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For a nation that exported a steady stream of emigrants to North America and Australia well into the middle of this century, things have taken a drastic turn in the other direction.  The fertility rate, the number of children an Italian woman is likely to have in her lifetime, has dropped to 1.2.  That is hardly going to replenish a diminishing population.

The child I see in Turin is going to have the dedicated attention of two parents, two sets of grandparents along with the inevitable aunts and uncles on both sides.  In terms of attention, at least, this child is going to have it made.

He will probably go to school and grow up an only child, born into a very different world than the one of his gregarious grandparents.  He’ll live at home into his early thirties, save his money for a car, then an apartment or a house.  His marriage will be a big relief to everyone, of course.  Before long the inevitable question will arise, when will there be another bambino?

More than likely, his working life will fall into one of three categories:  statali, dipendenti or autonomi.  In other words, he’ll end up working for the state  (in one capacity or another); as an employee of a factory, company or corporation; or as an independent businessman or shopkeeper.

Bear with me while I float a curious conceit your way.  It came to me in the middle of a restless night. If we were to populate Dante’s Divine Comedy with the working population of this county, they might end up distributed something like this– the statali would be in Paradiso, the dipendenti in the Inferno. You can work out the rest.

Even a lowly cook in a state-run nursery school works just five mornings a week.  He gets off all school holidays, gets days off for union meetings, blood tests etc. He can get a low-interest mortgage from his employer, cheap holidays in hotels and camps, unbelievable paternity and maternity rights, and the kicker is, he can keep his job for life.  He is unfirable.

The dipendento will have his taxes are deducted at source, like the state employee, but he will probably be making less.  He will have rigid hours, limited opportunities for moonlighting, and difficulty justifying sick leave without actually being sick. He won’t have the lavish benefits or the job security of the statale.

The autonomo resides in Purgatory, of course.  His situation may change drastically, depending on the health of the economy.  His taxes are not deducted at source, so he may end up getting rich and paying no tax at all, triggering the resentment of his neighbours.  However, he may also find himself bankrupt through no fault of his own.

Fortunately, despite what seems to be the innate conservatism of Italians, there is a considerable amount of social mobility built into the system.  Fathers and sons can easily find themselves in different categories and workers can slip out of one group and into another.

Curiously, I have a well-regarded English novelist to thank for the subject matter of this post.  His name is Tim Parks, and he has written two charming memoirs about his life in an Italian village over the last 20 years– “Italian Neighbours” and “An Italian Education.”  He will never be truly Italian, of course, but his children will.

He is my Virgil and he deserves credit for his perceptive books and graceful way with words.  And thanks to my Italalian teacher, Caterina, who spoke in class about the long adolesence of young Italian men and reminded me of the Divine Comedy, one of the few great books I have actually read.  It must have been a long time ago, back when I was in college.  Years before I knew anything about Torino or dreamed of learning Italian.

The Christmas decorations and lights have been dismantled and put away for the year.  The bustling crowds in the street and the festive air have disappeared, but the sales are on!  Now is the time when good shoppers who have been saving their euros throughout the year go into overdrive.

To me, the prices on Via Roma are only now descending from the upper stratosphere, but I’m not fortunate enough to have been born into the Saudi royal family.  For those who are feeling flush, it would be an excellent time to pick up a shirt, a suit, a pair of shoes or a even a fur coat.  Matrons of Torino don’t hesitate to wear them everywhere.

The operative word in the windows of most of the negozi now is saldi, meaning sale.  Sconti is another word you see often, meaning discount.  Unfortunately, your soldi will not go a long way in Italy these days.  The euro has made all the difference.

For North Americans and Australians, shopping in Italy requires a real adjustment, a reservoir of patience and flexibility which is not all that common in either nationality.  Items on Italian shelves are not necessarily found in the same stores they are at home, service is not a priority, and everything is expensive.

It may seem that the sales person has more important things to do than wait on you.  She (0r he) has to look good, for example.  And a text message that is vitally important to his/her social life may require immediate attention to the sales person’s phone.  Think about it.   This may not be obvious to Australians, since attentive service is not in their vocabulary, but Americans who shop in the best stories may be feel bereft.

