Magazine article The Spectator

Basta Italia!

Magazine article The Spectator

Basta Italia!

Article excerpt

Forty years ago I left Italy to marry a Brit and adopt the British way of life, in so far as anyone who is not British can. I carried with me a romanticised image of my country of birth as a land not just of sunshine but of warm, generous and fundamentally decent people. Yes, Italy had its problems. We had the Mafia. We didn't like paying taxes. We paid more attention to appearances than to inner qualities. But for all that we were a happy-go-lucky people with a sunny disposition, always ready to help, bound together by our simple values, at least in the remote countryside where I grew up. All a bit of a contrast to the reserved, orderly, disciplined, rather dour Brits among whom I made my life. My only prenuptial agreement with my husband, Charles, was that we would one day retire to Italy to enjoy the way of life I remembered.

Four years ago, as the first step to realising that dream, I bought a rundown little estate outside Rome in the commune of Palombara Sabina, a name deliciously redolent of the Sabine women and their graphically depicted fate. Its principal feature is a remarkable 4th-century signal station, a tall tower that points its elegant finger at the flawless blue sky, from which the sun shines for more than 300 days each year. Acting as my own clerk of the works, I restored the house and returned to the rural way of life from which I came. I bought chickens that produce the finest eggs I have ever eaten. I bought sheep to keep the grass short, and cared for a crippled and abandoned lamb, Maria, who slept in my bedroom wearing my grandchildren's nappies. I bought three horses, including my proudest acquisition, a fine-looking stallion, from a Neapolitan at the local horse fair. Only when we got home did I discover that he had virtually no teeth. I had fallen for the proverb 'Never look a gift horse in the mouth.'

In every respect but one the house was perfect. Its one flaw was that it lacked something which in England we consider a basic right: access to the public water supply. When I bought the house, at the end of 1999, it was not connected to the mains, but I was assured by the council that the necessary funds had been allocated by the region in 1996 and were in the hands of the mayor. Connecting us, and the other 400 families that were without public water, would be a priority. Four years on, I and the 400 families are still waiting.

Over the years I had heard tell of the problems encountered by English people buying houses in Tuscany. But that wasn't going to happen to me: after all, I was Italian, even if Piedmontese and therefore the wrong sort of Italian for coping in Rome. I would be able to deal with the petty annoyances of planning permission and so on. In Italy, everything could surely be 'arranged' with a bit of goodwill and flexibility. And after mani pulite (clean hands), the supposed abolition of corruption in political and public life, there would be no ethically challenging dilemmas to face.

The reality turns out to be very different. In my district the mayor's attitude seems to be, What's in it for me? Why should I do a favour to these 400 families, let alone this indignant woman, even if she is Italian by birth? Were I a friend of the mayor, or related to him, or a member of his party or a contributor to his funds, or likely to do him a favour, these would all be excellent reasons to turn on the tap. That's the way here. Unfortunately I have none of these advantages. I have tried everything. …

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