Thursday, October 18, 2012
What do you do when your country has gone to shit? Italy: Love It, or Leave It goes beyond the picture postcard version of Italy to show a once glorious country beset by corruption, greed, and trash. Partners in life and filmmaking, Luca Ragazzi and Gustav Hofer have grown disillusioned by their country’s economic and cultural decline. Before deciding whether to decamp to Berlin, the boys embark on a grand tour to rekindle their love for il bel paese. Crammed into their vintage Fiat 500, Luca and Gustav’s road trip takes them from Italian trash TV and Berlusconi’s geriatric fan girls, to Sicily’s unfinished monuments to government corruption and Napoli’s all too literal trash problem. After charming Vancouver audiences at the Queer Film Festival a few years ago with their award-winningSuddenly, Last Winter, Ragazzi and Hofer return with their endearing blend of the personal and the political. –JC
Tuesday, October 16, 2012
by Thomas Babbington Macaulay
- Lars Porsena of Closium
- By the Nine Gods he swore
- That the great house of Tarquin
- Should suffer wrong no more.
- By the Nine Gods he swore it,
- And named a trysting day,
- And bade his messengers ride forth,
- East and west and south and north,
- To summon his array.
- East and west and south and north
- The messengers ride fast,
- And tower and town and cottage
- Have heard the trumpet's blast.
- Shame on the false Etruscan
- Who lingers in his home,
- When Porsena of Clusium
- Is on the march for Rome.
- The horsemen and the footmen
- Are pouring in amain
- From many a stately market-place,
- From many a fruitful plain,
- From many a lonely hamlet,
- Which, hid by beech and pine,
- Like an eagle's nest, hangs on the crest
- Of purple Apennine;
- From lordly Volaterræ,
- Where scowls the far-famed hold
- Piled by the hands of giants
- For godlike kings of old;
- From seagirt Populonia,
- Whose sentinels descry
- Sardinia's snowy mountain-tops
- Fringing the southern sky;
- From the proud mart of Pisæ,
- Queen of the western waves,
- Where ride Massilia's triremes
- Heavy with fair-haired slaves;
- From where sweet Clanis wanders
- Through corn and vines and flowers;
- From where Cortona lifts to heaven
- Her diadem of towers.
- Tall are the oaks whose acorns
- Drop in dark Auser's rill;
- Fat are the stags that champ the boughs
- Of the Ciminian hill;
- Beyond all streams Clitumnus
- Is to the herdsman dear;
- Best of all pools the fowler loves
- The great Volsinian mere.
- But now no stroke of woodman
- Is heard by Auser's rill;
- No hunter tracks the stag's green path
- Up the Ciminian hill;
- Unwatched along Clitumnus
- Grazes the milk-white steer;
- Unharmed the water fowl may dip
- In the Volsminian mere.
- The harvests of Arretium,
- This year, old men shall reap;
- This year, young boys in Umbro
- Shall plunge the struggling sheep;
- And in the vats of Luna,
- This year, the must shall foam
- Round the white feet of laughing girls
- Whose sires have marched to Rome.
- There be thirty chosen prophets,
- The wisest of the land,
- Who alway by Lars Porsena
- Both morn and evening stand:
- Evening and morn the Thirty
- Have turned the verses o'er,
- Traced from the right on linen white
- By mighty seers of yore.
- And with one voice the Thirty
- Have their glad answer given:
- ``Go forth, go forth, Lars Porsena;
- Go forth, beloved of Heaven;
- Go, and return in glory
- To Clusium's royal dome;
- And hang round Nurscia's altars
- The golden shields of Rome.''
- And now hath every city
- Sent up her tale of men;
- The foot are fourscore thousand,
- The horse are thousands ten.
- Before the gates of Sutrium
- Is met the great array.
- A proud man was Lars Porsena
- Upon the trysting day.
- For all the Etruscan armies
- Were ranged beneath his eye,
- And many a banished Roman,
- And many a stout ally;
- And with a mighty following
- To join the muster came
- The Tusculan Mamilius,
- Prince of the Latian name.
- But by the yellow Tiber
- Was tumult and affright:
- From all the spacious champaign
- To Rome men took their flight.
- A mile around the city,
- The throng stopped up the ways;
- A fearful sight it was to see
- Through two long nights and days.
- For aged folks on crutches,
- And women great with child,
- And mothers sobbing over babes
- That clung to them and smiled,
- And sick men borne in litters
- High on the necks of slaves,
- And troops of sun-burned husbandmen
- With reaping-hooks and staves,
- And droves of mules and asses
- Laden with skins of wine,
- And endless flocks of goats and sheep,
- And endless herds of kine,
- And endless trains of wagons
- That creaked beneath the weight
- Of corn-sacks and of household goods,
- Choked every roaring gate.
