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21 August 2000

Downshifting to the Dolce Vita

New Yorker Michael D Rips tries to come to terms with the idiosyncrasies of life in rural Italy

By Michael D Rips

My previous visit to Italy had left me with the impression that the country was so infested with wealthy Americans that, if you lived in New York, which I did, and wanted to experience the real Italy, you need only catch a cab to the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It is there that one finds the Americans who rummage around Italy for country homes, cases of rare wine and anything Prada.

As evidence that Italo-fetishism has reached a particularly advanced state, there are now posses of Americans searching Tuscany for Frances Mayes, whose two insipid books about her move – or downshifting – to Italy have become, inexplicably, runaway bestsellers.

So when I was told of a village not far from Rome that was unsoiled by Americans, I was sceptical yet curious; and when the opportunity arose to visit this place, I made the necessary arrangements, thinking that I would be there for just a few days.

Nearly a year later, not only am I still in Italy, but I have not left the village, and it is hard to imagine a combination of thoughts and events that would wrench me away from here.

That I might have arrived in an unusual place – Sutri is the name of the town – occurred to me when I noticed a rotund man with a wide, slack face, small violet eyes and an enormous mole (giving him the appearance of having three eyes – two red and one black) riding his motor scooter side-saddle through the main square. That he was riding through the square was odd enough, given that the central square of Sutri, an ancient village in central Italy, had been closed to traffic for more than a decade.

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The owner of the local bookstore, with whom I was having coffee, identified the fellow on the scooter as the village postman – who, rather unfortunately, happens to be illiterate.

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However, despite his illiteracy, the postman has never burdened the natives of Sutri. Letters delivered to the wrong address are simply redistributed when the villagers pass each other in the square. (“Hello, Giovanni, that sexual aid your wife ordered . . . it’s at my house.” “Thanks, Enrico, and how are the kids?”)

Those villagers who are expecting something important simply follow the postman until he goes for his morning coffee, and then rifle through his bag.

If the Sutrini are amused by this, there are others who are not: the forestieri (outsiders) – the name the Sutrini give to those who live in Sutri but whose ancestors were not born there. To the outsiders, Sutri represents an impenetrable, largely irrational and most certainly hostile culture. If you are to believe the outsiders, they are discriminated against in commercial transactions (charged more for goods or sold inferior varieties), refused admission to religious societies, denied the opportunity to buy the best properties and subjected to false accusations in the form of gossip.

This is particularly infuriating for the local Romans. Constituting a majority of the outsiders, they are, with few exceptions, wealthier, better educated and more sophisticated than the Sutrini, and, for this reason, they feel entitled to refer to the Sutrini as contadini (peasants). And yet the peasants have inverted the hierarchy through a continuous stream of insults, large and small, clear and hidden, with the Romans taking the brunt.

There is also the matter of the beans. Sutri is famous for its beans, and a good number of the older Sutrini are bean farmers. It is not uncommon for Romans sitting in the outdoor cafes of the square to be treated to vaporous serenading by the Sutrini. As one bean farmer proudly announced: “When you eat other farmers’ beans, you talk in your sleep; when you eat my beans, you have to hang your ass out of the window.”

Sutri’s resistance to outsiders has been neatly shrunk into the adage about Sutri that everyone – Sutrini and outsiders alike – repeats: “If you live in Sutri for a hundred years, you won’t have a friend; if you live in Sutri for five hundred years, you’ll have a friend, but you’ll regret it.”

Of the theories put forward to explain the culture of Sutri, the most widely held is that offered by an articulate, middle- aged man by the name of Luciano, a Roman who lives in Sutri and spends his days reading treatises on Italian politics and history. Luciano came to Sutri after becoming disgusted with his job of 30 years – serving roasted peanuts and beverages on aeroplanes. As he describes it, he woke up one morning and said to his wife: “Maria Cristina, I’m not pushing the cart today.”

Having settled in Sutri, Luciano purchased a modest piece of land on which to build a house. That was six years ago, and he still hasn’t received the city’s approval to build the house. Nor, in fact, did the city officials ever bother to notify him that they had received his plans. Luciano is convinced that, were he Sutrini, the house would have been built years ago.

