Let us go back in time. Way back. It’s around 1980 and we’re in a once-grand, now shabby student apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Right near Columbia University, in fact. We’re at a party with a bunch of grad students from the neighborhood; I forgot whether it was for any special occasion. Did anyone need one back then?
We’d been invited by a good friend of ours who back then went by the name of Drew. One of his roommates brandished some newspaper put out by Albania’s Communist Party (remember, this is the Upper Left Side, ground zero for left wing intelligentsia back then). “Pig iron production is up by 10 percent! All praise to our leader Enver Hoxha!” the roommates exclaimed before collapsing in laughter.
Meanwhile, there’s a cluster of women surrounding a guy looking, if I squinted, somewhat like the young Trotsky. They’re hanging onto every word of his. “I decided that I’d write my dissertation on the Italian anarchists,” Trotsky-alike said in a thick, somewhat plummy British accent. “That’s Carl,” I’m told. “He just got back from the London School of Economics.” The crowd surrounding him nodded in unison. I can be bad and say they looked like groupies surrounding Eddie Van Halen, but maybe they’re as fascinated by the Italian anarchists as Carl is.
I catch bits and pieces of Carl’s monologue. To my admittedly uneducated, bachelor degree at the time-only ears, the Italians that he’s describing—we’re talking post World War I and pre-Mussolini—sound like noble savages, selfless, instinctual in their generosity and class consciousness. Carl avers that Italians even now (well, in 1980) aren’t all that different. Then he utters the sentence that to him says everything: “The housewives like fresh vegetables.”
Did I mention that Carl grew up in Massapequa? As in Massapequa, Long Island? New York? Somehow I doubt that he spoke with that accent before he attended the hallowed LSE.
I’m writing about Carl, wherever he is now, because he was one of many people I met, and writers I’ve read, who look at Italians in this sort of folklore-y condescending way. Italians are passionate, they’re disorganized, they love their families, they’re Catholic, they drive fast, they have great food, they do funny things that we just can’t understand, but it’s so much fun to go there on vacation. This simplistic portrayal of a complex, modern society goes back to the days of the Grand Tour, when Brits of a certain class traveled south to learn about Art and gaze wistfully at the Tuscan landscape. Think of the E.M. Forster novel and film adaption of A Room With a View, and you’ll know what I mean.
I remember as a high school kid stopping in at a friend’s house, a friend whose family can trace itself back to the American Revolution. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, in other words. Father (he was called that by his wife, who naturally was “Mother”) would greet me and then, knowing that I’m an American with Italian relatives, ask me about recipes for various Italian-American dishes. I’m sure he was just trying to make conversation, but I remember thinking, JH Christ, get real, as if every Italian-American kid has in his genes the ability to cook veal scaloppini.
The British press is prone to this sort of thing, too. A Modern Languages Open paper examines British attitudes, arguing that most British narratives toward countries like Italy start from the viewpoint that British culture is superior. And a lot of Brits fully believe in the usual stereotypes: sunny Italy, sunset with a glass of Chianti, anarchic drivers, etc.
ABOVE: Image, meet reality
And as in Britain, so its anglophile cousins across the pond. And fairly recently. The New York Times, long a bastion of proper WASP snobbism, pointedly ignored last year’s bankruptcy and shutdown of the Italian airline Alitalia, which by most measures, was a huge business news story on the continent. At some point, someone must have noticed that Alitalia—once the official Vatican airline—had ceased operations and finally, the Grey Lady ran a silly oped, er, sorry, guest essay, by Christopher Buckley.
I’M NOT A NAIVE CHAMPION OF MY other country. The bureaucracy can drive you nuts, the voting pool is divided about 50-50, which makes it easy for weak coalition governments to be patched together and then fall after only a few months. (Just last week, Italian politicians, led by the feckless Cinque Stelle leader Giuseppe Conte, jettisoned a national unity coalition, handing Putin and the right wing a gift.) But if you look past the stereotypes, you’ll see that Italian society is actually a rules-based, established culture. The rules, however, take a while to learn, and are mostly unspoken and certainly, unwritten. They’re woven into everyday conduct. And once you’re used to them, going back to the Wild West of the U.S. can be a jarring experience in reverse culture shock.
To give a concrete example, walk into a shop of any size. Even a huge hypermarket. You make eye contact with the cashier or salesperson and you had better exchange greetings. There’s none of the sullen get right down to it business exchange that you’ll see in any American mall. If you walk into a clothing shop and start with “do you have a white shirt in a 42 size?” the clerk will immediately peg you as a rude lout and will often ignore you until you approach him or her correctly.
Another example: Days are structured here in ways that may not seem immediately obvious, except for the general lull in the middle of the day. For us retired people, it’s a structure that helps us avoid the feeling that we’re drifting through time aimlessly, like people in an old age home watching TV all day and seeing friends carted off periodically. And it’s a general structure that everyone pretty much follows.
You get up pretty early. Have coffee or whatever you need to wake up. Eat a little something. If you’re employed. you go off to the office/construction site/shop/whatever. If not, this is a perfect time to run errands. Then lunch, a pause of an hour or three. Then things pick up until either the aperitivo hour—time to meet friends for a drink. Then a light dinner and off to the finish line. I once made a lunch date with a source, a prominent lawyer for a large company here. Silly me, I asked him what time should we meet at the restaurant. He laughed, saying, “do I really need to tell you?”
I could go into the zillions of food rules, but others have it covered, especially on YouTube, where scores of videos tell you what not to do. Over and over again. So much so that you could be faulted for thinking you’re watching the same video on an endless loop. Here and here are examples. And best of all, for a video review of the rules we live by here, is Marco in a Box:
But the main rule? Enjoy yourself, try to greet people in Italian and get with the flow. And eat fresh vegetables whenever you can.