard, they can be promoted to a better job within the company for better pay. They might even get their own store one day. Starbucks creates a pleasant atmosphere for both the customer and the employee that convinces everyone to overlook the burnt coffee that costs three times as much as a proper espresso in Milan. (And what the F#@% was I doing there anyway?)
Meanwhile, at the traditional Italian coffee bar, I pay mamma at the cassa, give the scontrino to the figlio who makes my perfect espresso, and nod politely to papá who sits at a nearby table reading the Gazzetta dello Sport. They all smile at me, the straniero, test out their three or four phrases of English, and do their best to make me feel welcome in their humble establishment.
So here’s the danger that I see represented by this trend. When Arnold’s Coffee at last puts Bar della Famiglia out of business (and they will), Italians will have abandoned something that they do very well; the traditional coffee bar. Instead, they will have embraced the worst of American culture—terrible coffee and rap music—while missing the opportunity to borrow the best of America in the form of efficient business practices and high service standards. This recipe can only fail in long run.
While travelling through Sicily this summer, we stopped one afternoon in the small village of Burgio in the province of Agrigento. We chose to stop there for one reason only: to take a picture of my wife next to the town’s welcome sign, because her last name happens to be Burgio. But the town is also well-known for their skilled craftsmen who make the large church bells clanging in the bell towers all over Sicily, and indeed all of Italy.
So then you can imagine my surprise when I noticed that, at one of their main churches in the center of town—I repeat, a town known for making church bells—the bell had been replaced by a giant loudspeaker. Now, the loudspeaker plays a digital recording of a church bell, so the effort to maintain the overall effect is still there. But it’s clearly one step in the direction of abandoning this practice entirely. One can even envision a day when a cash-strapped local parish will use the speaker to advertise the bake sale or bingo night instead of playing the Ave Maria.
But why should this be considered important? Well, I’m not suggesting that it is terribly important or even a bad thing if all the church bells suddenly fall silent throughout Italy (at least I’d get more sleep). But it is telling for certain reasons. Namely, the relationship between Italian culture and Catholicism is so intertwined that to separate them would be to completely undo Italian culture at large. A nation-wide identity crisis might follow.
One bell tower in one church in one lost Sicilian village doesn’t necessary foreshadow disaster. But this is something I observed all throughout Italy along the route of my blog tour this summer: fewer bells ringing, fewer people attending Mass, fewer people pretending to be religious. As I’ve said before, even when you take away the catechism, and renounce any spiritual association to Christianity, most Italians would still see themselves as Catholic. Or if not, watch as they celebrate the feast day of their patron saint, or grab their testicles when an empty hearse passes by to ward off “bad luck.” It’s cultural/societal more than spiritual, according my observations.
How will this affect the economy? OK, it might be a stretch, but in a country rife with campanilismo (who sees the exquisite irony in THAT word?), Catholicism is about the only thing (except the national soccer team) that unifies the population, creating a sense of belonging. More individual interests are NOT what the country needs to prosper. People need to actually care about the country as a whole, and about their fellow countrymen. Right now, they don’t. Older folks are desperately trying to squeeze the last bit of pension money from the state coffers, while educated youngsters are fleeing in droves for better opportunities abroad. So who is left to earn a wage and pay the taxes to refill the coffers in the decades to come? Certainly not the guy making church bells in Burgio. His days are already numbered—and he probably doesn’t even attend Mass anymore, either.
The use of the courtesy form
In the Italian language, there are two forms of address the second person, “you.” (I wrote one of my most popular posts on this subject.) If you know a person well, you use the tu form. But if there’s even the slightest doubt about the level of familiarity, then you should revert to the Lei. “Can I help you?” from a store clerk should be, “Posso aiutarLa?” and NOT, “Posso aiutarti?” The flagrant use of the “tu” form with a perfect stranger is the American equivalent of a GAP employee at the shopping mall asking a customer, “What the F&#% do you want?!?”
