By COLLEEN BARRY
VICENZA, Italy (AP) â¿¿ Self-made Italians like Amedeo Tartarini never expected to need help.
Tartarini's goldsmith business thrived for decades in Italy's postwar boom. He was one of legions of small businessmen who made Italy an industrial power. With a house, money in the bank and a teeming workshop, the affable artisan never questioned his financial security â¿¿ until it was too late.
As Italy's financial crisis deepened, Tartarini ignored signs his business was failing, but persevered in the belief that skill would outshine cheaper competition from China. Hard work and quality, he was convinced, would protect him from the forces of globalization. They did not."I always trusted it wouldn't end this way for me," Tartarini said, his eyes darkened with regret. "I had to sell all I had to continue, hoping to make it." In many rich countries, a person like Tartarini, who has lost his home, his business and his life's savings, might have ended up on the street. Instead, he has managed to keep afloat thanks to friends and community spirit. Italy's extraordinary social safety nets, rooted in centuries of tradition, have helped soften the blow for millions of Italians â¿¿ and, so far at least, insulated the nation from the scenes of explosive unrest that have unfolded in other crisis-hit southern European countries. Italy heads into general elections this weekend that promise to determine what shape these crisis buffers will take in the future. Institutions like family, hometown loyalty and church activism have combined with a generous welfare state to maintain social peace, despite escalating episodes of individual financial collapse. Meanwhile, Italians' own obsession with keeping up appearances at all costs â¿¿ a cultural trait known as "la bella figura," or cutting a fine figure â¿¿ has made them allergic to public displays of misery, while masking the true extent of national hardship.