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Things Change: From Man Purses to Tattoos

May 24, 2014

My spouse and I just got back from two weeks in Italy. It was our fourth vacation there – I’ve spent more time in Italy than any other country except the U.S. and Canada. Italy has the artistic, architectural, cultural, culinary, oenological and historical appeal of France, without the sniffing superiority.

The last time I was in Italy was three years ago. The fad then was man purses. They were like shoulder bags, except smaller and thinner, and usually square or close to square, not rectangular. They were worn with long shoulder straps, so that the actual man purse rode at belt level on one side of the back.

It was one thing to see slender young Italian men wearing man purses, with their slim-tailored shirts and leather shoes. But the fad had crossed into Slovenia, and it was quite another thing to see strapping Slavic jocks walking around Ljubljana with man purses slung over their shoulders.

Three years later, man purses have largely disappeared. A lot of the young Italian men have bulked up with weight-lifting, which is fine. They’ve also gone for spare-no-body-part tattooing, which is less fine.

Another change I noticed was a substantial influx of immigrants from Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. This of course is a historic reversal for Italy, which was traditionally a country of emigrants, not immigrants – half or more of Argentines are descended from Italians, and some towns in Brazil are as much as 95 percent Italian. To this day, more than a million Americans speak Italian at home. Italians also emigrated in large numbers to Australia, Canada, France, Peru, Switzerland, Uruguay and Venezuela.

While I was in Italy, I read an estimate that 850,000 people, mostly from Africa and Syria, had gathered in Libya looking for a way across the Mediterranean to Italy. The country has seen an increase in far-right anti-immigrant sentiment, but mostly Italy continues not only to absorb the immigrants but to actively patrol the Mediterranean to rescue would-be immigrants from leaky, overcrowded boats. The government’s main beef is that the rest of Europe needs to give more than lip service to the rescue and resettlement effort.

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Although Italy only became an actual country in the mid-nineteenth century, the country progressed fairly well until World War I, which killed nearly three quarters of a million of its soldiers and bankrupted the country. Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime took power shortly thereafter, leading to a disastrous alliance with Nazi Germany. Italy was one of the deadliest fronts of the Second World War, which ended with another half-million Italian soldiers killed and the Italian economy in ruins – per capita income at the end of the war was about equal to what it had been in 1900.

Although Italy became a Republic in 1946, Italian governments have been notoriously unstable – Italy has had 63 governments in 67 years. Until the end of the 1970s, the country suffered social unrest and terrorist attacks by extremist groups like the Red Brigades. Still, aided by the Marshall Plan, the Italian economy flourished. From 1950 to 1970, a period still known as the Economic Miracle, Italy’s economy grew faster than any other in Europe. By 1985, living standards in Italy matched those in Western Europe as a whole. Italian commercial interests did well in the Balkans after the fall of the Berlin Wall, often out-competing the Germans in that region. Today, Italy has the eleventh largest economy in the world, a high standard of living, and a strong social safety net, all despite taking a bigger than average hit in the 2007 – 2008 financial meltdown.

American politicians can’t find the money to maintain American schools, roads and bridges that aren’t more than fifty years old; Italian politicians somehow find the resources to maintain whole cities that were built before Europeans put up so much as a single structure in the New World. There are parts of Italy where you can’t turn a shovel of dirt without uncovering antiquities, and somehow Italian politicians find resources sufficient both to preserve the antiquities and to build around them.

The United States has a land mass about 33 times that of Italy. It’s less than 900 miles from the tip of the toe of the boot of Italy all the way to the Austrian border, compared to more than 3,300 miles from San Diego to Presque Isle, Maine. But Italy has more than 500 miles of high-speed rail, whereas the U.S. has none – our fastest rail line is the Northeast Corridor’s Acela service, which has a maximum speed of 150 miles per hour, and an average speed under 70.

Italy opened its first high-speed rail line when Jimmy Carter was president. The best hope for American high-speed rail is that a connection from Fresno to Bakersfield will start service in 2021. By then, the Italians will have further expanded their internal high-speed rail and will be well on their way to connecting their internal network to France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia.

During our stay in Italy, we flew to and from Milan, and traveled by train to Florence, Pisa, Bologna, Ravenna and Rimini. At one point during the 50-minute trip from Bologna to Milan, I happened to glance up at a monitor and saw that we were moving at 297 kilometers per hour – basically three times the maximum speed on American highways.

Of course the train stations were already there before high-speed rail came, even to Italy. At the Bologna station, the high-speed tracks had to be run below the existing lines, and then passenger access routes had to be built to the new, deeper platforms – which must have increased the cost of construction considerably. Yet the Italian politicians who have run 63 governments in 67 years somehow came up with the resources to get it done, all the while propping up Pisa’s tower from tilting too far, keeping the Pantheon in spiffy shape for the tourists, and restoring every medieval and Renaissance town and basilica and museum and da Vinci fresco and Bellini painting and Michelangelo sculpture and Byzantine mosaic to nearly pristine condition.

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