And yet, if you were to stroll around town and have a look--out there on the streets and in the piazzas--things wouldn't seem all that bad. Plenty of Italians wear expensive, stylish clothes; their children are garbed like midget runway models and have all the latest game systems; they drive late-model cars, an increasing number of which are of the luxury variety or benzina-guzzling SUV's; they are able to throw elaborate birthday parties for their children when the cost of one Fisher Price toy runs something like €40 ($52); they take costly vacations to the beach or to the mountains; many eat out at ever-more-pricey trattorias and pizzerias; they smoke--a lot (and cigs cost between $5-6 a pack). Strolling around thus, you might be tempted to think that surely matters can't be very dire at all. You might even be tempted to believe what Berlusconi--that pancake-faced charlatan--was insisting all along, that everything's swell and Italy's economy is as strong, solid, and vigorous as a blowhard politico pumped-up on Viagra.
So what lies behind these disparities, then? I call it the Nonni Economy.
Nonni are a silent, quasi-mythic force
here in Italy; they're the unglamorous, varicose-veined legs on which the entire country stands. They're the grandparents who stuffed their wool mattresses with money for decades, who lived like closefisted clerics, who scrimped and hoarded all they could and avoided debt of any kind. They bought property back when it was relatively cheap--usually crappy ancient apartments with sporadic plumbing or crumbling case coloniche. They darned their socks and knitted their own sweaters. They worked two jobs or more and took care of scores of children and invalid relatives all living under the same leaky roof. Thanks to them, most Italians (that is, those who aren't still living at home with their parents) now have homes--restored, of course--for which they never had to pay (I read somehwere that something like 85% of Italians neither pay rent nor have a mortgage, which is why there was never a real estate bubble to burst). That means extra money to spend on la dolce vita, of course. As a rule Italians still eschew debt, particularly personal debt--but this may have more to do with the national sport of tax evasion and the penurious character of banks than any inbred distaste for owing money. (Leaving a paper trail for the tax man is, for many Italians, like leaving a trail of pork loins for a rapacious wolf).
Some cold, hard facts
If, in considering these figures, you're beginning to wonder how an average family can get by much less demonstrate all the seductive trappings of Italian life on display in the piazzas, you're not alone--I've always wondered the same thing. (And it seems the new PM Mario Monti is wondering, too). For instance, my husband and I really struggle, and I know others in the same boat. We've seen our income dramatically dwindle in purchasing power over the last ten years (granted, we've since had two children, but even given that, we're worse off now than before*). This year we had to forego after-school activities for our kids. We both commute and run most errands by bicycle to avoid the costs of gas and bus fares (anyway, it's healthier and better for the environment, right?). We have one basic PC, two cell phones of the decidedly unsmart variety, a car that is 20 years old (and was recently awarded "antique" status--thereby qualifying us for cheaper registration rates, amen). We took out a small loan to pay for our last summer vacation. We rarely go out to eat or spend on trifles. The lining in my winter coat is being held in place by a safety pin and I haven't seen the inside of a salon in a year. I'm not complaining--it's just the way things are.
But it just doesn't add up, does it? Which means that...
La dolce vita is clearly not about doing the math
Italians tend to perceive well-being in different terms than, say, Americans. Not having much personal debt is part of it, but I think that the biggest thing contributing to Italian complacency is the family--and specifically, all the boons bestowed upon the current crop of citizens by their nonni or other elderly, hard-working relatives.
Italy's low birth-rate certainly contributes to the semblance of being better-off (if you don't have kids or have only one, obviously there's more money to spend on yourself or more to lavish on that figlio unico). But even many one-child households would be strapped if it weren't for the financial safety net provided by grandparents. The ever self-sacrifing elders of the Nonni Economy also provide less tangible benefits, the main one being unlimited free child care for their grandchildren. Put yourself on any street corner or in front of any elementary school and watch the endless to and fro of grandparents shepherding their young charges. They often function as full-time maids as well as babysitters, providing meals and even doing the laundry, ironing, and grocery shopping--a huge help to working parents. In addition, many provide gifts of cash or clothing--or even pay for cars or settimane bianche (ski vacations) for their grown children, and swim lessons and scuba gear for their grandchildren. Mind you, I am not talking about wealthy people--these nonni are ordinary folks who have managed to squirrel away significant savings, accrue zero debt, and have healthy pensions to live on. They have the lifelong habit of near-zero consumeristic consumption (why, merely turning on an electric light is considered an act of fiscal profligacy), which in turn enables them to lavish spending on their far more materialistic (and often more economically pinched) children and grandchildren.
How did they do it again?
As the recent rash of Monti raids has proved, tax evasion in Italy is rampant, pervasive, and often considered a kind of sacred duty--making it, and not Roman Catholicism, the real religion of the Italian people. For instance, it's common practice when inquiring about the cost of a service--say a teeth-cleaning--to be given two options: "85 euro with receipt, 60 euro without." (Now that the sober-faced Monti has put the fear of God into everyone, I'm curious to see if this will change).
So if today--with the albeit lackluster use of credit and debit cards, with computers and electronic banking--Italians are able to conjure financial smokescreens on such an epic scale, imagine what many cagey nonni were able to accomplish in their day? (My FIL, for example, worked three jobs but only ever declared income on one). This is not to diminish at all their hard work and penny-pinching ways--but you have to wonder if, along with a lot of choice real estate, the current generation of Italians has inherited public coffers that were already suffering from acute anemia.
What does all this mean for Italy's future? Given the nature of this Nonni Economy--the fact that frugality seems to be a lost art, that these traditionally selfless nonni will eventually die out--and the zeal with which Mr Monti is pursuing scofflaws, is the current brand of Italian-style "sweet life" a tenable one for the times to come?
Or will Thomas Mann indeed have his day?
* check out this article on Italian earnings