Thursday, February 1, 2007
Slow City, Slow Talking
Two teenage boys wearing identical green polo shirts step forward from their casual sentry pose beside a small truck with a Greve in Chianti municipal logo on the side. They wave our car to a stop as we turn into a side street leading down a short hill into a public parking lot. Two euro for the day, one says politely.
At primary traffic hubs near the center of the small Tuscany town, others wearing the green shirts also direct cars maneuvering through the streets. This traffic control activity is a mundane but important sign of one of the elements that qualify Greve (pronounced Grev-eh) to be a Slow City. Or as it's christened in Italian, Città Slow.
More than two dozen other regulatory standards are set out in the charter of a Slow City. They range from recommended methods of waste disposal and recycling to promotion of local food and craft traditions (www.cittaslow.net, English version available). In summary, the charter delineates a philosophy for running a city that is described as “good living” for residents and visitors. This good life emphasizes protecting the local environment, using environmentally friendly technologies in the city's public services, and promoting local culture and products – arts, crafts, food and wine.
The Slow City model originated in Italy in 1999. It is gaining popularity in countries around the world as part of what is known as the Slow movement. Slow Cities was the brainchild of the mayors of four of Italy's smaller popular towns, Bra, Greve in Chianti, Orvieto, and Positano. The former mayor of Greve, Paolo Saturnini, is given primary credit for the originating philosophy, according to the city's official website (www.comune.greve-in-chianti.fi.it, English version available).
Visiting Greve last October on the weekend of an antique fair there, we stopped for a late lunch at a restaurant-wine bar a couple of blocks away from the town's main square. We sat on the canopied terrace at one of the half dozen or so tables, half of them unoccupied. Luca, the manager as we learned later, was friendly and attentive. When he brought us our check, I asked him if I could interview him about the town. Agreeing, he told us he is a native Tuscan, fortyish, and was born not far from Greve.
Greve is a special city, in your opinion?
It's not a city, it's a small town. It's a small town that lives on wine and tourism, only on that practically... agriculture. Wine and oil and local products. Therefore, it's a town that survives as a tourist site from Easter to October, then we go into a lethargic state. November is already late [in the season].
It is a good place to live?
It's a very tranquil place... pleasant enough. The countryside is very beautiful. It's filled with many foreigners. They have rebuilt and revitalized, somewhat, all the businesses. Also several of the local production businesses now have non-Italian owners. They have all been renovated. There is good production, there is a certain search for quality, so it's pleasing, very pleasing. The organization is a little flawed but this is like all Italy... the public organization, essentially, also with public holidays. Today, for example, is a day that should be entertaining... there should be something here that is a promotion. Instead, the municipal government isn't offering much help or support. They do, but they could do much more.
Anyway, I have been here [at the restaurant] about a year, a little more than a year, a year and a half. And in regards to the last year... uh... there are many more tourists... but it's still a difficult period anyway. You are American?
Ah, exactly here is the problem, no? Do you remember 9/11 and all that happened? Then came the problem of the euro. There is a little... there were a couple of years, that is to say, where there was really almost a plummet in those coming from overseas.
But it's better now?
Now, yes, there is a strong recovery. Fortunately, in my opinion. Now those who are coming are interested in a certain type of wine and food of good quality. Therefore they search for that. This year was a good year. Then in November, we'll go to sleep. In the surrounding area, there are various business activities that close promptly in November. They re-open at the end of March. We close in February – January or February – others close for a couple of months. It's a small town, we have 2000 residents... when it's only the locals who remain here, it's possible to close.
There are some who say Tuscany has changed... that the Americans and English are taking Tuscany away from the Tuscans.
(laughing) No, no.
It's a really strong culture, I know, but is there a danger of a big change, too many foreigners changing things?
That is happening, perhaps, in the cities.
Yes, but not in the countryside?
In the countryside, it's less strong. Also because those who live here tend to absorb a little of our way of living. I have many friends... there are Germans, English, Scottish, also Americans, who have business activities here, or only live here for a little while. Sting also lives here nearby... he has a big property near Figline... it's an enormous estate. And these foreigners tend to live as we live, even appreciate us... and they are culturally enriching us. There is a good relationship. I don't see any difficulty.
In the city it's different because, among other things, there are people living there who are having economic problems... and there is a continual flow of immigrants. Here with us those that come, generally, they come to work. They are people who want to work or to invest. We too, at the restaurant here, we have two young foreign men working here. A young man who works in the kitchen is Japanese and the other who also works in the kitchen is from Sri Lanka. Because, also, there aren't many Italians who want to do certain kinds of jobs. The work isn't simple, the jobs we have here. You work every day from morning to night, practically. You work for lunch, dinner, on Sundays and holidays, and there are not so many Italian young people who want to do this. So there is a need.
If you go around to the places, restaurants especially, even here – and in the cities it is even more so – the major part of the work staff is made up of all kinds of ethnicities. You find Sri Lankans, as we have. Not many Japanese, though, because they come here to take only a certain type of work. The young man came here because he wants to learn how to make Tuscan food... he also went to a cooking school in Japan.
So, here it is a little different. I also once lived in Florence. Florence twenty-five years ago was different, it was much more tranquil and relaxed. It was a small city, therefore, good. Now, too many people are coming in, that is difficult. Not so much the arrival of the tourists but the arrival of people from other countries who have some problems. And, also, because it isn't easy to satisfy the demand from everyone for jobs... there's a little too much optimism about this. Then this situation is allowed to continue too long and afterwards the people find themselves in difficult situations.
To go into the center of Florence after midnight now is a little risky because there are groups of young men who, perhaps, are not able to succeed, can't find jobs... it isn't a good situation. Some other parts of the city are not much safer. It's unpleasant, also, because we haven't been accustomed to this.
But in other cities, you know, there were always some problems. When I was young, I was in the military, in Turin, in Rome, and a little while in Milan. All the large cities, good or bad, have a few problems in certain areas. In certain places, there has always been crime there, even many years ago. In Florence, there wasn't crime. A little lo spaccone fiorentino (minor local troublemakers), but there wasn't any real crime problem. You could stay out all night, the days were quiet. Now at eight p.m., everybody closes.
The talk that there are too many English, Americans, Germans isn't valid. In my opinion, it's fortunate that they came here years ago when there was a certain abandonment of the countryside here in Italy, especially here where we are, at the time of the economic boom. Now the fields are all cultivated... wine and olives, the rest is small stuff. There are some who are doing some other, small cultivation, but here it is all vineyards, vineyards and olive groves.
(Luca interrupted the conversation to wave hello to a friend passing by.)
She is German, a friend, a client, she works in an agriturismo*... she is the manager. She lives in the Tuscan way. She has lived here for years.
You become Tuscan when you live here?
I think that those who come here from other countries, buying some businesses and living here, they have done this because the environment pleases them, but also the style of life. You don't think of coming here to live like an American. I laugh when I see some Americans do stupid things, perhaps they order spaghetti and they want to put roast beef on top of it... no, no, here that isn't done. (he laughs). Go home, I say.
* A farm property with rental accommodations for tourists, usually at moderate prices. Tours of the property and sale of local products also are usually offered.
Editor's note: The translation of the interview as presented here has been edited to a minor degree to eliminate repetitions, verbal hesitations, and to maintain flow of meaning. The interview took place on October 8, 2006.
by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato
Copyright © Rebecca Helm-Ropelato