If you want to be mayor in small-town Tuscany, you better stick to the status quo and, more importantly, you better not have a foreign-born wife.
It may not have been as closely covered as the 2016 U.S. presidential race, but Manciano’s recent mayoral elections were passionately contested. In the weeks leading up to the vote, it was all anyone in this southern Tuscan town could talk about. If, by anyone, you mean anyone who has an active interest in politics (which, if the polling numbers are anything to go by, was only 69 percent of eligible voters).
As a matter of full disclosure, this writer’s husband was in the running, and he lost, spectacularly. It sounds cruel, but you can’t mollycoddle someone who lost by more than 900 votes in an election where only 4,000 people voted.
The defeat, as they say, was written in the stars. A few days before the vote, I was taken aside by my mother-in-law and told that I should change before going to the supermarket. I looked down at my cotton shorts and singlet. In my native Australia, it is perfectly acceptable to do your shopping in slippers and sweatpants. I didn’t understand.
“Your shorts are too short, my dear,” admonished Mother-in-Law. “You really should be more considerate. You know how people are.”
I was stunned. Was she implying that people wouldn’t vote for my husband because I wore shorts in public? Yes, she was. But to imply that it was just the shorts would be to live in wilful denial. It’s hard to make inroads in a community when it is a commonly held belief that your husband did his town a disservice by marrying a foreigner. “What, weren’t the local girls good enough for you?”
While the opposition’s wife was personally calling everyone in the phonebook to vote for her husband, I was rubbing my foreignness into people’s faces with my dress sense and Facebook posts about sushi. Admonished, I made a real effort to be seen, shake hands, talk to people whose names I couldn’t remember and compliment all the babies I could find. It was so out of character that I took the subsequent triple-digit defeat as a personal slight. I had tried to be Manciano’s friend, however superficially, and she had rejected me. But I refuse to go quietly into the night.
I want to make one thing very clear: my husband was delusional from the start. Giulio has a very turbid political history that included single-handedly bringing down his own party and jumping ship from right to left-leaning politics in a thinly veiled power grab. People on both sides would have voted for a goat before they voted for him.
But the problem was far more ingrained than political betrayals and foreign wives. If you have never lived in a small town you cannot possibly understand the importance of the status quo. In the weeks leading up to the election, Giulio was a man crazed. He preached liberal and wide-spanning reforms, enthusiastically spammed Facebook Live with his endless town hall meetings, went on television to berate the opposition for not agreeing to a debate and garnered endorsements from every regional minister he could get his hands on. Imagine Matteo Renzi on speed. Shirt-sleeves rolled just so, hair perfectly coiffed, sock-less loafers and a speaking style that was part Baptist minister, part Mussolini returned among the living.
Bespectacled and balding, the opposition candidate didn’t need to tell you he was an accountant. It was implied. He shunned all media interviews and made only the rarest public appearance. Instead, he stopped people on the street and asked them if they had nothing better to do, would they perhaps consider voting for him? It didn’t matter if he knew them or not and he didn’t tell them why he would be a good mayor; he just asked politely. Asked politely and promised a whole lot of things he couldn’t possibly deliver.
As if to validate every stereotype you have ever heard about small-town politics, Manciano runs on the implicit understanding that if you want my vote, you better promise me something. It might be a job for my daughter, or the green light to build an extension, or the acknowledgement you will look the other way while I fill the public car park with the broken-down wrecks I’m using for spare parts.
Giulio understood this. He simply refused to play along—and Manciano refused to vote for him. They didn’t want a man who promised far-reaching changes that would in the distant future possibly, maybe, hopefully improve the lives of the collective. They wanted something for themselves now—and they wanted the right to complain when the mayor inevitably failed to deliver on the things he had whispered across dining room tables and behind cupped hands in public piazzas.
Giulio deserves no applause for taking the high road. He was the foreign missionary arriving in Africa and forcing the locals to do what he believed was more civilised. Except in this case, it was a local acting with foreign delusions. What can I say? That’s what you get for marrying a foreigner.