I wrote in my pre-trip post that I’m going to be seeking out “stories.” More specifically, the stories that interest me involve people who are doing their best to make Italy a better place in their own way. The sort of folks that strive to celebrate all the things that made the “Old Italy” so appealing to the rest of the world, while at the same time dragging “New Italy” into the 21st century for the benefit of its own citizens.
So then it might seem a bit odd that I’m beginning this trip with a stop in Milan to chat up an Englishman over Prosecco and fritto misto at the new Eataly in the posh Brera district.
Alex Roe appeared on my radar several years ago, even before I moved to Rome. I was keen to learn more about modern Italy, and increase my practical knowledge beyond the well-known history and tourist itineraries. His website, Italy Chronicles, was (and still is) highly visible and impressively prolific, churning out article after article attacking the political status quo that has kept this country firmly stuck in the past. Many of his articles were equally harsh against the social and cultural norms, placing a proportionate amount of the blame for Italy’s problems on the shoulders of the citizens. So yes, in the very beginning, I was bit put off by Alex, to be honest, as I felt that he had no right to be bashing his host country with such apparent vitriol.
The truth is, I’ve never met a foreigner who cares for Italy more. Sure, lots of people “fall in love” with Italy, like a passionate affair with a mysterious stranger. That first meandering cruise down the Grand Canal or the first gaze upon the radiant dome of Saint Peter’s at sunset touches all of us in a visceral way, and it doesn’t take much more for Italy to seduce us.
But Alex’s affection goes much, much deeper. After talking with him for several hours, I began to appreciate just how badly he wants Italy to be its best self. Like me and many others, he sees Italy’s enormous potential and it frustrates him to see it all go to waste.
I suppose I should offer a more complete introduction. Alex Roe is an English teacher, media consultant, trainer, translator, blogger, webmaster, amateur photographer and all round technology buff. During his 20 years in Italy, he has acquired an Italian “other half,” Cristina, and their union has produced a son and a Manchester terrier.
Through the years, his website has evolved and is now more a magazine than a blog. Italy Chronicles covers, amongst many other topics, Italian news in English, and has become an ever growing source of news, analysis and information on many aspects of Italy attracting visitors such as universities, businesses, governments and even the CIA.
You will find everything there: from news and politics to Prosecco, from bunga bunga and Berlusconi to pictures of Italy’s beautiful landscapes and buildings, as well as tips on good Italian wines to try.
Eating in Eataly
So there we were, an American and an Englishman surrounded by the very best of Italian products in an environment that, honestly, seemed more like an amusement park than a grocery market/restaurant. Sure, there was a dizzying array of prosciutto, cheeses, pastas, wines, artisanal beers, and even household products. But there was also a rock band playing 80′s tunes translated into Italian, flashing lights, a twisting network of escalators in every direction, like some slow-speed roller coaster for shoppers.
The question became, “Is this the way out for Italy economically? To become a cleaned-up, sterilized version of itself?” After all, Eataly is brand new to its namesake country. The business found success abroad first, and then was brought back “home.” The result is something conspicuously less “Italian,” yet unquestionably a winning formula.
The balance is a tricky one. How does Italy move forward, grow its economy, and provide a higher standard of living for its citizens without giving up the identity that made it so well-loved in the first place? If, by some miracle, Italy suddenly became organized, regimented, and “by the book,” then perhaps it wouldn’t be Italy anymore. It would be, well…Germany.
Alex certainly has a better sense of these topics than I do. For a deeper discussion of these subjects consult his website. And if you are really serious about understanding the real modern Italy, beyond the fantasies that we all like to hang onto, then consider becoming a member of his site. But this is the challenge for Italy today: to maximize the potential of its incredible resources, while slowing casting off the old mentality of nepotismo, furbizia, and to some degree, campanilismo.
Thanks again to Alex Roe for taking time to discuss the many joys and woes of both Italy, and…Eataly. Ciao!