Monday, 5 March 2012
Hooptedoodle #45 - Pragmatism, and the Marino Festival
This has the makings of one of my more pointless posts, so please move on if you're not in the mood. Recently I was involved in the pub in a good-going discussion about Europe, and we touched on reasons why Britain was never going to be a comfortable inner member of the EU (or whatever set of letters is now correct). For a start, Europe is just stuffed with foreigners, which is always going to be a problem. For another thing, the British instinct to obey regulations and then whinge about them makes us bad material for such a role. And then there's our attitude. Given that our preferred stance is to stand on the fringes and sneer, it would hardly be surprising if eventually someone were to ask us to go away.
Some years ago, the makers of a world-famous blue cheese in Yorkshire were obliged to clean up their act in accordance with EU regulations, and they did so, and whatever microbes were responsible for their famous blue cheese just curled up and died. The cheese is no more. Oh my God - another terrible affront from the faceless bureaucrats in Brussels. Harrumph etc.
Round about the same time, a friend of mine who manufactures Camembert cheese in Normandy was given the same set of regulations. He is still in business. His cheese is, literally, alive and well. How can this be?
Well. to be frank about it, he did exactly what the bureaucrats expected him to do. Nothing. He ignored the regs. He said "Yes, sir, three bags full, sir." but realised that his livelihood depended on the bugs in his factory, so he did - well, sort of nothing. That's how proper Europe works. The regulators would have expected nothing else.
Also some years ago, I had a very lazy, overfed holiday in a rarified part of Tuscany, and got friendly with the Maitre D in the local restaurant (as one does). One day my wife-of-the-day and I ordered a Florentine steak, and I was astonished. The flavour was unmistakeable. I have eaten steak in the USA - I understand about maturing prime beef. I grabbed the Maitre D - "That is a wonderful steak," I said, "but I know perfectly well that it has been matured for far longer than is legal in Europe - can you talk me through this?" He laughed. "We are practical people in Italy - if we need to hang a steak for 36 or 40 days we'll do it. If we need to say something different on the certificate to keep the regulators happy, we'll do that too - why make them miserable?"
I love that. Someone might suggest that it is dishonest, but excellent steaks and excellent compliance can both exist in the same world if you work at it.
The Italians are wonderfully pragmatic people. I love Italy, and I greatly admire the Italians' ability to focus most of their attention on things that really matter - food, wine, music, sex, happiness. I'll end this post with a story which has no merit at all except that I like it as an example of exactly this sort of pragmatism. My friend Tom is half Italian - his mother was Italian, though he grew up in Scotland. When he finished his university degree, he went to live in Italy for a while, and worked as a teacher, teaching English as a foreign language in Rome. While he was there, he married a local girl, and brought her back to Scotland. So Tom has many relatives in Italy. On one of his first visits to meet his new extended family, he found that he was required to help at the wine festival in Marino, Lazio. A feature of this festival is that, every year on 1st October, there is a miracle - the fountains in the centre of the town suddenly stop producing water and start to produce the local white wine. Now I think you may admit that this is a very useful kind of miracle indeed. Tom realised very quickly that this supernatural event coincided with a tanker-lorry full of wine being connected to the fountain with plastic hoses, but the festival is still played out each year, with priests and townspeople openly celebrating the miracle, in full knowledge that it is, in fact, a sham. Tom spoke to the local priest - "How is this a miracle?". "But of course it's a miracle," came the answer, "the very fact that we are able to make wonderful wine here is a miracle - what more do you want?". Tom couldn't think of anything else, in fact.
Tom's recollection of his first Marino festival is hazy. At one point, since he was related to some local worthy, he was put in charge of the fountain for a few hours. He was armed with a large carton of paper cups, and was required to make sure that anyone who wanted a drink from the fountain could have one. For some reason he cannot recall, Tom became very tired after a while, and had to be relieved. He still hopes that the townspeople and the priests were not too disappointed in his lack of stamina.