Italy is a place where retirement is welcome

But it is rare for [Italians] to view work as anything but a necessary evil. A survey commissioned by the weekly newsmagazine Panorama in 2006 found that two-thirds of Italians would give up their work if they could be guaranteed the relatively modest sum of € 5,000 a month.

In the same way, retirement is usually seen as entirely positive. There seems to be none of the fretting that goes on in Anglo-Saxon societies about how to cope with a loss of identity.

I have known plenty of Italians who have gone into retirement, and sometimes I have bumped into them in the street or when they have made a return visit to the offices where they worked. Not once have I heard any of them express anything but unmitigated delight at no longer having a job.

Silvio Berlusconi was still prime minister at the age of seventy-five. Mario Monti, who replaced Berlusconi in 2011, took over as head of government when he was sixty-eight. His cabinet, which was brought in as a new broom that would sweep clean and introduce wide-ranging reforms, had the highest average age of any in the European Union at the time.

And after the election that followed the fall of Monti’s government, the new parliament reelected a president, Giorgio Napolitano, who was eighty-seven. For truly untrammeled “gray power,” however, nothing compares with the universities. A study published as Monti and his ministers were settling in behind their highly polished desks found that the average age of Italy’s professors was sixty-three and that many were still clinging to their positions and the vast patronage they were afforded when they were well over seventy. Their average age was the highest anywhere.

It means that young Italians are not just imbibing the theories and attitudes of the previous generation, which is natural, but of the one before that, and in extreme cases even the one before that. The appointment of two younger prime ministers, Enrico Letta in 2013 and Matteo Renzi in 2014, has led to a rejuvenation at the highest levels of government. Renzi became Italy’s youngest ever prime minister at the age of just thirty-nine. And he set about naming a cabinet that included a party colleague who was only thirty-three at the time of her appointment.

But it remained to be seen whether the process would extend to other areas of Italian life, and particularly higher education. The role played by the elderly in the formation of Italy’s future elite continued to represent a formidable obstacle to innovation, modernization and the rethinking of established ideas. This may have some link to the enthusiasm with which so many young Italians embrace the culture of their parents. Perhaps the most striking example of this is to be found in the area of rock music: currently the ages of three of the most popular singers are fifty-two, fifty-six and sixty. Aging rock stars have kept going.

Hooper, John. The Italians, Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


Things I’ve learned

…in the past 18 or so months.  As anybody who reads my blog knows, it is not a how-to blog.  There are many expats living in Italy who blog about the ins and outs of living here.  I usually avoid the subject, but I’m in the process of moving from what is called a transitory lease to a long-term lease, which could involve a stay of up to 8 years or longer.

To say it has been a learning process would be like saying a a flower seed will grow a flower.  It can happen, but it might not depending on infinite variables. I’m not sure that is a good example, but my brain is currently cooked.

So, it set me to thinking about the many small things that go on here, such as waiting in line this morning to buy your milk, eggs and bread (which you thought would be a quick trip, but it isn’t because there are 10+ people in line before you. You have the luck to be behind an older signora who has 2x the normal amount of shopping in her cart and she keeps dropping pieces of paper that she can’t bend over far enough to retrieve and so you have to do it):



Or the fact that you thought your were covered for the furniture delivery that was set up for this morning.  The doorman works during the hours you planned the delivery and he knew about the delivery and so you didn’t worry.

That is, until you got several angry phone calls in Italian from the delivery man who couldn’t get into the building.  So you sent an SOS text to the landlord who you happened to know was in your apartment at that moment.  The delivery man got in, in the end, and you received this text from the landlord:


There are more, many more, and I may be writing about them soon.  But right now I am taking some Advil and taking a nap in my old short-term but beautiful apartment. :-)


Carrara marble quarries

The blog post below is a good one on the subject of the Carrara marble quarries.  If you would like to see the pictures, you can find the post here:


 Everybody who drives or takes the train along the west coast of Italy has seen them from a distance. Anybody who has read The Agony and the Ecstasy has read about them. The white marble mountains of Carrara are interesting from afar—many people mistake the shining white marble for snow—but up close they are truly amazing. And there is no better way to see them than by going up the steep, unpaved roads in a 4×4 vehicle to drive right into the quarries, indeed right inside the mountains themselves.

