The Italians have a saying “Paesi che vai, usanze che trovi” that literally translated means ‘the countries you visit, the customs you find’. The idiomatic translation in English is, of course, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” and many try and follow the ethos of the proverb when we find ourselves abroad, though perhaps not the majority. Of course, in this era of seemingly unbridled immigration, the ‘have nots’ and the ‘have lots’ are sometimes jostling for position, so guess who wins?
For many years, perhaps almost for a century, the well-to-do elite of British society have hankered after a home in Tuscany. Not just any home, but not a palace either; perhaps just a shabby chic farmhouse next to a vineyard or a well-proportioned, but slightly weather beaten house in a village on a hillside overlooking the rolling, fertile hills. In the main, incomers over the last 70 years have tended to blend into the background.
Not so for the latest influx of immigrants. Brash Russians no less, even more brash than nouveau riche Americans apparently, are taking over areas of Tuscany, especially the town of Forte dei Marmi. They are inexorably splashing the cash, buying up villas, castles and country retreats and, when they do, attempting to gild the lily in a way that would make Liberace look positively dull. There is considerable concern among the the locals that the recently arrived influx of Russians are not only driving SUVs but also driving the change in the character of the Tuscan town.
“The Russians buy up houses, then knock them down and rebuild them according to their own taste,” said local author, Fabio Genovesi. “The useful shops, like bakeries and fruit vendors, have disappeared, and we only have shops selling the prestigious brands, which attract the very rich for a couple of months in the summer and remain empty for the rest of the year,” he said. Mr Genovesi, has recently had a book published, Morte dei Marmi, a pun that alludes to the death of the town.
British home buyers search endlessly for a not-too-obviously restored period farmhouse with all of the familiar rustic beauty that a substantial home in Tuscany would normally bring: a pantiled roof, stone steps aged by footfall and shutters aged with the summer sun bleaching them.
“The British and Americans love the rustic look – exposed beams and hand-made terracotta tile floors,” said Gemma Bruce, from Casa&Country, a London-based property agency. “But if you show that to some of the Russians, they are horrified. Instead they want super-slick bathrooms, marble floors, spa-gyms and cinema rooms. The problem is, Italian cultural heritage officials won’t allow you to do that to a 15th century property.” Russians arrive in Forte dei Marmi, splashing out huge sums just to rent entire floors of hotels to impress their entourage while they get ‘the feel of the place’ and look around for a home to buy. They frequentlt buy properties which they then have knocked down so that they can build a ‘palace’ in the sun.
Sergio Marrai, manager of the exclusive Tennis Club in Forte dei Marmi, said Russians now account for a quarter of his clientèle and are helping to compensate for the lack of local people who no longer eat out because of the recession. “We’ve seen a drop in the number of Italians this summer – and when they do come, they stay for less time. They’re afraid of spending. We’re very happy that the Russians like Tuscany so much, in particular Forte dei Marmi.”
Last year the mayor brought down the shutters on any further non-Italian food outlets from opening in the town, slapping a ban on any new Chinese or Indian restaurants or any other proposed food outlet whose food culture isn’t Italian. Pizza Beluga anyone?