- Now, from the rock Tarpeian,
- Could the wan burghers spy
- The line of blazing villages
- Red in the midnight sky.
- The Fathers of the City,
- They sat all night and day,
- For every hour some horseman come
- With tidings of dismay.
- To eastward and to westward
- Have spread the Tuscan bands;
- Nor house, nor fence, nor dovecote
- In Crustumerium stands.
- Verbenna down to Ostia
- Hath wasted all the plain;
- Astur hath stormed Janiculum,
- And the stout guards are slain.
- I wis, in all the Senate,
- There was no heart so bold,
- But sore it ached, and fast it beat,
- When that ill news was told.
- Forthwith up rose the Consul,
- Up rose the Fathers all;
- In haste they girded up their gowns,
- And hied them to the wall.
- They held a council standing,
- Before the River-Gate;
- Short time was there, ye well may guess,
- For musing or debate.
- Out spake the Consul roundly:
- ``The bridge must straight go down;
- For, since Janiculum is lost,
- Nought else can save the town.''
- Just then a scout came flying,
- All wild with haste and fear:
- ``To arms! to arms! Sir Consul:
- Lars Porsena is here.''
- On the low hills to westward
- The Consul fixed his eye,
- And saw the swarthy storm of dust
- Rise fast along the sky.
- And nearer fast and nearer
- Doth the red whirlwind come;
- And louder still and still more loud,
- From underneath that rolling cloud,
- Is heard the trumpet's war-note proud,
- The trampling, and the hum.
- And plainly and more plainly
- Now through the gloom appears,
- Far to left and far to right,
- In broken gleams of dark-blue light,
- The long array of helmets bright,
- The long array of spears.
- And plainly and more plainly,
- Above that glimmering line,
- Now might ye see the banners
- Of twelve fair cities shine;
- But the banner of proud Clusium
- Was highest of them all,
- The terror of the Umbrian,
- The terror of the Gaul.
- And plainly and more plainly
- Now might the burghers know,
- By port and vest, by horse and crest,
- Each warlike Lucumo.
- There Cilnius of Arretium
- On his fleet roan was seen;
- And Astur of the four-fold shield,
- Girt with the brand none else may wield,
- Tolumnius with the belt of gold,
- And dark Verbenna from the hold
- By reedy Thrasymene.
- Fast by the royal standard,
- O'erlooking all the war,
- Lars Porsena of Clusium
- Sat in his ivory car.
- By the right wheel rode Mamilius,
- Prince of the Latian name;
- And by the left false Sextus,
- That wrought the deed of shame.
- But when the face of Sextus
- Was seen among the foes,
- A yell that rent the firmament
- From all the town arose.
- On the house-tops was no woman
- But spat towards him and hissed,
- No child but screamed out curses,
- And shook its little fist.
- But the Consul's brow was sad,
- And the Consul's speech was low,
- And darkly looked he at the wall,
- And darkly at the foe.
- ``Their van will be upon us
- Before the bridge goes down;
- And if they once may win the bridge,
- What hope to save the town?''
- Then out spake brave Horatius,
- The Captain of the Gate:
- ``To every man upon this earth
- Death cometh soon or late.
- And how can man die better
- Than facing fearful odds,
- For the ashes of his fathers,
- And the temples of his gods,
- ``And for the tender mother
- Who dandled him to rest,
- And for the wife who nurses
- His baby at her breast,
- And for the holy maidens
- Who feed the eternal flame,
- To save them from false Sextus
- That wrought the deed of shame?
- ``Haul down the bridge, Sir Consul,
- With all the speed ye may;
- I, with two more to help me,
- Will hold the foe in play.
- In yon strait path a thousand
- May well be stopped by three.
- Now who will stand on either hand,
- And keep the bridge with me?''
- Then out spake Spurius Lartius;
- A Ramnian proud was he:
- ``Lo, I will stand at thy right hand,
- And keep the bridge with thee.''
- And out spake strong Herminius;
- Of Titian blood was he:
- ``I will abide on thy left side,
- And keep the bridge with thee.''
- ``Horatius,'' quoth the Consul,
- ``As thou sayest, so let it be.''
- And straight against that great array
- Forth went the dauntless Three.
- For Romans in Rome's quarrel
- Spared neither land nor gold,
- Nor son nor wife, nor limb nor life,
- In the brave days of old.
- Then none was for a party;
- Then all were for the state;
- Then the great man helped the poor,
- And the poor man loved the great:
- Then lands were fairly portioned;
- Then spoils were fairly sold:
- The Romans were like brothers
- In the brave days of old.
