Ciao Bella A Trip Across Silvio Berlusconi's Italy

Even though it has recently become increasingly enigmatic, bizarre and incomprehensible, Italy continues to be a top vacation destination for Germans. But a journey through the land of Silvio Berlusconi shows that it resembles Germany more than many would like to believe.

Show me the country where a former soft-porn starlet is being considered for a cabinet post. Show me the country where labor representatives jet off to company-paid visits to brothels and a media mogul crazy about music controls 80 percent of the tabloid press.

Show me the country where, according to the World Bank, the red tape required to start a company is more inscrutable than in Rwanda or Kazakhstan. Where business executives run their companies into the ground and then expect bailouts from across the Alps.

Where the population, despite catastrophic economic data, wants none of the economic crisis and, instead, insists on living la dolce vita as if nothing had happened. Show me that country. You don't have to look very far to find it. In fact, we're living in the middle of it. I'm talking about Germany.

But there's more to it than meets the eye. The soft-porn film is called "Die Stossburg," in which Dagmar Wöhrl, today a parliamentary secretary of state in the Economics Ministry, played a supporting role, the media mogul is Mathias Döpfner, the chief executive of the Springer media group and the World Bank report "Doing Business" was published in 2009.

Sometimes one must read between the lines to arrive at the truth. Headlines don't tell the whole story about a country. Germany has become more Italian, and Italy has become more German.

For instance, Italy's recent smoking ban was quickly enacted and implemented, with an efficiency normally associated with the Germans. Much has changed since the days when the Italian beach holiday resort Rimini was dubbed the "Teutonic Grill" because of its high concentration of German tourists and Italian singer Rita Pavone's song "Arrivederci Hans." But the mutual attraction between the two countries is still going strong. During this year's summer vacation season, 8 million German citizens are expected to cross the Brenner Pass, drive through the Gotthard Tunnel or board discount flights to their favorite place in the world. Once again, they will look forward to saying "due cappucinis, Mario," knowing full well that Mario will be charging them double.

Oh Italy, where every telephone conversation is a standup performance, where every driver treats the road as a race track, and where accelerating after having stopped at a traffic light means jockeying for the best possible position.

Oh Italy, the land of elderly gentlemen, each of them an Agnelli, a Padrone, a Sky du Mont! The country where every citizen is seemingly able to talk on the phone, flirt and fill out tax forms simultaneously -- and while speeding along in the passing lane. Italy is a country where the negligible is pursued with great seriousness and the serious -- even life itself -- with ease.

Ridicule in the Foreign Media

And yet there is something different about the country this summer. Italy hasn't been this maligned in the foreign media since the days of Mussolini. The ridicule certainly has something to do with its prime minister ordering up playmates to his official residence as if they were a plate of oysters -- by the dozen and preferably young and fresh.

But politics is the real reason Italy has become so sinister to its neighbors. The Canadian daily the Globe and Mail compares Italy to "a military regime," while the Economist likens it to Colombia. When the German public radio network WDR aired a report entitled "Dictatorship of Smiles," it was not referring to North Korea. Meanwhile, the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper's weekly magazine has rechristened the country south of the Alps as the "stinking boot."

Ciao Bella … Is it even worth going there anymore?

In the 63rd year of its existence, is the Repubblica Italiana truly on its way to a "post-democratic totalitarianism," as serious observers contend? Or, as other credible sources maintain, is the situation not nearly as dire as some would have us believe?

Italy is uneasy with itself. That much is certain. Normally relaxed dinner-table conversations about politics have become increasingly bitter and sharp-edged. Is it because something is coming to an end? Or because something refuses to come to an end?

Andiamo. Let's embark on a small Grand Tour, a political journey through Berlusconistan, from Lago Maggiore down to Bari and Naples. Let's talk to people who ought to know better.


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