Costa Concordia shipwreck’s hero and villain lay bare two souls of Italy
Coastguard official’s harangue of ship’s captain strikes a chord with Italians called to order by their technocratic government
John Hooper in Rome guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 18 January 2012
As the 114,500 tonne Costa Concordia loomed out of the night off the coast of Giglio last Friday, two Italian seafarers were unwittingly on their way to becoming nationally – and internationally – notorious for radically different reasons.
After the floating palace of delights hit a rock, the available evidence suggests that its captain, Francesco Schettino, refused to acknowledge the seriousness of what had happened, delayed giving the order to abandon ship and then took to a lifeboat himself, long before the chaotic evacuation was complete. At 1.46am, he was called on his mobile telephone by the local coastguard commander, Gregorio de Falco, who recorded their conversation.
Made available on newspaper websites, the ensuing four minutes, in which De Falco urges, instructs and finally orders his compatriot to do his duty, could scarcely be more emblematic. Writing in Corriere della Sera, the critic Aldo Grasso called the transcript “the document that most exemplifies the two souls of Italy”.
On the one hand, a “captain who flees from his responsibilities as a man and an officer”; on the other, a compatriot “who understands immediately the dimensions of the tragedy and tries to call the coward to [fulfil] his obligations”.
Looked at rationally, the wrecking of the Costa Concordia ought not perhaps to be made to bear the weight of meaning heaped on it. Even if none of those missing are found, the number of dead will be no greater than in an average week on Britain’s roads.
But shipwrecks cannot be assessed rationally. They call to something deep inside us. The shipwreck, wrote Grasso, was “one of the archetypes in all literatures because it illustrates the risks of human existence in the course of the journey through life”.
And at this moment in the life of Italy a shipwreck is almost painfully metaphoric. Like Captain Schettino, the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi delayed taking vital decisions as his country floated progressively closer to a reef marked “eurozone debt crisis”.
For Massimo Gramellini of La Stampa, “The ship lying on its side [is a] symbol of the country adrift.” On the very day the Costa Concordia hit the rocks, the world’s biggest ratings agency, Standard & Poor’s, again downgraded Italy’s creditworthiness, this time to a level below that accorded to Slovakia and Slovenia.
“We had just come out of the tunnel of Bunga Bunga,” noted Caterina Soffici in a blog for the website of the left-leaning Il Fatto Quotidiano. “We were just drawing that little, relieved breath that would enable us to toil again up the hill to international credibility. But [now] … We’ve gone straight into the Titanic nightmare [and] Italy is once again the laughing stock of foreign newspapers.”
Cristiano Gatti, writing in the newspaper of the Berlusconi family, Il Giornale, agreed the world would take delight in an image of “the same old rascally Italians: those unreliable cowards who turn and run in war and flee like rabbits from the ship, even if they are in command”. But, he added, the world should also reflect that, at the other end of the line in that shocking, middle-of-the-night conversation, was “an individual of that same, odd and vilified race … a man and officer able single-handedly to save [his country’s] pride and dignity”.
A mixed sense of relief and admiration for De Falco took shape on the internet, where tens of thousands of Italians turned his peremptory order (“Vada a bordo, cazzo!”, or “Get on board, for fuck’s sake!”) into a trending hashtag. Within hours, T-shirts with the phrase were being offered for sale.
Perhaps the reason why his harangue struck such a chord was that Italians are being called to order by their new government in similarly uncompromising, if politer, terms. The message from Mario Monti and his “technocratic” administration is that Italians can no longer evade their responsibilities by running a vast national overdraft and that the time has come for them all to start paying their taxes. Like De Falco, they are demanding that personal interest be sacrificed for the common good, and so far they have been getting an encouragingly positive response in the form of poll ratings above 60%.
The coastguard commander’s elevation to the status of an idol, if not hero, has nevertheless appalled De Falco himself, and worried others.
Some commentators have observed that the very leaking of the recording is proof of Italians’ enduring indifference to the law. It was part of the evidence against Schettino and should not have been made available for release unless and until he was indicted.
Moreover, as the author and columnist Beppe Severgnini observed, “Millions of [our] compatriots do their duty, often for little money … Perhaps, if the evidence of this seriousness of purpose becomes a source of wonder, [it means] we have forgotten that.”
