Out of Italy: New vices for old as Savonarola's heirs stalk the land

Click to follow
ROME - It has been a depressing summer for the Italians. Not only has their country been assailed by terrorist bombings, not only have corruption investigations decimated the ranks of senior politicians and industrialists, but, far worse for the national psyche, evidence has emerged that many Italians are terrible parents - and heartless children.

Earlier this year a helpline, very similar to Britain's Childline, was set up to counsel children traumatised by the divorce or separation of their parents. The creation of the telefono azzurro (blue telephone) was in itself an admission that the traditional family unit was breaking down. What the organisers were not prepared for, however, was the avalanche of calls from children abused by their parents. 'We in Italy have always been rather smug about the solidity of the family unit on which our society is built. It had never occurred to anyone until telefono azzuro came along that this might be as much of a myth as that of the Latin lover,' says Marilena, a friend and volunteer counsellor for the helpline.

In the past when the lira collapsed; when the state revealed itself as particularly inefficient or corrupt; when the legal system outraged the nation and when supercilious military and political partners sneered at the lack of order, Italians consoled themselves that at least they were kind to their children and old folk.

They took one look at the harassed little English families trailed around Chiantishire every summer by aloof former public schoolboys and shook their heads wisely, convinced that their way of child-rearing turned out more normal adults. No longer. 'We get stories of beatings and physical violence, but also of children who are simply isolated, cut out by parents too caught up in enjoying material wealth to have time for their children,' Marilena says. The lines are jammed by calls from guilt-stricken parents who can't cope. Anguished articles under headlines such as 'Help] I can't stand my child,' suddenly proliferate in women's magazines, which before carried only paeans to the bliss of parenthood.

The blow to public morale was complete when the telefono rosa was set up for senior citizens. It appeared that they, too, far from being cosseted and respected at the heart of the extended family were increasingly being dumped in old people's homes or left to fend for themselves.

In a sense this should come as no surprise. Italy has been changing for some years, both demographically and socially. As Italians grew richer in the 80s boom and more women went out to work, so the size of their families fell. As people travelled more, so the old extended family broke up.

As the hold of the Catholic church weakened, so the numbers of unmarried couples grew, as did the divorce rate. But in these days of political uncertainty the fresh evidence of change thrown up by the helpline is hardly comforting. It is being seen as one more example of Italy acquiring the vices of its northern European neighbours without developing their virtues.

It was a view for which I had little sympathy until I ran into a living, breathing text-book illustration of this in a branch of Credito Italiano in Rome. On producing some travellers' cheques, which I had stupidly forgotten to sign on receipt, I was greeted with the sort of moral indignation normally reserved for baby- eaters. 'If you lost those cheques, you would have no right to reimbursement. They are worthless,' intoned the Savonarola of the Cambio. I pointed out that I hadn't lost them; I merely wanted to cash them, my passport providing proof of identity. Nothing doing. What if I took them away, signed them, then returned and countersigned them in front of him? Savonarola's eyes narrowed as he scented victory: 'Ah, but I would recognise you, signora: I'd know that you had committed a malpractice.' It took a trek halfway across town to another bank with a currency exchange department, signing the cheques en route, to get my money.

In the past it would have been easier: there would have been much hand-wringing, a little ritual display of the clerk's power to dispense or withhold favours. But then, amidst fulsome expressions of gratitude on my part, an indulgent acknowledgment that I didn't look like a thief of travellers' cheques, that I did have a valid passport and quite a good alibi, I would get my money. However lax and improper an attitude that may seem, it had the advantage, when repeated throughout public life, of making a hopelessly bureaucratic system work. The Italian genius for relating to individuals, for circumventing regulations, kept the wheels of society turning.

But in the wake of the Tangentopoli corruption investigation, suddenly there is a new moral climate. My Savonarola was one example of the fear pervading business life of being caught straying, even marginally, from the letter of the law. The 'more than my job's worth' mentality is riding into Italy on its coat-tails.