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Selections from the Book 'The Italian Mind'

Bulgaria-Italy Survey » SOCIETY | Author: Beppe Severgnini |June 4, 2011, Saturday // 07:27| Views: | Comments: 0
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Bulgaria: Selections from the Book 'The Italian Mind' Photo from latestadegliitaliani.it

Selections in English from the book "The Italian Mind" by Italian journalist Beppe Severgnini – as published by Broadway Books NY - Translation by Giles Watson. The selections have been provided by the Italian Embassy in Bulgaria.

 

P. 4 – 5

The airport, where we discover

that Italians prefer exceptions to rules

Being Italian is a full-time job. We never forget who we are, and we have fun confusing anyone who is looking on.

Don't trust the quick smiles, bright eyes, and elegance of many Italians. Be wary of everyone's poise. Italy is sexy. It offers instant attention and solace. But don't take Italy at face value. Or rather, take it at face value if you want to, but don't complain later.

One American traveler wrote that "Italy is the land of human nature." If this is true – and it certainly sounds convincing – exploring Italy is an adventure. You're going to need a map.

So you'll be staying for ten days? Here's the deal: we'll take a look at three locations on each day of your trip. They'll be classics, the sort of places that get talked about a lot, perhaps because they are so little known. We'll start with an airport, since we're here. Then I'll try to explain the rules of the road, the anarchy of the office, why people talk on trains, and the theatrical nature of hotel life. We'll sit in judgment at a restaurant and feel the sensory reassurance of a church. We'll visit Italy's televisual zoo and appreciate how important the beach is. We'll experience the solitude of the soccer stadium, and realize how crowded the bedroom feels. We'll note the vertical fixations of the apartment building, and the transverse democracy of the living room, or rather the eat-in kitchen.

Ten days, thirty places. We've got to start somewhere if we want to find our way into the Italian mind.

***

First of all, let's get one thing straight. Your Italy and our Italia are not the same thing. Italy is a soft drug peddled in predictable packages, such as hills in the sunset, olive groves, lemon trees, white wine, and raven-haired girls. Italia, on the other hand, is a maze. It's alluring, but complicated. In Italia, you can go round and round in circles for years. Which of course is great fun.

As they struggle to find a way out, many newcomers fall back on the views of past visitors. People like Goethe, Stendhal, Byron, and Twain always had an opinion about Italians, and couldn't wait to get home and write it down. Those authors are still quoted today, as if nothing had changed. This is not true. Some things have changed in our Italy. The problem is finding out what.

Almost all modern accounts of the country fall into one of two categories: chronicles of a love affair, or diaries of a disappointment. The former have an inferiority complex toward Italian home life, and usually feature one chapter on the importance of the family, and another on the excellence of Italian cooking. The diaries take a supercilious attitude toward Italian public life. Inevitably, there is censure of Italian corruption, and a section on the Mafia.

By and large, the chronicles of love affairs are penned by American women, who display love without interest in their descriptions of a seasonal Eden, where the weather is good, and the locals are charming. The diaries of disappointment tend to be produced by British men, who show interest without love. They describe a disturbing country populated by unreliable individuals and governed by a public administration from hell.

Yet Italy is far from hellish. It's got too much style. Neither is it heaven, of course, because it's too unruly. Let's just say that Italy is an offbeat purgatory, full of proud, tormented souls each of whom is convinced he or she has a hotline to the boss. It's the kind of place that can have you fuming and then purring in the space of a hundred meters, or the course of ten minutes. Italy is the only workshop in the world that can turn out both Botticellis and Berlusconis. People who live in Italy say they want to get out, but those who do escape all want to come back.

As you will understand, this is not the sort of country that is easy to explain. Particularly when you pack a few fantasies in your baggage, and customs lets them through.

p. 17 – 19

Day Two

 

In Milan

 

The restaurant,

one way of sitting in judgment

Let's see now: unaffectedness, self-indulgence, habit, relief, confidence, imagination, recollections, curiosity, lashings of intuition, a pinch of tradition, family, civic, and regional pride, diffidence, conformism, intransigence, realism, ostentation, amusement, and surprising serenity. These are the emotions Italians experience as they prepare to sit at a restaurant table. You should try to experience them, instead of just ordering linguini primavera.

In short, we are consummate professionals of culinary consumption. No one else in Europe eats like us. The French know what they are talking about, but they're sliding into affectation. They tend to be fussy, and overdo the sauces. France offers late-empire cooking, as charming as end-of-summer roses. Italy still has republican vigor grafted onto tradition. For centuries, Italians have sought, and usually found, consolation at table. We don't think that a sauce is tasty, or that an olive oil is good. We know it is. We may lie, of course, out of politeness or calculation. But that, too, is a touch of artistry, if you think about it.

Note that I'm talking about all Italians, not just a hard core of gastronomes. There is a spontaneous gustatory proficiency that cuts across social classes, age groups, income brackets, education, and geographical boundaries. Confident food-related judgment derives from our unaffected approach to the table. If there are any tense faces in this restaurant, it's only because they're worried about the check. But I repeat, people know what to choose and what to avoid. If they choose the wrong starter, it's because they want to be able to complain later. In its own way that, too, is a touch of sophistication.

Statistics confirm this gastronomic pride, which derives more from culinary awareness than chauvinism. According to a British survey, ninety Italians out of a hundred prefer Italian cooking to other cuisines. No other digestive tracts in Europe are as patriotic. Italian cooking also seems to be the favorite among non-Italians. Some 42 percent of interviewees put la cucina italiana in first place, followed by Chinese cooking and French cuisine. Third place might not be good enough for our neighbors over the Alps, but they should take it in a sporting spirit. Losing to the champions is no disgrace.