- Now Roman is to Roman
- More hateful than a foe,
- And the Tribunes beard the high,
- And the Fathers grind the low.
- As we wax hot in faction,
- In battle we wax cold:
- Wherefore men fight not as they fought
- In the brave days of old.
- Now while the Three were tightening
- Their harness on their backs,
- The Consul was the foremost man
- To take in hand an axe:
- And Fathers mixed with Commons
- Seized hatchet, bar, and crow,
- And smote upon the planks above,
- And loosed the props below.
- Meanwhile the Tuscan army,
- Right glorious to behold,
- Come flashing back the noonday light,
- Rank behind rank, like surges bright
- Of a broad sea of gold.
- Four hundred trumpets sounded
- A peal of warlike glee,
- As that great host, with measured tread,
- And spears advanced, and ensigns spread,
- Rolled slowly towards the bridge's head,
- Where stood the dauntless Three.
- The Three stood calm and silent,
- And looked upon the foes,
- And a great shout of laughter
- From all the vanguard rose:
- And forth three chiefs came spurring
- Before that deep array;
- To earth they sprang, their swords they drew,
- And lifted high their shields, and flew
- To win the narrrow way;
- Aunus from green Tifernum,
- Lord of the Hill of Vines;
- And Seius, whose eight hundred slaves
- Sicken in Ilva's mines;
- And Picus, long to Clusium
- Vassal in peace and war,
- Who led to fight his Umbrian powers
- From that gray crag where, girt with towers,
- The fortress of Nequinum lowers
- O'er the pale waves of Nar.
- Stout Lartius hurled down Aunus
- Into the stream beneath;
- Herminius struck at Seius,
- And clove him to the teeth;
- At Picus brave Horatius
- Darted one fiery thrust;
- And the proud Umbrian's gilded arms
- Clashed in the bloody dust.
- Then Ocnus of Falerii
- Rushed on the Roman Three;
- And Lausulus of Urgo,
- The rover of the sea;
- And Aruns of Volsinium,
- Who slew the great wild boar,
- The great wild boar that had his den
- Amidst the reeds of Cosa's fen,
- And wasted fields, and slaughtered men,
- Along Albinia's shore.
- Herminius smote down Aruns:
- Lartius laid Ocnus low:
- Right to the heart of Lausulus
- Horatius sent a blow.
- ``Lie there,'' he cried, ``fell pirate!
- No more, aghast and pale,
- From Ostia's walls the crowd shall mark
- The track of thy destroying bark.
- No more Campania's hinds shall fly
- To woods and caverns when they spy
- Thy thrice accursed sail.''
- But now no sound of laughter
- Was heard among the foes.
- A wild and wrathful clamor
- From all the vanguard rose.
- Six spears' lengths from the entrance
- Halted that deep array,
- And for a space no man came forth
- To win the narrow way.
- But hark! the cry is Astur:
- And lo! the ranks divide;
- And the great Lord of Luna
- Comes with his stately stride.
- Upon his ample shoulders
- Clangs loud the four-fold shield,
- And in his hand he shakes the brand
- Which none but he can wield.
- He smiled on those bold Romans
- A smile serene and high;
- He eyed the flinching Tuscans,
- And scorn was in his eye.
- Quoth he, ``The she-wolf's litter
- Stand savagely at bay:
- But will ye dare to follow,
- If Astur clears the way?''
- Then, whirling up his broadsword
- With both hands to the height,
- He rushed against Horatius,
- And smote with all his might.
- With shield and blade Horatius
- Right deftly turned the blow.
- The blow, though turned, came yet too nigh;
- It missed his helm, but gashed his thigh:
- The Tuscans raised a joyful cry
- To see the red blood flow.
- He reeled, and on Herminius
- He leaned one breathing-space;
- Then, like a wild cat mad with wounds,
- Sprang right at Astur's face.
- Through teeth, and skull, and helmet
- So fierce a thrust he sped,
- The good sword stood a hand-breadth out
- Behind the Tuscan's head.
- And the great Lord of Luna
- Fell at that deadly stroke,
- As falls on Mount Alvernus
- A thunder smitten oak:
- Far o'er the crashing forest
- The giant arms lie spread;
- And the pale augurs, muttering low,
- Gaze on the blasted head.
- On Astur's throat Horatius
- Right firmly pressed his heel,
- And thrice and four times tugged amain,
- Ere he wrenched out the steel.
- ``And see,'' he cried, ``the welcome,
- Fair guests, that waits you here!
- What noble Lucomo comes next
- To taste our Roman cheer?''
- But at his haughty challange
- A sullen murmur ran,
- Mingled of wrath, and shame, and dread,
- Along that glittering van.
- There lacked not men of prowess,
- Nor men of lordly race;
- For all Etruria's noblest
- Were round the fatal place.
