Ubi Bene Ibi Patria

At one stage in my life’s journey I spent two years in India working in village projects and also stayed in a Himalayan village. India is an incredible country in the full sense of the word. It’s indeed a world unto itself with huge cultural differences between its parts and a multitude of languages spoken (fortunately English is very widely used as befits a former part of the British Empire!)

I sometimes felt twinges of home-sickness for the UK. In particular, I missed the cooler weather, the more familiar food, the certainty of things running on time, the more conversant customs in which I had grown. Sometimes, images of rose- encircled cottage front doors, cream teas and village pubs would come to mind together with National Trust properties and English Heritage castles.

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When I returned to my country of birth I did enjoy the realisation of a few of these fanciful visions but not for very long. The best cure for homesickness is spending a week back in the country you are supposedly pining for!

It’s a well-known fact that ex-pats (I prefer to call them cultural refuges – certainly not economic ones, for in Italy things tend to be more expensive, apart from train travel, property, restaurants and decent wine) move from Italy to other countries or even back to old blighty because they have to and not because they want to. I list some of the ‘have-to’ reasons as:

  1. Financial difficulties: mainly because in Italy it’s rather more difficult to find a job and even more difficult to make ends meet if one is self-employed, especially in the holiday rental area.
  2. Health reasons: the apparently collapsing NHS is often better at diagnosing and checking up on patients than the Italian system which still remains superb in my experience. (See my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/09/25/hungry-hornets/ for an example of the way the wonderful Italian National Health system treated me.)
  3. Family and social. Older people especially, will miss their grandchildren growing up, for example. Sometimes, it can be too much not to be round the corner and able to just drop in. More widely, if cultural migrants are unable to learn the language of their adopted country they’ll start feeling cut off from the rest of the population.

Recently I met a friend who moved back to the UK for a couple of reasons shown above. I asked her if she was content with her choice. ‘Yes’ and ‘no’ she answered. Actually there was more ‘no’ than ‘yes’ in her answer. The provincial east England town she’d moved in suffered from colder weather, the people weren’t exactly sociable, there was disregard for the environment and the family wasn’t at all as all-embracing as Italian extended families tend to me – so there wasn’t so much popping around the corner and dropping in to see relatives.

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After my Indian experience I realise than home-sickness is not a disease I suffer from, although I understand it may afflict some people more than others. My friend, who had to return to the UK through necessity rather than choice, reminded me that the UK has, at its core, insurmountable irritations which anyone who has lived in Italy for any length of time will become violently allergic to.

I’ve narrowed down these irritations to just ten (I could have added a lot more but then I would be accused of becoming a moaner which, in the UK isn’t at all de rigeur.)

  1. The weather.

Frankly, the weather in the UK is appalling! It’s quite impossible to programme with confidence for any outdoor events and one’s time off work is completely spoilt by the vagaries of an island maritime climate. When I think of the open-air concerts that have been cancelled, the sodden walks in ever-deepening bogs, the pneumonia-like motorbike rides completely spoilt by the wet stuff, the awful windiness of the place, the standard weather forecast ‘dull with sunny intervals’, the changeableness and unpredictability of the bloody met office, one realises that the only good thing about the UK climate is that it becomes a perennial conversational chestnut.

OK, Italy does have its up and downs with the weather here. But when it rains it rains dramatically (too dramatically for many people who become homeless because of the ‘water bombs’), with lightning and thunder, with theatrical pelting of rain– not that weak damp thing that falls from the British skies. I know that when I attend opera in an open-air theatre it’s going to be a beautiful cicada-ridden summer night in semi-tropical climes and it’ll stay like that throughout the acts of the work no matter how long it goes on for. I’ve never been to Torre Del Lago to find the show rained off.

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  1. False politeness

In Italy ‘please’ and ‘thankyou’ are often optional – you’ll still be served. In the UK unless you say ‘please’ at least three or four times you’re unlikely to be served at all or at least looked at like a strange beast with an admonishing glare. Yet, if one introduces a ‘please’ in a special request it’s quite likely that, no matter how often you’ll say it, that the request won’t be carried out.

  1. To be drunk is OK

In Italy a drunkard is an object of ridicule and even shame. In England it’s OK to get pissed and vomit all over the public footway. I wish people would read their greatest countryman’s works (I refer to Shakespeare, naturally) and realise that Shakespeare referred to drunkenness as the British disease. As Nerissa says to Portia in ‘The Merchant of Venice ‘they are as sick that surfeit with too much as they are that starve with nothing’. Italians can spot an English lout from three kilometres distance just by the way they walk in that disgusting drunken stupor and with those stupid nervous guffaws that too many brits punctuate their lean conversation with.

