April 21


North versus South issues in Italy

By Rick

April 21, 2015

North versus South issues in ItalyYou hear about the North versus South issues in Italy all the time, but honestly, I often have a hard time believing the hype. I’ve spent time in Milan and Venice, as well as Naples and Sicily. Sure, I see the differences–sometimes quite significant differences. But much more obvious to a foreigner are the similarities.

Then just when I’ve nearly convinced myself that Italy is a unified country after all, some cafone with a misplaced sense of campanilismo will leave a comment on my blog that makes me wonder if I’m just fooling myself.

The South is “Below” Wherever you’re from

For example, below is an excerpt from a long-winded rant in response to an old article about my experience at a doctor’s office in Rome. (And yes, he actually wrote the entire tirade in capital letters, the written equivalent of shouting.)

Honestly, I believe his intention was to attack me and the American healthcare system—which would have been fine. But the proud Milanese just couldn’t resist distancing himself from the “Southerners” (in other words, Romans).






So what should I conclude from this rant, other than he failed US geography in school? (He seems to believe that Michigan is among the Southern United States.)

Well, for one thing, I’ve learned that for this type of person, “South” is always relative to where you’re from. For our friend here from Milan, Rome is part of the South. At the same time, I’ve received comments from Romans who insist that Rome is neither North nor South, but part of Central Italy. (I think Romans are the only ones who recognize this middle land).

I’ve heard Southerners complain about the politicians in the North (yes, Rome) who only want to exploit the South, and keep all the government money in their own pockets instead of repairing the roads and trains in Calabria or Sicily.

On the same article about my doctor’s visit in Rome, another “patriot” defends his country’s healthcare system, but not before placing a caveat which excludes his fellow countrymen to the South, the so-called terroni. (At least his was considerate enough to forgo the “caps lock” while voicing his ethnic prejudices.)

Il Mezzogiorno“The only negative part is that southern part of Italy. Terronia, starting from where you live [Rome], is a millstone round our necks so people go to north to be [seen by a good doctor].”

So for him, another one from Milan, the South is just a big burden on the rest of the country, “a millstone around their necks,” as he so eloquently phrased it.

Which is interesting, because I heard those same comments about the Milanesi when I was in Ticino, the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland, this summer. A Swiss friend of mine referred to Milan as “disgusting,” and Milan’s Malpensa airport as “the third world.” I won’t repeat what he said about the Milanesi themselves.

He’s not alone. Last year, motivated by the droves of Northern Italians trying to relocate across the border, Swiss citizens passed some tough immigration laws in an effort to strongly limit the number of Italians living and working in their country.

Ironically (or not), the initiative found its strongest support in Ticino, the Italian-speaking zone, where 70% voted in favor of it—in other words, they voted in favor of keeping the Italians out.  For the Swiss living near the Italian border, the Milanese are really just a “millstone around their necks.”

Yes, it’s all a matter of perspective. The South is anywhere “below” where you are standing, apparently.

Responding to a Crisis

Fortunately, as I wrote in my response to the ethnic slurs left in the comment section of my blog, at least I find some comfort in knowing that the cafoni are the obnoxious minority.

A rescuer cradled a toddler who was among 100 refugees, including 28 children, who were rescued near Sicily. Credit Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press via New York Times
A rescuer cradled a toddler who was among 100 refugees, including 28 children, who were rescued near Sicily. Credit Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press via New York Times

A much more accurate picture of the Italian character can be witnessed within the current refugee crisis in Sicily. Yesterday, 900 migrants from North Africa were lost in the Mediterranean Sea. The situation is getting worse, and the Italians are standing up to take action while the rest of Europe appears to be ignoring the situation. According to The New York Times:

“Italy has been at the forefront of coping with the surge in refugees and has been increasingly insistent that the rest of Europe do more to help. A widely praised Italian-led search-and-rescue program was phased out last fall and replaced by a smaller European-led operation.”

Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, expressed dismay at what he characterized as European apathy over the migration crisis. “How many more people will have to drown until we finally act in Europe?” he asked in a statement. “How many times more do we want to express our dismay, only to then move on to our daily routine?”

