Is Italy becoming normal?

I had the pleasure this year of spending part of my holidays in northern Italy. Despite the prolonged recession that you can see the place is currently experiencing, it is still a rich country with good food, great wine, and great scenery. Indeed, there is no real feeling of general gloom there at all, with most Italians still happily having their extended mid-day lunch, enjoying the local Gelateria, and happily chatting about opera and politics. Tourism around Venice and the Alps was brisk; road and other construction was still impressive; and the fertile fields were full of neatly planted new grape vines, so in no way would I say that country is grinding to an economic halt.

Since the underlying issue raised by the financial crisis in much of Southern Europe is whether or not its culture is able to change into a more Northern-European one, I was looking for signs as to whether northern Italy was indeed converging in terms of both social and economic culture with the richer part of Europe. It would be unrealistic to expect Italians to have become just like everyone else, but I was particularly interested in whether the less charming aspects of Italian culture had changed over the last 3 decades, in which period I have now been there 4 times.

Some charming cultural idiosyncrasies of the Italians were still on display. For instance, nowhere could one find a take-away coffee: the ritual of drinking coffee is taken very seriously there and it would be an affront to Italians to enjoy their coffee from a paper cup away from the place it was brewed. No no, good coffee needs to be savoured there.

Also, the Italians have in no way lost their pride in how great their country is. You will for instance still be hard-pressed to find Chinese or Thai restaurants in any but the biggest cities: they clearly refuse to eat almost anything else but what they consider truly Italian. No French cuisine or even American hamburgers have replaced the trattorias, pasticerias, or pizzerias.

Yet, there are many clear signs that Italy is normalising and becoming just like the rest of Europe. The most glaring example is Venice itself. When I visited it 30 years ago, it was a poorly run place: smelly, dirty, and a tourist rip-off. Pigeon shit was everywhere, the water was close to sewage, nothing happened on time and few understood English.

The best example of how Venice has changed is actually the price of having a coffee. When I was in Venice with my family 30 years ago, we got ripped off. We looked at the menu, which said a coffee was 500 lires (or some such number). Thinking this to be a reasonable price, we sat down, ordered a coffee, had a coffee and were subsequently charged 5000 lires for a coffee! What turned out to be the case? Well, the coffee was still 500 lires, but you paid extra for having a seat, being served, and enjoying the shade of a parasol! None of those things were clear from the menu and so you paid ten times what you thought you were going to pay and felt cheated and laughed at as well.

In comparison, the price you now pay anywhere in Venice – no longer in lires but in Euros of course – is the price that is on the menu. Indeed, on many menus it says explicitly that there is no extra charge for service, seats, and parasols. Clearly, the Venetians worked out that foreigners had told each other about the bad old days and collectively decided to clean up their act and have a city-wide policy of clear pricing.

More generally, Venice is now a smoothly run tourist-oriented operation, almost Germanic in its efficiency. The city now employs falcons to keep the pigeon population within acceptable numbers; the sewage system has been cleaned up; the feel of the city is carefully controlled with no modern building types allowed anywhere near the tourists; the gondoliers have been organised such that their prices and services are clear beforehand; boats to and fro the islands of Venice run frequently and on time; restaurants open at 6 in stead of at 10, etc.

Venice is not the only place that has normalised in the last 30 years. The new generation of Italians speaks reasonable English; mountain huts have websites and accept foreign membership cards; and Italian drivers are now much more considerate than they used the be. You thus hardly hear any loud beeps anymore, whereas it used to be a cacophony all over the place!

In short, slowly but surely, Northern Italy has become much like Southern Germany and France: rich, clean, well-mannered and safe. It even sounds a bit dull, doesn’t it? One almost wishes for the old days in which traffic was chaotic and noisy; you paid double price as a foreigner; and every Italian male above the age of 5 leered at anything blonde walking past!

On that final point: colour shampoo has flooded the Italian dating market with lots of fake-blonds, which in turn has lead to a normal market price.

Author: paulfrijters

Professor of Wellbeing and Economics at the London School of Economics, Centre for Economic Performance

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