“Sutrini are descended from Etruscans,” Luciano states, “and Etruscans were, as everyone knows, an insular, self-protective and two-faced people. From their ancestors, Sutrini know how to get along with people, make them feel comfortable, and then plot against them.”

Although evidence of the connection between the Sutrini and the Etruscans is everywhere – the people of the town refer to themselves as Etruscans and brag of their Etruscan ancestors; a local jeweller draws inspiration from the spirits of the Etruscans; ghosts have been seen in the Etruscan ruins next to the town; and literature on Etruria fills the town’s bookshop – there is one, troubling detail: the Romans ran the Etruscans out of Sutri five centuries before the death of Christ and, as far as anybody can tell, they have not been back since. Moreover, in the first century AD, the Romans recolonised Sutri; and, several centuries later, the town was conquered by the Longobards, a German tribe that occupied Sutri for well over a century. Without further explanation, it could quite easily be concluded that the Sutrini are suffering from a mass delusion.

At almost any time of day, a tall, thin fellow with a half-grown beard can be found sitting alone in the square. His name is Paolo and he is a part-time translator of documents for a local bank. What Paolo does not tell people in Sutri is that, before moving to the town, he was a social anthropologist, trained at the University of Chicago, and had lived and worked throughout the world. It is not clear why he gave up his career.

Paolo began his analysis of Sutri with beans and hazelnuts, two products that were historically the backbone of the town’s economy. In recent years, the number of people in Sutri who are involved in the production of beans and hazelnuts has dropped, with the Sutrini becoming increasingly dependent on jobs located in other towns in the region, a trend accel-erated by a recent plague among the hazelnut trees.

At the same time that the people of Sutri are moving out, Romans are moving in. Sutri is attractive to Romans not only for its setting, but also because it is a short distance from Rome and lies on a major road leading to Rome. In short, Romans can commute from Sutri.

Another local resident, an English translator called Peter, points out that the influx of foreigners into Sutri, especially Romans, stirs an animosity dating back to the days when those who sought to challenge the powers of the Pope (Sutri was part of the papal state until the mid-19th century) would capture Sutri, and the Pope, given the village’s strange importance, would be forced to retake it. Sutri was constantly being conquered and reconquered and, consequently, the Sutrini developed the ability to get along with everyone, but liked and trusted no one – unless that person was undeniably Sutrini, that is, from a family that had lived in Sutri for generations and married into a similar family.

Sitting in the square, listening to the informed and eloquent theories of the outsiders, one cannot help but be struck that all the outsiders are essentially misanthropic. Each has his own tale of confrontation and revulsion with humanity – his own version of “Maria Cristina, I’m not pushing the cart today”.

The sort of people one would expect to be tolerant of human society and interested in the lives of others – anthropologists, translators, airline attendants – have come to loathe society. It is as if they have seen too much of humanity: the anthropologist trapped in a remote village; the airline attendant imprisoned in a cabin of odious adults and screaming children.

These people – often brilliant, always well-read – have come to Sutri to get away from society, to sit alone in a town that looks little different now to how it did in the Middle Ages. To complete their isolation, the outsiders have developed theories of the Sutrini that afford an excuse to have nothing to do with them.

Sutri’s unique quality is that, despite its modern context, it has the mentality of an “archaic society” – which, as described by Lucien Levy-Bruhl, is characterised by a mystical attachment to a communal identity.

Whether or not the postman is literate is of no importance. What is significant is that people say he is illiterate – the label of illiteracy being an indication of his rejection of modern thinking and his connection to the ancient way of thought. The illiteracy that outsiders scorn is, to the Sutrini, a sign of his mystical status.

All of this makes sense for a population that has been under the temporal domin-ation of the Church for longer than any other community. A rich and continuous diet of the Trinity, resurrection, sacraments and assorted mystical events has anaesthetised the Sutrini to modern forms of thinking.

The outsiders, with their arrogant insistence on rationality and history, threaten this mentality. The forestieri also jeopardise the profound satisfaction that the Sutrini derive from participation in a mystical collective – a feeling that, despite having lived in a variety of places, I have found nowhere else.