Unpredictable Italy:

Changes, stability and reality of a country that is always positively surprising

by Maria Lamkin

January 2000


Y E A R 1 9 9 9

At the beginning of 1999 Roberto Benigni and his Oscar Prize called attention to and renewed the interest in Italy’s actors and movie production. His “La Vita Bella” is an homage to those who suffered the atrocities of WWII. Roberto’s enthusiasm on finding out about the award was typically Italian – witty, contagious, unrestrainable. Thank you, Roberto.

The war in ex-Yugoslavia told us that despite all efforts wars seem to be a constant, ominous presence of human life. As it already occurred in the past few years though for different reasons, even on this occasion thousands of refugees found shelter in Italy. This country, which felt particularly involved in the situation especially because of its geographical closeness to these territories, was particularly active in offering all types of humanitarian aids to the Yugoslavians both in their own territories and in Italy.

During spring, time came for the appointment of a new president of the Italian Republic (as it always happens every seven years). Mr. Ciampi replaced Mr. Scalfaro enriching his office and duty with a considerable competence in economics and an overall expertise. The ensemble of these characteristics justified the immediate consent his nomination obtained among all political parties. President Ciampi symbolizes Italy from another standpoint as well. In a country that has the lowest birthrate in the world and consequently an ever increasing number of elderly he took on …a new occupation at the age when most people retire (often being forced to do so). There must be a secret in Italy’s longevity… could it be pasta?

In June, the long-awaited-for rules on high-school final examinations were put in practice for the first time. Chief among the innovations was the use of different tests in the Italian language (the writing of an article), the amplification of the number of subjects from two to most of those taken during the last year of school, and the creation of the category of “extra-curricular credits” (which may include those gained with the practice of sports or of music). Starting from the year 2000 further changes will be implemented which will include a higher number of questions on the general-culture test. As always, complaints and criticisms abounded; the new examination was considered as too vast and the final evaluation was seen as being based on a too wide range of elements.

In August the solar eclipse attracted the eyes of all, both old and young, Italian and foreigners en route to Italy. Life at the seaside may be particularly eventful – if the heat is not caused by the ozone layer it is caused by the solar crown visible during the eclipse! Marvel, marvel ye all - “Sun, sun everywhere….”

Throughout fall and during the first part of winter interesting events abounded. On one hand there were some economic difficulties due to the ever-increasing prices of oil and to the high exchange rate of the dollar – two factors which, together, affected negatively the Italians’ purse and way of life. Rumor started spreading about reintroducing the measure of “car-less Sundays” (or as politicians like to say, “ecological Sundays”) which was introduced in the 1970s due to the energy crisis of that decade. As it occurred then, this action may help straighten up our balance of payments.

Next came another major reform, the one of the university system. Owing to it, over forty three-year courses will soon be introduced. With these shorter curricula students will have a wider range of course to select from but, mainly, they will be able to complete their studies in a timeframe shorter than the one necessary at present (which averages four to five years). It goes without saying that after these initial courses they may decide to pursue their studies furtherly, thus obtaining degrees and diplomas that are similar to the ones awarded by foreign universities. When compared with academic curricula of other countries, as a matter of fact, the Italian ones turn out to be different because they are specialized from the very beginning, are not subdivided into different levels, and always end with the oral defense of a “thesis”. Master’s and Ph.D degrees have lately become more numerous and will become even more so in future thanks to the creation of these new curricula. Incidentally, another element that will make our studies comparable to foreign ones is the subdivision of curricula not simply into “examinations”, as it has been so far, but into “credits” or “credit hours”. This element as well is the product of the profound modifications that the Italian university system has undergone during the last year of this millennium.

One last note concerning the Italian schools system. This year the last public examination (“concorso”) for the selection of future teachers at all levels was held. From now on a radical transformation will take place in this selection thanks to which it will no longer be possible to teach only with the “Laurea” (or university degree). The teaching career indeed will be open only to those who will acquire a Master’s in Teaching, thus amplifying the credentials obtained with the “Laurea”. Although indisputably necessary, this further step calls to mind the Italian adage “Exams never end”…

Apropos: even politicians had their own test to pass. During the last weeks of December one of those political “crises” to which the Italians were so accustomed in the past made the country hold its breath. Yet another Italian miracle occurred: the “crisis”, instead of being blown out of all proportions, was solved within few days (now the only question is: Was this rapid solution due to unanimous consent or to a lack of potential dissenters? At that moment the country was really and justly busy with the imminent onset of the Jubilee Year, and a phase of political dissent would have only slowed down the implementation of numerous recent innovations).

And by the end of 1999 Italy is finally ready for the new Millennium and for the Jubilee Year. At the time of writing some restorations of monuments still have to be completed and new traffic plans still have to be taken to completion; but some miracles have already taken place. The Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi is an example of the praiseworthy efforts that the Italian government, citizens, restorers, and generosity can accomplish. A small miracle has restored to life a monument that looked like buried in a destiny of destruction. The intense light that shines again from its ceilings and vaults celebrates the vigor and will of a country that is always UNPREDICTABLE.

As musical fans would say, “stay in tune” – keep reading these columns to find out the other surprising news that Italy and the Italian site of Babel has in stock for you!

Maria Lamkin can be reached at lamkin@uni.net