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  • Italy Is Blue
    A slumping economy has the country a little sad
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    The dolce vita isn't so dolce, after all. Italy placed 45th in The United Nations 2013 World Happiness Report. To give some perspective, Denmark came in first, and the top 10 included other countries in Europe (think Norway, Switzerland, and Sweden) and Canada to name a few. The United States came in 17th.

    A desire for leaders to address happiness – as a means of gauging the physical and mental health of their people – drives the UN to put out this report. Judging by the results, Italian leaders have a lot of work ahead of them.

    Creators of the list considered gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, healthy life expectancy, perceived corruption in government and business sectors, citizens' perceived freedom, generosity, and social support.

    Italy is suffering one of the worst economic crises ever. Certainly, things haven't been this bad since World War II. It's starting to wear on the people, so it's not such a shock for the country to receive such a low rank for happiness.

    I've seen the crisis firsthand. I have been living on the island of Ischia, off the coast of Naples, for the last five months. There are obvious signs, such as the empty and boarded up storefronts, the fact that hotel and shop owners still in business were doing construction on their property during what should have been the height of the tourism season, the more subdued feasts, and the unemployed young people roaming the streets at all hours of the day and night.

    But there are also more subtle reminders of the economic crisis. Fewer friends are having dinner parties or celebrations at their place or in restaurants. People are repairing torn clothes to make them last longer. Pasta e fagioli, a relatively cheap peasant dish, is reigning supreme at the lunch table. The shop owners in Ischia Porto are often outside their doors sweeping the sidewalk and chatting among themselves because there are few or no clients stopping in to buy anything.

    Here in Ischia, most people only ever really worked for six months when the weather was warm and the tourists came to town. As long as they work a full six months and get security from their employers, they earn unemployment for the six months when the hotels and restaurants are closed. Now, fewer and fewer people are getting guaranteed six months of work. This means that many, many will be without any incoming money during the winter. They will have to go elsewhere to search for work during that time.

    If they could, many of them would transfer permanently. There's more money and job security elsewhere – in other parts of Europe to start. When people learn that my 2-year-old son is an American, their response is always the same, "Beato lui," which is to say, "Bless him" but really means, "Lucky him."

    Many Italian mothers say to me, I wish I could give my kids the opportunities you can give your son. Yes, the United States is in crisis, too. But it's nothing compared to this. My child will go to school – even public schools – and be able to dream of something more than life as a waiter or doorman for six months of the year. He could be the owner of a landscaping business like his nonno, a scientist like his aunt, a reporter like me, or even the president of the United States. The point is he will have the luxury to dream of a better tomorrow, which will give him ambition. Their children won't, or at least they won't be able to dream with as much expectation.

    Late at night, after chatting with yet another Italian acquaintance experiencing money woes, I wonder if these Ischitani will be moved to immigrate like my family did more than 50 years ago. I wonder if they will even be able to make the moves so many Italians made in the first two waves of immigration. I have relatives in France, Canada, Argentina, Australia, and the United States because Ischia got so bad everyone had to move out. Very few remain on the island. And some of them are beginning to move to Rome. They are considering bigger moves, too. But first you have to find jobs in those places.

    Still, I don't think money is the only driver of happiness. It helps. But Italy probably also lost points for the corruption of its politicians (hello, Silvio Berlusconi), who have made a circus of government. Generosity, which took into account whether people are giving to charity, had to bring Italy down, too. If your pocketbook is empty, you can't give to others. And no one feels free if they are imprisoned by financial problems and other ensuing hardships.

    Alas, all is not lost. The one place that probably buoys Italy is the social support category. This is where the UN considers the people, who citizens say they can count on to help them in times of need. In essence, this is a measure of people having true family and friends – as much as you can measure such a thing. Here, Italy wins. Italy is rich with love. Neighbors are still neighbors here, especially in the southern part of the country. And family means everything. This is a good thing if Italy has any hope of coming out on the other end of the crisis. Viva la famiglia! Viva l'Italia!

    Di Meglio is the author of Fun with the Family New Jersey (Globe Pequot Press Travel, 2012), and you can follow her life and work on the Two Worlds Web site.

    Article Published 9/23/13


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