I’ve written a few articles about the classics of Italian cinema on my blog because I feel like certain films do a great job of teaching some of the nuances of Italian culture to us foreigners. Taken in their proper context, they can help bridge the gap between fantasy and reality. That is, if we’re willing to let go of our fantasies about Italy.
Many of these movies aren’t so easy to appreciate because there are culture references that don’t translate well. Indeed, the translations found in the subtitles aren’t always linguistically accurate—or if they are, the meaning/context is lost. We can’t always substitute one thing for another, whether it’s a word or a gesture or a custom.
Consider the film with the English title, The Bicycle Thief. In Italian, it’s called, I Ladri di Biciclette. Notice that the subject is plural in Italian, The Bicycle Thieves, and not Thief, like in the English title. It may seem like a subtle point, but when presenting the film to the Hollwood-ized (read: American) audience, the focus on the individual seems like a wise marketing decision. Hollywood movies are all about the individual hero struggling against odds to overcome his obstacles and enemies. Social commentary—and especially socialism—were not big on the minds of American producers in the 40s and 50s. (Nor are they today, for that matter.)
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.