Leading a Double Life and the Carpenter of Lampedusa

Writers are supposed to be good at leading double lives.  'We write to taste life twice,' wrote Anais Nin. 'In the moment and in retrospection.'   But I not only have a writing life, I have an English life and an Italian life.  I'm always amazed at how easily I slip into my Italian skin.  There's a slowing down, a tendency to linger over sensual moments - food, wine, the sun slipping into the Mediterranean, conversations with friends, sliding your fingers through a rack of silk lingerie (ridiculously cheap) in a street market, shop window displays that are colourful works of art, a stucco building just catching the pink and amber rays of the setting sun.. . .  perhaps I'd better not go on.

I'm a small part Italian, on my mother's side, so perhaps the susceptibility is in my genes.  The Italians are a more sensual people than we hardened northerners. And then, Italian life is so attractive, centred as it is around the table with family and/or friends.  So much of life here is sitting in the piazza with a coffee or a glass of wine (depending on how broke you are) chatting to people.  Then there's the alluring workman's lunches, the 'pranzo di lavoro', with home cooking to die for and the local wine thrown in.
'Pranzo' with friends on our terrace
Because my partner works in a community where almost everyone is an artist or a technician, or makes their living in some way from sculptors and painters, there's always a gallery opening with free prosecco and nibbles and much hugging and kissing, and often live music as well.  There are pop-up exhibitions, and impromptu affairs in people's back gardens.  Life is more sociable than you can ever imagine.
Neil at work
But under all this conviviality beats the dark heart of Italy - a precarious banking system, a political and economic system as corrupt and crony-ridden as any in the 3rd world, a massive unemployment issue among young people, taxation at 50% of everything, an increasingly unstable climate, and a refugee problem that dwarfs any other European country.

Most of them are from northern Africa.  The ones who have made it this far north, make their living from selling trinkets to tourists, or parking cars in the chaotic car parks in town.  Very rarely do you see anyone begging.  But they do hassle you and many people give them money to go away.
My favourite street trader, Mortela, who never hassles!
Further south, in the poorer 'Mezzogiorno' (roughly translated 'afternoon') of the country, the problem is much worse. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of refugees are rescued from sinking boats every week. Hundreds more die.  Anyone who has read about the optician of Lampedusa and his courageous actions, while out for a quiet afternoon sail, will have been moved by the decision he had to make. 'How do I save them all?' the optician asked, faced with hundreds of drowning migrants he knew could not be hauled aboard his little boat that would hold only 10.  That he saved so many, at risk of sinking his own craft, is a tribute to human courage.  But he is still haunted by the others he couldn't help. 'We were terribly traumatised afterwards,' he said, and his wife had to be hospitalised. Since then he has worked to help the refugees, whatever the personal cost.

Italy is more charitable than many other countries - but one does wonder when that will begin to crack under the pressure of numbers in a region that is already one of the poorest in Europe.

In the small museum in Pisa, among the precious medieval icons, there is a single rough cross on a pole.  This was made out of two planks from wrecked boats by Francesco Tuccio, the Carpenter of Lampedusa, who has made memorials for each of those who died in the crossing.  Its simplicity brings you up short among all that gilded inconography.  The values of Christianity and Islam - the two religions that straddle the Mediterranean, are charitable and compassionate.  They have been undermined by fear and overtaken by the brutal, uncaring values of property, wealth, and the pursuit of power through oppression and dispossession.  While the Un-United Kingdom inspects its own entrails with a magnifying glass and shuts the door on a few hundred orphaned children, Italy's generous people are opening weary arms to embrace desperate people every day of the week.  That's only one of the reasons why I love this country.

One of our spectacular sunsets over the Mediterranean
How much longer, given the UK government's chosen Brexit path, will I be able to live a double life? Probably not much longer, which is unbelievably sad.  My partner is already packing up, affected by the new and horrible exchange rate, anticipating the withdrawal of health care and visa problems that are in the pipeline.   He hasn't booked the flight home yet though, so there's still hope! 


  1. Heartbreaking, I am staunchly a Remainer and cannot relinquish my position, we're ilmping blindly forward into nasty times. Don't give up. Very best wishes.

  2. Beautiful writing, Kathy, and a yearning for a more rational and humane future - we mustn't give up hope - perhaps the goddess will smile..... Ceinwen x


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