Italians have the same relationship with food that some Amazonian peoples have with the clouds in the sky – one glance and we know what to expect. Naturally, it has taken time to reach this level. We have endured long intervals of poverty-driven culinary insufficiency. About 1760, the Scottish novelist, Tobias G. Smollett, wrote, "The house was dismal and dirty beyond all description; the bed-cloaths filthy enough to turn the stomach of a muleteer; and the victuals cooked in such a manner, that even a Hottentot could not have beheld them without loathing." Then matters improved, eventually achieving excellence.

The roots of our current international success go back to the late nineteenth century, an age of emigration. In their new countries of residence, Italians opened inns and eateries, offering other Italians the only kind of cooking they knew, the home variety. It was a stroke of genius. The home was a laboratory that had been experimenting for centuries, a place where families blended simplicity with imagination and common sense. Italian cooking during the Renaissance was excellent, but its delights were accessible only to the upper classes. The new Italian cooking that would conquer the world was honest, practical, and working-class. In fact, it was further proof that we Italians are good when we don't try to complicate things.

Of course, Italy too is changing, and picking up bad habits. People buy The Silver Spoon, or get it as a wedding present, and then leave it on a shelf to gather dust. They'd be better advised to flick through it occasionally, the way Americans do nowadays with the heart-tugging zeal of the recently converted. We eat too much, too often. A century ago, children were toothpick-thin. Seventy years ago, they were slim, and forty years ago they looked well-nourished. Today, they are overweight. We are increasingly tolerant of precooked and frozen meals. We still haven't descended to American TV dinners, the graveyard of family conversation, but the TV set is on, and the microwave is waiting. Actually, the two electrical appliances look quite similar. And I'm afraid they'll get on increasingly well together in Italy, as elsewhere.

If we want to save the Italian way of eating, we have to focus on pride and distrust, qualities we have in abundance. Some foreign habits have never convinced, nor will they ever.

Pellegrino Artusi wrote in La scienza in cucina e l'arte di mangiare bene (Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well), the condensed wisdom of Italy on the subject:

"On waking in the morning, consider what is most suitable for you stomach. If you feel that it is not entirely free, restrict yourself to a cup of black coffee." It was a prophetic condemnation of the English-speaking world's breakfast, which is suitable for facing moors, commutes, or hesitant glances, but not for a June morning in Italy.

p. 21 – 22

Someone once wrote that the digestive tract is a metaphysical entity in Italy, like lawns in England. This is true, but our obsession is more serious. The English don't eat their lawns. We talk about food before we eat it, while we're eating it, and after we've eaten it. Digestive discussion reassures the stomach, and prepares the mind. For another meal, and another discussion.

Gastronomy has become a passion that spills over into obsession. Every year, we spend fifty billion euros on eating out. The total includes unremarkable meals, but also some remarkable self-indulgences, a few confirmations, and one or two surprises. Here in Milan, a restaurant meal costs more than in Paris. Yet we continue to book, eat, drink, and pay up. Only to glance at the check afterwards, and protest.

We are the victims of our own good habits. Eating well in Italy is like hunting in a game reserve – it's hard to go wrong – but we also fall for the marketing. Today, restaurants always offer something else in addition to food, and charge for it. It might be visibility, confidentiality, innovation, tradition, aesthetics, nostalgia, provocation, or reassurance.

Recently, all things organic, natural, and rustic have been selling. Some adjectives work like perception-enhancing drugs. We started to eat green salad again when they gave it names like rucola, radicchio, trevisana, chioggia, soncino, belga, and rughetta. Olive oil has won its battle with butter, which has retired hurt. Even here, a certain minimalism endures. It is closely related to nouvelle cuisine, which satisfies the brain but not the stomach, and upsets the old-school Italian in all of us.

Many young chefs have realized this. They take traditional recipes, and work on them. Almost invariably, the trick is to dress substantial ideas in light clothing. It is a worthy enterprise, for cooking is like a local dialect: use it or lose it. The risk is gastronomic snobbery. Fifty years ago, French philosopher Roland Barthes talked about the peasant meal as a rural fantasy of bored city-dwellers. We're in no hurry, but we're getting there.

This is clear from the fashion for florid menus. The simplest dishes have acquired incomprehensible names. Many restaurateurs cannot believe that all those words in the dictionary are free, so they go over the top. Do you remember the place on the Navigli yesterday? You chose creamed vegetables, but the menu said vellutata di verdure di stagione al profumo di finocchietto selvatico, servita coi crostini e olio extravergine d'oliva d'Abruzzo (velout? of seasonal vegetables fragranced with wild fennel, served with croutons, and drizzled with extra virgin Abruzzan olive oil), which is one way of charging ten euros for it. And what about formaggio caprino avvolto nel controfiletto di bue, passato in padella, servito con le cipolle rosse di Tropea brasate (goat's milk cheese rolled in sirloin of beef, pan-browned and served with braised red Tropea onions)? It was meat, cheese, and soaring violins.

