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The Genius of a Place

■ 22 December 2011 by James Martin

The Genius of a Place is a film in progress. It’s about the rapid rate of change possible in our industrial times, change that inevitably drives out a town’s substance, turning it into kitsch in the blink of an eye. It’s about Cortona, but it could be about any “cute” little Tuscan “gem”. Heck, it could be about Carmel, California:

Today the town overflows with visitors, eateries and boutiques. Artisans have disappeared and so have most stores that served local residents. Population in the town center is dwindling as locals sell to foreigners willing to pay high prices for a vacation home. Residents feel disenfranchised and no longer collectively care for their community the way they did in the past. It risks becoming a no-man’s land, with no one looking out for its long-term interests.

I haven’t seen the movie, which isn’t made yet. But the question is, “how do you stop it?”

The answer always seem to involve brute force. You just step in and demand that “progress” stop on a dime, demanding that folks go back to making their own food and raising their own barnyard animals instead of living well off the 40,000 Euro house they sold to a tourist for 500,000.

Good luck with that.

But I can’t help feeling the queasiness that comes with thinking I know the hard answer. I see the problem being centered around the influx of moneyed and clueless folks who “fall in love” with a place at the drop of a hat. When you experience an instant crush on a thing you know only peripherally, you accept its faults while hedging your bet by living selfishly. You’re likely to “love” your little city of clustered little houses as it is, but you need to knock out that wall so you can have that 2000 square foot bathroom you’ve seen in some Tuscan designer magazine, no? Nothing you do can hurt anything, can it? Well, it does.

In short, my answer to the problem is to encourage politically incorrect behavior.

Take the celebrated butcher of Panzano, Dario Cecchini. If you go to his shop, you’ll see him as a man justly proud of what he does; he’s funny, engaging, and a perfect spokesman for the good life in Tuscany—which involves eating “cucina povera” made with local ingredients.

Let me tell you though, the average reader is likely to come away appalled at one of the stories about Mr. Cecchini as it appears in Bill Buford’s Heat —in which a group of locals sits down at a local restaurant to peruse the offerings. Dario spots duck on the menu. He goes ballistic. Loudly. The owner rushes out of the kitchen to quell the tirade.

“Look out the window, do you see a duck? No!” Dario’s rant continues. He slams the menu to the floor as folks start running for cover. The owner stands before him, embarrassed. He explains timidly that the tourists want duck, so he has to serve it. Dario does not relent.

The night is ruined. Cecchini has been a hard-ass about eating local, if not a complete ass for ruining the evening.

Appalling behavior—until you examine the facts of the case. Giving in to tourists whose demands are quite likely to make Tuscany into a rural anyplace-else is easy. Teaching them the joys of letting go is hard. Forcing them to do so seems cruel. Sometimes you have to be the hard-ass to get people focused on the enormity of the issue.

Tough love—that’s what is needed here. “Dammit, you’re going to eat the local chow and you’re going to love it or you can take the first train out.”

I know it’s hard. I know folks will have to suffer with that fire-seared Cinta Senese chop or with that cramped little village house and its little terrace open to the piazza and (egads!) without the huge swimming pool. Folks will have to get used to yapping with the locals (there’s no word in Italian for “privacy” you know).

Eventually, in my ideal vision, folks will come to actually enjoy the slow life they found when they first discovered it. Maybe they’ll come to enjoy talking to the neighbors from the terrace. Maybe they’ll try their hands at slaughtering a pig and making salami out of it. Then they can be free to love it, because then, like a good time-traveler, they haven’t changed the cultural landscape, they’ve embraced it—for better or worse.

And isn’t that what love is, in the end?

——

You can actually contribute to the finishing of this independently produced film, The Genius of Place, over at IndieGoGo by following the link. This behavior is encouraged by the curmudgeon who wrote the above, who has contributed. He’s not Scrooge you know.

You can meet Dario in our video: Inside the Antica Macelleria Cecchini

The Genius of a Place originally appeared on WanderingItaly.com Dec 22, 2011, © James Martin.

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