Thursday 22 May 2008

Spartans & Trojans - the elderly in Italy

By and large it must be said that the elderly generation in Italy is something to be marvelled at. More specifically I am referring to the country dwellers, as it is here that they are undoubtedly at their most marvellous. On a regular basis I am reduced to a solemn admittance of the dreadful laziness of my own generation, in the face of these old workhorses who live like Spartans and work like Trojans. You will have seen them on your travels or during your daily life here; picking olives, pruning olive trees, tilling small patches of forsaken earth for a few plum tomatoes. More often than not you will find old ladies rummaging in hedgerows for long forgotten species of wild grass with which to season tonight’s broth, or perhaps even to fend off their husband’s impending attack of gout. Often still referred to as contadini, they do not actually live up to the original definition as people who worked land on behalf of “The Squire”, but to all intents and purposes they live the same life as their forebears 60 years ago. If you happen to own a second home in Italy that has a lot of land, you will probably have someone of this ilk, or preferably even a couple, whom you most likely inherited from the previous owner (who in most cases was a lawyer from Milan who invariably treated anyone living south of Milan as little more than chattels to be ordered about).
Many is the time when I arise and leave the house for work at what seems like an ungodly hour, usually ameliorated by the early sun’s rays lapping at the trees on the hillside above me, as opposed to the incipient drizzle that you tend to find over Britain’s embittered commuters. Feeling good for my ‘early’ start, I then usually discover that my neighbour has already ploughed his entire olive grove, having previously fixed the engine on his ancient and noisome tractor. Not only that, but his wife has strangled, plucked, cleaned and trussed half a dozen home reared quails for the night’s supper, probably by candle light. It is then that you realise the futility of it all; it does not matter how early you wake up, your octogenarian neighbour has always had breakfast before you even opened your eyes. It must be a throwback to the dark post-war years in Italy, when you had the choice of growing/gathering your food or simply not eating. It is naturally testament to the Italians’ wine habit that, of course, the red stuff never seemed to lack anywhere, at any time.
These days abject starvation is not normally on the cards, but for the folk that lived through those lean times there is still no excuse for not making the most of every waking hour and every last ounce of prosciutto or pomodoro. Must be why my father-in-law insists on scraping mould off something rather than throwing it away... To this end they also reap all the benefits of the countryside that they learned from their parents; knowledge that has sadly been all but forgotten by the present generation. If you ever need a tip on wild herbs or especially mushrooms, then look no further than your nearest elderly neighbour for advice (a word of warning about mushrooms: check in a book afterwards, just in case their self-taught wisdom has given way to senility). You may think the wild grass line in the first paragraph was a joke, but it is not; you really do see old ladies, usually in pairs and always highly wizened, stooping under the weight of a bundle of wild grass. To this day I do not know what becomes of these bundles, but can only assume they do not end up as new stuffing for old mattresses.
Italy’s ageing population (apparently second only to Japan for centenarians) and declining birth rate is creating problems in the nation’s cities, where the elderly are seen more as a burden than a source of help or advice. I am certain however, that life in the country is very different, and that the older generation still have a huge input into the social and economic fabric of rural life. There are many families who rely heavily on the nonni (grandparents) for all aspects of domestic life, but particularly childcare and cooking. Very often the nonni will live under the same roof and, although this may not facilitate marital bliss, it does make life for the younger generations that much simpler. Far from being unfairly perceived as a hindrance to everyday life, the elderly generation of rural Italy does more than pull its weight, unless it gets behind the wheel of a battered old Panda, in which case all is lost and despair reigns king...

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