Nor has the notion of one-stop shopping taken hold in this country.  There are few malls and department stores.  If you have come to depend on 24 hour shopping, forget it. Not only is that unheard of here, most shops will close every afternoon from 1 to 3 or even 3:30 so the natives can have a proper pranzo. Even the supermercato will close on Wednesday afternoon.

You can fill your prescription at the farmacia, buy your cheese at the gastronomia, get your newspaper at the giornalaio, your bread at the panetteria, your best seller at the libreria and your fancobollo at the tabaccheria. Or the post-office if you want to brave the lines.

If you come from the dark ages and still write letters to friends and family, you put a francobollo on an envelope (which you buy at the carteloria.  Mail your letter and keep your fingers crossed.  As a foreigner, of course, you are not required to memorize all these words.  You can usually make do with the universal language:  point and pay.

There is shopping to be done! Only 338 days ’till Chrismas!

My apologies to any faithful readers, who may have come to expect new chapters of this blog with a certain amount of regularity over the last couple years.  The holidays and travel have made that difficult of late.  

The flat we found for phase two of our Italian adventure is very near my wife’s school.  It is considerably larger than our garret apartment with the balconies.  Unfortunately, we have lost our wonderful view of the Alps and I am no longer seeing the vendors of food and wine I got to know at the market near our old place.

The new place offers a number of conveniences, however, like a real eat-in kitchen with a dishwasher, a bathroom with a real bathtub and a bed we can sleep on. It is near Statione Porta Nuova, the main train station in the city, in a neighborhood called San Salvario.  We can walk to Parco Valentino, the city’s main playground along the Po.

We overlook Sexy Shop, not the most inspiring of neighbors, but we are only a block from the city’s principal synagogue (in a Moroccan style) and two blocks from the protestant Waldesian church.  A Catholic church is never more than a block away, so  if we should need spiritual succor, we’ll have no trouble getting it immediately. I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to the feng shui of this flat, but I doubt many Italians worry about such things.

I am engaged now in a three-week Italian class at a wonderful, small language school called Italiano Porticando. Every morning I make an espresso, eat my ceriali, and head off on foot toward the Quadrilatereo Romano, the oldest part of the city.

Astonishingly, three out of six students are Australians. There is a father/daughter pair who have combined the language learning part of the holiday with a couple weeks of skiing, and a young environmental consultant whose father immigrated to Adelaide from Calabria in southern Italy.  Unfortunately for Ben, English was the only language spoken at home.  

There is a young woman from Japan who is mad about soccer and a girl from Brazil who has family here. Together, we manage to mangle the language beyond belief. It is great fun.  Our teacher compares us to babies, insisting that one day we will be able to converse comfortably like adults.  It is hard to believe at this stage.

Two or three afternoons a week, a teacher named Laura leads a “passegiata” to a neighborhood or cultural institution. She encourages us to ask questions, in Italian, of course.  Last  Thursday we set off for Palazza Reale, the principal Savoy family residence until 1865. The austerity of the exterior is belied by extravagance inside.  Keeping up with French royalty was de rigeur.

We were herded through the elaborately decorated series of chambers by a lady who must have been a former nun. She seemed to be weighed down by her duties, since there were no other museum aides.  She was charged with  guarding the royal furnishings and keeping us in line.

She seemed immensely frustrated when someone stepped off the carpet or lagged behind. It was a cold, damp day, and I’m sure she would have been much happier curled up by the stove with a dog, a good book (perhaps the good book), and an espresso.

There is much more to come.  Stay tuned. Ciao for now.

The blizzard began during the second course of our New Year’s Eve dinner at Le Caveau, an elegant restaurant at the Domaine de Grand Pre, our local winery.  Fine new snow began to fall about ten o’clock, swirling down in a wiry wind.

It was fortuitous that there was room for us, since the reservations had been made before we knew we were coming for Christmas.  We were seated at a very substantial table fashioned from a foot-thick slice of a century-old Douglas fir from British Columbia.  It glowed like warm honey.

It was a long, lovely evening.  Our dinner began with a delicious cream of celery soup, followed by by four more courses.  We finished right before midnight.   We crept home in the car, following the tire tracks of our neighbors, and tumbled into bed about 1 am.

