Italy, land of earthquakes and elderly nonnas

Santa Maria di CollemaggioI have spent the past few months with some of my family in a small, very steep town called Introdacqua in the Abruzzi region east of Rome. We have been fixing up an old house. The early days hardly provided the type of schmaltzy, Under-the-Tuscan-Sun experiences that everyone thinks of as ``my sojourn in Italy''; Introdacqua is about 50km from L'Aquila and we arrived 20 hours after the earthquake that devastated that town in April.

Every night for two weeks there was a jolt or tremor . All the churches and public buildings were closed. Despite the wet and cold, whole families slept in their cars or bedded down in tents in the campo sportivo. The weather has improved but some are still there. Several young people studying in Aquila, a university town, lost friends in the collapsed student hostel. At the other end of the age scale, in the province with the highest longevity in Italy, the fear, paura, is quite palpable. Gelsina, my 96 year old neighbour, reminisced about the Avezzano quake in 1915, when 30,000 people were killed.

It is not surprising that Silvio Berlusconi’s decision to stage the G8 conference in L’Aquila was seen by some as inappropriate. Others might call it a typically crazy-genius move. Tourism is Abruzzo’s major economic activity and the devastation in l’Aquila and, indeed, the whole of the Abruzzo has struck at a deep emotional level all over Italy, and abroad. (As of last Tuesday a million dollars in aid had been raised in Australia.) 

Abruzzo, the most traditional of provinces, is Italy’s emotional heart . It was the birthplace of Ovid and more recently D'Annunzio, the great nationalist poet. It is a region of shepherds, famous for mountains that, around our town, soar to a height of more 2000m. It is "real'' Italy, the birthplace of many Australian Italians who, as mountain people, emigrated to work on the Snowy Mountains hydroelectricity scheme in their new country.

It is also earthquake-prone country. It is very hard to take precautions against being obliterated by falling masonry in a place where the multi-storied stone and concrete houses have stair wells at 45 degree angles, where a lot of streets and alleys are only a metre or so wide and the roads disappear into nothing but slippery steps. The steps at the end of our street are topped by a precipitously placed 900-year-old tower that looks wobbly at the best of times. 

Even in L'Aquila, which had relatively wide streets and beautiful porticoed buildings on the main street near the Fountain of the Hundred Heads, the probability of being anywhere not built up is almost nil. An exception is the 1000-year-old Basilica di Santa Maria di Collemaggio, which stands in a field at the edge of the town. Even so, the earthquake ruined a transept of this church, which is one of the most important first millennium basilicas in Italy. Inside, where you could see the damage in the stucco caused by the bolts of crossbows fired during the siege of the Saracens, lies the intact body of Saint Celestine, the only pope ever to abdicate -- because he found Rome so chaotic and corrupt.

The earthquake happened at the beginning of Holy Week, a very important time in Italy. Easter is the central holiday and religious feast is celebrated on the same scale as Australians keep Christmas. People go to church who normally don't. Everyone "goes home'' for Easter. Families get together to have a big dinner. It is the beginning of spring and the kids are looking forward to end of year exams and the summer holidays -- as doubtless were the students who were buried in their hostel in L'Aquila. Among them was a girl of 13, a scholarship student from an Albanian family but born in Italy, the first in her family to aspire to an academic high school and eventually a university education.

This year in solidarity with L'Aquila the regional festivities were toned down or called off all over the Abruzzi. The Easter Sunday pageant and procession in Introdacqua, usually accompanied by fireworks and much auguries and public displays of general bonhomie, was cancelled and we had to have a dour Easter Sunday Mass outside in the car park.

Undaunted, the traditional huge Good Friday procession in Sulmona went ahead. Early in the evening there was an incongruously festive air with stalls selling ludicrous Tweetie Pie and Spider-Man helium balloons, but an air of sadness gradually replaced it as the piazza filled for the procession. The elaborately red-robed men's sodality came first, carrying in slow swaying rhythm great torches and the statues of the dead Christ and the Madonna in full regal silk mourning clothes, and intoning the doleful Miserere written in Sulmona 500 years ago. Meanwhile, the newly fervent crowd blessed themselves over and over.

The birthrate, a natural disaster in the making

It will take more than religious rituals to stave off another natural disaster that threatens the Italian nation. Italians are a people whose sense of their history, culture and identity is besieged by a tsunami of illegal immigration and an ageing population -- to which the immediate post-earthquake television reports bore testimony, showing legions of ancient nonnas being carried out of ruined houses.