Nowadays, an Italian menu is a short story, a certificate of origin, and a declaration of intent. Every so often, I read the translation to get an idea of what will be on the plate. "Shrimps and beans roll" may be ungrammatical, but it's clearer than fagottino croccante alla maniera dello chef con gamberi e fagiolini (crispy pastry ? la mani?re du chef with shrimps and green beans). "Sea trout and sea bass" is more honest than treccia di trota salmonata e branzino con timballo al cumino (plait of salmon trout and sea bass with cumin-perfumed timbale).

p. 23 – 25

There is much talk of food and wine, but not enough about their context. An Italian restaurant includes various rituals that excite and perturb. Take the cover charge. I can see from your expression that you don't see the reason for the exotic little starter on the check. But you should thank us.

The 2005 Zingarelli Italian dictionary defines coperto as "From the French couvert, from the Latin coopertu(m): coperto, in the sense of what covers the table." The entry continues "The set of plates, cutlery, glassware, and the like required for one person at table." Hence "Place at table." And so, "Fixed charge paid in a restaurant for each place at table." The dictionary doesn't tell us why, though. One definition of the adjectival use of coperto throws light on this minor mystery of the catering world. "Coperto: ambiguous, hidden, dissimulated. And he, who understood my covert speech (Dante, Inferno, IV, 51; translated by H. W. Longfellow). In short, they charge us and don't tell us why.

We Italians have stopped worrying about it. We look on the coperto as a traditional form of taxation, as inevitable as a television license, and as illogical as many other things in Italy. Non-Italians get hot under the collar. The coperto looks like a subterfuge, or a veiled threat, especially when it is associated with bread: Pane e coperto ? 1.50. But then there are America's punitive tips, a form of mandatory generosity that can be as much as 20 percent of the check. "Tipping" is an oxymoron that the United States has absorbed, but which troubles the sleep of visiting Europeans.

Still, I won't deny that the coperto is insidious. It appears and disappears like an underground karst river. Now you see it, now you don't. Some restaurants add the coperto to the service charge. Some waive it for groups, but insist for couples. It's always there on the official receipt, provided there is an official receipt, which is not always the case. That's another thing that disturbs non-Italians. They can't understand why the restaurateur acts as if he is doing you a favor when he scribbles what you owe on a piece of paper. It's obvious that you're the one doing the favor. The restaurateur can keep the money off the books and save 40 percent in taxes.

Ask the restaurant owner, next time. He (or she) will look at you like an offended artist. "What? You have enjoyed the delights of my table, and you're worrying about fiscal details? All right, have a limoncello on the house..." Because there's always limoncello. It's our peace pipe, after a battle which the restaurateur always wins.

***

Restaurant restrooms are mysterious. The first problem is locating them. The sign that says Toilette is the start of a treasure hunt. The object of your desires will be next to two identical doors marked Privato, the emergency exit, and the door to the kitchen. One particularly Milanese variation is the spiral staircase that takes you down to the basement. Weaving your way past crates of mineral water, discarded dishwashers, and surprised kitchen staff, you finally come to the restroom.

Next, you have to find the light switch, because sunlight has yet to reach that corner of the planet. Logically, the switch should be on your right as you go in. It never is. The switch is camouflaged. If the walls are white, the light switch will be white. If the walls are off-white, the switch will be the same shade. Sometimes, the light is operated by an electric eye, and impending micturition is greeted by a neon glare, as if you were a burglar caught red-handed.

What about flushing? Well, I've counted eighteen different flushing actions, most of them camouflaged, ranging from side levers, vertical levers, wall-mounted buttons, and pedals to a cord hanging from the ceiling. For some time now, the fashion has been for a rubber hemisphere on the floor that you press with your foot. Only rarely does it work first time. Generally, you have to pump away as if you were inflating a beach mattress. So if you hear a rhythmic panting sound from behind a closed door, don't worry. It's not furtive sex, just foreplay to flushing.

The last hurdle is the washbasin. Restroom taps are a sort of subtle joke. The hot water works, but the cold doesn't, or vice versa. Here, too, you're supposed to locate and lift levers, turn little wheels, depress pedals, or trigger photocells. The most sadistic models only work if you keep a button pressed. This requires three hands, a powerful nose, or lightning-swift execution (press button, insert hands in stream of water, wash, and rinse in under four seconds) Frequently, of course, there are no paper towels left, the roller towel won't roll, or there is only machine with a jet of warm air that barely dries the hairs on your wrist.

There you have Italian restrooms. Have a good trip into the bowels of catering. Come back soon, if you can.

p. 25 – 28

The store,

the field of lost battles

When non-Italians talk about Italy, exaggeration is the rule. You swing straight from enthusiasm to desperation, with no restorative amazement breaks. Take Samuel Johnson, for example. He said, "A man who has not been in Italy, is always conscious of an inferiority." This is flattering, but frankly excessive. At worst, such a man wouldn't be able to find Pesaro on a map. A more interesting, if somewhat Tarantinoesque, comment comes from the poet Robert Browning, "Open my heart and you will see / Graved inside of it, 'Italy.'" In a sense, Browning foresaw the success of our national brand.

If you look at the clothes stores, you'll notice they are selling on the strength of the Made in Italy label, for now. But Italians never cease to amaze. Apparently, some Italian manufacturers are lobbying the European Union in Brussels for the introduction of a Made in the E.U. brand that will replace Made in Italy. But what will shoppers in Tokyo say when they buy an Armani jacket and see Made in the E.U. on the label? Probably the Japanese equivalent of "Oh, well," followed by a deep sigh. How will wealthy Americans react when they discover that both Prada and Vuitton bags are made in the same geographical area? With consternation. The Chinese will be happy, though. They'll be able to use the same label for all their imitations of Italian, French, and British products. Think of the economies of scale.

