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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 November 2005, 11:52 GMT
Demise of Italy's runaway grandfather
By Mark Duff
BBC, Milan

When lonely Italian 80-year-old Giorgio Angelozzi put himself up for adoption in 2004, the world took pity. But shortly after Grandpa Giorgio settled in with his new family, he disappeared, leaving a trail of debts and broken hearts.

Giorgio Agnolozzi with the Riva family
The Riva family were touched by Giorgio's advert and took him in

The glint in his eye should have warned us.

Giorgio Angelozzi was sitting in the kitchen of his new home outside Milan.

It was autumn, a year ago. Giorgio was in the news and loving it.

He had taken out an advert in a national newspaper here, pleading for a family to adopt him as a grandad.

"I'm old, I'm lonely and I want to be someone's grandfather," it read.

He had a lot to offer, it seemed. As a retired classics teacher, he would love to help educate the children of anyone kind enough to welcome him into their family.

Across the world, columnists pointed to Giorgio as a symbol of Italy's problems: an ageing population, a decrepit pensions system, the vaunted Italian family imploding under the pressures of life in the 21st Century.

Cheeky sparkle

Giorgio was inundated with offers.

He took his pick, left his home and seven cats outside warm, southern Rome and moved to Spirano, in the Po Valley.

A very different Italy, this, from the one he was used to: a land of hardworking pragmatists, flat, and at this time of year cold, damp and even a touch depressing.

Map of Italy

But Giorgio seemed chipper enough when I found him, happily ensconced with his new family, the Rivas.

Marlena sounded like an angel, he said of his adoptive daughter.

"She reminds me of my late wife," he said.

He looked positively rakish in the sunglasses he wore. He said this was because of health problems.

But when he raised them briefly there was a cheeky sparkle for all to see.

Procession of journalists

His new family loved him.

There had been too much sadness in their lives: death and distance.

Marlena's family were far away in Poland and this meant that 17-year-old Mateusz had never known his real grandad.

He could sense that Giorgio was going to be so much more than just an in-house classics teacher. He had not yet fathomed his new grandfather's character, he said.

He was not alone.

I left Giorgio, Marlena and Mateusz to deal with the procession of journalists queuing up to see them.

Criminal record

Months passed and the seasons changed. Down in the Po Valley, the fog lifted, the mosquitoes returned... and Giorgio was back in the headlines, for all the wrong reasons.

He never had been a teacher and was simply a compulsive liar

He had disappeared, leaving a trail of debts and broken hearts.

He had run up medical bills worth thousands of euros at the Rivas' expense.

Then he resurfaced at an old people's home in Milan.

Before that, he had moved in with another family and tried to use their cheques to reimburse the Rivas.

But there was worse.

Police said he had a criminal record stretching back to the 1960s.

He never had been a teacher and was simply a compulsive liar.

If only they had asked his sister, who lost touch with him years ago. "He always was the black sheep of the family," she said.

Unanswered questions

There was no happy ending.

Giorgio Angelozzi was found slumped at the side of a road in another northern city, Vicenza.

It transpires that he probably had at least three - and possibly five - children of his own

He died earlier this month in the geriatric ward of a hospital there.

The family he had duped - the Rivas - want him given a proper grave. Whether they will pay for it is another matter.

When his dishonesty became public knowledge last summer, Giorgio's adoptive granddaughter, Dagmara, said he belonged in the last circle of Dante's Inferno - the place reserved for traitors.

In some ways though, it is hard not to feel that Giorgio himself might have been betrayed - not by the Rivas, who seem blameless in the whole sorry saga - but by his homeland.

Italians do admire a quality they call "furbismo", a cunning knack of getting your own way - however dishonestly - and getting away with it.

Giorgio was "furbo" to a fault. With his fake teacher's credentials - his rather pitiful attempt to fit the lie he had created for himself - he epitomised another all too common Italian trait: what they call "bella figura", or looking the part.

And then, finally what did happen to his own family?

It transpires that he probably had at least three - and possibly five - children of his own.

Where were they? How had he fallen out with them? And why did he yearn to be part of another family?

Maybe the passing of Giorgio really does reflect the collapse of that old stereotype, the extended, bustling, noisy, loving, Italian family that we see increasingly rarely today... at least in this cold, damp, materialistic part of the world.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 19 November, 2005 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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