Standard, poor and negative are three words not usually associated with Italy. But last week they were, in the Economist news magazine. The Standard and Poor (S&P) credit rater, downgraded Italy from a “Stable ” rating to a “Negative” rating. It is concerned about Italy’s lack of economic growth. That Italy appears to owe more than they earn, therefore alarming the credit raters about their ability to pay it back. The Economist also reported that most Italians were happy with this situation as it meant that the government, weighed down with debt, wouldn’t be sticking their noses into individual Italians business, as they would be too preoccupied with fixing the country.
When I first arrived in Italy, 17 years ago, I read with alarm the economic reports concerning the financial health of the country that I was earning and saving money in. I considered exchanging my hard earned cash into US$, or sending it all back to Australia, as it appeared that any minute the economy would collapse. Italy has always looked different on paper than it does on the ground.
Like the stealthy, Sicilian peasant that only uses cash and looks like any minute his house will fall apart, Italy has a way of always appearing to have less money than it actually does. Most Italians practice this, whether to hide their actual worth from each other, or from the government, I am not sure, but these are some of the ways that I was introduced into the “double” economy of Italy.
1. Less prevalent now, but many restaurants will offer you two kinds of bills, one cheaper bill written on a piece of paper, and another slightly higher on an official receipt that will need to go through the cash register. Usually you will be offered the cheaper bill first, if you accept, everyone’s a winner baby!
2. When I paid my rent, part of it was by a cheque for which I received a receipt, part of it was cash with no receipt, which meant my rent was slightly cheaper in return for my landlord not having to declare all of it. This was such a common practice amongst all my ex-pat friends that I had initially assumed it was actually part of the Italian (legal) system of paying rent.
I found banking hard to take seriously also. Especially when while cashing my first pay check, the teller demanded, with a smirk, my phone number in return for cashing my pay check. Or when I started to have enough money in my bank account to be taken seriously as a customer and I was called in for the “investment” chat with the bank manager who outlined the various products the bank could offer me. When I asked which one he used, he replied that all his money was under his mattress.
So I don’t worry about my money any more when Italy receives a negative rating from a credit rating company on the other side of the world, based on faraway, first world, economic rationalist type data. I just go and have a coffee with my bank manager, pay the Barrister cash with no receipt, and send my money to Switzerland before the government can find out anything about it. Photographs by A.Verhagen.