Bongiorno from Italia
As we are about to leave Italia for the last time on this journey, it’s a good time to compose the 1st chapter of the new book on the Italians.
We have both enjoyed Italia as much as we anticipated, and for predictable reasons. Possibly the most striking thing about Italia is the people. Generalisations are unfair and unreliable guides, but it’s possible to generalise about the Italians – even on the limited exposure on this trip – and (I hope) do the nation justice.
Guiseppe Garibaldi is a national hero here: warmly regarded and affectionately remembered by most. He is commemorated in almost all urban settlements with suburbs, piazzas and streets named after him. Also, many towns boast lifesize statues of him dressed in long cape, bearing statesmanlike posture.
The reverence for Garibaldi extends beyond the statuary and place names but this circumstance begets a conundrum of sorts. It seems odd to find commemorative buildings and statues of such a hero defaced by graffiti as we have seen over and over again. Graffiti is rife in most parts of Italy, especially the eternal city. It presents a blight on an otherwise grand landscape. In Rome, a group of volunteers have instituted a graffiti removal campaign. The local media report the fact that it is not surprising to find that, in the first instance, volunteers are forced to take up the cudgels where their civic leaders have failed, and in the second instance that the instigator is a foreigner now resident in Rome.
design over efficiency
The Italian demeanour is probably best characterised by attention to design rather than efficiency and a calm determination to live life to the fullest. They are typically friendly and accommodating of tourists in a much more amicable way than in, say, neighbouring France. The populace here appears to be possessed of their own brand of scepticism and diffidence and refreshingly lacking in pretence and malice. They certainly know how to enjoy life and are – for the most part – manifestly enjoying their time on earth.
We were warned in advance by acquaintances about the drivers on Italian roads and their descriptions were accurate. The drivers seem to take only passing notice of the official road rules but they were usually quite safe. It does seem a bit difficult to reconcile the overarching laissez-faire attitude to time and life with the apparent impatience on the roads. One doesn’t gel with the other.
If walking teaches us most about a city, tuning into the radio allows us to get a feel for a people. Italian radio offered many options including Radio Bruno, Radio Maria and even Radio Radicale. I was personally disappointed that the musica locale was interspersed with (too many) English songs. We heard about someone wanting “a brick house in Memphis” and someone else “sittin’ here doin’ nothin'” along with other questionable imports. It was great to hear Italian songs when they were played. It is probably in song that the Spaniards and Italians best enjoy their language.
The Italians love their food and take a lot of time contemplating its preparation. This doesn’t mean they over-eat but it forms a major part of their existence. When family is paramount, food is important. It was a highlight of our trip to immerse ourselves in this subculture.
Perhaps the best aspect of this – for me – was the observance of the fact that they don’t practise useless anachronistic etiquette. This means they don’t stand on ceremony by waiting patiently in line, they don’t wait for others to be served before starting and they don’t insist on particular holds of cutlery. The food is obviously more important than the method by which it is consumed. This never translates to gluttony or slovenly rudeness at all. It is no surprise to learn about the Slow Food movement gaining a strong foothold here (celebrates 25 years this year). This is perfectly consistent with everything else culinary here.
Perhaps the gondolieri of Venice provide the best exemplification of the Italian spirit. The gondolas were once used as transport for the aristocratic families so the gondolieri were an underclass.
Today the only clients are tourists and the gondolieri exhibit a camaraderie among each other which is very refreshing. They operate in close quarters and one man’s fare is another’s lost opportunity but there is absolutely no animosity between them and no acrimony when one tourist chooses one over another. They are all independent operators and all take great pride in the maintenance and presentation of their craft. The gondolieri need to stand out from the throngs and – even though not in collaboration – they adopt similar clothing so that they are identifiable. This amounts to a near-uniform which is very neat and peculiar to them.
We enjoyed learning some of the basics of the language and putting it into practice. I especially enjoyed being referred to as “Gentile client” every time I visited an Automatic Teller Machine. The mode of address for women is a bit tricky. How does one know intuitively the difference between a Senora and a Senorita? Couldn’t it be a bit embarrassing if one got it wrong? Like a lot of other languages, they have some very useful expressions which we could use in English eg. ‘prego‘ (seems to mean something like “OK, are we ready?”).
We have loved the time in Italia. This is principally because of the Italians! Typically they bear themselves with an air suggesting they know they are on a good wicket, but that also they are willing to share in their good fortune, at least temporarily. We thank them for their hospitality.
Grigorio da Ravenna