Well, based on my observations, Italians appear to spurn routines in general. In fact, it’s often hard to define routines and schedules in Italy. The frequent scioperi disrupt the work week, a long list of holidays revolving around saints and historic events provide countless ponti (long weekends), and shop hours are erratic and unpredictable (e.g. il giorno di riposo).

Yes, Italians dislike the mundane and predictable. But when there’s an acute crisis, watch them band together and spring into action. Hopefully the rest of Europe will soon follow their lead in the Mediterranean.

North versus South in Italy

Correct me if I’m wrong, but there’s a gondola in this swimming pool, right?

Italy is not a homogenous country by any stretch, and that’s one of the big reasons that it’s so appealing to expats and tourists alike. Diversity is a good thing!

That said, it’s only for our “benefit” that you’ll hear a gondoliere in Venice singing “O’ Sole Mio,” or find Saltimbocca alla Romana on a menu in Milan. If only Italy could find a way to embrace the differences without watering down the culture for the expectations of tourists. Speaking as an American, we get plenty of homogeneity back home. We come to Italy (partly) to explore the many, many diverse sites, tastes, sounds, and experiences in this cultural and historical wonderland. If we want a healthy dose of kitsch, we have Las Vegas.

L’Italia è COSÌ

This post is brought to you by a collective effort from our blogger group known as COSÌ. For your ease and comfort, we’ve added a COSÌ Facebook Page so that you can access all of our articles in one location. Coming soon will be a video compilation of our insider suggestions for touring Italy. We’ve also started a movement to create a sindacato (labor union) to stand up for the rights of English-speaking bloggers all across Italy. (Not really. I suggested the idea to the group, but for some reason it was shot down.)

Surviving in Italy: Northern Italians Versus Southern Italians. Are They Really That Different?

Girl in Florence: North vs. the South | A United Italy

So please check out the posts from fellow trouble-makers in the Italian blogosphere. And leave a comment below…IF you’re not a cafoni with your keyboard permanently set to “caps lock.”

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About the author

Living in the Caput Mundi and trying to decipher Italian culture for the English speaking world.

  • We consider Catania nord! As described by many other posters – it is all from where you are standing . Thankfully, the cranky poster is very much the minority.

    • Well, I’m sorry “Lollo,” but in 3 years I have never censored comments on my blog. I have deleted exactly 2 comments in that time because the commentator was belligerent (was that you?) or used foul language. But I have NEVER deleted an opinion simply because it disagrees with mine. I simply present my views as seen from the perspective of a foreigner in Italy (who speaks Italian and is married to an Italian, by the way).

      YOU, on the other hand, clearly have a Pro-North agenda. You haven’t even attempted to hide your shameful bigotry. I have many Italians friends, and I am sorry for them, that they have to endure your brand of racism towards fellow countrymen.

      Therefore I will certainly NOT delete your comments, as I wish to display them as an example of the loud, uneducated minority of Italians who feel as you do.

  • Yes prejudices are still alive and strong. It isn’t as bad as it was 30-40 years ago, but here in the north this kind of preconception is still alive and kicking, unfortunately. Some people affirm naïvely that when you see bad habits or bad attitudes in the north, this is caused mainly by people from the south. And there is people that say that the answer to the question “Northern Italians Versus Southern Italians. Are They Really That Different?” is: Yes they are, but there were a migration of millions Italians from the south to the northern industrial cities since 1950 and this mixed up the differences. But I think that this bias against southern regions is slowly growing dim.

    • Thanks for you informed reply, Alberto. Yes, I think migration, along with the Internet and Sky TV have done more for unification than the risorgimento ever did. And differences aren’t necessarily a bad thing so long as they are not used in a divisive way. Ciao!

  • Hello Rick,

    I don’t know if this has been mentioned before (there is a long list of comments that I did not read), but “Centro Italia” does exist as a cultural concept, although it may be slowly fading away.

