Many Changes, But Still La Vita Bella

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Aug 29 2002, 05:30am hrs
There are at least two things that are common between India and Italy. First, both countries arouse extreme passions from foreign visitors. A sort of pure emotion, almost entirely bereft of intellectual rationalisation. For India, this runs to an 80:20 ratio; 80 per cent hate it and 20 per cent love it, with no midpoints. In Italy, it is 100 per cent love. I have yet to meet anyone who has not been bowled over by Italian culture, climate, cuisine, countryside, lifestyle and the millions of small things that make up society.

Second, it is impossible to compress impressions of either in a single column, especially when there are far-reaching social, demographic and economic changes taking place. But some things in Italy stand out. Going back after a gap of two years, the first thing I notice is that the Euro is really the new currency. I begin to actually miss the Lira. The hundreds of zeros were irritating, but also a pleasant evidence that there is more to life than market competition and efficiency. Another thing is how tourists have inundated the country, to the point where it is beginning to hurt local sensibilities. The salubrious charm of Tuscany, which attracts an army of British expatriates, is threatened by new airports and waste incinerators. In Cortona, a splendid medieval town and the setting of Frances Mayes bestseller Under the Tuscan Sun, almost everyone is either from Bradford or Boston.

However, European Union economic integration is a fact of life, even if not all Italians like it or even understand it. There is increasing prosperity -- how, I do not know -- and people are buying their third house, after having one each in the city and on the coast. And one out of four Italian now goes on holiday abroad. But despite this, there is little public optimism. The percentage of unmarried Italians still living with their parents has climbed from 50 to almost 60 per cent in the last decade. Italian GDP is growing by less than 1 per cent, and its fabled medium enterprises, credited with turning Italy into the worlds fifth-largest industrial power, are now facing multiple pressures: finding newer markets, fighting US conglomerates in the World Trade Organisation, surviving without subsidy, and gearing up for competition from Hungarian and Czech firms that will come into the EU fold in 2004.

But economics is not the top-of-mind issue in Italy at present. That, clearly, is immigration. In a reversal of its history, Italy has become a country of inbound migration. Foreigners represent 2 per cent of population, low compared to, say, Germany (8 per cent) but high in relation to Italian cultural homogeneity and acceptance levels. Extrapolating from current trends, by 2050 Italy will have a population 11 million less and comprising 15 per cent of immigrants. Everywhere, I heard stories of crime and immigration in the same breath, even from diehard Marxist liberals which Italian academia is full of. In northern Italy, the area with highest influx, the immigrants are very visible, from railway stations to supermarkets. Most locals realise the necessity of immigration, but are resentful of their reluctance to blend.

Recent events have added to this mood. The New York attack had strong Italian links, and recently the police arrested four Moroccans on charges of planning to attack a Bologna basilica. Italy is painfully facing the reality of a globalised world, and is being forced to discard its intrinsic bon-vivant spirit and relaxed attitude. In a recent poll, 50 per cent of Italians believe that "Islamists renounce Western values" and a robust 20 per cent "strongly agreed" with Oriana Fallacis cry of fear of Islam. The Northern League, a coalition partner, has been mobilising a signature drive to stop the opening of new mosques.

But, in the end, this is a country with too much invested in civilised co-existence. There is a remarkable sense of community, in neighbourhoods and towns. And a charming display of ingenuity, anarchy and healthy debates. If any country can show a way to escape potential cultural conflicts in future, it would probably be the one which has so well mastered the pure joy of living.

The author is an analyst of Indian political and business trends and editor of India Focus, a political risk report for international investors