.. F , orty years ago I left Italy to
marry a Brit and adopt the British way of life, in so far as anyone who is not British can. I carried with me a romanticised image of my country of birth as a land not just of sunshine but of warm, generous and fundamentally decent people. Yes, Italy had its problems. We had the Mafia. We didn't like paying taxes. We paid more attention to appearances than to inner qualities. But for all that we were a happy-go-lucky people with a sunny disposition, always ready to help, bound together by our simple values, at least in the remote countryside where I grew up. All a bit of a contrast to the reserved, orderly, disciplined, rather dour Brits among whom I made my life. My only prenuptial agreement with my husband, Charles, was that we would one day retire to Italy to enjoy the way of life I remembered.
Four years ago, as the first step to realising that dream, I bought a rundown little estate outside Rome in the commune of Palombara Sabina, a name deliciously redolent of the Sabine women and their graphically depicted fate. Its principal feature is a remarkable 4th-century signal station, a tall tower that points its elegant finger at the flawless blue sky, from which the sun shines for more than 300 days each year. Acting as my own clerk of the works, I restored the house and returned to the rural way of life from which I came. I bought chickens that produce the finest eggs I have ever eaten. I bought sheep to keep the grass short, and cared for a crippled and abandoned lamb, Maria, who slept in my bedroom wearing my grandchildren's nappies. I bought three horses, including my proudest acquisition, a finelooking stallion, from a Neapolitan at the local horse fair. Only when we got home did I discover that he had virtually no teeth, I had fallen for the proverb 'Never look a gift horse in the mouth.'
In every respect but one the house was perfect. Its one flaw was that it lacked something which in England we consider a basic right: access to the public water supply. When I bought the house, at the end of 1999, it was not connected to the mains, but I was assured by the council that the necessary funds had been allocated by the region in 1996 and were in the hands of the mayor. Connecting us, and the other
400 families that were without public water, would be a priority. Four years on, I and the 400 families are still waiting.
Over the years I had heard tell of the problems encountered by English people buying houses in Tuscany. But that wasn't going to happen to me: after all, I was Italian, even if Piedmontese and therefore the wrong sort of Italian for coping in Rome. I would be able to deal with the petty annoyances of planning permission and so on. In Italy, everything could surely be 'arranged' with a bit of goodwill and flexibility. And after mani polite (clean hands), the supposed abolition of corruption in political and public life, there would be no ethically challenging dilemmas to face.
The reality turns out to be very different. In my district the mayor's attitude seems to be, What's in it for me? Why should I do a favour to these 400 families, let alone this indignant woman, even if she is Italian by birth? Were I a friend of the mayor, or related to him, or a member of his party or a contributor to his funds, or likely to do him a favour, these would all be excellent reasons to turn on the tap. That's the way here. Unfortunately I have none of these advantages. I have tried everything. I have sat patiently outside the mayor's office to secure a meeting, as is my constitutional right, only to find that he had escaped down the stairs rather than face me. Access to clean water may still be a distant aspiration in Darfur, but surely one can reasonably expect it 15 miles from one of the great cities of western Europe, the city where the founding treaty of the European Union itself was signed. But it seems that in Italy local government can deny you your rights indefinitely.
Being somewhat argumentative, not to say confrontational. as well as a bit self important by nature, I thought I could deal with the problem by going to the top, to the leaders of political parties. After all, no politicians wax more eloquent than Italians when it comes to promoting human rights, calling for a more democratic Europe or declaring undying loyalty to a federal European state. Well, I can assure you that from the point of view of the individual citizen the gap between lofty rhetoric and daily practice is wider than the Strait of Messina.
At least in Britain MPs and ministers have the courtesy to acknowledge your letters and even to try to do something about your problems. Not in Italy — oh dear me, no! Politics is all about self-advancement and narrow party advantage, about paying lip-service to 'principles' and ignoring the actual problems.
In my case, the local commune is in the hands of the left-wing Socialists (DS), so I applied to their leader, Mr D'Alema, for help. After all, as a former prime minister he surely knew a thing or two about solving problems. I might as well have turned to the man in the moon. Could I get a reply to a letter? No. Could I speak to him on the telephone? No. Could I see him briefly in his office? No. Mr D'Alema, it turned out, was too busy writing books about human rights and giving speeches in Brussels and Strasbourg about European integration to pay attention to a minor injustice being inflicted by his party on a group of Italian citizens in a commune controlled by his left-wing Socialists.
I want very much to believe in my Italy, an Italy whose praises I had sung even to Margaret Thatcher, who used to introduce me anxiously at Downing Street receptions with the words, 'She's Italian, you know', as though that would explain any eccentricities such as my bursting into song or dancing on the table-tops. I still think Italy is the fairest country in the world: superb landscape, marvellous climate, every aspect of art in abundance, warm-hearted people, and a voluntary sector which operates far more effectively than the state.
But one thing above all is lacking, and that is the rule of law. Without it, the rest is spoiled. Instead, decentralisation places excessive power in the hands of cabals of party politicians, who use it ruthlessly to advance the interests of their supporters and to the exclusion of anyone who is not part of the inner circle which controls the local municipality. Let's avoid it at all costs in Britain. despite the current fad for regional government and the like. Take it too as another warning against an integrated Europe, because if ever Europe becomes infected with the practices of Italian politicians (as opposed to what they preach), then we are in for a new Dark Ages.
Some years ago I wrote in frustration in these pages about the pragmatic, phlegmatic British, under the title Basta Britannia. Now it's Basta Italia: I'm hanging on to my British passport!