So why won't Made in the E.U. work? Well, a label is a guarantee, but it's also fantasy, reassurance, and evocation. The new proposal supplies none of the above. There are no guarantees, since the whisky could come from Florence, and the leather belt might be from Edinburgh. Consumers prefer things the other way round. The name evokes nothing either, because unlike the U.S.A., the E.U. for now is just an abbreviation. When Bruce Springsteen sings "Born in the U.S.A.," America's eyes mist over. If Paul McCartney were to croon "Born in the E.U.," it just wouldn't be the same. Yet Freehold, New Jersey, isn't any more exciting than Liverpool, England.

Some may object that strength lies in unity. We've standardized passports and the currency, so why not labels? There's an easy answer. In the bank, or at the Mexican, or Mauritanian, or Malaysian, or Moldovan, border, the euro and the maroon E.U. passport give us more protection than their national equivalents (the same would of course be true of a single European army, so it's hard to see what we're waiting for). But in trade, Europe's strong suit is diversity. An Audi evokes Germany, Chablis has the savor of France, and top-quality leather is redolent of Italy, although some people can't wait to make them all in Hong Kong.

***

But back to the store. To start with, no one will pester you. No one will coddle or make compliments. The self-serving blandishment that plays such a large part in other Italian activities is oddly absent in Milan's most fashionable boutiques. City-center storekeepers seem to bear no relation whatever to the hotel porters you met, and make you wish they did.

Note the hospital-ward ambience of some of the shop interiors. There is an aura of metal, glaring white lights, and polished counters. The clothes are lined up like surgical instruments. Consider the empty spaces, the milky ceilings, the objects hanging on steel pegs. Observe the knots of diminutive, black-garbed sales assistants who look more Japanese than the Japanese they are serving. I don't know how long this will last, but probably not very long.

Italy insists on being original, and if possible entertaining, even when it decides to be uncomplicated. The FIAT Cinquecento car and the Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter had those characteristics, like some models of Tod's shoes or Dolce & Gabbana's early fashion collections. But these shops are as dull as the clothes they are trying to sell. When Milan tries to be New York, that's when the trouble starts.

What about the prices? Well, it's the same story as the restaurants. When the euro was introduced, lots of traders applied conversion rates that ranged from the imaginative to the scandalous. It may have been an attempt to differentiate local goods from the flood of imports from the East. But it did nothing for sales figures.

Not even the sign that says Saldi (Sale) helps very much. An Italian sale is an abstract concept. It may be a real discount, or simply a turn of phrase. There is nothing automatic about price reductions. They are applied to the individual, and some people even feel offended when they are offered. On the outskirts of empire, paying full price can still be a status symbol.

But anyone from America, where shopping is a sporting discipline, and discounts are rigorously scientific (either there is a discount or there isn't), fails to understand, and declines to purchase. No problem, say the little nurses in black. There are always the Russians. Just double check that their credit cards haven't expired.

***

There's another little difficulty, which is finding your way through the designer labels, brands, and fashions. The last time I counted, there were 206 stylists in Milan, each one burning with an inordinata praesumptio alios superandi (an "inordinate presumption of superiority over others"), as Thomas Aquinas used to say. Tom was a philosopher and a saint, perhaps because he didn't drop in on Via Montenapoleone at cocktail time.

But you have to try to understand because fashion – particularly women's fashion – is one of the great Italian industries, involving fine craft workers and the odd genius, as well as quite a few charlatans. Shall we try to draw one or two conclusions? Let's see, now. Designers can be divided into three categories, when they have a moment to spare between takeovers, franchises, yacht trips, and expeditions to China. They come in Street Culturist, Rear Mirror Viewer, and Cutting Edger varieties.

Street Culturists get their inspiration from the squares, avenues, and sidewalks, especially in the suburbs, at night. They are the nighthawks of ready-to-wear fashion. Nothings slips past them. The leader of the movement was Gianni Versace. It is no coincidence that his sister, Donatella, looks like Batman's little sister. Cavalli and Dolce & Gabbana are not far behind. Their miniskirts are as short as rollneck collars, cleavages go down to the knees, and the fabrics are leopardskin or python. If a Street Culturist goes to the zoo, the snakes and big cats have hysterics. If their models ventured outside (un)dressed like that, they'd be on the cover of Vogue, or get picked up by the police.

Rear Mirror Viewers forge ahead with their eyes fixed firmly on the past. Trunks, family albums, old films, or literary classics – nothing is too old to be new. Prada and Gucci are turbocharged Rear Mirror Viewers. Valentino is a diesel version. Ferragamo and Zegna are Rear Mirror Viewers, but steam-driven. But the bionic Rear Mirror Viewer is Giorgio Armani, who manages to look ahead and behind at the same time, maintaining a Caribbean tan on both profiles.

And the Cutting Edgers? There's Moschino, although the only people who would dare wear his stuff are Lagos-based pop stars or Cuban gambling-house keepers. Krizia is a Cutting Edger, when she can be bothered. And there's Ferr?. His women may look as if they have just stepped off a spaceship with a touch of travel sickness, but they're certainly not predictable.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, that way you can go into the shops – sorry – "showrooms," and make profound comments. For the time being, comments cost nothing.

p. 85 – 87

The office,

the opera house of orderly anarchy

People say we Italians don't work very hard. I wish it were true, because it would mean that we work well. In fact, Italy is an agitated anthill. Three Italians in ten say they work forty to fifty hours a week. Many claim more. In northern Europe, people work twenty-five to forty hours. At five o'clock, London offices look like a cattery after someone fired a gunshot. There's no one there. Contrast that with this office in Rome. There are plenty of signs of escape, in the form of exotic screensavers, erotic calendars, postcards of palm trees, and photos of progeny. But no one actually leaves.

