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Dialect Proverbs
Peasant wisdom
The State should consider it too
Sparagna la farina,
quannu la mattra è china,
ca quannu lu funnu pare
nu te serve lu sparagnare

[Save flour / when the chest is full / for when you see the bottom / saving is no good at all]
(Salento)
by Alberto Sobrero
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Bruno Maggio. China

The subject is the basic principles of home economy. The scene is a traditional country house in the Mediterranean area. Its focal point is the piece of furniture that for centuries has been the symbol of the room where people cooked and ate: the madia (flour-chest). For the young – who no longer know it or only know its modern versions, very different from the original – it was a wooden chest, shaped like an inverted cut-off pyramid, often with drawers and doors and used both for kneading the dough and for storing flour, yeast and other foodstuffs. This chest was in a sense the heart of the house, because it was where small stores were kept for use in case of need.

This is exactly what our proverb deals with: the action of keeping reserves; it exhorts us to a kind of saving that is not sporadic but planned over time so that our stocks will last. Constant, planned saving is better than thoughtless waste, which soon makes us scrape the bottom of the barrel and straight afterwards suffer from hunger.

So far we seem to be looking at one of the many manifestations of ‘good sense’ attributed to peasants, careful hoarders of their hard-won savings: and what comes to mind is the stereotype of the city dweller, emancipated and shrewd, who derides the peasant because he is too prudent in managing his savings, because he won’t run the risk of investing to get a return, because he doesn’t have the courage to give up the habit of saving and get into debt to ‘get the economy moving’, to consume more, to live better.

But there are other proverbs, from the same area, which do not confirm this stereotype at all. One of them says “Ci stae a casa tira fiche te la capasa” (“He who stays at home takes figs from his store”). The area and the peasant culture are the same: it is a poor society that in order to be sure of surviving through dead seasons and miserable harvests, stockpiles dried figs, stacked in capase (large terracotta urns designed for the preservation of figs, frisedde, water, oil etc.). In a sense, this proverb is complementary to the previous one. In economic terms we can say that the first one promoted planned saving while this one advocates increased income: if you stay at home you have to dip into your reserves, which will soon be used up. Therefore – it says implicitly – go out, get busy, find some new income.

These are two sides of the same coin, the two legs supporting a healthy economy: managing savings and ensuring a solid income. These two phrases sound familiar to Italians: they remind us of the agonizing obsession of the last few years, the national deficit and the ratio of deficit to GDP.

And if you think about it, apart from the scale, there is actually not much difference between a State that spends merrily with no concern for the future (like Italy in the 1980s), and a peasant who makes full use of the stores in his chest, with no thought for tomorrow; between a State that, after frittering away the wealth and running up a mountain of debts, has the terrible problem of finding fresh income to re-launch the economy, and the peasant who, having already used up his little nest-egg, sees the bottom of his chest and realizes – alas, too late – that in the good season he should have limited his consumption and found new sources of food and money. In macro-economic terms, he should have lowered the ratio of deficit to GDP, reducing the former and increasing the latter.

Who knows if our economic decision-makers, besides meditating on Keynes, deficit spending and growth theory, had also meditated on the proverbs that guided our and their illiterate grandparents…

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