While on a recent visit to Tuscany, John Duggan found locals discussing Brexit over the pizza oven.
My wife is standing at the counter of the Nando restaurant on Corso Italia in the centre of Pisa. It is a local institution where people drop in for pizza al taglio or for cecina (a sort of pancake made with chickpea flour). In her fluent Italian, she is talking about Brexit with the staff, who had raised the subject pretty quickly once they had realized that she is half-English.
One of them thinks it will make people in other European countries sit up and think a bit harder about the European Union and what exactly membership means for them. Another says she likes the look of Theresa May: sensible, a safe pair of hands. And so the Member of Parliament for Maidenhead, who a few a short weeks ago would surely have meant very little to the people of Pisa, is now a talking point around the pizza oven.
A few days later, a gentleman sidles up to us on the beach. After a few pleasantries about his own time working in England, he is off. ‘Everyone who voted leave now regrets it, I hear.’ ‘It was the uneducated who swung the vote, wasn’t it?’ And so on. Some of the instant reactions to the result, it seems, were now received wisdom on the beaches of Tuscany.
That evening we are having dinner with friends in the hills overlooking the city. Again, it doesn’t take long for Brexit to rear its head. But when I remind everyone that I am Irish, conversation veers off into different, older historical divisions. Am I from the north or the south? Protestant or Catholic? Brexit is quickly forgotten.
Pisa is a town where it is hard to escape politics, simply because there is no shortage of political graffiti on view. In the alleyway outside our flat, someone had painted in very large letters ‘L’eterosessualità è contra natura’ - ‘Hetrosexuality is unnatural’. There was also a hammer and sickle nearby, although I couldn’t be sure whether it came from the same source as the slogan. A few streets away, next to the anarchists’ symbol, someone had scrawled ‘Bruccia la città’ – ‘Burn down the city’.
No mention of Brexit. It may be on people’s minds, but, when they come to pick up their spray cans, it is other, more elemental political battles that are troubling them.
This isn’t to say there were no flickers of Brexit unrest troubling the surface of Pisa in July. Down the street from Nando is the Pisa branch of Feltrinelli the booksellers. It is a lovely shop with its own indoor courtyard, complete with benches and vines. Feltrinelli, as it happens, did have a fairly modest display devoted to Brexit.
On closer inspection, some of the books were not so much about the practical implications of Brexit and more about the past and future of European civilization itself. If the referendum was ultimately a piece of Tory party management that had backfired, it may nevertheless have also become the stimulus for all manner of cultural soul-searching far beyond the shores of the United Kingdom.
The newspapers meanwhile were dominated by the aftermath of the terror attack in Nice. They did note, however, Boris Johnson’s arrival on the diplomatic stage. One newspaper published a front page attack in the usual terms, calling him a buffoon and worse. Another, while not forgetting Johnson’s history of “gaffes”, seemed more willing to give the benefit of the doubt.
The other visual clue Pisa has to offer about Italy’s post-Brexit mindset was in its flags. As a rule, municipal buildings display the Pisan cross (white on a red background with three spheres at the tips of each splayed arm), the Italian tricolore and the flag of the European Union. Local, national, supra-national: this seems to be the officially sanctioned array.
Out at Marina di Pisa, things are a little more chaotic. Marina is home to dozens of paying beaches where Pisan families come each summer to take up residence on a crowded but homely strip of the Med. On arriving you pass under an archway bearing the name of the beach: ‘Primavera’, ‘Tritone’, ‘La Pace’ and so on. And there is often a collection of flags too.
Usually these are fairly eclectic assortments. The Pisan cross is still much in evidence, as is the Italian Navy’s version of the national flag. Other regulars are the Spanish flag, the German one, the Stars and Stripes, the flag of Brazil and, yes, the EU flag.
I’m not sure whether the latter is there to express loyalty to the EU, or is a handy way of signalling welcome to visitors from lots of different places in one go, or possibly both. In any case, we’ve been coming here for many years and I didn’t notice any particular reduction in the number of British flags. There had been no mass lowering of Union Jacks in reaction to Brexit. So if what I saw and heard in one week is anything to go by then reaction to Brexit in Italy so far has been fairly phlegmatic: quite a lot of interest, some concern, but no panic on the streets of Pisa yet. I wonder how things will stand twelve months hence.
But for now, the last word goes to another one of the staff at Nando. “I am for Cameron,” he declared, completely deadpan. “Cameron Diaz!”
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