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New-found sense of national pride fuels Italians' optimism

For the first time in his life, Andrea Purgatoria plans to buy a Fiat. ``I used to think French cars were stylish, German cars efficient, and Italian cars cheap,'' says Mr. Purgatoria, the 34-year old Rome city editor of Italy's largest daily, Corriere della Serra. ``Now Fiat makes the best product.''

Behind Purgatoria's newfound car preference is a dramatic national comeback. Only 10 years ago, Italy was afflicted with a host of problems: terrorism, labor unrest, inefficiency. Although these issues have not entirely disappeared, today the streets and factories are relatively calm, and pride has replaced self-doubt. In a country unified only a little more than a century ago and traditonally wracked by regionalism, Italians are discovering a positive, new nationalism.

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``We used to say we were Milanese, Roman, or Neapolitan,'' says Ernesto Galli Della Loggia, a history professor at the University of Perugia. ``We finally know what it is to be Italian.''

But one major flaw blots this optimism: political immaturity. With national elections scheduled for Sunday, Italy's politicians are engaged in what many Italians see as petty arguments. The haggling is expected to continue after the vote, resulting in a weak and short-lived coalition government, Italy's 45th since the war. But even amid this politicking, Prof. Della Loggia sees signs of new pride.

``Look at the campaign posters,'' he says. ``For the first time, they all feature the word `Italy,' and the red, white, and green of the Italian flag.''

This new patriotism holds important implications for Italy's place in the world - and its close relations with the United States. In the past, the country was a passive, if faithful, friend. Now it could become more forceful. Italy joined the US in dispatching peacekeeping troops to Lebanon after the Israeli invasion in 1982. And while many allies remain uneasy about what to do with American nuclear missiles, Italy has deployed them with relative ease and finds few difficulties now in accepting an arms control agreement.

``Italy has become our crucial ally in the Mediterranean,'' concludes an American diplomat in Rome, ticking off the names of important American bases in the country.

Exactly what brought about this remarkable change in stature and behavior is difficult to fathom, but if forced to choose, many Italians point to a change in values. Radical ideology - the stuff that public debate in Italy long has been made of - has been discredited by years of Red Brigade terrorism. A potent, popular capitalism has filled the void.

Over the last half-dozen years, the economy has grown rapidly and, even though there are signs that the expansion may have peaked, the prosperity has created a rising new middle class. Today's well-off Italians include so many taxi drivers, restaurant owners, artisans, small businessmen and other categories of self-employed people that sociologists speak of a new ``Italian dream'' - a sort of reincarnation of the ``American dream.''

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Industrialists have become the nation's superstars and role models. Fiat's Giovanni Agnelli, Olivetti's Carlo de Benedetti, and Feruzzi's Raul Gardini are as well known as the best soccer players and as glamorous as the big film stars.

``The defeat of terrorism and of Marxism eliminated a heavy chain [binding] this country,'' says Francesco Alberoni, a leading social commentator. ``It opened the door to new entrepreneurs, new ideas.''

In one field after another, Italian style is taking over Europe. Take television. As on the rest of the continent, television here long consisted of two boring state-run stations. When Rome authorized local private television, real estate dealer Silvio Berlusconi saw an opportunity. He created a new national private network with half as many employees as the state channels - and twice as much advertising.

Today, Italian viewers can choose from 19 channels. There are taped American basketball games, movies in their original language, and reams of sitcoms, variety shows, and sports events.

``The French called us `Spaghetti TV,''' laughs Alberto Scandolara, a director of Fininvest Comunicazioni. ``But Europe wants commercial television - and we're going to give it to them.''

Such achievements have not touched all Italians equally. In some ways, the new Italian dream is no more realistic for Italy than it was for the US. As Burlusconi and other Italians soar into the post-industrial world, other parts of Italy are falling back into the third world. Unemployment in the Mezzorgiornio, the vast depressed area south of Rome, is running at more than double that the rest of the country. In the absence of long-lived governments, public services throughout the country are lacking.

Back at his office at Corriere della Serra, Fiat lover Purgatoria is unfazed. He looks at his generation and is confident that Italy can overcome its problems.

``We're not jealous of anyone,'' he says, ``not even you Americans.''

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