Thursday, August 5, 2010

Relish these words: A vanishing world of artisans and poets?

(CAPTION: A week's worth of food in Italy, from the photo essay Hungry Planet: What the World Eats.)

The closest I have ever been to Italy was a brief layover at the airport in Zurich on my way to Denmark for a meeting of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. Slowly descending over Switzerland, I gazed down at small country villages, each with an ornate church at the center and fringed by small flocks of sheep in hilly green pastures, and thought it was possibly the most beautiful place I’d ever seen and vowed to go back someday.

I can’t help feeling a similar reverence for Italy, birthplace of Slow Food and the Slow Food manifesto, of outdoor cafes and jewel-like bakeries, routine meals as grand occasion, of poets, artisans and romantics. If you share similar inclinations, I’m delighted to pass along a must-read in last Sunday’s New York Times: Is Italy Too Italian? From Taxis to Textiles, a Nation Chooses Tradition Over Growth. It opens with a visit to an elegant businessman who ages fine wool and cashmere for six months before crafting it into his own hand-designed clothing.

Possibly your response — and clearly that of the article’s — is ah, how quaint... And how increasingly unrealistic.

It’s to the article’s credit that it doesn’t sentimentalize or gloss over the occasional irritations of living in a medieval world, suggesting that even crafters guilds are vulnerable to improprieties. However, the dilemma posed — quality (of life, of products) versus economic growth — is a familiar one to Americans as well.

"… Of course the worship of growth has its limitations. The American economy is vastly more robust, but instead of family-owned bakeries, which seem to dot very hectare of Italy, we’ve got Quiznos."

Italy is "clannish," self-possessed and distinctive, and (as the article reminds) has never brought upon itself a housing bubble or banking crisis. But the political situation there shares an important parallel with our own, namely, public policy battles over: 

  • product (and food) labels revealing more transparency into where and how they are produced; 
  • the interests of producers versus the interests of financiers and merchants;
  • the value of preserving tradition, art, culture and "way of life" concerns while the world globalizes in the name of “growth” and “progress.”

As our Italian textile manufacturer says:

"… I am fighting with all my strength to make people understand that this country is destroying itself in order to advance the interests of just a few people who are unfortunately members of the most powerful caste of this country."

And, later:

"It is a hard world for poets."