- But all Etruria's noblest
- Felt their hearts sink to see
- On the earth the bloody corpses,
- In the path the dauntless Three:
- And, from the ghastly entrance
- Where those bold Romans stood,
- All shrank, like boys who unaware,
- Ranging the woods to start a hare,
- Come to the mouth of the dark lair
- Where, growling low, a fierce old bear
- Lies amidst bones and blood.
- Was none who would be foremost
- To lead such dire attack;
- But those behind cried, ``Forward!''
- And those before cried, ``Back!''
- And backward now and forward
- Wavers the deep array;
- And on the tossing sea of steel
- To and frow the standards reel;
- And the victorious trumpet-peal
- Dies fitfully away.
- Yet one man for one moment
- Strode out before the crowd;
- Well known was he to all the Three,
- And they gave him greeting loud.
- ``Now welcome, welcome, Sextus!
- Now welcome to thy home!
- Why dost thou stay, and turn away?
- Here lies the road to Rome.''
- Thrice looked he at the city;
- Thrice looked he at the dead;
- And thrice came on in fury,
- And thrice turned back in dread:
- And, white with fear and hatred,
- Scowled at the narrow way
- Where, wallowing in a pool of blood,
- The bravest Tuscans lay.
- But meanwhile axe and lever
- Have manfully been plied;
- And now the bridge hangs tottering
- Above the boiling tide.
- ``Come back, come back, Horatius!''
- Loud cried the Fathers all.
- ``Back, Lartius! back, Herminius!
- Back, ere the ruin fall!''
- Back darted Spurius Lartius;
- Herminius darted back:
- And, as they passed, beneath their feet
- They felt the timbers crack.
- But when they turned their faces,
- And on the farther shore
- Saw brave Horatius stand alone,
- They would have crossed once more.
- But with a crash like thunder
- Fell every loosened beam,
- And, like a dam, the mighty wreck
- Lay right athwart the stream:
- And a long shout of triumph
- Rose from the walls of Rome,
- As to the highest turret-tops
- Was splashed the yellow foam.
- And, like a horse unbroken
- When first he feels the rein,
- The furious river struggled hard,
- And tossed his tawny mane,
- And burst the curb and bounded,
- Rejoicing to be free,
- And whirling down, in fierce career,
- Battlement, and plank, and pier,
- Rushed headlong to the sea.
- Alone stood brave Horatius,
- But constant still in mind;
- Thrice thirty thousand foes before,
- And the broad flood behind.
- ``Down with him!'' cried false Sextus,
- With a smile on his pale face.
- ``Now yield thee,'' cried Lars Porsena,
- ``Now yield thee to our grace.''
- Round turned he, as not deigning
- Those craven ranks to see;
- Nought spake he to Lars Porsena,
- To Sextus nought spake he;
- But he saw on Palatinus
- The white porch of his home;
- And he spake to the noble river
- That rolls by the towers of Rome.
- ``Oh, Tiber! Father Tiber!
- To whom the Romans pray,
- A Roman's life, a Roman's arms,
- Take thou in charge this day!''
- So he spake, and speaking sheathed
- The good sword by his side,
- And with his harness on his back,
- Plunged headlong in the tide.
- No sound of joy or sorrow
- Was heard from either bank;
- But friends and foes in dumb surprise,
- With parted lips and straining eyes,
- Stood gazing where he sank;
- And when above the surges,
- They saw his crest appear,
- All Rome sent forth a rapturous cry,
- And even the ranks of Tuscany
- Could scarce forbear to cheer.
- But fiercely ran the current,
- Swollen high by months of rain:
- And fast his blood was flowing;
- And he was sore in pain,
- And heavy with his armor,
- And spent with changing blows:
- And oft they thought him sinking,
- But still again he rose.
- Never, I ween, did swimmer,
- In such an evil case,
- Struggle through such a raging flood
- Safe to the landing place:
- But his limbs were borne up bravely
- By the brave heart within,
- And our good father Tiber
- Bare bravely up his chin.
- ``Curse on him!'' quoth false Sextus;
- ``Will not the villain drown?
- But for this stay, ere close of day
- We should have sacked the town!''
- ``Heaven help him!'' quoth Lars Porsena
- ``And bring him safe to shore;
- For such a gallant feat of arms
- Was never seen before.''
- And now he feels the bottom;
- Now on dry earth he stands;
- Now round him throng the Fathers;
- To press his gory hands;
- And now, with shouts and clapping,
- And noise of weeping loud,
- He enters through the River-Gate
- Borne by the joyous crowd.
- They gave him of the corn-land,
- That was of public right,
- As much as two strong oxen
- Could plough from morn till night;
- And they made a molten image,
- And set it up on high,
- And there is stands unto this day
- To witness if I lie.