Visible proof of the courage, dedication and even heroism of Italians has been projected by television into the homes of the nation, and the world, every day since the disaster. It can be seen in the images of fire brigade and Carabinieri divers risking their lives to search a vessel that could shift at any moment, trapping them inside.
It can be seen in the footage of the doctor and the helicopter winchman who were lowered on to the Costa Concordia, leaning at an angle of 80°, on Sunday to treat and then rescue the last passenger found alive.
Many Italians do their best to live up to the examples of men such as Columbus and Garibaldi. Roberto Bosio, an off-duty captain travelling on the liner, stayed behind to man the bridge after it was abandoned. Two other Italian officers remained aboard until the end to try to bring order to the chaos of the evacuation. And among the names on the list of the missing is that of Giuseppe Girolamo, the long-haired drummer in the on-board band, Dee Dee Smith. Witnesses said he had a place in one of the lifeboats, but gave it up to a child.
• This article was amended on 19 January 2012. The original said that Italy is once again the laughing stocking of foreign newspapers. This has been corrected.
By STEPHAN FARIS / ROME Monday, Oct. 18, 2010
Time Magazine World http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2024136,00.html
It’s not the type of advice you would usually expect from the head of an elite university. In an open letter to his son published last November, Pier Luigi Celli, director general of Rome’s LUISS University, wrote, “This country, your country, is no longer a place where it’s possible to stay with pride … That’s why, with my heart suffering more than ever, my advice is that you, having finished your studies, take the road abroad. Choose to go where they still value loyalty, respect and the recognition of merit and results.”
The letter, published in Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper, sparked a session of national hand-wringing. Celli, many agreed, had articulated a growing sense in his son’s generation that the best hopes for success lie abroad. Commentators point to an accelerating flight of young Italians and worry that the country is losing its most valuable resource. And with reforms made all but impossible by Italy’s deep-rooted interests and topsy-turvy politics — a schism in the ruling coalition seemed this summer to threaten Silvio Berlusconi’s government once again — many are starting to wonder if the trend can be reversed. “We have a flow outward and almost no flow inward,” says Sergio Nava, host of the radio show Young Talent and author of the book and blog The Flight of Talent, which covers the exodus.
The motives of those leaving haven’t changed much since the last wave of economic migrants struck out to make their fortunes a century ago. But this time, instead of peasant farmers and manual laborers packing themselves onto steamships bound for New York City, Italy is losing its best and brightest to a decade of economic stagnation, a frozen labor market and an entrenched system of patronage and nepotism. For many of the country’s most talented and educated, the land of opportunity is anywhere but home.
Take Luca Vigliero, a 31-year-old architect. After graduating from the University of Genoa in 2006 and failing to find satisfying work at home, he moved abroad, working first for a year at Rem Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam and then accepting a job in Dubai in 2007. In Italy, his résumé had drawn no interest. At Dubai’s X Architects, he was quickly promoted. He now supervises a team of seven people. “I’m working on projects for museums, villas, cultural centers, master plans,” he says. “I have a career.” Escape from Italy has also allowed Vigliero to fast-track his life plans. He and his wife had a son in September; had they remained in Italy, he says they would not have been able to afford children this soon. “All my friends in Italy are not married, they have really basic work, they live with their [parents],” he says. “Here, there’s a future. Every year, something happens: new plans, new projects. In Italy, there’s no wind. Everything is stopped.”
Italy doesn’t keep track of how many of its young professionals are seeking their fortunes abroad, but there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that the number is rising. The number of Italians ages 25 to 39 with college degrees registering with the national government as living abroad every year has risen steadily, from 2,540 in 1999 to about 4,000 in 2008. The research-institute Censis estimates that 11,700 college graduates found work abroad in 2006 — that’s one out of every 25 Italians who graduated that year. According to a poll by Bachelor, a Milanese recruitment agency, 33.6% of new graduates feel they need to leave the country to take advantage of their education. A year later, 61.5% feel that they should have done so.
