… is eating well
The old joke says that three-quarters of the food and wine served in Italy is good … and the rest is amazing. If that's true, the "good" 75% is getting even better.
Italy is home of one of the world's greatest cuisines, so it may seem disingenuous to claim that it's improving—but it clearly is. Ingredients that in the past were available only to the wealthy can now be found even in the remotest parts of the country at reasonable prices. Dishes originally conceived to make the most of inferior cuts of meat or the least flavorful part of vegetables are now made with the best.
The same is true of Italian wine. A generation ago, the omnipresent straw-basket Chianti was a mainstay of pizzerias around the world, but the wine inside was often watery and insipid. Today, through investment and experimentation, Italy's winemakers are figuring out how to get the most from their gorgeous vineyards. It's fair to say that Italy now produces more types of high-quality wine from more different grape varieties than any other country in the world.
Italian restaurateurs are keeping up with the changes. Though quaint family-run trattorias with checkered tablecloths, traditional dishes, and informal atmosphere are still common, there's no doubt that they're on the decline. And nearly every town has a newer eatery with matching flatware, a proper wine list, and an innovative menu.
… is passionate about soccer
Soccer stands without rival as the national sport of Italy, but recent years have seen some changes to the beautiful game. On the positive side, Italy won its fourth World Cup in 2006, giving the country more world titles than any other this side of Brazil. But since then, soccer lovers have digested a series of unwelcome developments involving alleged match fixing, backroom deals for television contracts, drug scandals among players, and a rising level of violence between rival fans.
Italian professional soccer leagues are trying to put those issues behind them and focus on on-the-field play, where the Italian leagues rank with England and Spain as the best in Europe. One emerging positive trend is geographic parity. After several years of the top Serie A league's being dominated by northern teams, along with a handful from the central part of the country, success recently has been spread more evenly around, much to the joy of soccer-mad fans from the south.
… endures ongoing political upheaval
The political landscape in Italy is less stable than in any other industrialized nation. The country has endured a new government an average of about once a year since the end of World War II, and hopes are slim that the situation will change much in the near future.
This virtual turnstile outside the prime minister's office takes its toll on Italy: economic growth is slow in part because businesses are continually adapting to new government policies, and polls show that rank-and-file Italians are increasingly cynical about their political institutions. As a result, they're much less likely to trust in or depend on the government than neighbors elsewhere in Europe do.
… is getting older
Italy's popultation is the oldest in Europe (worldwide, only Japan is older)—the result of its low birth rate, relatively strict immigration standards, and one of the highest life expectancy rates in the world. As of 2010, the average Italian was 42.9 years old, and the number keeps rising.
The result is a remarkably stable population: the total number of Italian residents barely rises most years, and, according to the most recent estimates, is projected to start contracting by 2020. But the situation is putting a strain on the country's pension system and on families, since elderly family members are likely to live with their children or grandchildren in a country where nursing homes are rare.
The trend also has an impact on other areas, including politics (where older politicians are eager to promote policies aimed at older voters), the popular culture (where everything from fashion to television programming takes older consumers into consideration), and a kind of far-reaching nostalgia; thanks to a long collective memory, it's common to hear even younger Italians celebrate or rue something that happened 50 or 60 years earlier as if it had just taken place.
… lives with a black-market economy
Nobody knows how big Italy's black-market economy is, though experts all agree it's massive. Estimates place it at anywhere from a fourth to a half of the official, legal economy.
Put another way, if the highest estimates are correct, Italy's black market is about as large as the entire economy of Switzerland or Indonesia. If the estimated black-market figures were added to the official GDP, Italy would likely leapfrog France and the U.K. to become the world's fifth-largest economy.
The presence of the black market isn't obvious to the casual observer, but whenever a customer isn't given a printed receipt in a store or restaurant, tobacco without a tax seal is bought from a street seller, or a product or service is exchanged for another product or service, that means the transaction goes unrecorded, unreported, and untaxed.
… has a growing parks system
Italy boasts 25 national parks covering a total of around 1.5 million hectares (58,000 square mi), or about 5% of the entire surface area of the country—more than twice as much as 25 years ago. And a new park is added or an existing park is expanded every few months.
Part of the reason for the expansion has been a growing environmental movement in Italy, which has lobbied the government to annex undeveloped land for parks, thus protecting against development. But the trend is a boon for visitors and nature lovers, who can enjoy huge expanses of unspoiled territory.
… is staying home in August
Italy used to be the best example of Europe's famous August exodus—where city dwellers would spend most of the month at the seaside or in the mountains, leaving the cities nearly deserted. Today the phenomenon continues, but is much less prevalent, as economic pressures have forced companies to keep operating through August. As a result, vacations are more staggered and vacationers' plans are often more modest.
The loss of shared vacation time for Italian workers can be an advantage for visitors, both because in August there's more room at the seaside and in the mountains, and because cities have taken to promoting local events designed to appeal to residents who are staying put. These days, summers in Italy boast a plethora of outdoor concerts and plays; longer restaurant and museum hours; and food, wine, and culture fairs.
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