After a week’s holiday in Italy, Britain feels optimistic and surprisingly carefree. Piedmont is a traditionally prosperous corner of north-west Italy that has been home to the Odones for generations; but it felt unfamiliar this summer. The first sign that things were amiss was at the grocer’s in the piazza, where we always stock up on local delicacies such as Gavi wine and cacciatorini (hunter’s salami). But the shelves stretched empty, as did the meat counter that used to groan under succulent joints of wild boar and racks of lamb. “Trade has halved since last year!” moaned the shopkeeper.
No wonder that our daily visits there prompted effusive greetings of Gli inglesi, gli inglesi! – we had nine people to feed. Elsewhere in the village, building work has stopped, leaving houses without windows, doors or even a roof. A friend who had to close her fresh pasta shop for lack of business cannot rent out her two-bedroomed house for the 500 euros that would cover her monthly mortgage; two years ago, she could have asked at least 600.
We spend the evenings visiting the feste – patronal festivals – held in nearby villages. The patron saint — Lorenzo, Rocco, or Anne, depending on the village — is celebrated with folk dances and huge meals. This year, the queue for dinner al fresco that used to snake around the municipal hall had disappeared, and I spotted empty tables everywhere. Worse, one village had cut costs by replacing the live band with karaoke.