- It stands in the Comitium
- Plain for all folk to see;
- Horatius in his harness,
- Halting upon one knee:
- And underneath is written,
- In letters all of gold,
- How valiantly he kept the bridge
- In the brave days of old.
- And still his name sounds stirring
- Unto the men of Rome,
- As the trumpet-blast that cries to them
- To charge the Volscian home;
- And wives still pray to Juno
- For boys with hearts as bold
- As his who kept the bridge so well
- In the brave days of old.
- And in the nights of winter,
- When the cold north winds blow,
- And the long howling of the wolves
- Is heard amidst the snow;
- When round the lonely cottage
- Roars loud the tempest's din,
- And the good logs of Algidus
- Roar louder yet within;
- When the oldest cask is opened,
- And the largest lamp is lit;
- When the chestnuts glow in the embers,
- And the kid turns on the spit;
- When young and old in circle
- Around the firebrands close;
- When the girls are weaving baskets,
- And the lads are shaping bows;
- When the goodman mends his armor,
- And trims his helmet's plume;
- When the goodwife's shuttle merrily
- Goes flashing through the loom;
- With weeping and with laughter
- Still is the story told,
- How well Horatius kept the bridge
- In the brave days of old.
A Lay Made About the Year Of The City CCCLXI
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Some Thoughts on Italy and Italians
This compilation was created by Dan Keller
Food DogmaButta butta mamma che sto pe` veni`!
There are rules about food that, if you violate them, Italians become confused. It's not that you've done harm, it's that your actions make no sense. The following list of food dogmas is adapted from Beppe Severgnini, "La Bella Figura" (2006):
- No cappuccino after ten o'clock nor after a meal. Cappuccinos are breakfast.
- Pizzas at midday are for schoolkids.
- Rice with meat is perfect but pasta can be with meat only if the meat is cooked in the sauce.
- The order of dishes matters. A main dish (meat, fish) instead of an antipasto is greedy.
- Never have cheese with seafood. So don't even think of putting parmigiano on your spaghetti alle vongole.
- Wine in flasks is for tourists.
- "Like elegance, garlic should be present but should not intrude."
IronyThe popular culture of Italy is imbued with a strong sense of irony. It's part of why we naive Americans -- so literal in our sensibilities -- consider Italians complex and sophisticated. Consider:
- Ennio Morricone's theme music for the movie classic Giu La Testa -- ethereal harmonies and light-hearted nonsense syllables ("Shom shom shom...") while on the screen is brutality and mayhem. Incidentally, Morricone also wrote the theme music for Il Vespaio (Hornet's Nest), a movie in which I acted in 1970.
- Mina (icon of Italian pop music) singing a faux light-hearted "Dee-dee-dee-dah" after her impassioned "Ti amo poi ti odio poi ti odio poi ti amo..." ("I love you then I hate you then I hate you then I love you...") in the mid-twentieth century classic, "Grande Grande Grande".
BusinessHere are some resources in case you're foolhardy enough to attempt to do business there:
- A glossary of financial terminology (PDF)
- My own Powerpoint presentation on the vocabulary of Italian real estate
Things Italians Don't "Get"
Invoices. This is an unintended consequence of an aggressive tax code. To hasten collections of taxes, the code was recently changed so that businesses are taxed not on what they receive but on what they invoice. Thus, once they send a bill to a customer, they owe taxes regardless of whether the customer actually pays. The result is bizarre but predictable: now invoices are not sent until after they are paid. Request for payment is verbal, informal, or perhaps by means of a letter vaguely requesting payment... but not by an invoice that could be entered into a bookkeeping system. Thus, businesses have difficulty tracking (let alone collecting) receivables and knowing what they're owed. And the tax system is no more effective than before. Ridiculous.
Refunds. It's neither in their culture (once you've yielded money it's gone forever) nor in their accounting systems. The word itself doesn't exist in Italian; the closest is "rimborso" (reimbursement) which is different. There is no such thing as a money-back guarantee. Sign up for a course at a local adult school, for example, and if it's not right for you, you can't have your money back but you can have a credit for a future course. As a result, nobody signs up (i.e. pays) for any course until after the first class, so they can see whether it's ok without risking their money. Thus, the instructors don't know whom nor how many to expect and the school doesn't know whether to cancel the course for low enrollment. Another example: no one ever risks overpaying for anything; they know they'd be screwed. So they underpay whenever possible. It's a bookkeeping nightmare.
