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Every now and then, inexperienced visitors to the beautiful part of Italy where I live tell me: “You’re living the dream!” A statement which I find difficult to respond to.
I guess my instinctive response would be: “No, I’m living the reality”. But that would entail long and complicated cultural explanations which would, for the most part, leave the visitor bemused.
In order to “live the dream” it’s necessary to remain naive of the realities that constitute daily life in Italy. The average tourist will never have the opportunity, even if they wanted it, to penetrate the veneer of beautiful romantic Italy, ‘il Bel Paese’. Tourists come and go. They brush the surface leaving hardly a ripple, and take home with them pretty images that correlate to “the dream”. Longer term visitors, for the most part, inhabit the cocoon of their ex-pat community. Many live here for decades without learning the most rudimentary elements of the language … let alone understanding the mystifying complexities of the culture!
Take the widespread and deeply rooted issue of corruption. Now, that certainly doesn’t equate with “living the dream”. Well, you may say, corruption exists in many cultures. True, but in Italy it’s been developed into a fine art.
Italian novelist Gianrico Carofiglio writes in his book Passeggeri Notturni: “Vede, la corruzione, in questo Paese, è una scelta facile, o almeno non abbastanza scomoda. Questo per molte ragioni. Le norme, il costume, l’inefficacia dei controlli. Anche la tendenza di autogiustificarsi.” (You see, corruption, in this country, is an easy choice, or at least not uncomfortable enough. There are many reasons for this. The laws, custom, inefficient monitoring. Also the tendency to self-justify.)
And Carofiglio certainly knows something about corruption. Before becoming an author he was an anti-mafia judge who specialized in prosecuting organised crime.
But corruption in Italy isn’t just limited to powerful businessmen, Mafia clans and politicians. Fare il furbo is a national pastime. Maybe you’ve come across this very Italian expression, fare il furbo? We can define it as: cercare di barare, di cavarsela usando la furberia o imbrogliando gli altri (to try and cheat, to get by using slyness or by swindling and fooling other people).
A local news headline from a few days ago may give you an insight into this phenomenon:
Furbetti del cartellino, 26 arresti alla Provincia di Massa Carrara
The sly scoundrels of the time card, 26 arrests in the Province of Massa Carrara
An investigation instigated by the attorney of Massa Carrara, and conducted by the Carabinieri, has revealed an insidious, endemic absenteeism amongst public employees. In total, 70 employees were investigated over a period of a year and a half, leading to 26 arrests.
The furbetti would come into work, clock in using their time card, then turn around and leave to ‘fare i cazzi loro‘ (do their own business). Whilst ‘officially’ hard at work in the office they would go shopping, go to the bar, take their children to school, go to funerals, and even attend mass. In two cases they actually went off to do another job! Amongst those being investigated are the commander of the provincial police and the chauffeur for the president of the province.
One of the most negative aspects of this incident is summarised in the prosecutor’s report:
“Ciò che ancor più destabilizza e preoccupa è lo spiccato senso di impunità manifestato da coloro che, nonostante i chiari segni di una inchiesta penale in corso, dopo una iniziale limitazione o interruzione dell’attività delittuosa, hanno ripreso con regolarità le loro condotte truffaldine”.
“That which is more unsettling and worrying is the strong sense of impunity manifested by those who, despite clear signs of an ongoing legal investigation, after an initial limitation or interruption of their criminal activities, recommenced their regular fraudulent conduct”.
It’s important to remember that these furbetti are a relative minority. However, as Carofiglio explains above, there are certain cultural attributes, which are way too complex to address in this brief article, that greatly contribute to the depressing prevalence of corruption, and help to cultivate a mentality of furbizia throughout Italian society.
Last but not least, this is the reality of the situation that my honest, hard working Italian friends have to deal with on a daily basis. Hence my inclination to reply to the statement: “you’re living the dream” with: “No, I’m living the reality”. Anything less would imply that Italians are simply picturesque, two dimensional characters posed in a quaint dream-like setting purely for the entertainment of us foreigners.
But it’s usually just simpler to smile and nod.