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Brendan O'Connor: Big picture all about little details


RECIPE FOR A HEALTHY COMMUNITY: In Italy, every village has its own local artisan stores

RECIPE FOR A HEALTHY COMMUNITY: In Italy, every village has its own local artisan stores

RECIPE FOR A HEALTHY COMMUNITY: In Italy, every village has its own local artisan stores

I think you can see God in Italy. And not just in the churches, though presumably he is there too. It is, I think, in the detail of how they approach life. And detail is the key.

They are fastidious -- about their food, their clothes, about the detail of everything, about how things work, about keeping things right. I was down in Tuscany kind of pre-season last week. The people who owned the beach areas along the sea -- the whole long beach was carved up into privately held strips with facilities which people pay to use -- were out fastidiously painting and fixing tables and chairs and raking the sand. All done slowly and carefully, with an eye to detail and complete immersion in their task. Here, we would possibly throw out the broken tables and chairs, or maybe we would get a guy in to fix them. These guys did it themselves, slowly and carefully.

This passion for detail shows itself too in how they put themselves together. It's a cliche, but everyone does really have a look in Italy. From the old peasant farmer to the young women, everyone has a very carefully put-together style going on. The quality and age of the clothes may vary but they are put together with care and with an eye to portraying the so called bella figura, more than a way of dressing, almost a way of life. Because these things are important and deserve to have time taken over them.

This passion for detail is evident too in that other great cliche of Italian life. They say the Italians put everything they have on their backs or on the table, and they take their food very seriously. You can tell this because it is often the men who seem to do the shopping. Everywhere you go, there are important looking men taking time out to agonise over ham and cheese and produce in the food shops. It, too, is worthy of attention to detail. It is the stuff of life, one of the great everyday pleasures, and they stop and take a bit of time and space over it.

It is perhaps no surprise that the slow food movement originated in Italy. These are a people who understand process, that the process of things is as important as the end result. They understand, perhaps, that life itself is process and that immersion in the workings of things, the journey, is what matters, and this reflects in the end of the process --the meal, the look, the beautiful church, the pristine beach.

It all makes you think about trade. If you take away all your impression of Italy on the macro-scale -- basket case, crazy politicians, bunga bunga etc, and just look at the micro, there are lessons to be learned. I don't know a great deal about Italy and have only spent a week or two at a time there, and mainly in more rural areas, but, as an outsider, which is sometimes how you see things most clearly, it struck me that on the local level, this is a culture with a lot going for it.

In terms of trade, you note that this is a place where everybody in a community had their place. There are bakeries everywhere. They are what we in Ireland would now call artisan bakeries, by which we would mean premium, fancy bakeries. In Italy there are just bakeries and they happen to be artisanal, and the guy who owns it now might have learnt the trade from his father and is probably just the latest exponent of a family tradition and heritage that goes back a century. The baker in general takes his job seriously. He is pleased to see you when you come in and he is passionate about his wares. He is glad when you like it. Passion and pride. He is not there filling in time waiting until he can get home and put his feet up and watch the TV. The butcher similarly, the purveyor of fruit and veg equally. And most communities have a bakery. They might even have a separate guy just doing little sweet treats in a dolcetteria. They will have a good fruit and veg shop, a good foccaceria doing hot breads and maybe pizzas. And all of them take it seriously. And most of them have been there years.

And I could be romanticising things but it seemed to me to be a recipe for a healthy community, where people make things, and are connected to the things they made. You may say that such a focus on "things" sounds like a very superficial existence but you get the impression that aesthetics, in the taste of things and the beauty of things, is a spiritual matter for the Italians. Things, they recognise, are in a way the very stuff of life, the physical manifestation of God or whatever, and the manifestation of the very process that is life. And then, they all sell it to each other.

Of course, we know that while I was experiencing this seemingly profound, peaceful oneness in Italy on the micro level, on the macro level Italy, like so many other countries, is in crisis. And you find yourself thinking very simplistic things. Like why do we need so much regulation? Why do we need so much government? Why do we need layers and layers of bureaucracy that ends up costing half, or more than half, of all human endeavour in a country? Rural Italy has roads it might not have without structural funds, but apart from that, you wonder how much it needed layers of Eurocrats.

You find yourself thinking that human beings, when left more to their own devices, create communities, where people make things and trade them unfettered with each other, where the weaker are automatically looked after by being a part of that community. And that communities like this will survive as long as they produce things. That the creation of actual objects, the expression of the libido, or the lifeforce, through manufacture, is what keeps the wheels of life turning.

For a while, in Ireland, we have made less and less and we allowed the State sector to gobble up more and more of our productivity. Indeed, one layer of the many bureaucracies that took over our lives, the EU, started paying our farmers not to produce anything, in order to regulate markets and the supply of food. And suddenly now we realise that growing and producing food could be part of our salvation, something the Italians managed to never forget. We used to make clothing and all kinds of other things in Ireland too. We have a rich tradition of manufacturing and crafts in this country. But for some reason, we came to devalue that heritage.

That creation and trade, that community of making and trading, has been devastated in this country over the past number of years by austerity, by fear, by unsustainable debt, and by a policy that didn't encourage making things but rather held it back, by a government sector that as it thrived and grew itself seemed to forget that it existed only at the pleasure of the private trading sector, the ones who paid for it.

This Government sector seemed to make it harder and harder for guys out in the real world to turn an honest buck. Businesses and shops are closing wherever you look. And as well as killing local economies, all of this will create a deep, unhealthy malaise in us, that we have no expression of the lifeforce, or the process of doing and making and trading. The very stuff of life and communities is being drained from us.

Maybe now that we have dealt with the big picture for a while, and voted 'Yes', it is time now to realise that everything is made up of details, of the little things, and maybe it's time we focused on rebuilding from the bottom up, brick by brick.

Sunday Independent