It’s not hard to see why. Italy’s economic woes have fallen hard on the shoulders of the country’s youth. According to figures published in May by the National Institute of Statistics, 30% of Italians ages 30 to 34 still live with their parents, three times as many as in 1983. One in 5 young people ages 15 to 29 has basically dropped out: not studying, not training, not working. “We’re condemning an entire generation into a black hole,” says Celli.
Jobs for the (Old) Boys
Italians without college education often get by working in the black economy, doing all sorts of jobs, but university graduates — or more generally, those with higher aspirations — have a tougher time finding work that fits their qualifications. The unemployment rate among Italian college graduates ages 25 to 29 is 14%, more than double the rate in the rest of Europe and much higher than that of their less-educated peers.
Italians have a word for the problem: gerontocracy, or rule by the elderly. Too much of the economy is geared toward looking after older Italians. While the country spends relatively little on housing, unemployment and child care — expenditures the young depend upon to launch their careers — it has maintained some of the highest pensions in Europe, in part by ramping up borrowing. This imbalance extends into the private sector, where national guilds and an entrenched culture of seniority have put the better jobs out of reach for the country’s young.
Italy has always suffered under a hierarchical system, with the young deferring to authority until it’s their time to take the reins. “You are not considered experienced based on your CV, on your ability or according to your skills, but just based on your age,” says Federico Soldani, 37, an epidemiologist who left Pisa in 2000 and now works in Washington, D.C., for the Food and Drug Administration. “When you are under 40, you are considered young.”
The system worked — to a certain extent — as long as the economy was growing. Patience paid off as jobs opened to whoever was next in line. But with the extended slump, the labor market has seized up. “The queue is not moving forward anymore,” says Soldani. Entry to some professions — like the lucrative position of public notary — is so limited that the job has become all but hereditary. In a country where success is built on relationships and seniority, only the friends and children of the elite have a chance to cut the line.
ALESSANDRO WANDAEL is a photographer. His is a profession in which success should depend on talent alone. But not so in his native Italy. The photo credits in magazines show that photographers who have family or other close ties to editors are working regularly, he says. “Those who don’t, aren’t.”
The 37-year-old Mr Wandael, a former architect, has lived abroad ever since graduating: first in Berlin; now in New York. Figures in this field are often outdated and vague. But Mr Wandael is far from alone. According to 2005 statistics published by the OECD, he is among some 300,000 highly educated Italians who have opted to leave a country that has become rich without dismantling a social framework in which access to jobs depends on family ties, political affiliations andraccomandazioni (string-pulling recommendations). Last month saw unexpectedly violent student protests in a number of cities against proposed reforms to the university system. Some commentators detected in this a symptom of the frustration the Italian way of doing things generates among the educated young.
How serious is the problem? It “does not exist”, said a junior minister in 2002, claiming that only 150-300 graduates a year left the country for good. A minister in the current government privately acknowledges the phenomenon, but says that the only real cause for concern is the departure of scientific researchers. But neither of these contentions stands up. A 2004 study found that, of all Italian emigrants, the share of those with degrees quadrupled between 1990 and 1998. In 1999, according to a separate study, 4,000 graduates cancelled their Italian residency. And just 17% of Italian graduates in the United States, the most popular destination, are involved in research and development, according to the (American) National Science Foundation. The biggest chunk work as managers.
Yet what distinguishes Italy from its peers is not the absolute number of its exiled graduates (in 2005 more left Britain, France and Germany than Italy), but that it has a net “brain drain” (see chart), something more typical of a developing economy. In other words, the number of educated Italians leaving the country exceeds the number of educated foreigners entering it. By contrast, many of Italy’s developed-world counterparts are involved in “brain exchanges”: as British computer scientists disappear to Silicon Valley, Spanish medical researchers find work in Britain, for example.
Last year Silvio Berlusconi’s government made the second attempt in nine years to lure back exiled academics, this time with tax breaks. But this misses the point, according to Sonia Morano-Foadi, a law lecturer at Oxford Brookes University who interviewed more than 50 émigré Italian scientists in 2006. Her subjects identified two main reasons for their decision to quit the homeland. One was Italy’s scant investment in R&D (the lowest of the European Union’s 15 pre-2004 members). The other, “the most important and difficult problem of academia in Italy”, was its “non-transparent recruitment system”.