An office in Italy is a sanctuary of contradictions. Almost all of us put meticulous care and exaggerated passion into our jobs. According to one study, seven Italians in ten complain about their jobs, but worry about office problems in their free time. It's as if we wanted to turn the stereotype of Latin laziness on its head. To do so, we work longer hours, wear a pained look, and adopt a self-mortifying lifestyle in which everyone controls and consoles everyone else.

***

What do we enjoy about the claustrophobic rituals of the office? Let's see now. Above all, we like our colleagues, but not to consult them. We like to scrutinize them. The water fountain is the think tank of the American office. The pub is the decompression chamber of offices in Britain. And the coffee machine is the central intelligence agency of any Italian business. In fact, there is even a very successful television series – Camera Caf? – set around this indispensable device. I once heard of a company near Bergamo that forbids its employees from going for a coffee in twos because it's too risky.

We like to see people's outfits/haircuts/makeup, partly because there's something new every day. The sad conformism of Italian youth – who all have the same backpacks, sweatshirts, and footwear – is replaced in adulthood by a sophisticated exhibitionism. Look around. You won't see the predictable shirts and ties of Britain, or America's ubiquitous sexed-down skirts, high heels, and running shoes tucked under the desk. You will note a constant stream of colors and personal touches, from fragrances to fripperies. When it comes to personal appearance, Italians apply without knowing it the boy scout's injunction to "Do your best."

Every potential asset, from expressive eyes to a generous head of hair or slim legs, is methodically exploited, and compliments on the results are appreciated. If a good-looking American came to work here in a miniskirt, and claimed compensation for the standard local ration of comments, she'd be a rich woman in no time. Of course, every so often someone takes things too far. But comments are almost always peer-to-peer, reciprocal, and welcome.

Italian offices are not metaphorically next door to the bedroom, as many foreigners imagine. Let's say that offices, like many other settings in Italy, are places where people don't just look at you. They see you.

***

Italians like the established order of the office. This is especially true when we are at the top of the heap, but also obtains when we are at the bottom. It enables us to exercise our prudence and intuition. The speed with which Italians manage to read a new space is stunning. After a month, we're at home. After a year, we're veterans, and after three, we consider ourselves to be old soldiers. That's another reason why it's difficult to give us orders. Sometimes we have an inflated idea of our role, and an idiosyncratic attitude toward authority.

Bosses in Italy are no worse than elsewhere. Often, they have an excellent relationship with their subordinates. So, what's the problem? Some subordinates mistake friendliness for complicity. They say things they shouldn't, and ask for things that are inappropriate. Bosses, on the other hand, tend toward paternalism. If they could, they would select their secretaries' paramours. Since they can't, they make comments on how they dress for the first date.

***

One thing we like about offices is meetings, even if they do waste time.

We have all experienced the existential ennui of certain business gatherings. The Corporate Motormouth gets into gear, and we doodle. The Boss summarizes, but we already know the situation, partly because we drafted the summary. The expert gives chapter and verse on X, but we deal with Y. Meantime, the hours drag by, and the light changes on the roofs beyond the windows. The afternoon is over, and we have achieved little or nothing.

Yet some of us – you can read it in the faces – are content. When conscience, in the person of our significant other, asks "What did you do today?" we'll be able to say, shamming exhaustion and secretly congratulating ourselves, "Today? A whole bunch of meetings." I admit it sounds good. But meetings ought to be a swift means. If they become an end, as they increasingly often are in Italy, then disaster looms.

Once, when I called someone at work and was told "She's in a meeting," I would think it was an excuse for not putting me through. Now I know that the individual concerned really is in a meeting. And that's serious, at least for the person I'm calling. One of the rules of the modern market economy is this: your status in the company is proportionate to your ability to avoid meetings. Hence "always in a meeting" means "at the bottom of the heap." "Never in meetings" means "top dog."

Every so often, someone tries to break the mold. This individual arrives in the office in a truculent mood, stares the secretary straight in the eye (if the secretary is a woman, she wonders if her mascara has run), opens the diary, and begins to cancel meetings or postpone them sine die. He or she then goes out into the corridor with a satisfied air, and says, "Great. Now, what do I do?"

...

p. 88 – 89

We like the security of offices. For years, open-ended contracts were sacrosanct, but I fear they may be turning into a dead weight. Companies dislike them, and go to amazing lengths to avoid issuing them. They offer training contracts, project-specific contracts, no contracts, apprenticeships, and probationary periods. If things go on like this, we'll have to change the first article of the constitution. It will no longer read "Italy is a democratic republic founded on work" but "Italy is a democratic republic founded on work experience."

Some companies keep their options open by making newly hired employees sign an undated letter of resignation. For many years, others avoided regular hirings by using "coordinated and continuative collaborators," or "co.co.co" workers on nonstandard contracts. The abbreviation echoes perfectly the clucking of the chicken run into which we have shut ourselves. Now there are project-specific employment contracts, and it has to be said a project does exist: to avoid hiring any full-time staff at all.

Most Italians think a job with an open-ended contract is the only universally accepted collateral – by a partner before getting married, by a bank before it gives you a mortgage, by parents before they'll finally let go, and by your own self-esteem. Those who obtain such a contract, however, find out that it comes at a price. In almost every case, employees' salaries are lower than the earnings of the self-employed, and taxes are higher.

