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25 June 2015

High in the mountains in search of an empty mind, I realise Scotland should emulate the Tyrol

In South Tyrol, I set myself an unusual ambition: to reduce my incoming mental stimulants to the point where I became bored. I highly recommend it.

By Ed Smith

Offline in the Alps, no wifi, phone off, uncontactable: ah, the wonder of analogue living, as everyone keeps saying, usually on social media that relies on wifi, smartphones and the desire to be in constant touch with the world.

It is far too easy to blame technology for a restless, overstimulated mind. Why not admit the underlying truth: if there is too much going into your head, you need to reduce the input, whatever the medium. So I went full cold turkey in Italy last week and neglected books and magazines as well. I may be undermining the industries that funded the holiday, but not reading has its own merits, just like unplugging.

Regarding diet, we recognise that discip­line and health rely on putting less into your mouth. Is it not the same with your mind? Obviously, constant snacking on the ceaseless news cycle (mostly processed food containing countless inorganic additives to lift the sludgy contents, with preservatives to make the story “travel” further) is ruinous, a way of swallowing thousands of cheap calories. They bloat the mind, leaving it undernourished and yet hungry for more empty starch: your mind ends up involuntarily dipping back into the popcorn packet.

Instead of the usual remedy – “read more books” (nice enough, but at times only a halfway house towards proper post-addiction rehabilitation) – how about a short spell of total fasting? In South Tyrol, where the morning mountain mist rose slowly up the valley before being burned off in front of the Dolomites, I set myself an unusual ambition: to reduce my incoming mental stimulants to the point where I became bored. I highly recommend it.

The other guests stared equally absent-mindedly across the valley. They were mostly couples, often sitting quietly, their conversation intermittent and unforced. My younger self would have been censorious of their relationships: “Has nobody got anything to say?” Now I see things differently. A great view, constantly on hand to fill gaps in the conversation, can become like a third voice in the group – and a highly co-operative one. For it is not silence, in fact, that kills conversation but the risk-averse retreat to banality. Speaking just for the sake of it blocks off more interesting avenues. So a great view, as an ally of silence, opens up new paths. Conversation, no longer pressured, meanders in a more interesting way. Something similar happens when two friends watch a cricket match.

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South Tyrol is a fine place for psychological decluttering. The splendid local house wine was €1.30 a glass. The pink-hued Dolomites (once coral reef on the ocean floor) are in the Alps but not quite of the Alps. Like a playfully bohemian branch of an austere aristocratic family, they stand at a tangent to the main mountain dynasty.


The serenity of South Tyrol masks soul-searching about national identity. Technically it is Italian; culturally it feels German. I didn’t hear one word of Italian spoken in five days. Most villages have two spellings and pronunciations, one German and the other Italian. But using the Italian version usually elicits a blank expression.

In 1919 South Tyrol (now officially Alto Adige) was ceded to Italy. Mussolini’s policy of forced Italianisation – German was banned from schools – caused deep resentment. In 1972 South Tyrol negotiated semi-autonomous status from Rome; 90 per cent of its tax revenues now stay in the region.

Ask the local people how they see themselves and most will say Tyrolean, others unhesitatingly that they are German. Press further and ask South Tyroleans what they think of Italians and there are familiar complaints about people in the south who don’t pay their way. Ask about Italy, however, and they’ll say, “But we live in Italy, of course,” and talk about the good coffee and superb cuisine. I spoke to one local man who tried moving to Innsbruck (the Austrian side of the Tyrol) but who was lured back over the border to Italy by coffee culture.

The Germans are playing a long game in South Tyrol by making skilful use of the Italy brand. South Tyrol advertises itself as “the other side of Italy” or “the very top of Italy”. The region has cherry-picked the best parts of two cultures, marrying Italian lifestyle with German efficiency – a very good pitch to tourists. South Tyroleans may think Italians are useless but Italy is still useful. The region is booming. The economy has been untouched by Italy’s recurrent financial crises. Bolzano (or Bozen) has Italy’s highest GDP per capita. There is almost full employment and the province has no debt. It pays its governor a higher salary than Barack Obama gets.

Polls suggest that if there were a referendum (highly unlikely), there might be a slight majority in favour of full independence. But few think this could or should happen. Instead, South Tyrol plans to negotiate increasing economic autonomy from Rome while it continues to use the Italian brand for its own ends. For all the Romans’ fierce cultural assertiveness, South Tyroleans look on them with a measure of pity – laggards they have left behind.

So South Tyrol’s relationship with Italy is both similar to and the opposite of Scotland’s relationship with Britain. Paradoxically, Scotland almost certainly would not benefit economically from the political independence that it will, very probably, one day achieve. And South Tyrol would ­benefit, at least from a narrow, short-term perspective, from a full independence that it is highly unlikely to pursue.

I am beginning to think that debates about political independence reveal less about belonging and more about well-being. In South Tyrol, life is just too good to take any silly risks with names on a map.

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