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Arsenic, celebs and tax evasion in a small Italian town

Last June I did what Romans do – to cool off and relax I left the city and went to Viterbo, a provincial capital northwest of Rome in the Tuscia region. I couldn’t believe my luck – film royalty Lina Wertmüller was in town to promote her autobiography, Tutto a posto e niente in ordine, the eponymous title of her 1974 film, ‘All Screwed Up’. I had stumbled onto one of the country’s major cultural events – Caffeina, a ten-day literary extravaganza that kicks off the city’s summer festival season and integrates the JazzUp Music Festival, the Tuscia Film Festival, and Slow Food happenings. The Ludika Medieval Festival and the Tuscia Operafestival follow.

Viturbo PiazzaI become a fixture at Piazza del Gesù where the jazz concerts take center stage and the audience sits around café tables to sample local produce. A medieval fountain gurgles nearby. Carlo Zucchetti, a co-founder of the Slow Food movement, holds up a hazelnut between his thumb and forefinger. “Observe its color,” he says, as he scrutinizes the nut against the light like a rare jewel. He calls it la bella rotonda (the beautiful round one). Viterbo’s hazelnut growers harvest a million tons a year.

“Bite the nut in half. Now smell it.” Zucchetti takes a deep sniff. We ape his every move. “I pick up an aroma of …,” he searches for the words, “…roasted nut.” He pops la bella into his mouth. I pop the nut into my mouth. “Chew it with your mouth open. It doesn’t look elegant,” he confesses, “but it’s how you get the best flavour out of the hazelnut. It needs air.” I was glad to be in a city where I could get into the groove of things and live like a Roman on vacation.

Piazza, ViterboMy landlady hands me the long clunky keys to my apartment and a notice about the arsenic in the water. She distils the text-dense missive, “Don’t drink the water or brush your teeth with it,” she shrugs her shoulders like it’s no big deal, “And give your fruit and vegetables a final rinse with bottled water.”

Viterbo’s volcanic soil naturally contains arsenic but the water in my part of town has twice the level allowed by the European Union – ten micrograms per liter. After a ten-year grace period the city faces sanctions until it fixes the problem. I forget to ask if I can use the tap water to boil pasta.

A few days later, at Piazza San Lorenzo, Lina Wertmüller walks onto a stage cluttered with props and set pieces. Behind her, the loggia of the medieval papal palace frames the sunset. It’s the perfect setting for Wertmüller who directed operas for the stage and directed her last opera on that same stage. Her deep manly voice rolls out over the audience, “Buona sera.”

Wertmüller is full of stories. She conjures up Mariangela Melato, star of her 1974 film ‘Swept Away’. Images of the movie silently flow across a screen. “Mariangela had no idea how popular the film was outside of Italy,” she explains, “until years after its release when she was in Japan. A cab driver recognizes her in his rear-view mirror and says, ‘Puttana industriale,’” referring to actor Giancarlo Gianinni’s famous line. Everyone laughs. The complex cultural, social, and political baggage of those two words defines a generation of Italians.


Wertmüller was Fellini’s assistant director on ’81/2′ (1963) and the first woman nominated for an Academy Award for directing, ‘Seven Beauties’ (1976). Dressed in a black pant suit and wearing her trademark white thick-rimmed glasses, the petite white-haired octogenarian launches into a story about her first serious boyfriend who didn’t like the long hours she was putting in at the start of her career. He gave her an ultimatum.

She runs the scene, “’It’s me or the cinema. Which will it be,’ he asks? ’The cinema,’ I blurt out. He slaps me across the face and walks away. I was shocked.” The audience is shocked. “Thinking back, I could have been a little more sensitive,” she shrugs her shoulders, “Poverino (poor guy), there was never a doubt, it was the cinema.” We applaud. It’s classic Wertmüller. “Rigira la pizza,” she flips the pizza, Italians say, and makes us feel sorry for the clueless boyfriend.

x300614Viterbo-Ludika-in-the-street-(2)On a whim I ask the retired Cartier accountant sitting next to me in the audience if he boils pasta with the tap water. Never, he says. The next day, on the bus on my way to Villa Lante’s Renaissance water gardens, everyone chimes in. A Romanian caregiver says pesticides and fertilizers make things worse. A priest says he pays no attention to the arsenic warning. Still others downplay the situation; sotto voce they blame “that Merkel” and “those Germans.”

I visit the free municipal hot springs just outside of town where bathers slather soft white mud on their skin. We exfoliate while sharing stories of survival during Italy’s fiscal crackdown. I discover the ‘Romeo and Juliet Tax Evasion Scheme’ for seniors on a fixed income. It’s designed to avoid paying the dreaded IMU tax (property tax) and to take advantage of Italy’s no-tax law on a primary residence – the house you own and live in.

Hot springs, Viterbo

In a lively Roman accent a woman explains the plot: married seniors get divorced but secretly, like Romeo and Juliet, they are still together. “Let’s say you live in Rome and your ancestral home is in Viterbo,” she massages her elbow with the warm mud, “You get ‘divorced’. You declare the house in Rome as your primary residence and your ‘ex’ declares the house in Viterbo as his primary residence and you don’t pay the IMU tax on either property.” She rubs her other elbow. “And the combined pensions of two single seniors add up to more than the pensions of a married couple.”

I feel woozy. “Is this water contaminated,” I ask? “Don’t worry,” the signora says, “the city monitors the thermal pools and industries must conform to the by-laws for water use.”

Viterbo has an arsenic-free water dispenser outside the old city walls but I don’t have a car so I solve the problem the Italian way. I haul bottles of prosecco – and a six-pack of two-liter water bottles – from a nearby grocery store, up to my second-floor apartment. I make a note not to miss the Tuscia Operafestival’s Messa da Requiem, I reach into my hazelnut swag bag for a package of la bella, and I chew with my mouth open.

Viterbo’s Tourism site:
Summer Festivals in Viterbo and the surrounding Tuscia region:

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