Reliable contact. E.g. the bank officer goes on vacation. His phone simply goes unanswered. No one covers for him. There's not even an answering machine. Another example: someone's cellphone is unreachable (perhaps it's turned off, out of range, or bill is unpaid) -- the cell company's message doesn't say there's a temporary problem, it says the number you've dialed is no good. You must learn (as with so many things in this unhelpful culture) to interpret the message loosely, that is, keep trying... The message is probably quite literally false.
Flex time, i.e the concept of doing something at a different time than the majority, to avoid crowds, distribute resources better, etc. Primarily meals, but also vacations, etc. They just don't do it. In August, the beaches are solid flesh. In September, you've got them almost to yourself. Our favorite pizzeria downstairs from our apartment in Rome: get there at 7:59 for a table right away. A minute later and the queue is already forming. For a culture in which individuals pride themselves on non-conformism it's absurdly lockstep.
- Formulaic and propagandistic "news".
- Quasi-porn entertainment; misogynistic and pandering to the tawdriest of tastes, e.g. the famous Veline
- Dubbing: Many programs are imported and dubbed, always employing the same tiny cast of voices and stylized, stereotyped deliveries.
- Censorship e.g. Sabina Guzzanti whose political satire TV show was terminated after she ridiculed Berlusconi and his corrupt government. She was also sued by Berlusconi's TV empire Mediaset's lawyers. Censorship is alive and well in Italy.
Pop music. When it's well done it's derivative (Giorgia, Neri per Caso). When it's genuine/original the quality is low. The classic cantautore has rarely had music lessons or voice training and can't carry a pitch.
Air conditioning. It's expensive and must be consumed wisely. Yet Italians don't close doors and windows when AC is on. On the contrary, when they run the AC, they throw doors and windows wide. It's almost a superstition; somehow it would be unhealthy to seal the room when the AC is running. Wasteful and weird, this attitude appears universal in Italy.
"Get out of the way" -- instead they have "squeeze past" (which Americans would do well to learn).
Queueing. Even doing it sneakily and cleverly doesn't make cutting in line ok. It's one example of the belief that the rules, deep down, don't apply to them. They can get indignant when someone else uses this principle, but they do it with a humor that Anglos don't have because Italians understand that the same principle is at work for everybody else. So when someone cuts ahead of them in line, they complain but not with the self-righteousness of an Anglo.
Customer service. The crews that trim the hedges on the medians of the highways wisely block off the adjacent lane for safety but they do it during the hours when traffic is heaviest. After all, it would be unreasonable to expect them to work nights or weekends. So the terrible traffic grinds nearly to a halt. Another example: A tabacchi doesn't sell bolli... but you don't learn this without waiting in line... It wouldn't occur to them to post a sign and spare the hapless peon. A third example: Receipts, copies of documents, etc. When you fill out a gov't form, you don't get a copy. When you pay a bill, buy a bollo, or submit a fee, you don't get a receipt. Hey, it's the government! (Or a faceless company). They owe you no service -- quite the opposite! It's well-understood in Italian culture who works for whom.
Salaries. Workers in Italy are so poorly paid it's no wonder they're slow, grumpy, and utterly without initiative.
Banking. Opening an account is a lengthy process, with lots of discussion among bank employees about procedures and requirements. Standard procedures? In your dreams! But that's just the staff. The banks themselves are predators. Their goal is to deduct as many fees, charges, interest, etc. as they can from client accounts while delivering the least service possible. In the US, we expect courtesy and service from banks, and they compete for our business. In Italy, customers meekly put up with their banks because it's hard to live without a Bancomat (ATM) card. Nonetheless, they hate their banks... with good reason.
Obeisance before officialdom. In the agenzia Entrate (and other government offices) great attention has been paid to the waiting process that applicants endure. The waiting room is elegant and well-cleaned; even the take-a-number ticket system is refined and high-tech. Too bad equal attention was not paid to the effectiveness and efficiency of the services for which we supplicants -- I mean applicants -- wait.
Shower curtains. In Italy, there's no such thing. Evidently, a shower's primary purpose is to wash the floor surrounding the tub.
Diversity. Among the few things we're uniquely good at in the USA is inclusion and acceptance of foreigners. My Italian is nearly flawless and my accent is subtle yet in every conversation with someone new there comes a moment when they ask, "Ma non sei di qui, vero?" And I know that from that point forward what I say will be discounted. The absence of this instinctive, unthinking arrogance is one of the few aspects of American culture from which Italians can learn... Indeed, must learn.
Things They Get Brilliantly
Integrity about food. At a restaurant the other day, the maitre'd was setting up a table for a group of six. He pushed a table for two next to a table for four and stepped back to survey the result, making sure that their experience would be perfect. This is entirely normal and expected. At mealtimes perfection is the norm. The napkins and tablecloth shall have been ironed, certainly.
Garb, appearance. Pressed jeans and above all good shoes. You can be an idiot but you must look good.
