- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 10, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

FLORENCE, Italy.

“How can you stand it?” Rome has a breeze and fountains. But the stony heat of Florence has no extenuation. Closed off, behind blinds and shutters, the city’s inhabitants live a nocturnal life by day, like bats, in darkened rooms. At 7 o’clock in the evening, throughout the city, there is a prolonged thunder; the blinds are being rolled up to let in the exhausted day. Then the mosquitoes come.”

Florence in mid-August: It was 115 degrees in the shade and there was no shade, and it was a sodden heat that turned everything to rancid pulp. The city had been totally abandoned by its natives. Only tourists skulked about the steaming, stony streets, desperately seeking little oases of shade and a reasonably cool drink. That wasn’t at all easy, because all the shops, all the restaurants, all the bars, all the bakeries, were closed, barred, abandoned, covered with placards saying they were gone for the entire month of vacation - “ferie.” In a neighborhood accustomed to catering to foreigners, the sole source of nutrition was a dismal Chinese eatery serving minuscule portions of studiously bland food.

As one American tourist put it: He went to Florence in August, and the city was closed. That was about 15 years ago. Flash ahead to this August:

The weather was brilliant - bright, cloudless days with temperatures in the high 80s, and with a cool breeze pouring down the valley of the Arno. At night it was chilly enough to justify a sweater or light jacket for some.

More importantly, the city was incredibly alive.

A large percentage of shops was open - and the vast majority of the large, well-known places, Gucci, Armani, Ferregamo, et al. Not all the restaurants, cafes, bakeries, etc, were open, but more than enough to make it easy to avoid the dreadful Chinese place.

The Via Palazzuolo - an ancient street lined with simple, medieval houses with workshops on the ground floor and workers’ homes above - is steadily being gentrified, but there are still plenty of places to get things made or repaired as there have been for centuries. Usually, in August, this street is closed tighter than a clam, but this year, amazingly, the cobbler was open for business, as were the upholsterer, a furniture repair and refinishing shop, a small leather factory, the Vespa repair shop, and more - and that’s just on one block.

Many offices were open - some law firms, the commercial lending office of a major, international bank, a firm that designs offices for other firms - and that’s just in one building.

Most surprisingly, construction workers - never seen here in August before - not only were working but worked right through the midday heat, when they observed the sacred siesta in previous years.

There even was a bit of culture: In addition to the permanent collections at the usual-suspect museums, there were some terrific special exhibits generating a lot of interest from locals as well as tourists. Two churches a few blocks from each other in the ancient, “Oltr’arno” section of the city offered competing series of recitals almost every evening.

On the margin, tourism obviously is down - especially by Americans. Despite the recent, very slight increase in the dollar’s value, New York.

What once were considered fairly modest hotels in Florence now cost at least $350 per night. For a nice room in a nice hotel with a nice view, you’re talking upward of $700 a night. Forget suites. In the modest, little trattoria around the corner, a simple meal, with pasta, a main course, a salad, and a bottle of house wine costs at least $120 for two. Forget cocktails. Forget antipasti. Forget dessert. It doesn’t take long for an American to get tired of hearing Europeans talk about their plans for going on vacation to America - because it is so cheap.

But despite what many visiting Americans seem to think, the Italian economy - the fifth- or sixth-largest in the world - does not depend on selling noodles to tourists or even on Gucci or Armani or Ferregamo. They do an awful lot of heavy lifting, in less glamorous fields such as chemicals, construction equipment, banking, insurance and so on. And the Italians are scared. They think things have gotten bad and are getting worse.

We heard a great deal about how the U.S. economy is hurting and how worried we are about our economic future. According to a recent poll conducted by International Herald Tribune, 55 percent of Americans say their individual personal purchasing power has decreased in the last three years, while 20 percent say it rose. By comparison, 77 percent of Italians say their purchasing power has declined, while only 10 percent say it increased. According to the poll, Italians are the gloomiest people around.

Since the late 1950s, long, paid summer vacations have been the cornerstone of life for many Europeans. In France, national law requires employers to give employees five weeks of vacation - and that does not include holidays, feast days, etc., etc. spread throughout the year. And if the employee could not or chose not to take that vacation in July or August, additional days of vacation were required by law. That means lots of employers simply shut down for a month or even more. Of course it also means seaside hotels are jammed in August; you can’t get a table at a restaurant; the highways are a mess. Italians are not quite as rigid as the French, but for the last generation or so they have come pretty close.

Florentines say they have never known anything like this summer. Almost nobody took off for the traditional full month. Lots of people took a few three- or four-day weekends and let it go at that.

But concerns about the future go way beyond one summer’s lost vacation. Some people have had to face postponing retirement, because the government raised the age at which people can collection government pensions - and that was done by the previous, socialist government of Silvio Berlusconi.

Washington D.C. and Florence, Italy.

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