As rumours spread that Italy will be the next roof tile to fall off the Eurozone house of cards, in Sicily we are worried about our local and inter-city bus company, AST, which is reported to be in trouble.
AST services, we are told, are currently operating only with the forbearance of the company's creditors and it has become public knowledge that, as in institutions all over Italy from small businesses to government itself, high-ranking officials of the company have been enjoying considerable luxury whilst carrying out their duties.
Few outside Italy know that parliamentarians, for instance, enjoy privileges unheard of in other countries, from free rail tickets for personal travel to ridiculously cheap meals whilst working and these are among anomalies that the Monti government has been doing its best to correct. But ask the man in the street what else the Monti government is doing and he will answer, "Taxation" for the popular perception is that everyone is being taxed out of existence and there is little to cheer them up whilst this is happening. Tax evasion on an enormous scale has long been a way of life in Italy and now, rightly, you may imagine, everyone is afraid of a raid by the Financial Police. However, the average Italian businessman will say that he has to pay so many taxes - and not just once a year - that he hardly deems the effort of continuing worthwhile.
I am the last person who should advise anyone on handling money, let alone a whole country, but what Italy needs is [a] liberalisation of its economy and [b] cheering up. I personally had much hope of the Monti government but take one look at the sombre faces of its ministers and you would not be inclined to think that they were about to brighten your day. As I remarked when the government took office, the trouble with a government of "experts" is that experts tend to have comfortable, upper middle class lives so they cannot really imagine what it is like to be totally dependent on a meagre wage which is often simply NOT PAID. Yes, in Italy it is quite common for an employer, even a public one, to pay late or not at all and it is considered, if not exactly OK, perfectly normal.
And here we come to another "barrier" to a mobile economy: it is the Italians' ability to tolerate the intolerable. Is it because almost everyone has a family to help out with the bills when salaries are not paid that they put up with such nonsense from employers? To go back to our beloved AST, is it because everyone has a car or, if they are elderly, has a relative with a car that they put up with an abysmal local service, at least in Modica? Why, I have often wondered, does no one complain?
"Only old people use the buses", a student of mine informed me when I first arrived here.
"Thanks very much", said I.
This brings me to another element which I observe creeping into the situation, not just in Italy but all over Europe: it is an idea that in order to stimulate the economy for the young, something must be taken away from the old. This idea is dangerous and pernicious and I would hate to see Italy, where the elderly are certainly more respected and better looked after by their families than in the UK, embrace it. Dear ministers, dear youth, dear friends, old people need to live too and your own old age will be upon you quite suddenly one day and you won't know where it came from.
Of course, that old Italian paradox also comes into play in this crisis: the very characteristics that I have mentioned above and those that the rest of the world criticises in Italians are those that we most love in them in better times: their tolerance, their ability to throw their hands up in the air and say, "That's how life is", their determination to spend time with their families and enjoy the sun while the world crumbles around them.... Let us hope, then, that the situation brings out the best in them for no one can better Italy at its best.
Thus it is that Modica's inner city AST buses do not run on time and your driver may well stop off en route to purchase a sack of potatoes or take refreshment. But let us be tolerant - the potatoes were a bargain and the vegetable seller will go home at 1.30 pm. On top of that, it's bloody hot today! Besides, such antics brighten your day in a way that politicians will never be able to do. Let us also cross our fingers - for I am sick of the expression "crosshairs" - for Sicily's AST company. After all, as another student of mine charmingly said last year,
"I'm so proud of those buses. They're almost punctual."