There are four topics that come up with nearly every Perugian we meet.
First there is the saltless bread, which I’ve mentioned before. During the Middle Ages, the popes staged a long and repressive reign over Perugia. One of the many injustices was the exorbitant tax on salt. So the Perugians just stopped using it, and to this day they don’t salt their bread. Friends talk about it, tour guides note it, language teachers discuss it, and every summer, Perugia stages a production of The Salt War, a play which reenacts the events of the mid 1500s.
They also talk about how dramatically their city has changed in the last 10 years. They speak nostalgically of the past: “The streets use to be full every night. And on Saturday, you could hardly walk because it was so crowded. Back then, we all lived in the historic center, but now it’s practically empty; everyone has moved to the outskirts.” Having little to compare it to, we are always enchanted with the beauty and vibrancy of Perugia. It’s charming. There are lots of Italians. To me, Perugia feels authentic and alive. But every time I share my feelings, the Perugians shake their heads and insist that in its day, this was once a fabled city; one of Italy’s best.
Then of course, everyone talks about the infamous murder of 2009.
And finally, they talk about la crisi, (the crisis) . . . Italy’s financial situation. Some say it started as early as the 1980s when Italian companies began outsourcing the production of their famously well-made, high quality goods to China, Bangladesh, and India. The subsequent loss of Italian jobs and the obvious downward spiral of “having less money/needing cheaper goods” is just one factor. Others say la crisi is a result of the mafia and the corrupt government. They point to the lying, cheating, stealing, sneaky politicians who make headlines but should really just be in jail. Even though new elections are scheduled for the end of February, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for change. We heard someone say that what Italy needs is to be CONQUERED. There’s also the problem of taxes. These days, Italians pay half of their income to Uncle Spaghetti. And they explain that most of that money finds its way into the hands of the aforementioned politicians. Finally, things really started to sink low for Italy after the global financial crisis of 2008 and the European debt crisis of 2011.
As visitors here in Perugia, we see (or hear about) the effects of la crisi. Almost every family needs two incomes to support themselves. Some teachers’ salaries have been frozen for seven years. College graduates cannot find jobs. Family-run businesses are being replaced by sterile chain stores. And two of our neighbors, both popular restaurants in the city, closed since we arrived. It’s a challenge for guidebooks to keep current with what is recommended and what is still in business.
But even amidst their troubling financial problems, Italians continue to dress spectacularly. And compromises are never made when it comes to wine, food and coffee.
Two weeks ago we were taking a walk from our apartment down Via Alessi, and Matt pointed out a cafe that we had never noticed before. We stopped in for an espresso and tried a little pastry. We were impressed. This place was incredible. When we asked how long they’ve been here, they said the shop is brand new. We commented on how rare it is to find a new cafe when so many are closing. They agreed but are hoping to help revive this once busy part of town. Since we first set foot inside, we’ve been here every day. And each time, it fills up more and more. It’s like a little celebration inside.
We’ve heard it said that despite the problems, Italy enjoys a high standards of living. It’s evident. Even with debt, unemployment and a bleak political future, Italians know how to create a beautiful, if brief, moment. This is inspiring. They take time for pleasure. They respect daily traditions. Changing the system might be overwhelming, but they still exert control over the finer points of life. And while they tolerate corruption, they don’t tolerate bad coffee.