The Not So Sweet Life

“Far from tourist crowds savouring Italy’s fabled dolce vita, sipping cappuccinos and chilled Prosecco in big-city piazzas, the walled towns and hilltop villages of Tuscia, in central Italy, are seeing the sweet life disappear.” The opening paragraph in my piece in Maclean’s magazine on the austerity-linked souring of Italian life in this decade of eurozone crisis.

Vita Not So Bella: The View From Lazio

The foreign tourists are still visiting Largo di Bolsena and you can still hear the voices on the south Tuscan beaches of affluent Brits, Americans and north Europeans but the visitor numbers are down significantly – and the voices sound a little less sure than when the credit spigots were flowing.

This year in Lazio the consequences of the crisis are more obvious with local businesses complaining their takings are down. Lazio has never been the tourist hotspot of Tuscany or Umbria, but in the late 1990s, and until the financial crisis hit a couple of years ago, the region enjoyed a steady increase in foreign visitors.

And why not the – the countryside is every bit as lovely as Umbria to the north and the Lazio villages are gems. The region enjoys a fine coast and one of Italy’s most unspoilt large lakes with fresh clear water and excellent fish. Slowly but surely property prices had risen, driven by foreigners unable to afford Tuscan prices and Romans seeking tranquility outside the city.

Although property prices have not declined in the last two years they have flattened now and locals appear to be getting more realistic when it comes to foreigners and what they will pay.

If one were to guess which north European countries are not doing badly in the crisis, spotting country number plates in Lazio wouldn’t be a bad way of making an assessment. Throughout the summer there have been few British, French or Belgian cars touring the lanes and roads of Lazio. Dutch and German have been far and away the most obvious. And for the first time in a decade of visiting or living in the region, I noticed some Czech and Polish cars.

But away from the tourists, life for my neighbors and other ordinary Italians has got seriously harder. A psychologist in the nearby town of Bagnoregio told me that many of her clients say they have cut down on the basics and now have only one major family meal a day. Supporting evidence of this would include the local restaurant owners complaining of much lighter traffic and of several local greengrocers telling me that their takings this year are down by about 40 percent.

With the political crisis intensifying – most Italians expect an early parliamentary election this autumn and the departure of Silvio Berlusconi – there is fear about the future in the air.

One thing that Italy does have going for it – and one not noticed by many of the financial commentators in the UK and the United States — is that while the country has been as free and easy as its south Mediterranean neighbors with government spending, Italy owes a large proportion of its debt to itself and not to foreigners – Italian savers have been propping up Italian government expenditure by buying government bonds.  A downgrading by the credit agencies of Italy would have less effect than a downgrading on several other Europeans countries.

Italian economic performance is as ever hard to assess: about 30 percent, and maybe more, of the Italian economy is black, a testimony to traditional widespread tax evasion.

Even so, signs of private and public belt-tightening are clearer now. My local village of Celleno will shortly see the closing of the local school, a consequence of the decision to consolidate schools in the region.