NYTimes | ON my first night back in Italy, at a dinner party in Milan, I watched and listened to a successful couple in their late 40s plot their escape from a country that they love but have lost faith in. They cleared the plates, opened a laptop, and began checking out real estate in London, where one of them had been offered a transfer. The prices horrified but didn’t deter them. They have a 10-year-old son, and they fear that Italy, with 40 percent unemployment among young adults and an economy whose listlessness has come to seem the new normal, doesn’t promise a particularly bright future for him.
Two days later and about 200 miles southeast of Milan, it was an older Italian woman — early 70s, I’d wager — who sang her country’s blues. I was having lunch on a mountaintop in the Marche region, and with wild boar sausage in front of me and a castle overhead, I could have convinced myself that I was in heaven. “A museum,” she corrected me. “You’re in a museum and an organic garden.” That’s what Italy had come to, she said. Each year the country lost more of its oomph, more of its relevance.
Because I was lucky enough to live here once and am always circling back, I’m well accustomed to Italians’ theatrical pessimism, to their talent for complaint. It’s something of a sport, something of an opera, performed with sweeping gesticulations and musical intonations and, in the past, with an understanding that there was really nowhere else they’d rather be.
But the arias have been different this time around. The whole mood has. Ask Italian students what awaits them on the far side of their degrees and they shrug. Ask their parents when or how Italy will turn the corner and you get the same expression of bafflement. You hear more than you did 10 or even five years ago about migrations to Britain, to the United States. You hear less faith in tomorrow.
I’ve been startled by it. Also spooked, because I arrived here straight from our government shutdown, and I’ve observed Italy’s discontent through a filter of America’s woes, processing it as a cautionary tale. Italy is what happens when a country knows full well what its problems are but can’t summon the discipline and will to fix them. It’s what happens when political dysfunction grinds on and on and good governance becomes a mirage, a myth, a joke. Italy coasts on its phenomenal blessings rather than building on them and loses traction in a global economy with more driven competitors. Sound familiar? There’s so much beauty and promise here, and so much waste. Italy breaks your heart.