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. It’s the kind of place that can have you fuming and then purring in the space of a hundred meters, or in the course of ten minutes. Italy is the only workshop in the world that can turn out both Botticellis and Berlusconis.― Beppe Severgnini,
The Two Italys
As I dive deeper into the Italian culture, I have discovered that the famous Italian writer, Beppe Severgnini, is right. There are two Italys.
Let me explain. The first Italy is beautiful, idyllic, and charming. It is the Italy experienced by millions of tourists–a magical place with vibrant cities, spectacular cultural and architectural history, beautiful countryside, and food that is fresh and bursting with flavor.
Here’s an illustration of charming Italy. On one warm May evening, I overheard some tourists in the early stages of falling in love with this country, which inevitably starts soon after arrival. This particular group of tourists was walking down Borgo Santa Croce–a cobblestone street closed to traffic. This centuries-old thoroughfare is lined with cafes, restaurants, and enotecas (wine bars) where hundreds of people at all times of the day are chatting, listening to music, walking dogs, eating gelato, and shopping.
“Look at that!” one the tourists exclaimed, pointing at scores of customers from the wine bars who had moved outside with their drinks. They were sitting at small folding tables in the middle of the street, chatting, laughing, and nibbling on spuntini (snacks). It was the Italian version of a block party.
“We can have a drink right here on the street!” another tourist exclaimed, caught up in the laughter and high spirits of the Italians, which were infectious.
Many Italians are charming. Their ability to find joy in simple pleasures seems magical to those of us who were raised to think that joy is expensive and squeezed into a few hours on the weekends or during vacations. Many Italians don’t delay their happiness. They find time during the day to enjoy the company of friends over a cup of coffee, a shared meal, or simply a conversation on the street. Their pleasure is real, genuine, and spontaneous.
But then, one day, the sunshine fades and the “rain” starts to fall. That signals the arrival of the second Italy, which Beppe Severignini calls “Italia.”
Here’s an example of Italia. After waiting on a long, chaotic line at the Borghese Gallery, an attendant tells you that the bag you are carrying must be checked. So, you get out of the line and turn over your bag to an attendant on the other side of the building who doesn’t stop talking to a co-worker while filing your I.D. card, which she won’t be able to find later. When you return to the entrance to the gallery 10 minutes later and walk up the stairs, another attendant stops you and says that you cannot join your spouse who is waiting for you up on floor 2. You must enter the gallery on floor 1.
You have now entered the next phase of your acculturation. It is similar to your first quarrel after falling madly in love. You now realize that your love (Italy) has some bad habits that are hard to break. You think the honeymoon is over because the Italian way of doing things is inefficient, illogical, and mired in archaic bureaucracies. Then, it happens again. A stranger walks you halfway down the street to make sure you know how to get to the obscure artisanal gelato place you read about on the web. And then, on another rainy day, you notice that some Italian men are gallantly holding an umbrella over the heads of their wives or girlfriends, shielding them from the rain while they get wet. Now, come on. What woman wouldn’t find that charming? So, right then and there, you relent. You accept the fact that no country is perfect. And your love affair with Italy continues.
Now, it’s your turn. Have you “fallen in love” with a country? Which one? Why is it easy to love?
As we continue our travels this year, I’ll be writing more about the places, people, and experiences we have along the way. I hope you join me on my journey.
Before ending this post, let me wish you a joyful and inspiring week in your part of the world!