Peter Popham: Italians know the family way

Thursday 30 December 2010 01:00 GMT

Soon after coming to live in Italy I remember asking our local grocer if he had had a good summer holiday. He looked at me in puzzlement and shrugged. What sort of a question was that? he seemed to imply.

Eight years on, I understand.

For restless Britons, a proper holiday involves an element of risk. It's not necessary to take on the Amazon or the Hindu Kush, but at least choose a new island, a new resort, a new campsite. Go on the canals or rent a Tuscan villa or drive a rented Chevy down Route 66. It may be great or disastrous or both in equal measure, but at least you will have something to talk about when you get home.

They do things otherwise in Italy. For our winter holiday this year we went to the Alps: the same holiday flat as last year, the year before, and so on almost as far back as anyone can remember. The same people assembled there, namely members of my Italian family plus the odd bolted-on outsider like myself. We ate the same food, traipsed the same main street, drank the same wine and hiked the same trails as this family has done, winter and summer, for many a year. That's what a true Italian holiday involves.

It may sound a little dull, but once you have accepted that there will be no surprises, the surprises start to arrive – normally at dinner, towards the bottom of the first bottle of wine.

My father-in-law, well into hiseighties, peels back another piquant memory of life under Mussolini. My mother-in-law remembers how her four-year-old middle son smashed through a plate glass window on his tricycle, sustaining no damage of any sort. My wife recalls the tyranny of all the males in the family, how dad gave her toy soldiers to play with when all she wanted was a doll and a pram.

A holiday like this is how a family charges its batteries and reminds itself where it has come from, the shared memories that define it. This is not so very remote from English experience: my Yorkshire mother used to recall misty-eyed the three summer months her family spent every year in Mablethorpe, on the east coast, when she was a child. They would never have dreamt of going anywhere else. I am sure the ennui and the collective self-discovery were the same.

Since those days a great industry has grown up to persuade us that there is no true relaxation without expensive novelty. But we pay for all those air-miles with a tragic loss of awareness of what we share with "our own ones". And society at large pays, too, in ways that the grim months to come may bring more clearly into focus.

The weakness of the Italian state is proverbial: no day goes by without the Italian newspapers bemoaning the venality of politicians, the longueurs of justice, the depradations of the Mafia, the self-serving "barons" installed in the heights of the economy.

So why does Italy never feel as if it is tottering, for all its failings? I would say it is because millions of families like mine bind the nation together in a fabric that is phenomenally strong.

When Mrs Thatcher famously remarked that "there is no such thing as society", she added the corollary, "there are individual men and women, and families." The problem is that far less is demanded of the average British family than of those in Italy – and in almost every other corner of the world, too.

The downside of being so very "advanced" is that our families become feeble: we spend less and less time with each other, we know each other less and less well, we depend on each other for nothing except a Christmas card and the occasional phone call. And we trust each other less and less.

None of this may matter in the good times. But in bad times, with a government bent on removing the safety nets that do the supportive, succouring work once done by families, we will soon be counting the cost of what we have lost.

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