Beauty and Community in Italy

(published in the Culpeper News, 1 June 2000)

I’ve lived most of my life in the United States, and the rest of it – for various periods at various stages in my life – in Italy. The U.S. is my home, but sometimes I tend to think it is almost exclusively the daily use of the English language that I refuse to part with. I find so much about life in Italy preferable that if I could have my mother tongue there there’d be no question about where I’d want to live.

Of course this isn’t quite right. There is much that I prefer about the U.S., including friends and family and my memories here, but also aspects of the culture that I think Italy could benefit from. And whenever – with years separating me from the bel paese – I begin to romanticize the good things about it, I need to remind myself of what I dislike there, of the time that I left because I was fed up with prejudicial attitudes toward foreigners. Specifically, I was fed up with rudeness toward me, who – as a white American – had numerous advantages even over native Italians, and did not experience the treatment visited upon African immigrants in Italia.

However, having just returned (in May 2000) from a week visiting friends and touring Northern Italy with my wife (her first trip to Europe), I am overwhelmed by the positives – all familiar aspects of life there that I have been freshly reminded of. I am especially close to one particular family in Italy and to others in the same small town. Although I have spent a very small portion of my life there, I feel in some ways a stronger attachment to that place than to anywhere in the U.S. The town where I grew up in Northern Virginia does not resemble itself anymore – such is the way with sprawl.

The Italian town has not changed in the past 20 years, and has hardly changed from the photos of my friends’ great grandparents, who lived there with the great grandparents of everybody else, who all have no intention of moving elsewhere. Everybody knows everybody and is all the more thrilled to encounter them frequently in the open air on numerous occasions created for that purpose.

The first day we were there, there was a wedding, and the couple was slow emerging from the town hall. Impatient wedding guests began pelting all passerby with rice. An elderly man on a motorino took a bath in the stuff. Others cheered from their balconies. As has been said, Fellini didn’t have to work as hard as you might think to produce the scenes he did.

We went to the square and sat. There are tables in the sun, under an awning, or indoors. There are people walking, riding, sitting, talking and watching. If you want to meet someone, you go to the square. You will be sure to meet others as well. And they will be ecstatic to meet you – not just if you haven’t been there in years, even if you saw them yesterday. Friends are friends for life, and thus mean more even in a given moment than do friends who may move a thousand miles away next month and in the meantime protect themselves with a 2-acre buffer that they mow in all their spare time. Italian does not, so far as I know, have a commonly-used word for stranger. Straniero means foreigner. If you’re not a foreigner, you’re probably a friend or a relative.

In the square was a jazz concert. The town had its annual party with wine, food, dancing and talking – lots of talking. Every house had a balcony and every balcony flowers. My friends, in their thirties now, still live with their parents. Very little has changed, and I’m very glad.

Of course, this is a sugar-coated picture. Next year a man who owns half the mass-media in Italy will advertise his way into the presidency. Young Italians, I’m told, are in large numbers screaming for the return of capital punishment. Angry northerners vent any frustration on Albanian or African immigrants. No store is ever open when you really need it to be. Sometimes it would be nice to get decent or even generous service from someone who is not a friend of a friend.

But Italy has an incredible wealth of knowledge to teach America. Why don’t we have squares with cafes and tables around them? Why don’t we ever work our careers and marriages around the need to stay in our communities instead of vice versa? Why don’t we build things that look good and last? Why do we feed on constant snacks with no nutritional value and serve decent meals only twice a year? Why do we allow employers to pay poverty wages and provide no job security? Why are our houses filled with guns? Why do we pass in the right lane? Why do we dynamite mountains instead of tunneling through them? Why do we tolerate orange tomatoes? Why do we look askance at Italy’s bribery scandals while our political bribery is open and legal? If you want to experience an admirable way of life that is still quite different from ours, I highly recommend Italy.

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