The deal seems to be "you won't have much money, but you'll have it forever." Companies worry about the "forever," their employees complain about the "not much." And so we go on merrily squabbling over adverbs.

p. 53 – 56

The museum,

beautiful women on the walls

Italian museums are astounding. They could put on five years' worth of exhibitions in New York with what Florence's Uffizi has in the basement. But there's a downside to this good fortune. If you have too much on the table, you may lose your appetite. Non-Italians arrive with ten paintings in their heads – the profile of a duke, the unembarrassed smile of a scantily clad noblewoman – go to see them, and enjoy the experience. We take everything for granted. We've already seen the dukes, and the lady has a familiar look.

There's an expression in Italian that sums up this attitude, roba da museo (museum fodder). The painter and writer Emilio Tadini said that a painting, an object, a program, an idea, or a proposal could be museum fodder. It had to be "something outside life, buried in the past, that has absolutely nothing to do with us." Why? Perhaps it's a feeling of discomfort. Our forebears were so brilliant we prefer to avoid comparisons. Or perhaps, as I was saying, we are too used to museum fodder. We simmer perennially in beauty, and feel we shouldn't have to buy a ticket to go and see some.

In Italy's parish recreation grounds, ancient frescoes gaze down on the children playing soccer. For us, this is normal. In America, the moms and dads would either be taking photographs, or blacktopping the pitch to turn it into a parking lot. Italy has most of the planet's artistic heritage. Spain comes after us, but has less than you can find in Tuscany alone. But with a few exceptions, even this no longer excites us. Unless we can make some cash out of it, or impress the rest of the world.

In this case, many of us are moved by self-interest or national pride, and applaud. We have learned to appreciate Italy's national genius in an export format, particularly when it coincides with an event, a special occasion, or a moment we will be able to talk about.

I remember the lines that twisted up the helical ramp of the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan for the exhibition The Italian Metamorphosis. There were Italians waiting to see works that, like us, had crossed the ocean. On show were clothes by Valentino, posters for films by Rossellini, Sottsass's typewriters, Gio Ponti's chairs, and Piero Manzoni's canned excreta. The American museum attracted us as much as the genius of Italy. We realized we were the stars of the show, and were anything but disappointed.

***

In contrast here in Italy, stupendous works of art displayed in modern Europe's oldest museum can look banal. Unless we have to defend them in the face of superficial comments. In that case we – sometimes, not always – manage to see them with other eyes.

Take Botticelli. He's become a stock Italian icon, and we can't let that happen. He was a complex individual, and his work is intriguing.

For a start, he wasn't called Botticelli. His real name was Filipepi. Born the son of a Florentine tanner in 1445, he was apprenticed to a goldsmith, whose name he took. He could paint. As a boy, he frequented the workshops of the artists Filippo Lippi and Andrea del Verocchio. He read Dante, and knew Leonardo da Vinci, who was seven years younger.

Sandro Filipepi aka Botticelli was a bright, difficult lad, with good connections. His friend and patron was Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, cousin of Lorenzo the Magnificent. He enjoyed being with friends, and had a reputation as an extrovert. Botticelli earned well, but also spent liberally. The story goes that he detested marriage and women. But you wouldn't think so, to judge from his work.

Just look at the Primavera, which he painted at the age of thirty-three. On the surface, it is a simple image, an allegory from a classical myth, as was the custom in those days. But the mysterious central figure is fascinating, and experts have identified five hundred species of plant in the scene. Let's admire this Madonna of the Magnificat, which Botticelli painted in 1485. A real, beautiful woman without makeup poses among decorative angels. Or the Calumny of Apelles, from 1495. The "naked Truth" looks like an actress who has aged before her time, like Florence's political and commercial fortunes after the discovery of America.

You might think this is normal artistic development. I would reply that the artist had sensitive antennae. Botticelli's story is the story of a typical Italian and at the same time a reflection of the eternal Italy, the land of insight and transformations. Italy is a country where people's heads are constantly busy. They don't always produce masterpieces. In fact, disasters are frequent. But in mitigation, we do at least pay for the disasters.

We're there now. This is The Birth of Venus, the one with the young goddess in the seashell. Like Leonardo's Mona Lisa, it's so famous it runs the risk of looking sentimental. Instead, it's beautiful, wonderful, with its white horses, the trees on the shore, the oval faces, sensuous expressions, and wind-ruffled hair. At that point in his life, Botticelli was striving to reconcile Plato and Christ in a representation of the beauty that derives from the union of spirit and matter. He succeeded. But superficial observers see only the symbol of an unchanging Italy. They see flowers, sea, and a girl surfing on a seashell that would look good on a soap label.

It's a trap. For five hundred years, you've been falling into it, and we've been chuckling as we watch.

***

Look at the faces in these portraits. They're not from Mars. They're Italians. They are familiar because, as I was saying, we occasionally recognize them. Try to remember them when we leave. You'll see similar faces in the streets and cafes of Florence. As you sip your coffee at the Giubbe Rosse, you might say, "Where did I see her before?" The answer is hanging on the walls of the Uffizi, although the Uffizi version wasn't shrieking into an ultraminiature cellphone.

Genetics is art in Italy. This evening, you'll notice twenty-year-olds from the provinces that resemble Giorgione's Portrait of a Gentleman in Armor. Lose the armor, forget he's a gentleman, and you'll see him behind the wheel of a black Volkswagen Golf with his weatherproof face and strong nose, punching numbers into a cellphone as he organizes his evening.