Empathy toward friends. Sense and do whatever the friend needs, regardless of inconvenience. My Italian friends tell me that in adversity it's not to siblings they turn but to friends.
Coffee bars. As everyone knows, the coffee is splendid, in minute, silken doses. The barman (or lady) is a performer on a stage, emptying the old grinds, replenishing the new, and throwing the steam valve (or switch) with great economy of motion and pride. The protocol followed by we who belly up to the bar is precise. Our place is established by a saucer and teaspoon that mark the imminent landing zone of our coffee and briefly entitle us to 30 cm of gleaming stainless steel bar-front real estate. We earn this by presenting, as evidence of payment a scontrino from the cassa, often accompanied by a small coin to win special treatment -- a smile, perhaps, or even a grazie if he/she is not too busy. A charming theatrical ritual.
VPLs. Whereas for American girls revealing the outlines of their underwear is gauche, an embarrassment, for Italian girls it's part of the outfit. Underwear is not a dark secret that must be denied. After all, everyone wears it (mostly). What's shameful about that?
Rubber stamps. They adore them! Entire stores are devoted to Timbri e Targhe. No official or monetary function can proceed without them in joyous profusion. At the post office (of course), in any kind of office, even in an ordinary shop the clerk rubber stamps and signs the instruction manual of the hair dryer you bought. Rubber stamps reassure Italians that something real has taken place, that they are alive, that they exist!
Saying no. At a store, you ask for something and are told, we're closed, come back in two (or even four) hours. You do and then they tell you they're out of stock (which may or may not be true.) The point is that the customer is an annoyance. At the bank, a clerk tells you that the routine operation you request is impossible, never done, "Mi dispiace," those are the rules. Come back later, ask a different clerk, and your transaction is completed in minutes, no problem. Too bad this experience is not unusual.
Flowery language is how Italians convey seriousness, gravity. Severgnini: "Verbosity... is the hallmark of consequence. Simplicity risks passing for superficiality, and a light touch can be taken for lack of authority." Thus, statements made in American-style brevity are often dismissed by Italians who pay more attention to presentation than to content.
Rules are for other people. Supporting facts:
- My mother knows everything important and is never wrong.
- She says that I am special, extraordinary, brilliant. Flawed, perhaps, but only in ways that increase my charm.
- If you doubt #2, see #1. That's why rules don't apply to me. Oh yes, and girlfriends who are not like my mother won't last. In other words, all of them.
The misfit child/sibling/parent Esp. in movies. E.g. the angry, autistic brother in Lettere dalla Sahara, the schizophrenic sister in La Meglio Gioventu`. Italians love skeletons in the closets of others.
Old man, young woman. The Berlusconi TV channels pander to the lowest of the low. More than one parent has told me that those channels are off-limits to their kids. The offenses are many. Among them are those featuring fatuous old windbags who behave like pedophiles. But that's irrelevant. Your attention is instead riveted to the camera angle: up the dresses of the young lovelies they nearly molest. One can't help but wonder what goes on behind the scenes and how tiny are the sums for which these beauties yield their dignity. For Mr. Berlusconi it's a race to the bottom line... and the bottom. Shame on you, Italy!
The Power of Intangibles
In the culture of Italy (where I lived for the past year and which continues to be very present in my thoughts) intangible, legalistic, and conceptual things have unusual power. They possess reality in a way that is much stronger than in our own North American culture. I'll give three examples.
I joined a health club. One of its requirements was a medical certificate stating that my cardiac health was adequate for physical exercise. The weird part was that the little man at the desk refused to accept this information unless it was the original document created by the doctor. A photocopy was not acceptable. In other words, the purpose of the regulation -- protecting health, avoiding potential lawsuits -- was subsumed by an intangible characteristic of a piece of paper. The material fact (my good health) that motivated the regulation was irrelevant.
Example 2: A street was being re-paved so the curb lane of traffic was rerouted. A city bus was thus unable to make its customary stop at that curb. The temporary sign that covered the bus stop sign said, "Bus Stop Suppressed During Construction". In other words, the ordinary behavior of the bus -- a convention or activity, not a physical object, was not merely ceased but somehow vigorously subjugated -- "suppressed" -- just short of violence, though the subject of the announcement was merely a concept. It's somehow gone beyond just being a place where people would usually get on a bus and become almost force of nature, an entity with a will of its own.
Example 3: Many of Rome's narrow streets in the city center have restricted traffic flows that vary from day to day. Illuminated electronic signs proclaim whether or not traffic is permitted on a particular street on a particular day. The wording of these signs, too, imply a kind of physicality to the rule. When passage is forbidden, the signs say "Regulation is Active", in other words, the rule (again, a conceptual thing, not an object that possesses actual physical manifestation) has, to the Italian mind, power and physical-like properties. It's not just in their heads, it's somehow a real thing out there in the world.