Italy’s birth rate is abysmal, the social security system is fragmenting and the economy is struggling. The cost of living is soaring above the value of wages and cities are ringed with terrible, poorly constructed, high-density housing developments which are breeding grounds for every social problem under the sun.

Despite all this, Italians know how to enjoy life. They appreciate beauty both natural and man-made; they have wonderful food; their social life is punctuated by public festivals that reinforce a sense of their complex history; they still have a reverence for religion, which permeates their public life; they are optimistic and have low suicide rates. But most of all, they have warm and supportive family relationships.

So why, after Spain, does Italy have the lowest birth rate in Europe (1.3 children per woman)? Why, in a country where the family provides support across and down the generations, where children are really loved, spoiled, cosseted and dressed like little princes and princesses, where they are over-educated and so dependent on their parents that they stay at home until they are about 30 -- why is it that, in a country where family is everything, they don’t have enough children to replace themselves?

In 1996 Italy became the first country in the world where old people outnumber young people. In comparison, other countries with less congenial lifestyles and far less religious and family-oriented cultures have not experienced the fertility crisis of the Italians. Although life in modern Italy is difficult, it has nothing like the social chaos, rooted in family collapse, of other countries. The rates of single parenthood, cohabitation instead of marriage, teen pregnancy and the abortion rates are very low compared with, say, Britain and Sweden, but in those countries the average birth rate is around 1.7.Sweden's has recently been as high as 1.9 and in fact all the Scandinavian countries have respectable rates.

So what is the moral of all this? For some demographers and economists the lesson seems to be that the culture of Italy -- traditional, religiously oriented, family-oriented, but also very consumer-oriented -- does not encourage the having of children because it hasn’t helped the family adapt to the modern economy. In other words, it hasn't provided support for women who want to work. Therefore, family policy needs to be designed to support fertility and women's other aspirations. There is something in this.

The Swedes, for example, deliberately decided to push population growth to fuel their post-war economy last century and tied all the benefits of having babies to mothers also working. They lifted their population growth, but they created a rather artificial work-centred family culture where producing children was part of what you did for the state -- and what the state did for you. However, the obverse side to this bargain was that the state, through its well run and cheap crèches, would take over the care of children. That worked OK in Sweden -- it is full of Swedes.

Try doing it in Italy. You would need more than luck to make a policy work that separates babies from their mamas -- not to mention their nonnas. Italians are historically wary of any interference by the state in family life. Some of them can still remember the family laws under Mussolini, which were basically designed to produce little Filii del Lupa (sons of the she-wolf), the junior fascist boys brigade. In Italy the family is considered to be a policy-free zone, a "strictly private'' sphere.

But what about the idea that gender-equity-based family policies have more success in raising the birth rate? Sweden and Britain seem to prove the case, but Italy proves the opposite. Italian women can receive generous maternity leave, but they don’t take it. Italy proves that fertility rates are often governed by much more complex cultural and social factors. In Italy, culture trumps policy.

In essence, Italy has never needed “family policy” because it still has families that act like families. If things go wrong with young people in Britain or Australia or Sweden, the state is expected to pick up the pieces. In Italy you rely on your family, so much so that young people, especially men, stay at home until they are well into their 30s. And here we confront the major cause of Italian infertility: delayed marriage.

In a country where there are practically no unemployment benefits the young cannot afford to be independent, let alone marry and acquire the latest consumer stuff that is expected in the modern Italian household. But the story is different for nonna and nonno. They are loaded.

Italy has one of the most astonishingly generous (and complicated) pension schemes in the world. Italians can retire on 75 per cent-80 per cent of their former salary. Most old people own their homes in which the children linger well into adult life, thus taking advantage of family solidarity and accumulated wealth. Some social policy experts argue that old people are being supported by the Italian state at the expense of the young. But Italians know that to have a family you need a certain standard of living, and you also need mum, dad and nonno and nonna.

Take my friend Flavia, whose grandfather bought her a house when she married. Flavia now has one child Julia, aged five, with no more planned. What Italians don't want to think about is that just over the horizon is the uncomfortable population gap left by little Julia's non-existent siblings. The highest net migration Europe means it is the African and Macedonian families who have just taken up residence down the street who are filling that gap -- and transforming the nation.

Angela Shanahan is an Australian newspaper columnist.


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