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Mamma mia, let them go

ITALY. On the 12.50 fast train to Rome just leaving Florence, the balding businessman anxiously takes out his cellular phone. "Mamma," he shouts, "I'm about 20 minutes late."

An hour and two hold-ups later, he calls again. "Mamma, hold everything, we're 50 minutes late now." When the train edges into Roma Termini at about 3. 30, he whips out his phone for the final triumphant announcement.

"OK, mamma, you can put the pasta on now."

He, and thousands like him still tied to the apron-strings, can take heart. A judge has ruled that parents cannot force their offspring to leave home - even if they are adult and financially independent.

When Francesco Salzano, a petrol-pump attendant from Femara, arrived home one night he found he could not get his key into the lock of the front door. This was not because Francesco, 24, had been whooping it up in the bright lights of nearby Rimini, but because his mother had finally decided that she'd had enough of looking after him.

He never paid a penny towards his upkeep, said Signora Salzano. "He spent everything on cars and designer clothes. So I went and changed the locks. " Francesco found temporary refuge with his grandmother. But he eventually decided to take the matter to court - and won. Now his mother has to let him have a copy of the keys.

The case is emblematic since the average age of Italians leaving home has now risen to 30. Security, living rent-free, and home cooking are just too much to give up.

In recent years rising unemployment and more than a million university students taking up to 10 years to get a degree have helped to swell the ranks of the eternal bambini. As a result, Italians start their own families much later and the country now has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world. But with 16 per cent of the population now over the age of 65 - in Europe only Sweden has a larger proportion of senior citizens - someone should spare a thought for Signora Salzano's generation.

Now turning 50, many find their home life a thankless drudgery as they try to cater to the needs of infirm parents and provide free board and lodging to idle offspring.

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