This feature of Italian culture may at first seem subtle and little more than a curiosity but it has remarkable power in daily life. It contributes to a docility and acceptance of bureaucracy as normal. Italians put up with things that would be unacceptable here in the USA because somehow the underlying conceptual mechanisms have, to them, more force, more power, more reality. There is of course much to love in Italy. But this bureaucratic mindset is one of the things that makes me glad to be back home in The Land of the Free.
|Keeping the neck warm is an important part of staying well for Italians|
By Dany Mitzman Bologna, Italy
Many Italians, it seems, are prone to a particularly wide range of winter illnesses, helped apparently by an in-depth knowledge of human anatomy.
More than a decade living in this country has led me to a shocking conclusion. Being Italian is bad for your health.
As winter draws in, those around me are suffering from a range of distinctly Italian ailments, that make our limited British colds and flus sound as bland as our food.
As I cycle around the medieval streets of my adoptive home town of Bologna, I smile to myself, marveling at the fact that I am still wearing a light-weight jacket at this time of year.
My Italian counterparts are less fortunate.
They have their woolly scarves and quilted coats out and are rubbing their necks, complaining of my favourite mystery Italian malady "la cervicale".
"Soffro di cervicale (I suffer from cervicale)," they tell me, making it sound particularly serious.
Most people over the age of 30 seem to have the condition, but I am still at a loss as to what exactly it is and how to translate it.
I have looked it up in the dictionary and found "cervical" - an adjective referring to the cervical vertebrae, those little bones in the back of your neck - but as an ailment, there is simply no English translation. We do not have it!
The British also do not seem to have the sort of exceptional knowledge of their own anatomy which Italians have.
Benefits of ignorance
Soon after I moved here, I remember a friend telling me he was not feeling very well. "My liver hurts," he said.
I have since been assured by doctors that you cannot actually feel your liver, but what really struck me was the fact that he knew where his liver was.
We British, in contrast, are a nation staggeringly ignorant of our anatomy.
Italians can also tell you if the pain is in their stomach or intestine - and can even specify whether it is colic or colitis - but to us it is all just "tummy ache".
Yet although I should feel embarrassed about my inability to point out the exact location of my gall bladder, I am not.
Why? Because I think it makes me healthier.
After years of first-hand experience of the delicate Italian constitution, I have come up with a theory about why we British are so much sturdier. If you cannot name it, you cannot suffer from it. If you do not know where it is, it cannot hurt you.
Among my Italian friends I am considered something of an immuno-superhuman.
I can leave the gym sweaty to have my shower at home and not catch a chill en route. I can swim after eating and not get congestion or cramp. I can walk around with wet hair and not get "la cervicale".
I even brag about it. At restaurants I will say: "Let me sit in the draught. I'll be fine. I'm English."
I ran my theory past a Sicilian psychoanalyst and he said I had a point.
For example, the British do not have a term for a "colpo d'aria". It literally translates as a "hit of air" and seems to be incredibly dangerous for Italians.
They can get one in their eye, their ear, their head or any part of their abdomen.
To avoid getting a colpo d'aria, until at least April, they must never go out without wearing a woollen vest, known as a "maglia della salute" (a shirt of health).
British mums hold their kids' jackets so they will not get hot and sweaty while they run around and play. In contrast, the parks here in Italy are filled with pint-sized, quilted Michelin men, zipped up to their noses to stop the air getting in and hitting them.
Italians are brought up to be afraid of these health risks, while our ignorance of their very existence makes us strong and fearless.
It is a question of etiquette too.
We are a nation that "mustn't grumble", trained from an early age that the only answer to "How are you?" is "Fine, thank you."
Our vocabulary reflects this. Whether we have had a cold or spent six weeks in intensive care, we will tell you we have been "a bit poorly".
But last week I experienced a moment of panic. I woke up feeling weak and nauseous.
Correct me if I am wrong, but have you ever heard a British person complain they are suffering from 'heavy legs'? ”
What if that cultural difference was actually contagious?
What if years in the country had changed my constitution and I too was suffering from another common Italian health hazard, "the change of season"?
I tried to convince myself that lack of sleep was to blame, but I was not certain.
Later that day, I bumped into a neighbour and confessed that I was feeling "a bit poorly".
'Change of Season'
"Ooh," she said, looking concerned. "I went to the doctor yesterday and he told me there's a 48-hour stomach flu going around."
Then her face brightened up. "But don't worry, you're English so it'll only last 24 hours for you!"
And suddenly - superhuman status restored - I felt a whole lot better.