Lido di Dante, Ravenna
When the earthquake struck in the dead of night at 3.36 a.m. — the Devil’s Hour — I was in front of my computer in what used to be the cow shed. This is the only time of day when my six boisterous children and their high-voltage Italian mother are not around. The insects, attracted by the light, are worse at night but they can be killed if necessary. As for the toads (we have biblical numbers that emerge from the underworld at night via the open glass doors), I quite like them. Even though there are three on the coat of arms of the Devil himself, I just sweep out with a broom any toad I notice hopping across the floor. The silence is so intense that I can hear the horse and the donkey munching hay in the stable 100 yards away. Occasionally an owl screeches, but not even that bothers me any more. I began to sway about on my seat, looked up from the computer, scared, and thought: there must be something wrong with me. But the swaying stopped after a minute or so, and I was still conscious. So I returned to what I was doing on the computer. I cannot for the life of me remember what it was.
We live on the coast near Ravenna and are roughly 200 miles away from where the 6.2 magnitude earthquake struck last week, killing nearly 300 people. Two thirds of them died in the hilltop town of Amatrice, which is where spaghetti all’Amatriciana (tomato, pork jowl and pecorino) was invented. Daniela Martani, a former air hostess and contestant on the Italian version of Big Brother, who is a vegan, caused outrage when she tweeted that this dish involving the cheeks of dead pigs was the reason for the earthquake. ‘So it’s karma,’ she explained.
But if bad karma is involved, I point the finger at the European Union. The earthquake happened just two days after its top three leaders, Angela Merkel, François Hollande and Matteo Renzi, held their first post-Brexit summit on the island of Ventotene, where they repeated the usual mantra: more Europe, not less. One of the towns worst hit was Norcia in Umbria, which is where St Benedict was born in the 5th century. In 1964, Pope Paul VI declared him Patron Protector of Europe — which is not the same thing as the EU. And while on the subject of karma and earthquakes, let us not forget another bizarre coincidence: the name of the European city where a devastating earthquake occurred in 1755 and where a devastating European treaty was signed in 2007: Lisbon.
During his visit to Amatrice, Monsignor Domenico Pompili, Bishop of Rieti, was asked: ‘Where is God?’ He replied: ‘Perhaps we should connect that question to another: “Where is Man?”’ Pompili was talking about the corruption, negligence and incompetence endemic in Italy and invariably exposed by Italian earthquakes. Each time there is a terremoto — in which even new buildings with anti-earthquake certificates collapse like houses of cards and the newspapers are full of headlines such as ‘Houses built with Mafia sand, not cement’ — the entire nation vows: never again. And yet each time, it does. In this earthquake, a new, supposedly quakeproof primary school was destroyed. In the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, a new, supposedly quakeproof student hostel was destroyed. The father of a friend of mine owns a beautiful old house in the centre of L’Aquila, badly damaged — though not all that badly — in the 2009 earthquake. The latest estimate on when he can return to his beloved house is 2019. And he is an architect and knows how to work the system better than anyone. There are still people living in containers who lost their homes in the 1980 earthquake in Irpinia. The Italians always blame someone else. It is high time they started to blame themselves.
Rome, meanwhile — up to its neck in its own major corruption scandal — is in the midst of a rubbish crisis, and rats are everywhere. There are so many rats (two for every one of the Eternal City’s 2.8 million residents) that children have invented a new game: ‘Contiamo i topi!’ (‘Let’s count the rats’). A video in which they counted about 20 in 15 minutes in broad daylight scuttling in and out of a rubbish skip went viral. Disgusted at the dishonesty and incompetence of everyone, except of themselves naturally, the Romans rejected the established political parties and elected a beautiful 37-year-old lawyer, Virginia Raggi, from Beppe Grillo’s protest party Il Movimento 5 Stelle as mayor. Signora Raggi is a Pied Piper. But she entranced the people of Rome, not its rats. What she needs is a magic flute, or a million cloned cats from China.