An American In Italy
|Benvenuti a tutti!
Thanks for stopping by my blog where I attempt to decipher Italian culture for the English-speaking world. It’s always my intention to go a little deeper—beyond the stereotypes and la dolce vita—to discuss the many reasons why this beautiful chaotic city continues to inspire the dreams of travelers and expats year after year. Travelers, if you’re new to my site, you might want to start here. Expats, check out this post.
Travel, especially air travel, can be so disorienting. Just when I had almost recovered from an acute case of culture shock after flying from Sicily to Switzerland, a few days later we hopped on a plane again in Milan and—voilá! We found ourselves in…”Little Italy,” New York City’s version of the Old Country. My brain wasn’t prepared for so much confusion, especially being the sleep-deprived father of a precocious little principessa. (I wonder if culture shock has ever been fatal?)
This was not the first time that I’ve experienced reverse culture shock upon my re-entry into American society—and yet I’m still always caught off guard when my own culture “shocks” me. But that’s exactly what happens, and it’s a very enlightening phenomenon when you’re able to take an objective look at your own cultural reference points after being detached from them for a long period.
Earlier this year, I received a phone call from a fellow blogger, Alessandra from 21grammy, inviting me to join her on a blog tour of her region. She was working with a local tourism cooperative to bring writers from all over the world to their little corner of Italy; a charming beach town on the Adriatic Coast, she assured me. It didn’t take a lot of arm-twisting to get me onboard, although I wasn’t entirely certain of what I was agreeing to at first.
“So you’ll come, then?” she asked me.
“Sure. Where is it exactly?”
“Great. Where the hell is that?”
Back in 2008, I lived in Bologna for a short while. For those who haven’t visited “la dotta,” (“the learned one,” so-called for its university, the oldest in Europe), “la grassa” (“the fat one,” so-called for its heavy cuisine), or “la rossa,” (“the red one,” so-called for its red-tile roofs or communist leanings, take your pick), it’s worth adding to your next visit to northern Italy. While living there, I also spent a good bit of time in Parma where a few of my friends were studying music. So this was the Emilia-Romagna that I knew—the Emilia half—and probably the side that most foreigners know (if they know it at all).
Last month, during the final days of my Italy blog tour, I had the strangest dream—it really unsettled me, like an episode from The Twilight Zone. At first, everything appeared normal. I was in this smallish Italian town, wandering around the historical center with my wife and baby. We stopped for an espresso, bought a gelato for my daughter, and then picked up a few cartoline and francobolli in a tobacco shop. The simple things that we do most every day when in Rome or Sicily. The people around us were speaking Italian, and there was the unmistakable scent of fresh cornetti in the air.
But something wasn’t quite right. (Cue Rod Serling’s intro sequence…)
This time around my fellow expats and I are scratching our collective heads, trying to make sense of the traditions related to Ferragosto in Rome, and indeed all over Italy. For anyone who isn’t familiar with the phenomenon, it’s a five-week long summer holiday, where everyone pretty much says “Vaffanculo” to career obligations and heads out of town.
I don’t know about you, but I’m intrigued by this concept of a nation-wide stoppage of work for an entire month every year. It strikes me as just a tad counterproductive for a country that’s trying to crawl its way out of a deep recession. But—I suppose it’s consistent with the Mediterranean philosophy of making time to relax and enjoy life regardless of present circumstances. Fortunes always change. The economy wavers up and down, the politicians come and go (except Berlusconi; he’ll never go away), and so quality time with family and friends are what makes the struggle worthwhile.
By the way, if you’re enjoying the blogging misadventures of our rag-tag group of expats, then please join us this Sunday, August 3rd for a Google Hangout Q&A session at 13:00 EST, 19:00 in Italy. You can ask the expats all of your “What’s living in Italy really like?” questions. For now, however, let’s go a little deeper into the tradition of summer holidays in Italy.
In the spring of 1348, ten young Florentines gathered in the Piazza of Santa Maria Novella to plan their escape from the city. Florence was caught in the grip of The Black Death, and so they thought ten days spent in the verdant hills outside of town would be a good way to pass the time while the plague had its way with their fellow citizens. There would be tales of tragedy, trickery, and eroticism, along with plenty of teasing and flirting. The little stories that these fictional characters told each other became the collection known as “Decameron,” by Giovanni Boccaccio, a classic of Italian literature.
Fast forward to the spring of 2014 and I’m sitting in the very same square, waiting to meet my friend and tour guide, Elena. She is going to lead me on a walking tour of her native city and show me some of the highlights, including those connected to classic Italian literature, of which I have a particular interest. Back in Florida, I have a degree in Italian Studies awaiting just two more courses to complete my diploma. The class in Medieval and Renaissance literature was my favorite to date, and so I was anxious to visit the actual sites where literary history took place in Florence.