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  1. Health and safety.

My friend gave me a pertinent example of this. In Italy stove pellets were delivered and stacked up in her house by the delivery personnel as a matter of course: they were just doing their job correctly and with courtesy. In England she (who is no spring chicken and certainly not in the best of health) had to take them from outside her house and bring them in and stack them up herself since the delivery people said they weren’t covered by insurance in case they suffered any back-ache from the strain of taking the pellet bags into her house.

Another example; if Lucca’s walls were in the UK (that is if they weren’t demolished by some town re-development scheme) they would have safety barriers disfiguring the ancient walls to stop people falling over the edge. In Lucca (and most other places) if some boisterous child falls over the walls in a fortified hill town it’s the parents’ fault for not supervising their children correctly. Regarding children, I could go on and say that Italy is a truly child-friendly place. Children are seen and heard. I once was recommended a restaurant on the basis that children were discouraged there.  I refused to go out to eat at the place.

  1. Hounding the driver (or rider).

The sign ‘traffic calming measures ahead’, so prevalent in the UK, is guaranteed to make me reach (metaphorically, of course) for my gun. For these measures literally drive one to a persecution complex rather than ‘calm’ one in any way. I am totally fed up with traffic axle-breaking road humps, chicanes, speed cameras and the rest of the paraphernalia used to insult the prevalently prudent driver in the UK (You should see how drivers operate here, especially in the southern part of the peninsula!) All this oppression is because there are unfortunately a few irresponsible drivers around (a lot less than here, actually!).

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  1. Obliteration of historic centres

I’ve read too many books by architectural historians about the UK’s vanished cities. Glasgow, Birmingham, Nottingham, where have they gone? Underwater, destroyed by tsunamis, bombed by the enemy or shattered by earthquakes? Not at all – simply under so-called redevelopment – to satisfy the town planners’ and the shareholders’ ego. Awful, awful, awful!!!

The ghastly thing is that the new buildings, replacing these monuments to an age where style and durability counted for something, are just throw-away architecture. Instead of lasting for three hundred years they’ll last little more than thirty years. For example, I was amazed to find that London’s Woolwich waterside leisure centre built in 1985 is due for demolition this year as the council wants to erect a more up-to-date version on another site. Woolwich’s council offices built in 1987 have already been demolished for a new ‘civic centre.’

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Imagine if developers bulldozed part of Lucca’s town centre to build a new Tesco superstore in its place. In Britain they’d go ahead since the opposition, although certainly vociferous, would be small. In Italy, however, the perpetrator of such a plan would be lynched and slung over the city walls. For here a town’s identity is its ‘centro storico’ or historic centre. Woe betide if any one touches these building which have withstood, sieges, war, natural calamities to become the symbol of the very city itself. What’s the symbol of Woolwich? Tesco’s shopping centre perhaps, until that is they demolish it in the next thirty years…

  1. Ribbon development of identical houses

In Italy terraced housing is a relatively new phenomenon. Most people live in apartments or flats and sometimes have the opportunity to do a bit of gardening in their family’s old ancestral home in the country surviving when the economy was largely rural. Individual detached houses are truly individual. The thought of copying a neighbour’s design would be anathema to most Italians. In Britain, however, every house wants to look the same. Streams of semis line the Kingston by-pass and any exit route out of London or any other big UK city. Same, same, same, semi, semi, semi, again, again, again, appalling, appalling, appalling!

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Modern English houses are so utterly unaesthetic: they scream utter ugliness. Upper windows are squashed just beneath the roof line which is neither distinctively flattish nor pointed – just a horrible nondescript 90-degree angle. And the building material is so mean in quality! And the rooms are so small…

And ……some of the ‘residential developments’ have roads so tweely named it makes one retch: ‘Meadow view close’, ‘Hill reach avenue’, ‘Bog’s bottom way’, Sedgeway avenue.’ Italian streets have, on the other hand, names which actually instruct its citizens about the country’s great and worthy ones: ‘Via Garibaldi’, Piazza della Repubblica,’ ‘Viale XX Settembre.’, Piazzale Mazzini. Nothing twee about those!

  1. Non-numbered footpaths

This is a lesser rant but why can’t footpaths in the UK be numbered as they are with roads and as they are in Italy? Then one would be able to follow a path with greater ease, especially when crossing another route. I cannot understand why there isn’t a national footpath numbering system. After all, do we really know where the footpath for Pratt’s Bottom leads to? We could finish up in Piddle Hinton or even Tithill (these are real names – I haven’t made them up).

