Greetings from Italy and the 'Endless Crisis'

Piazza Venezia, Rome, Italy
Panoramic Images | Getty Images
Piazza Venezia, Rome, Italy

Mikhail Barishnikov helped open the legendary Spoleto, Italy music festival over the weekend with a quirky, experimental play, "In Paris."

The surprise wasn't the reception—it was well received—but the attendance: there were empty seats toward the back.

That a legend like Barishnikov did not sell out in a relatively small venue speaks volumes for the economic quiet that has descended upon Italy.

It's the height of tourist season, but in Spoleto, Todi and Orvieto, famous walled hilltop towns in Umbria, about two hours north of Rome, crowds have been sparse.

And the mood among a dozen Italians I have spoken to since I arrived on Saturday has been grim.

The woman who served breakfast at our hotel said business was notably slower than last year, with fewer Americans, Germans, and Australians, and even fewer tour buses.

A woman who ran wine tasting tours in Orvieto—a region famous for its white wine—said the producer she was working for was looking to expand sales outside of Italy because the domestic wine business was weak due to the "endless crisis."

She bitterly complained about rising taxes—for gasoline, for real estate, for everything: "The taxes and bureaucracy are killing everyone."

"The government should stop and think what they are doing," she said as we walked around the winery, situated on a hilltop with a stunning view of Orveto, a half hour away.

She said she wanted to start a wine-consulting business, but there was no way to do it because the high taxes made it impossible.

When I asked why there wasn't a political party that reflected that belief, she just shrugged. "The politicians don't care about the people, just about staying in power. No one believes in them."

She was equally critical of her countrymen, who spend too much time bickering: "The country cannot unite, even now, in a crisis."

She was supportive of Mario Monti, and said he had the support of most Italians—especially after "that buffoon Berlusconi embarrassed us." But she predicted he would not last long if the economy did not improve. "There are people trying to support a family of four on 1,000 euros a month. It's impossible."

Which brought her to the next complaint: the disappearing Italian family. Three children used to be the norm, but now the average family has one child. "There is no incentive to have a family. Italian men are terrified of having children because of the cost." Her husband, she quickly said, was English. She is hopeful that more liberal immigration laws will stave off a future population crisis.

One point everyone seemed united on: abandoning the euro and going back to the lira was a bad idea.

The only northern European I met also thought Europeans were likely stuck with the euro. He was a Finnish businessman who had brought his entire family on a tour of Italy. He admitted there were Finnish political parties opposed to the euro, but said most Finns recognized Finland could not go it alone on the world stage.

"We have to go along with the rest of Europe, we have no choice," he said. His biggest worry: that the southern Europeans—the Spaniards, the Italians, the Greeks, and the Portugese—will refuse to surrender control of their banking system and their national budgets to regulators in Brussels.

But at least that man gets to go home to Helsinki. Here in central Italy, even the weather is not cooperating. It is obscenely hot, and a prolonged dry spell has wine growers worried the grapes will ripen too soon, with not enough balance between sweetness and acidity.

Even sports provides no relief. The Italians were humiliated Sunday night in the European Championship match against the Spaniards. The score: 4-0. Italian television showed a somber Mario Monti watching the proceedings, slumped in his chair. He had proposed a month ago that professional football in Italy be banned for two to three years because of a match-fixing scandal that has tarnished the sport and resulted in a series of recent arrests of star players.

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