Italy: breaking bread or breaking loose

On some parts of the Italian Med you can’t swing a strand of overpriced spaghetti without marking somebody’s mustard chinos. Not in Western Liguria, though. It’s mostly the sun-seeking Speedo types from Milan and Turin that flock there. But one of our freelancers is an exception. So while he’s enjoying some vitamin D, we asked Keith to share some local economic insight…

Sometimes I contemplate, what if Italy were a person? It would likely be an affable old man. Warm, good company, but slightly creaky around the joints. I say this because, despite all the good stuff, there is an obvious tone of pessimism among many Italians I know.

Not surprising. The country is in its longest recession since World War II and unemployment is at a record high (youth unemployment sits at a staggering 43%). It’s fitting, then, that in a country where eating is the collective pastime, sentiment about the local economic climate can be measured using a food metaphor.

view_from_the_office_2

Ligurians say that you can judge how well off the people of a town are by looking at the length of the queue outside the focacceria (bakery). Basically, the longer the queue, the less money there is knocking about.

It makes sense. After all, bread is cheaper than octopus or tripe (or any other such local delicacy). As such, Ligurian bakers appear to be doing very well indeed. It doesn’t take long to realise they’re in the minority, though.

As a freelancer I pay for my ‘coffice’ (café/office) space by drinking unsustainable numbers of espressos. So when I’m out and about there are two things I hear constantly.

Firstly, when people find out what I do I’m often asked: “Do you get paid?” For many, it’s a logical question. Here, many employees (referred to somewhat fittingly as ‘dependents’) find themselves at the end of the month without a pay cheque. If the business they work for isn’t doing well, there’s no pay. So employees share in the suffering. Thus, having a job isn’t necessarily a get-out-of-jail-free card.

And, as a number of my friends will testify, this is far more common that you might imagine. While evidently more likely to happen to younger people working in small local businesses, it’s not exclusive to them. This isn’t helped by the fact that employees on (increasingly popular) temporary contracts remain relatively unprotected in comparison with those on ‘standard’ (full-time) permanent contracts.

Liguria_street

My second observation is a cliché, but I make no apologies for it. Italians don’t like paying their taxes. In fact, compared with the UK, tax rates are high. You only need to be earning €28,000 for your tax rate to be around 40%. Plus, there’s no low-end earnings allowance. This is not helping to change generations-old attitudes towards tax. Hence in 2013, the controversial redditometro (income meter) was launched, with the view of smoking out the big culprits by monitoring private expenditure. (Of course, costing the taxpayer – there’s a catch there somewhere.)

Here in Liguria, I witness minor tax evasion almost daily. You’ll have noticed that in Italy you are given a receipt with everything. Even a ninety-cent coffee. Fail to give and/or receive one and the lingering finance police will be down on you like a tonne of tagliatelle. But you only need to know a bar owner by name and it won’t be long before you are getting receipts for a fraction of the amount. “If anybody asks, you only had one.” That sort of thing.

These are simple ground-floor observations and there are of course many factors, domestic and global, attributing to what Italians call the crisi (or economic crisis). One thing is obvious, though: it’s not so much the queue at the focacceria that is an indication of the state of the nation. It’s the queue at airline check-in desks, as the young and innovative continue to flee elsewhere, searching for the experience or economic security they need to pursue their aspirations.

Keith John Lewis

January 2015