    I am from L’Aquila, and I grew up with the idea that we were central Italians, rather than southerners. It is fair to say that “centro” is the handful of regions once part of the old Papal state (L’Aquila and thereabouts, Lazio, Umbria, Marche, more or less) and Tuscany (the old Grand Duchy). There is a linguistic aspect to it, as “centro italia” tends to also encompass the “mediano” family of dialects you can see on this map (mediano is in pink):


    I am not sure if there is more than a “neither” sense ” to it: I wouldn’t consider myself a northerner or a southerner, but that would be it. I do speak dialect, so I can say that there is an aspect of “campanilismo” that permeates this distinction. I admit that I had more than one discussion with Sardinians on whether they are also culturally part of “the Centre”. Somehow, I tend to identify central Italy with an abundance of cities with a medieval, at times Roman heritage, but that could be entirely subjective.

    Then again, I haven’t lived in Italy in 13 years and I am not so sure if the notion of “central Italy” has faded away or not.

    • Hmm… it’s an interesting point. I’m not sure if it’s faded away or not, either, but you don’t hear brought up in this discussion very often, if ever. The “argument” tends to center around the North/South issue, but I have the sense that it doesn’t have much to do with the history, linguistics, etc, that you mentioned, but rather an economic divide.

    • Really? I’m surprised that world geography isn’t part of the curriculum. But in any case, the IP address of the cretino who left the comment was in California. So he should have known better!

  • Hahaha! This has been my experience as well. I was just reading this entire thing and nodding, “yes, yes, yep, uh-huh.” Also? I get the same comments. “THIS IS NOT ITALY! THIS IS FLORENCE!” But what Italians rarely take into account is that our observations are those of a foreign person where, as you said, Italian similarities stand out more than their differences. Truly, it’s like New York versus Alabama. Different, but not like mind-blowingly different.

  • April 22 I answered to the good “polenta eater” guy on your healthcare blog link.

  • Oh Rick, I love this post, well well done as I knew you would having experience yourself in plenty of areas of Italy. I too have heard a variety of comments from Italian friends about what they think about everyone else, even from one Tuscan town to the next. People don’t mince words and they are only half-kidding. In France I noticed it was the ‘North’ that was sort of looked down upon opposed to the South, lots of industrial areas. So you see it everywhere, even in our countries. I agree that it would be nice to see the cultures remain in each place but perhaps people to compare a little less, be a little more open-minded 🙂 even if this means I will never get decent Mexican food in Florence

    • Ha, ha! Yes, it you definitely won’t find good Mexican food anywhere in Italy. Or any good “ethnic cuisine,” for that matter. Italians are suspicious of any food that didn’t come from their local area. Which as we’ve said before, this is also a good thing.

  • Maybe someday when I am living in Italy (hopefully), I will start an English-speaking blog and I will support your effort to create a sindacato, or may even take a lead in that effort Rick!

  • Molto interessante Rick. I’m Pugliese and I don’t think this ‘Nord vs Sud’ thing is anywhere near as bad as most people make it out to be. I think it was much worse in the 70’s and 80’s. Hope you don’t have to deal with any more ‘caps lock’ trolls! Ciao, Cristina

      • It’s weird….when I thinks north vs south isn’t so bad, then I hear from various friends or acquaintances and realized italy is not United. At all. Calabresi that loathe Sicilians, vice versa. Southerners that auto knee jerk the north as stuffy and racist. Florentines that consider themselves superior and “northern” and throw the “terroni” insult as “una battuta daiiiii, ma comunque é vero”, Piemontesi who call Florentines “terroni” instead, Florentines who hate Roman anything, Neapolitans who consider the Campania and their dialect the only real Italian, and then everyone in between. These things aren’t part of group polite conversation, but I’ll always get the “lo sai ….” when in small groups of each or individually.
        I’m pessimistic but I don’t see a change in attitude for another few generations….maybe. maybe when Italy has a better economy and people can stop blaming others, maybe when the madia, ‘ndragheta and camorra don’t control every aspect of life?

        • Great comments, and I especially liked your observation about when people say, “Una battuta, daiiiii, ma comunque é vero.”

