Photo: Sladey at www.flickr.com
Cristina Odone’s European break has made her realise that Britain’s not doing so badly after all.After a week’s holiday in Italy, Britain feels optimistic and surprisingly carefree. Piedmont is a traditionally prosperous corner of north-west Italy that has been home to the Odones for generations; but it felt unfamiliar this summer. The first sign that things were amiss was at the grocer’s in the piazza, where we always stock up on local delicacies such as Gavi wine and cacciatorini (hunter’s salami). But the shelves stretched empty, as did the meat counter that used to groan under succulent joints of wild boar and racks of lamb. “Trade has halved since last year!” moaned the shopkeeper.
No wonder that our daily visits there prompted effusive greetings of Gli inglesi, gli inglesi! – we had nine people to feed. Elsewhere in the village, building work has stopped, leaving houses without windows, doors or even a roof. A friend who had to close her fresh pasta shop for lack of business cannot rent out her two-bedroomed house for the 500 euros that would cover her monthly mortgage; two years ago, she could have asked at least 600.
We spend the evenings visiting the feste – patronal festivals – held in nearby villages. The patron saint — Lorenzo, Rocco, or Anne, depending on the village — is celebrated with folk dances and huge meals. This year, the queue for dinner al fresco that used to snake around the municipal hall had disappeared, and I spotted empty tables everywhere. Worse, one village had cut costs by replacing the live band with karaoke.
When a Ferrari roars past us, our host shakes his head. This is not macho envy but concern: Equitalia, in charge of exposing tax dodgers, can stop any flashy vehicle to interrogate the driver about their income. Everyone speaks resentfully of the tentacles of the austerity government. Yet burdensome bureaucracy remains all but untouched. Enterprise, a byword for this region, risks disappearing. Friends plan to register their business in Britain, a paradise by comparison.
On our return, Heathrow’s Terminal 5, with its buzzing shops and eateries, energetic staff and upbeat officials, suddenly looks like the gateway to la dolce vita.
• The parish priest played a huge role in my childhood summers. My great aunts vied with other villagers to host Don Luigi. Everyone learned to cook his favourite dish (gnocchi al pesto), and I suspect my great aunts bought the first television set in Gamalero in order to ensure they won the competition for his presence. Let others tempt him with home-made tagliatelle: at their house, Don Luigi could see Claudia Cardinale. Today, priests are a rare sight in Italy — our village, with two churches, has only a part-share in one. But the Church is still a presence: in the nearby town of Acqui Terme, a big new apartment building is owned by the diocese. The diocesan bishop used to enjoy the status of a cabinet minister: priests and nuns guarded him jealously from ordinary mortals. But now, when I ring his office to inquire about a possible flat for my father, he answers his own phone. I could sense my great-aunts shuddering in horror at the comedown.
• Tom Beardsworth, the Oxford undergraduate who wrote a guide to dating posh girls for Cherwell, the university newspaper, has a bright career ahead of him. His guide (satirical, he insisted), depicted them as sexually voracious, snooty and duplicitous. It was withdrawn following accusations of misogyny. But he should persevere. Huge interest surrounds the drink-crazed hooliganism of the toffs in the Bullingdon Club — and not only because some of our top politicians were members. So far we know little about what their female counterparts get up to. Do they trash restaurants? Undergo unspeakable initiation rites? The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook needs updating, and Beardsworth’s the man to do it.
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