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Not all is "buono" in Italia

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My wife and I love to travel to Italy. We love the landscape, the architecture, the food and the people.

We've just completed our eighth trip to Italy where we stayed at the Tuscan estate of our longtime acquaintances, Caterina and Aurelio Pellegrini.

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As usual, we had a wonderful time, eating up the wonderful artisanal food and drinking in not only the wine, but a finely honed culture that comes down to Tuscany from the Etruscans and the Renaissance.

So as not to sound too Pollyanna about the experience, I brought along a book to read in the cemetery adjacent to our quarters in a 14th-century convent on the Pellegrini property.

The book was a real eye opener called "Good Italy, Bad Italy," by Bill Emmott (Yale University Press, no price).

Former editor in chief of "The Economist," Emmott is English, a group known for its affection for Italy -- wags calls Tuscany "Tuscanyshire" because so many expatriate Brits live there.

Nevertheless Emmott points out that all is not perfect in that country that emerged from World War II into a newfound prosperity that held promise, but is now teetering on the edge of bankruptcy as you might have noticed in the day's headlines.

We know what's good about Italy (see above), but what's bad?

Lots of things.

Political scandal, for instance, highlighted by the outrageous behavior of its former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Backward universities.

What a tragedy that is, when one considers the country boasts some of the oldest universities in Europe! Today, formerly great schools like the University of Bologna get most of their foreign students from Albania.

And then there's the matter of the economy.

Emmott places its stagnation squarely at the feet of the country's trade unions and the mafia.

Several years ago, I asked an Italian if the government ever planned to build a bridge from the mainland to Messina in Sicily, a very short distance that now requires tourists to take an ungainly car ferry.

She shrugged her shoulders and said, "It all depends on what the mafia wants to do," -- suggesting that the mafia owns the car ferries.

As a former union member, I don't like to say bad things about such organizations, but Emmott's examples of the Italian versions are very convincing.

He points out that Fiat has factories in both southern Italy and Poland. Fiat has 5,200 auto workers at its plant in the "mezzogiorno" (south), which in 2008 produced 78,000 cars.

In Poland its 6,100 auto workers produced 600,000 cars. Take all of its Italian employees, 22,000 auto workers produced 650,000 cars in 2009, while at its plant in Brazil, 9,400 auto workers built 730,000 cars.

In the south, 30% of Fiat's Italian production workers are involved in unscheduled stoppages every day. In one case between 1,500 and 1,600 workers called in absent because it was election day.

Despite these problems, Emmott has hope for Italy in the new technocratic government of Mario Monti and new developments at smaller universities that aren't overburdened with entrenched faculty, where a new era of cooperation with industry and business has seen modest successes.

Let's hope things go well, lest that lovely peninsula revert to the days when there was no Italy, not so long ago, before the days of the 19th century when the country was organized.

***

Paranormal is very big these days and George Michael Brown, an events supervisor at the Ordway, has tried his hand at a first novel that features a couple named Cheryl and Jim, who fall in love on the Internet only to encounter a doppelganger couple who lived in the 19th century.

"A Rose for Cheryl" (The Small Press, $14.99 paper) is all very spooky and calls to mind movies made in the 1940s ("Portrait of Jenny") that dealt with the supernatural.

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