Raphael's Madonnas – the ones that have been gazing down on Italian beds for centuries in endless reproductions – have Italian faces. As you travel round Italy, you'll find women in the Veneto who look like a Mary Magdalene by Giovanni Bellini, Sicilians with the excited smile of Antonello da Messina's Madonna of the Annunciation, and Milanese ladies who watch you with all the suspicion of Leonardo's La Belle Ferronni?re. They are beautiful yet unassuming, and only apparently demure.

The same is true of the countryside. There, too, we see Italy, whether we want or not. Despite the passage of time, some necessary changes and other avoidable brutalities, we still see familiar scenes that perturb us, but do not repel. We may displace or despoil them, but these are our backdrops.

Take, for example, the Sacred Allegory by Giovanni Bellini, also known as Giambellino, one of the most meticulous photographers of the Italy of his day. The landscape behind the figures recalls the spot where the river Adige narrows, near Rivoli Veronese and not far from Lake Garda. It's the proud foyer of our Italian theater, the view that greeted new arrivals as they crossed the mountains. It is a mirage of the Mediterranean. Today, the foreigners continue to arrive along the same routes, but few of them stop to look at the river Adige. It's not a great spot for windsurfing.

Observe the dry countryside behind the profiles of Federico da Montefeltro and his wife Battista Sforza, and the allegorical triumphs on the back of the panels. Piero della Francesca painted Montefeltro as if he was looking at him from a cloud. Nowadays, very few people visit the area. Most prefer the beaches of the Adriatic. But we recognize those barren hills, and sparse trees, for they have stuck in a corner of the Italian conscience. They are our full-color regrets. Are anyone else's as lovely?

p. 124 – 128

Saturday

Day Nine

 

In Crema

 

The barber,

the newsstand and the town as lifebelt

Every foreigner's tale of Italy has – inevitably, immutably – a polite waiter, a friendly tradesman, and a cheerful next door neighbor. It's a gallery of pleasant people and a litany of names so melodious that non-Italians call out to us, even when they have nothing to say, "Giorgio," "Giovanni," "Giuseppe!"

I don't question the euphony of the vowels, or the impact of the smiles, but be careful. We Italians aren't insincere, we're ancient, like the Chinese and the Jews. Our courtesy is heartfelt, because we honestly intend to lubricate a social relationship. Our willingness to help is sincere. It's one way of making up for catching you off guard. Simpatia gratifies and simplifies; confrontation complicates. We worked that one out centuries ago, and behave accordingly.

Take this barber in the Po Valley town where I was born, Crema. He works in a narrow street named after a military engineer, full of people walking to the market and cars that shouldn't be there. The barber's name is Gigi, a name that reassures your inner tourist. He knows Italian heads inside and out. Gigi is a professional of the scissors, and of public relations. He talks about politics, soccer, and women. If a woman were to walk in, he'd be able to talk about men, and the terrible things they do to their gray hair, for example. Gigi keeps up to date. The radio is always on, and he reads the Corriere della Sera and the Gazzetta dello Sport newspapers. Friends and acquaintances stick their head in to say hello. It could be a pensioner passing the time of day, or a youngster who wants to eye Greta the good-looking, Juventus-supporting shampooist.

This twenty-first century version is not so different than a twelfth-century barber's shop, when Crema, sitting on her marshes and enclosed by her walls, was getting ready to defy the German emperor. A barber's shop is still a place for conversations and consolations, a shelter, and a source of information. Obviously, nine centuries ago there wouldn't have been a calendar with a naked lady opposite the shampoo chair. But you noticed that, and you're not Italian.

***

Gigi Bianchessi, barber and psychologist, knows nothing of Italo Calvino. To the best of my knowledge, Calvino never met Gigi, yet he did write that all towns have corners of happiness if you know what to look for. In Italy, you have to multiply the corners after recognizing them. Our unsinkable nation is the sum of thousands of places like this that make up hundreds of towns like Crema.

A thousand years of complicated history have produced a mechanism that is perfect in its simplicity. A town like Crema, which has thirty-three thousand residents and lies forty-four kilometers from Milan, is our third line of defense, after the home and the piazza. It's a ring that protects and keeps watch. The ring is ancient, and inside it we know what to do, and end up loving it, sometimes too much. Take a look at the bars as we pass. They are social clubs, and treasure troves of wasted talent. Small-town Italy has a soporific effect. You risk nodding off at twenty and waking up at fifty.

Crema was founded by the Lombards, destroyed by the Germans, and loved by the Venetians, whom it loved back. It admires Bergamo, is suspicious of Cremona, and attracted to Milan. It's a halfway town, the anything but mundane aspiration of the average Italian. Two thirds of my compatriots, it seems, would like to live in a place like Crema. They don't, of course. They turn up here on Sundays, look around, sample the sweet tortelli pasta, and then rejoin the nose-to-tail traffic on the highway home.

A town like Crema doesn't only look attractive to Italians fed up with traffic and suburbia. Non-Italians like it, too. You understand instinctively that it offers the right mix of unpredictability and reassurance. In the 1960s, Luigi Barzini explained Italy's attractions for the rest of the world, and its peaceful invasion by tourists, like this: "The art of living, this disreputable art developed by the Italians to defeat regimentation, is now becoming an invaluable guide for survival for many people."

