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Author Beppe Severgnini on What Makes Italians Tick During Crisis

Italian author Beppe Severgnini and Margaret Warner in Crema, Italy.

On our recent foray to Germany and Italy to explore the political and social dimensions of the European debt crisis, one person we felt we had to see to understand the Italian and European mindsets was Beppe Severgnini, the noted Italian journalist, author and all-around cultural commentator.

For 15 years his daily column, called “Italians,” for the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera has been a must-read. His career has included seven years as The Economist’s Italy correspondent and two years in Washington, D.C., for the Italian newspaper La Voce. Severgnini’s specialty in columns and his many books are a multilayered insight into the sociology of the people, community or nation he’s writing about. He’s also funny. Check out his take on Italy in his book “La Bella Figura” and on the U.S. in “Ciao America” — both big sellers in the States.

Severgnini hosted us late one cold but beautiful Sunday in his medieval hometown of Crema, in northern Italy about 25 miles from Milan. We arrived at the outset of passeggiata, the customary late afternoon stroll Italians take through the heart of their towns, large or small. He and I began our exploration of the Italian debt crisis — and the efforts of the newly installed Prime Minister Mario Monti to tame it — with a stroll of our own through the town’s main piazza, lined by outdoor vendors’ tables of tempting cheeses, meats, breads and sweets.

Severgnini spoke of what made Crema special and a model for what all of Italy could be if it can transform itself in these troubled times.

“It’s got everything you want. It’s got a lovely historical center. It’s got 40,000 people so not too many. It’s inland so (there’s an) airport and stuff, agriculture, small industry, professions. It’s a great place,” he said.

In terms of what Crema has that much of Italy doesn’t, Severgnini pointed to “accountability” in politics.

“It means that whoever is in charge in the town hall … we know who they are. They know who we are. … I’m not too happy about the current set of town hall sort of leadership and the local administration, but I know them. I see them having a coffee around here in the morning, and I tell them,” he said.

That’s not true when it comes to the Italian Parliament, whose members aren’t directly elected but are appointed by parties.

We then ducked into a café for a cappuccino and got down to the serious topic at hand: how and why Italy today finds itself as the second most indebted country in the European Union after Greece. His analysis touched less on economics and public spending than on Italians’ frame of mind.

“We got in this mess because we want to have a health care system (that) works, and we do have that. We want to have good schools, and we do have that. We (want) to have good social security, and we do have that. But in order to afford all that, you must pay taxes, not waste money in corruption and not (allow) the mob to have their own separate economy,” he said.

“We thought we could have it both ways. It’s not possible.”

As the bells in the Duomo’s tower tolled 7 o’clock, we moved on to his office for a more extensive conversation about how Italians are handling European Union pressure to change their ways — and the prescriptions coming from their new prime minister.

“If you allow me to use this sort of health care metaphor, we decided that in (an) emergency, we would need to rush to Dr. Monti’s emergency room, and we could not fool around all night with good old Silvio Berlusconi and (his) people and his colorful entourage,” he said. “Now we believe that we must behave like a grown-up country. We can do that.”

How Italians continue to respond while this opera unfolds — as potential sacrifices and changes mount — could test Severgnini’s powers of cultural perception and insight as nothing before.

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