We could have walked to the winery, but the blizzard was predicted and there is no shoulder on Highway 1.  Many of our neighbors walk for exercise, but no one walks simply to get from one place to another.  This is the country, after all.  In the country, we drive.


Our winery has a checkered history. When we came to Grand Pre twenty-two years ago, there were rumors that the owner was spending much of his time in the South of France and the winery was going downhill.

It had been started up by an American professor from California who had come to Canada to teach.  The Annapolis Valley apparently reminded him of Napa Valley and the property he purchased was beautiful.  For awhile, it seemed that it was successful, but then it fell into receivership.

Since then, it has been sold more than once.  During one particularly worrisome period, we were quite concerned about the fate of the heritage buildings.  Fortunately, a Swiss family rescue was on the way.

In 1993, Hanspeter Stutz purchased the property and almost immediately began extensive and expensive renovations.  It is a family operation, with grown children and their spouses participating in vital roles.  Our little community has benefited considerably from their dedication, good taste, fine wines and excellent restaurant.

Since we began coming here, the wine business has boomed in this part of the world.  There are at least half-a-dozen wineries within a half hour of here.  Hanspeter’s motto speaks for them all –  “Life is too short to drink bad wine.”

Here’s to the New Year!  Le it be the beginning of a new era.  This is my toast to uncommon intelligence, undervalued compassion, creativity and peace, which seems to be particulary scarce right now.  Snow blankets the ground, but warmer weather and sunshine is promised.  It is already a new day in Melbourne.

The day before I left Turin for Christmas in Canada, I had two scares.  In a misguided attempt to keep from bumping my head, I caught my foot under our platform bed and did a swan dive on the floor of our flat.  I cut one eyebrow open and bruised my ribs.  The second event was far more serious.  It was late in the afternoon in the center of the city, and I was getting ready to cross a major street after descending from a tram.  Like most people in the shopping mode, I was preoccupied.  And I was plugged in, listening to a book on my MP3 player.

The  young woman beside me stepped off the sidewalk.  From the corner of my eye I could see a car coming.  My brain screamed but no words came out.  By the time I reacted she had walked into the side of the moving car.  I caught her on the rebound.  For what seemed like a long time, I held her while she shook. She was bruised and in shock, but nothing appeared to be broken.

The driver stopped and came back.  An ambulance was called.  Her partner showed up.  If she had stepped out ten seconds earlier I believe she would have been killed.  It was that close.  I will never, ever tune out the city again.  Life is too precious to be preoccupied at a crucial moment.


The teaching position in Turin offered us a choice that we would never have considered if we had been in Melbourne in December.  We could spend the holiday in the Alps, which certainly had its attractions, or we could return to the Stewart House in Grand Pre, Nova Scotia.

The stars seemed aligned for a small family reunion in Canada this year.  My sister could come from Montana, a son from China.  Our daughter was already in the province attending school and her new husband planned to fly in from Hawaii. They had been married there and we had not had a chance to meet him.  He is in the Marines Corps and we are very pleased to have him in the family.

There is plenty of room in the old house.  The main trick is staying warm this time of year.  It has been at least sixty years since anyone has lived in the building in winter.  There is no furnace, no central heating and no wood stove.  There are electric baseboard heaters and five fireplaces.

During the cold snap leading up to Christmas Eve, we struggled to keep two of the fireplaces stuffed with wood (and the family with food) from morning until night.  In many parts of the province thousands of people lost power.  I was glad it didn’t happen here.  I was very grateful for electricity, grocery stores, merino wool, the CBC, and indoor plumbing.

The cold snap was followed by a warm wind on Christmas day that quickly melted almost all the snow.  The cold has returned, and I am now staring at a field of frozen, green grass with patches of snow.  A blizzard is predicted for tonight, New Year’s Eve.  No one who lives in the Maritimes expects predictable weather any time of year, so this is not surprising.

I’ll be back in Turin in a week, so the Italian lessons are not over yet.  Who knows, maybe I’ll get up the nerve to drive.  The Alps are calling.  Happy New Year!  Stay safe and stay tuned.

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