Traditionally this practice of politeness in speech is stronger in the south. But even while travelling in Sicily, the reduced use of the Lei was noticeable. To help you understand this better, let me give you an example of something that happened to me in Messina. First, imagine that bitchy little barista that I met in Milan, give her a Sicilian accent, and put her to work at the Coin store on Viale San Martino in the center of Messina. Next, imagine me, the Americano, presumably a tourist, who can be spotted from a block away, dressed in poor fitting clothes, and standing a full meter taller than your average Sicilian. Here’s the dialogue, roughly translated for your benefit.
Me: Buongiorno. (Good morning)
Commessa: Ciao. (Hi)
Me: Mi direbbe dov’è il reparto giocattoli? (Could YOU tell me where the toys department is?)
C.: Si, lo trovi qui dietro la cassa. (Yes, you find it behind the counter here) She makes a pointing motion with her chin, the absolute height of rudeness in this scenario.
Me: La ringrazio. (Thank YOU)
A minute later, here I come back to the cash register with a bath toy.
Me: Quanto le devo? (How much do I owe YOU?)
C.: Aspetta un momento…. (Wait a minute…)
I start feeling a little irritated by the fact that I keep using the courtesy form with this snot-nosed teenager while she keeps addressing me as if I were her high school smoking buddy. Old age should carry come benefits, after all. Or maybe it’s just me becoming a little too Italian.
Me: Certo, LA aspetto. (This time really stressing the “LA” in a way that should get the youngster’s attention. Failed attempt.)
C.: Allora, sono 9,99 euro. Hai spicci? (So then, it’s 9.99 Euro. Do you have exact change?)
Me: Carta di credito? (Credit card?)
C.: Non funziona. (It’s not working)
I should have known better.
Me: Allora, ho solo 50 euro interi. (OK then, I only have a 50 Euro note.)
C.: MI dispiace, allora, non ti posso aiutare. (I’m sorry then, I can’t help you.)
As if she had helped me at all so far. Finally, along comes my wife, loose change in hand, who does not hesitate to say:
“Ci conosciamo, signorina? Se no, allora mi dia del LEI!” (Do we know each other, missy? If not, then speak to me with the LEI!)
OK, so how does this situation spell doom for the Italian economy? For one thing, this is another example of Italy slowly steering away from its Italian charm—those polite little social graces and idiosyncrasies that we foreign tourists so admire, and which draw us back to Italy again and again. But much more importantly, tourism is one of the few bright spots in the Italian economy, and rudeness or indifference to cash-carrying foreigners isn’t the smartest long-term strategy for growth. Heck, France and Spain aren’t that far away and they’d love to pull some Ex-Italophiles to their countries. I highlighted this particular problem in an earlier post about the trouble I encountered when trying to visit the Greek ruins in Agrigento. Tourism should be nurtured, not taken for granted. Eventually, Italy might just become “too much trouble” to bother with, and tourist dollars/pounds/yen will end up elsewhere. I hear Greece is nice, too—and by the way, they also happen to have Greek ruins.
Other Thoughts on Freakonomics Italian Style?
There are other cultural indicators we could debate such as the Italian penchant for dressing well (this, too, is on the wane) and their passion for soccer (on the contrary, this hasn’t decreased at all). This article has obviously been a bit tongue-in-cheek (maybe more than a bit), but I maintain that the three phenomenon that I mentioned above are pretty good signs of how much Italy is willing to adapt–or not–in order to: 1) value and preserve the many cultural treasures that are amazing and unique about Italy, and; 2) change the old mentality that is holding the country back economically. Take note of these things next time you travel in Italy and try to recall previous visits for comparison. Let me know what you think about them and try to come up with a few of your own.
If you’ve made it this far through my rant, you should really do yourself a favor and click over to the more practical and entertaining musings of my colleagues in expat debauchery:
- ‘It really is COSI‘ – Married to Italy
- ‘Blogging about Italy is Hilarious‘ – Surviving in Italy
- ‘Can you get me a Visa?‘ – Girl in Florence
- ‘How not to make friends in a foreign country’ – The Florence Diaries
- ‘Quirky Questions about Life in Italy‘ – Unwilling Expat
- ‘Best Email Ever Received‘ — Englishman in Italy