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It's the Air. Or the Water

By Frank Gruber

Awhile back I wrote about "moral luck," the concept about whether the goodness or badness of one's actions depends on their result, rather than the intention behind them.

There's a related concept, perhaps not so philosophical, along the lines of "some people get all the luck," regardless of their qualities, moral or otherwise.

With reference to this latter idea, which you may know of as the "lucky stiff" paradigm, I'm writing this column from my parents' house deep in the Italian countryside. You see, regardless whether I have lived a good life or bad, 20 years ago my parents and my sister bought two farmhouses in a little village in Umbria, a region midway between Rome and Florence, and so gave the rest of the family a perfect place to go for vacation.

Of course, context is everything. For example, years ago, not long after my parents started spending six months of the year at their Italian farmhouse, my wife and I took our honeymoon in Italy -- as she likes to say, "one week in romantic Amalfi, and one week with Frank's parents in Umbria."

Umbria is a small, landlocked place that reached its historical peak many centuries ago. Popes lived down the road, in Orvieto, during one exile or another. Orvieto and another town, Todi, which is up the road, used to battle each other back and forth for the fate of the medieval world.

Umbria is a good place to be from if you are a saint who wants to establish monastic orders. Everyone knows that the ascetic and spiritual Saint Francis was from Assisi. Fewer know that the worldly Saint Benedict (and his sister Saint Scholastica) were from Norcia, a town in the wilds of eastern Umbria now famous for making the best salami in Italy.

Once my wife and I drove to Norcia to buy some sausages. In Norcia we asked one of the butchers why the best sausage came from Norcia and he shrugged: "È l'aria, o l'acqua" -- "It's the air, or the water."

My parents' house is down a bumpy gravel road from a little village. The village has little in common with Santa Monica. In fact, it's hard to imagine two places that are more different, but I told Jorge Casuso, my editor, that I would try to make these columns relevant to readers in Santa Monica.

To begin with, our village has no beach. It does have a fine view from its little piazza of the valley of the Tiber. The view is so good that during the Orvieto/Todi wars, Todi built watchtowers nearby, overlooking the valley, to make sure Orvieto didn't launch a surprise attack up the river.

A few years ago a wealthy Italian family got permission to convert one of the old watchtowers into a house. The windows are small, but it stays cool in summer.

Our village is also different from Santa Monica because there is no place to get an espresso. In fact, there are no businesses at all in the village, except that a couple years ago a local family converted an old stone tower (the signs say 12th century, but that seems optimistic) on the piazza into a six-room pensione.

Although just a little place, there are a number of fine old buildings here. The village was the seat of three local landowning families in the days before land reform and ruling class dissipation, and they built impressive houses.

People here build with stone and bricks rather than plaster and sticks and the buildings tend to resist termites better than in Santa Monica. Even bricks here come from a 500 year old brick factory.

The village is a lot quieter than Santa Monica. No sirens or stereos wail in the middle of the night. That doesn't mean that everything is tranquillity. Farmers or woodcutters driving tractors like to rumble by at 6 a.m. They aren't on vacation.

This year it took a couple nights to get used to a strange noise. All night, every ten seconds or so, you can hear the muffled thuds of explosions, much like the sound of distant fireworks. These are part of an operation a local farmer has devised to scare wild boars away from his fields.

To answer the question that every Santa Monican is probably asking by now, no, there is no traffic congestion here. I'm guessing, based on the figures I learned last week in reading the EIR for that condo project on 16th Street, that Idaho Avenue has about as much traffic in a day as crosses the piazza in two weeks.

But then, except for a grocery in the slightly bigger village two kilometers away that is considerably smaller than the typical corner store in Santa Monica, the nearest place to shop is Todi, about a 25-minute drive.

I.e., there is less traffic here, but life is more convenient in Santa Monica.

Todi has been the market town for its little hinterland since Etruscan times, so it's fitting that on its outskirts, down where various roads cross the Tiber, there are now four supermarkets.

Notice I said "supermarkets." Forget romantic notions of string shopping bags and a daily gossip heavy meander among the local shopkeepers. Most people around here drive to and shop in supermarkets much like those in Santa Monica, except here the supermarkets have deli counters with fresh ricotta and multiple kinds of prosciutto, and produce from Sicily instead of the Central Valley.

Italy has sprawl, too. The incredible prosperity of the past 50 years is evident all around here in the new houses sprouting seemingly everywhere, built both by locals whose grandparents were subsistence tenant farmers but who now have cars and satellite TV, and by us tourists and summer people who have supplanted sheep as a mainstay of the economy.

Even 20 years ago there was so much traffic in Todi that the whole of its beautiful medieval piazza, the town's principal tourist attraction, had become a parking lot. The local administration responded by severely limiting parking in the center of town (including banning parking from the piazza), and by improving public transportation, first in the form of buses, and now a funicular, from parking lots on the outskirts.

In general, one can't build new houses here in the open countryside. Todi has sprawled outside its old walls, down the hill toward the river, but by and large farmland has been preserved because the new housing is dense. For instance, Sidis, an Italian version of Wall-Mart, recently built a store near a major crossroads outside of Todi, but four stories of apartments sit above it.

Maybe Santa Monica and our Umbrian village have more in common than I thought. But wait a minute -- I'm on vacation.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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