Back road encounter in the Italian countryside


Winding road in country CalabriaWe had driven up a narrow road in Calabria at night, on the instructions of the GPS,  which assured us that our destination was close. The sky was black, and there were no lights anywhere. We became convinced that the GPS was totally wrong. Time to turn around.

But as we did, the car became unbalanced and the front wheel spun above the side of the road, which had collapsed. Try as we might we could not move the car back onto the road. All we could hear were dogs barking in the night. It seemed we were stuck somewhere in the countryside of Calabria.

After a short while a car approached from one direction, and then a utility from the other.

After some explanation of our predicament, the utilty driver produced a rope and helped tow us back onto the road, with the help of the car driver — whose bemused family sat watching this strange rescue of the Australian tourists' bogged car in the dark countryside of Calabria.

They offered us clear directions and we resumed our journey, grateful for the generosity of these people who we will probably never see again.

Italy is one of those countries that is rich in many ways, including in the fields of art, history, cuisine and sport. A common thought about the south though, thanks to movies like The Godfather and books like Gomorrah, is that crime and corruption are rife. Like many things, the reality is far more complicated, and colourful.

What may not be seen by the traveller is the effect on the lives of many ordinary Italians.

Italian politics is complex with many parties vying for votes. The country has five levels of government: municipal, regional, provincial, national and European. Currently there is a serious financial crisis and the appointed (not elected) prime minister Monti's austerity measures have led to protests, especially in Rome.

Meanwhile, fomer prime minister Berlusconi was convicted of fraud and sentenced to four years in prison, reduced to one by the sentencing magistrates. Previously he had hinted he would not return to politics, but since his conviction, he has promised a return to save Italy from Monti and the Magistratocracy that led to his conviction. His attack on the judiciary was very strong.

Meanwhile the right wing neo-fascisiti complain that there should be commemoration of the anniversary of the 1922 march on Rome by Mussolini and his blackshirt Fascists.

On the ground, the response to this political mire is one of frustration and despair. Italians we have spoken with bemoan the fact that the government has no money, the economy is failing and wages are unpaid. In parts of Sicily, the police and garbage workers have not been paid for two months. The rubbish is piling up and the police work without pay, relying on their savings. We saw a protest sign that said 'In Sicily we work for free!'

The contrast between the piles of rubbish on the streets of Monreale and the magnificence of the mosiacs in the Basilica there is remarkable. Italians talk of the 'vergonia' or shame they feel when they see the rubbish, yet they seem unable to find a way of resolving the economic crisis.

In Sicily unemployment is estimated at around 25 per cent. Underemployment is also rife.

Widespread despair led to an interesting response to the recent Sicilian elections. Only 47 per cent voted, and a number of locals we spoke with admitted they voted informally, or made a protest vote by voting for a well known Italian comedian who offered himself as a protest candidate.

Others talk of the frustration with existing politicians, corruption scandals and prosecutions. One of the factors that has made it hard to defeat major criminal groups is their political protection in some parts.

Given all this frustration and despair, it is reassuring to experience the kind of true welcoming and hospitality we experienced that night on the country road in Calabria. The help offered to us by complete strangers at the moment when we needed it most was an experience we will long remember.

Maybe this true generousity of the 'ordinary Italian' will help restore hope for others. 

Kerry Murphy headshotKerry Murphy is a partner with the specialist immigration law firm D'Ambra Murphy Lawyers. He is a student of Arabic, former Jesuit Refugee Service coordinator, teaches at ANU and was recognised by AFR best lawyers survey as one of Australia's top immigration lawyers. 


Topic tags: Kerry Murphy, Italy, Berlusconi, Eurozone crisis, Monti, austerity measures, Calabria



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Existing comments

“A prudent man should always follow in the path trodden by great men and imitate those who are most excellent, so that if he does not attain to their greatness, at any rate he will get some tinge of it.” ? Niccolò Machiavelli, Prince
Bernstein | 31 October 2012

Much of southern Europe is experiencing troubled financial times and it's to be hoped 'ordinary' people are resilient enough to find a way out. From my limited contact with Italians - when we travelled through Italy a number of years ago - I found (a) that there are many superlative cooks and (b) only travel by train if absolutely necessary. Buon giorno Kerry.
Pam | 31 October 2012

Bernstein, I always thought the biggest failing of Americans was their lack of irony. They are very serious there! Naturally, there are exceptions... the Jewish, the African Americans, Italian, and Irish humor of the East Coast...The great and the people?- The Prince- Chapter IX
Game Theory | 31 October 2012


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