Lucy and I, along with friends Steve and Patti, have booked an excursion with Cave di Marmo Tours, which takes us on a three-hour excursion into the heart of the land where Michelangelo came to select the marble slabs he used to create his masterful sculptures. The mountains above Carrara are basically one huge block of crystallized calcium carbonate, which originated during the Jurassic era. Marble is created when limestone crystallizes under extreme pressure and heat. Limestone itself is formed from layer upon layer of sea shells. Tectonic action first buries the limestone, squeezing it until it crystallizes before thrusting it upward to form mountains.

Our German-Italian guide Heike fearlessly drives us up rugged, rain-rutted service roads overlooking the marble quarries, the city of Carrara and numerous small islands in the Mediterranean. The ride reminds us of Disneyland, with the added thrill of knowing that we are not on a secure track and that the scenery was originally created by the hand of God rather than man. As we bounce and skid first up and then down the steep slopes, Lucy tries to close her eyes and think about something else, but Heike keeps pointing out sights to see and takes pleasure in the knowledge that her tour is thrilling on a variety of levels.

We learn that the Romans discovered marble here in 176 BC, which meant they no longer had to import it from other countries. They built a port at Luni and roads into the mountains. Then they faced the puzzle of where to find strong workers willing to wield mallets and chisels and endure extreme weather conditions while working year-around in dusty quarries? No problem. They were rulers of most of Europe, so they just took some hearty northern Europeans as slaves and put them to work in the quarries. Heike says you can still see many light-haired, blue-eyed Italians in Carrara who are descendants of these early quarrymen.

The first blocks were taken from the mountains to the sea by slave power alone. Later came oxen, then trains. Now huge front-end loaders and dump trucks are used. All of the methods made use of wheels, and the city’s motto is “My strength is in the wheel.”

Harvesting techniques have also changed. Marble contains natural pressure fractures, and early workers used chisels and wooden wedges to widen the fractures and break off slabs. Later, explosives were used, but this had to be carefully done to avoid fracturing the slabs. Hand saws have also been employed.

Current techniques use drills and a type of chain saw incorporating industrial diamonds fastened to a flexible cable. Holes are drilled in the marble and the chain inserted in one end and pulled out the other. Then the cable is looped around a pulley powered by an electric motor and run for hours at a time until a clean cut is made. All the while, water is running in the hole to cool the chain and minimize the dust.

Much of the work is now done inside the mountains so as not to disturb the terrain, and we are able to go inside to observe the process up close. It is difficult to describe the scene in words, and photos don’t do it justice as well. The walls and ceiling are flat, though not uniformly so, as some support pillars remain. It reminds me of being inside a large cathedral, but instead of being built by adding marble slabs, it is what remains after removing slabs from the center. Moisture drips from the ceiling, and the floor is covered with a quarter inch of wet marble powder. The workers spend most of their time monitoring and repositioning the saws. It is dark, damp and dirty work, but I’m sure it would be a dream job for the first slaves forced to do everything by human strength alone.

The 188 quarries are all privately owned by very wealthy families, Heike says. The country should be earning more income from this lucrative business, but the quarry owners still benefit from an ancient agreement they reached with the duchy of Modena. They agreed to provide Modena with the choicest marble, and the duchy agreed not to tax them. I’m not sure how this agreement survived to the modern age, but Heike suggests it has much to do with money, politics and corruption, which Italy has long been famous for, so we are inclined to believe her.

Toward the end of the tour, we travel through an old railway tunnel, and I have read that this tunnel is 400 meters long, 400 meters above sea level and has 400 meters of stone above it.