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  1. Trains

Talk about UK trains and it’ll drive me to the depths of despair. Quite apart from the fact that one needs a degree to study the varying prices ranges for a simple journey – I doubt whether a computer programme has been able to satisfactorily cope with all the updates made. Of course, all this can be blamed on privatization. But why does going from Stansted to London cost £19 whereas the bus ticket is just £6 – more than three times less? (In Italy buses are often more expensive than trains). And why call it standard class – it’s second class or at the most sub-standard class that one is travelling in on a UK train.

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  1. Classism

As Shaw famously put it in his play ‘Pygmalion’, as soon as a suffering subject of Her Majesty on the British Isles opens their mouth they betray themselves. And it’s not always that speakers of the Queens’ English get the best deal: in some milieus it’s important to change one’s Oxford accent to an estuary English one to avoid social censure. There’s a passage in George Orwell’s diary about tramping to the Kent hop fields where he forgets to camouflage his upper middle –class origins and falls from cockney to Eton accent. ‘Poor gentleman’ says one of the hop-pickers when hearing Orwell. ‘He’s clearly fallen on hard times.’

Classism is still rampant in the UK- in the stratified society unmovingly and largely based upon privilege and aristocracy. It seeps into one’s life style, into one’s tastes, into the car one drives (white van drivers are definitely non-U), whether one prefers rugby to football, snooker to billiards: it’s so truly horrendous that, to change the French expression: ‘Chaque classe sociale a son gout (sorry that’s not the disease but I can’t find a circumflex accent on this Italian keyboard!)

In Italy you can drive a car one day and a Motoguzzi the next. You can go and hear Ligabue (a famous pop singer) one evening and Verdi the next. You can dance with pensioners and nippers on the same floor. You can share a restaurant with road hauliers and accountants. Whether one is rich or poor, whether one is an old fart or a young terror, whether one has to pull up one’s sleeves to work or put on one’s jacket makes little difference. The big differences in Italy are in work/out of work, and to a lesser extent – I have to admit – the north/south divide.

It’s a shocking thought to realise opera is classed as an elitist entertainment by certain UK town councils, that there’s a dress code just for entering Harrods, that there are exclusive clubs, that political parties are divided largely by class rather than the ideas one holds, that displaying one’s knowledge in a field is seen as showing off, that when one appreciates a work of art one is classed as an aesthete or worse, when understatement is such a way that one almost disappears under its weight, when the greatest UK quality to cultivate to its highest form is – as Alan Bennet bluntly states – hypocrisy.

Now what would you rather choose: a society based on hypocrisy and sarcasm or one based on bribery and corruption? But let’s not get too political about this. It’s the good things in Italian life – fine food and drink, delectable scenery, gorgeous climate, lovely people, fantastic historical towns, a devotion to enjoying the good things in life with style and excellence – that seduce one away from such heavy thoughts regarding how society is run.

Now which wine shall accompany our Zampone tonight? Morellino di Scansano or Chianti Classico?

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PS The title, if you are not a latinist, translates as ‘your country is where you feel good in’

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10 thoughts on “Ubi Bene Ibi Patria

  1. My ambition is to split my year between the UK and Italy as others do. I found myself in agreement with a good deal of your post. There is much to commend both countries but I have to say for a mature nation there are massive opportunities in the UK.

    • Agreed about opportunities. That’s why there are so many young Italians in the UK especially in London, where the heads of the Royal Opera and the National Gallery are both Italians!

  2. I struggle to return to UK, I agree with a lot of what you say. And I 100% agree that home is where the heart is, my heart is here cx

  3. All true. Regarding 7 though, the new houses that the Italians like to build are truly ghastly, pretentious, fenced around and with the obligatory electric gates and decorated with dayglow colours – what happend to the nice old buildings? We devient ‘stranieri’ lactually live in them! The Centro Historico is charming for tourists to visit, but day to day living and commerce happens in the rather less inviting areas that we ‘stranieri’ choose to ignore, and deplore.

    Those of us in receipt of a UK pension should reflect that we should be grateful that HMRC is not yet over concerned about where that money goes. It has not occurred to the parsimonious minds of UK polititians to make sure that this money is spent in the UK, not in the much despised EU!

    Oh well, the sun has come out, just remember the ‘inside a tupperware box’ weather in the UK that we were brought up in!

    • I would strongly agree with you that modern italian domestic architecture is sorely lacking. American ranch non-aesthetics seem to have crept in and destroyed any sense of the old proportions. Interestingly, Italians who have ‘modernized’ their houses for rental purposes are surprised that mod cons are abandoned by visitors for rustic habitations, more often that not restored by those from northern climes.

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