This is still true, even though tourism has found many other destinations. Everyday life in a small Italian town is an ideal to which peoples more organized than we are aspire. We like our halfway Italy – not too big, and not too small – and commit to it. A friendly store in our street makes up for bad news on the television. That's why Italy comes out ahead of countries like the United States, France, or Germany in quality of life tables. Hand-crafted consolations are equal in value to post-industrial organization. Of course, they don't show up in the gross domestic product, but they take pride of place in our personal statements of account.

***

Everybody in Italy feels important, and quite rightly demands attention. We know the pleasures of conversation, and savor the tang of personal observations. Comments on a new dress are welcome in Italy; elsewhere they would arouse suspicion. Italian families defend mealtimes, and the younger generation is discovering the less crucial ritual of the aperitif. We've even managed to transform into a ceremony that most fleeting of habits: drinking an espresso while standing at a bar.

In a town like Crema, we go farther. We save time on journeys and lines only to waste it in the piazza or a store. We find time to cycle to school with our children as we struggle with the dog's leash. We've got time for Stefano the philosophical picture framer, and Paolo the political coffee roaster who keeps Libero and La Provincia newspapers on his counter in the hope that someone will read them and say something.

At the end of this street is the covered market, where on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, the residents of Crema become country folk again. They look, they handle, they haggle, and they ask for explanations. The market is a very functional structure – it's used as a parking lot except on market days – and it's so ugly it's interesting. That bank was once a theater, but it was a caf? before it became a bank. That building used to be the pawnshop. Today, it's split up into apartments. Anyone wanting to write a social history of Italy should certainly study refurbishments.

Take this kiosk. A few years ago, it was the stronghold of one of Italy's monopolies, the sale of newspapers. Today, you can buy a paper in some bars, and the newsstand has rediscovered its vocation as a bazaar, a place that sells inexpensive consolations and forgivable temptations. Look at what it sells, apart from papers. There are comic books, fans, toy soldiers, bags, soap bubbles, felt pens, rag dolls, videogames, balloons, diaries, notebooks, spinning tops, pottery, DVDs, CDs, decals, scale models, lipsticks, videocassettes, necklaces, pencils, electric toothbrushes, watches, soft toys, watercolor paints, recipe books, handbags, scarves, maps, thongs, folding hats, and disreputable T-shirts.

The back of the newsstand was where the Semi-Undressed Signorina lived until she moved to the TV screen. She was the queen of the sexy comic book, the reading matter of choice for precocious youngsters and childish grown-ups. The newsstand is the shrine where the Deferent Italian comes in pilgrimage to purchase magazines that describe the lives of D-list celebs, Italy's televisual has-beens or never-weres, and former glamor queens pondering meditation or plastic surgery. Lorenzo the news vendor observes and forgives on Crema's behalf, as he watches the traffic coming down Via Ponte Furio with the anxiety of an Inter Milan fan at the start of the soccer season.

***

Now you will understand why so many Italians say they are dissatisfied with Italy, but could not live anywhere else, or miss it dreadfully if they do. Now you know why the provinces are a resource for those who know the difference between the little things and the trivial ones. The world is getting more complicated, so it's nice to have some of your life tools to hand.

In a small town, we don't just want a congenial barber and a well-stocked newsstand. We want professionally made coffee and a proper pizza. We want a couple of streets to stroll down, an avenue to jog along, a pool to swim in, and a cinema for a bit of entertainment. We want a functioning courthouse, a reassuring hospital, a consoling church, and an unintimidating cemetery. We want a new university and an old theater house. We want soccer fields, and city councilors we can pester in the bar. We want to see the mountains beyond the grade crossing when the weather's good and the air is clear. We want footsteps on cobbled streets in the night, yellow lights to tinge the mist, and bell towers we can recognize from a distance. We want doctors and lawyers who can translate abstract concepts into our dialect – my father can – and people with a kind word and a smile for everyone. My mother was like that, and many remember her for it.

We want all these things, and in Crema we have them. That's why I came back to live in the town where I was born, and that's why you're here with me today.

p. 114

The beach,

a bare outline

Unlike the Swiss or the Swedes, we Italians do not have an idyllic image of our country. Nor do we have a self-image as epic as the American, Russian, or Polish ones. Our picture of Italy is a party. What we aspire to is gratifying chaos.

That's why we're here today. The beach is a good outline sketch of Italy. Get changed, look around, and don't worry if people stare at you. On a summer afternoon, there are all sorts here. You'll see preening, momentary solidarity, unintentional elegance, body care, love of detail, boundary-watching, the subtle tyranny of children, and secrets shared with strangers.

Each shadow is a group, and each group has its own hierarchy. Some talk, others listen. Some declaim, others interrupt. Some observe, and others let them. Your neighbors shouldn't be too close, or you'd feel hemmed in. Nor should they be too far away, or you'd feel isolated. There is a preferred Italian distance, which is less than the British one, and greater than the Japanese version.

A beach in Italy is not just a prelude to the sea, which in many places – though luckily not in Sardinia – is almost an irrelevance. The beach is a catwalk, a gallery, a gym, a track, a restaurant, a market, a workshop, a sauna, a reading room, a place of meditation, and sufficiently off-limits to be an exciting place to take your date. It's a crowded space where some people go to be on their own. It's a theater of familial self-sufficiency.

Look at those three generations – grandparents, daughter, and grandchildren – installed under two beach umbrellas with their picnic in cooler bags. They're looking at the sea and the other people, working out when to take a swim, and seeking a balance between enjoying life and striving to improve it.

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