          The reason I find this interesting is because I’ve heard people say this who really are just joking around and mean no harm, and I’ve heard others use it as a disguise for genuine, deep-rooted bigotry. If you know the person speaking, it isn’t hard to tell the difference.

          • Sorry for my typos…AM cell phone replying isn’t best. And yes, I agree, if you truly know the person, you can let things slide or figure it out that they aren’t just a jerky bigot. Your post made me think of a lot of situations in which I was left slack jawed at the stereotypes being thrown around, but presented as facts. It also made me think about problems each place faces, and Italy as a whole.

  • Campanilismo is alive and well all over Italy. I encountered it in the extreme when I was forced to exit the autostrada because my forward-looking, optimistic map had the highway project in a finished state — yet it wasn’t. With map in hand I asked a local gentleman where I should continue since there was no detour. He took the map raised it in the air, turned it ’round and ’round and said, “No lo so,” in frustration because he didn’t know where he was on the map. Obviously he was having no part of that highway skirting his town. Maybe that is what is behind the north/south divide. But I think the long debated Padania movement has goes more deeply into well rooted prejudice. I feel bad for all the good people in the south that have had to withstand such continuing vitriol. It doesn’t seem to bother the northerners when they come to Puglia to vacation in some of the most pristine beaches Italy has to offer. It also doesn’t seem to bother certain northern estate owners who commission the uprooting of secular olive trees to be transplanted in the soil of Padania. I have had the good fortune to travel all over Italy and Sicily through the years. As for myself, whose family emigrated a hundred years ago from the poor mountains outside Naples, Italy’s soul will forever be in the south. All these modern day Americans returning to the old country only to espouse pride for their southern ancestral roots has probably riled the sensibilities of too many Tuscans who may feel their Italian brand is the authentic one. But why argue? Just ask a group of Italians from several different regions how to make pasta fagiole (and how to pronounce it!) and you’ll see that it’s just another thing to argue about on the Italian stage of life.

  • This is a really interesting post. I think there’s always a north-south rivalry among some, and not others. It’s just some humans showing pride in their regions and looking to put others down. I grew up in Florida and have now lived in Boston for almost a year. There’s no love lost for many between these two states and regions. For others, they could care less. We even have a friend who’s originally from Tennessee but has lived in Massachussetts for 7 years. She finds the south backwards and has embraced her new home. One thing I’ve learned about living back in the states- different regions do different foods much better. Don’t go out for BBQ in Boston! 😉

    In terms of migrants in Italy, Greece has struggled with this influx as well through a deep recession. It’s put an added strain on the country and allowed the far right Golden Down party to gain a much greater following there. There’s certainly a general north-south rivalry in Europe for many. And I’m sure many Greeks would be lumped into “southerners” by Italians. Last year, when we flew Ryanair out of Bergamo airport back to Dublin, I was worried the Italian immigration officer was going to pull me to the side. I was flying with my Greek passport and he questioned me on my lack of Greek. I said “I don’t need to speak Greek to have this passport.” He said OK, “Who is Piros Dimas?” and insisted I answer this question. Luckily I knew the answer because I’m an avid Olympics fan- he was a Greek weightlifter who won a bunch of gold medals several Olympics ago. The Italian immigration officer then gruffly handed me my passport back and sent me on my way, thankfully. I asked my father, who does speak Greek and who lives in Florida, who Piros Dimas is, and he didn’t know, because he doesn’t follow sports. The Italian immigration officer was disgusted that I actually passed his followup “test” 🙂

    Good luck to the migrants and the Italians helping in this situation. Indeed, hopefully the north steps up! 🙂

    • Hi Alex, thanks for your great comments, as always. You always add a “story” which makes your take so much more “connectable.”

      I didn’t mention the Greek side of the story, although I probably should have. But limited by space and the theme of my blog, I elected to leave it to folks like you who know more about it.

