The American lady had lived for years in a renovated farmhouse in Tuscany. Now she was packing and telling the farmer that with the terrorism and violence she was afraid to be caught in a country about to collapse.
''Don't worry, signora,'' the farmer assured her. ''It has been like this for the past 2,000 years and the country hasn't collapsed yet.''
The farmer may have exaggerated a bit, but not much. The Italian press is filled with stories of violence from the left and the right, with murder, kidnappings, and other violent crimes. One might easily think it was the beginning of the end.
And the accompanying breakdown in public services does nothing to dispel that feeling. You can wait half an hour for a bus only to be told that bus drivers are on strike. If you actually manage to get into a bus you will hear people complain about the mail service, the telephone, the mayor, high taxes, too many abortions, not enough religion, too many priests.
If a visitor asks, ''Why don't you do something about this besides complaining?'' Italians look at him as if he's crazy. ''The government, my dear sir, the government should act,'' they respond.
But apart from the incessant grumbling, life goes on as if in the most peaceful of worlds.
Perhaps the nation doesn't collapse because it is really a number of Italys in one, living side by side. If one breaks down the others still function. While the various Italys at the top and bottom of the system have prevented the Italian nation from collapsing, this sort of survival does not bring progress.
There are so many cars in Rome that to find a parking space anywhere in the center of town is hopeless. I once suggested to a friend that we drive from Piazza Barberini to visit a nearby museum; unfortunately we were forced to continue on for several miles looking for a parking spot. Finally we parked on the outskirts of the city and came back by subway.
After 1 p.m. in Rome it is quite difficult to get into any but the most expensive restaurants. People are well dressed and there are few outward signs of poverty. One reason for the apparent propserity is that the ministries close at 2 p.m. so civil servants are able to take part-time jobs. Often they are paid under the counter.
A trip from Rome to Venice through the enchanting valleys and hills of Umbria , Tuscany, Emilia, and the Venetia countryside creates a picture of an Italy living at its traditional pace. In the smaller centers people take a passionate interest in local affairs and proportionately less in what the government does or fails to do.
In other regions, the picture changes dramatically. The south is still desperately poor. Ask an official what can be done about it and he will raise his arms in a gesture of desperate impotence. ''Start by changing people's attitudes,'' he will say. ''But it will take centuries.''
Southerners, sometimes entire villages, with their mayors and priests - migrate to the industrial cities of the north. Tens of thousands have done this. Because there is so little housing many are forced to live in shantytowns rife with crime and prostitution.
But the chasm between north and south is mostly cultural. Take the case of the Milanese student who fell in love with a girl from Calabria in the country's deep south.
''I would like to court her,'' the student confided to a friend. ''But because of her origins I think I better not.'' Why not? Because, he said, ''With a Milanese girl, if anything happened we would sit down and discuss what to do. With a girl from Calabria, I would risk getting a knife in the back from one of her relatives.''
One of the Italys that keeps the others afloat is economic: The lira remains relatively strong thanks to foreign exchange from tourism and exports. The Bank of Italy (perhaps one of the few honest and well-run institutions left) watches over all of this. There is no objective reason why Italy should not be prosperous, but nearly half the industries are state-owned or controlled, which has led to a low level of efficiency. Yet there are some industries that are efficient. They have few strikes and little absenteeism. Usually these industries try very hard to prevent the state from interfering. Since the mail sometimes takes a month to be delivered, a number of these industries have their own postal services.
There are also ''underground'' businesses that operate without government regulation. Several million people - some sources say as many as 6 million workers - are employed by tens of thousands of underground businesses. Most of these companies are arts-oriented. Their work is illegal, but owners and employees see no other way to survive.
Traditional industries and underground businesses are only two Italys. But the multiplicity of Italys is most evident in politics. Italians have not changed their support much for the main political alignments in the past 30 years. The Christian Democratic Party (CDP) has held power without interruption during this period, even amid allegations that it has become corrupt.
It took a big scandal for the CDP even to consider yielding the premiership to a representative of the small but respected Republican Party. The parties seem to arrange things among themselves quietly by ''combinazioni'' (intrigues). There is no tradition of public service as there is in other European countries. Instead, political power is used to further personal aims. A member of Parliament, even if elected for a single term of the legislature, gets a pension for life.
Until about a century ago, Italy was ruled by foreigners: Austrian princes in the north, popes in the center, Spaniards in the south. Government at that time meant aliens in power. So those who opposed Italy's governments were usually conspirators. To some degree this is still true. The idea seems to be to overthrow government, not change it by democratic means. For example, the Red Brigades on the left and the neo-Fascists on the right have no other aim.
The most famous recent plot against the government is the case of ''Propaganda 2'' (P2), a pseudo-Masonic organization unknown up to a short time ago. With the help of generals, ministers, heads of intelligence, members of parliament, bankers, industrialists, and other influential persons, a coup d'etat was planned. The plot was uncovered in time.
The family is the strongest link among these Italys. It is the unit that has survived all upheavals. It is a core around which resistence can be organized. For many of P2, that organization represented a family for mutual protection and advancement.
The Red Brigades and the other extremist groups also rely on strong family ties. Were it otherwise, they could neither operate nor survive. The Sicilian Mafia, for example, was originally a militia to protect the people from foreign usurpers. It still represents a group of families headed by a ''capo'' (boss) to whom all members owe allegiance and obedience.
The family concept can also be seen in political parties. In Italy, communism represents not only a philosophy and political activity but also a family connection. The Communist Party controls a number of regions and cities where it knows how to take care of its own. It represents a huge bureaucracy that gives work to thousands of people. That, more than ideology, explains its political stability.
The same is true - and to a greater degree - of the - Christian Democrats. The party is made up of tightly knit political families. They split frequently, but close ranks when their power is threatened. Having become institutions, these families keep up a lively dialogue. A Christian Democratic and a Communist deputy will have lunch together to discuss a project. Such a thing is hardly imaginable in another European country.
A good many Italians yearn for a change though they know it is unlikely. Ask a Rome taxi driver what he thinks should be done and he will probably tell you that Italy needs another Mussolini to straighten things out. Ask which party he voted for and he will usually answer the Christian Democrats or the Communists. He complains but also knows that he is a prisoner of the system.
In Venice a gondolier told me he was a Communist. Why? ''Because we all are. It has been like that since the end of the war.'' Had the Roman Catholics gotten to them first, they would be Christian Democrats.
In theory, all Communists are automatically excommunicated by the Catholic Church, but thanks to all sorts of exceptions they manage to marry in the Catholic Church and have their children baptized. Way back in 1947, when the church first threatened to excommunicate Communists, a traditional religious ceremony was almost called off in a village not far from Rome because the youths who carried an enormous statue of a saint in the procession were Communists. The youths could not have been replaced. The local priest had no intention of forbidding the ceremony at the risk of antagonizing the whole village. So he solved the problem by suspending their excommunication for 24 hours. Whatever happens in Italy, some sort of ''combinazione'' will save the day.
The fundamental question is how long it will take before the many Italys merge into one. There are forces pulling in that direction, but it seems there will be no success for some time.