      Ciao! Rick

  • Please don’t be confused by my email address (AND twitter nickname). Yes I am Milanese by birth too, but “padano” is not – repeat not – a member of the non-existent “padania”, a mere figment of the leghisti imagination. Padano is simply anyone living in the vary vast and varied Po Valley, from the Monviso to the Adriatic.
    Having cleared that, we Italians can be worse racist and bigots than any creature living in the swamps of the Deep South (or in New York City Upper West Side).
    Yet there is some truth to even the rudest racist joke and some of the most detestable myths, no matter where you live or travel.
    Perhaps the only way to reverse the pattern is to live in the southern hemisphere so that the “northerners” are the ones who get victimized (ie: “Paulista trabalha por Carioca” as they love to say in Brazil).
    Otherwise we are all pretty much conscious that “the wogs begin at Calais” or that anyone coming from South of Hamburg should be classified as “jeden von Stiletto”, that SPQR stands for “sono porci questi romani”, that “i terroni sono tutti mafiosi”, etc. etc.
    It might help you to see the map I will put on twitter, after I finish writing this: It’s only a partially completed map of our dialects (and I believe you have been in Italy long enough to know that these are often completely different LANGUAGES!).
    Shortly after Italy’s unification, in 1861, Massimo d’Azeglio said “L’Italia è fatta. Restano da fare gli italiani”, 154 years later we are still waiting for Italians to be “made”. It looks like it might take a little longer.
    Alas! We have lots of company: what would Abe Lincoln think of his dream of a “UNITED STATES”, if he were to witness the reality of today’s Fergusons and the perennial polarized/ing presidential campaigns?
    And are the Irish “troubles” not still festering in the embers of past fires, just waiting for someone to fan them back into murderous flares? What should we think about the neo-nazism in Germany? The Turkish still pretending that the Armenian never existed? Are the Africans making millions (yes, millions!) of $$ out of the desperation of their own people today, any different from those Africans that made equally bloody big money from the slave trade for the last 500 years? Because, you know, someone had to be rounding up all those people in Africa, before the white men stowed them in the hulls of their ships!

    Yes, I am rambling, I know. But I cannot help seeing a pattern here: ignorance is at the root of most BIG problems today as much as it was in very, very ancient times. This fact does not speak too well about our supposedly superiority as human beings, does it? Oh yes: we have progressed so much technologically, but, as a species, is “Homo Sapiens” that much better than “Neanderthal”, 500,00 years later?

    Let me end with an optimistic note: much of what some of us find wrong with the world today is just because we are better informed. It would seem that we have more choices than ever before, including HOW to use this vast amount of information.
    Will we use it to gain more understanding, knowledge and compassion or to foment more enmity, dividing people on purpose for our own short-term profit?

    I don’t an answer from you. Being a smug Milanese, I like to think that you are one of the good guys. If I am wrong, I’ll be just another dumb (baloss) Milanese expat.


    • Gianni, informed comments like yours are always VERY welcomed on my blog. Thanks for insights and your honesty (and using your real name/Twitter).

      Of course you’re right, bigotry is a human tendency, not an Italian trait.

      And I couldn’t agree more with your comments about “choices,” and the dissemination of information these days…although information should never be confused with knowledge.

      You’re not being smug…again, I appreciate your input. Ciao, Rick

  • My first-hand experience of the Italian North-South divide was actually in the aforementioned Kitschy Las Vegas. I was eating lunch with my wife at an Italian restaurant in the Venetian Hotel and the waiter happened to be Italian. When my wife discovered that he was actually from Italy she told him proudly that our family name was also Italian. When the waiter heard our obviously Sicilian name he replied with a look of disgust on his face, “Oh, but that name is from the South.”

    Of course we have met many gracious and friendly Italians, but that day we learned that some Italians are prejudiced and also not very good at customer service.

    • Yes, unfortunately those remarks are still a little too common. I think with every subsequent younger generation that mentality is slowly fading.

  • Apparently our Milano, CAP-LOVING friend is active on many blogs! He has trolled me as well, with the same health care rants. I hate to say I take comfort in your pain, Rick…but I am glad to know I am not alone in dealing with him!

    • Ha, ha!! You know, Andrea from “Sex, Lies, and Nutella,” told me the same thing! I think this guy is getting paid by the Ministero della Salute. LOL

  • Amen! The Italian response to the migration crisis is wonderfu. And Amen–we tourists enjoy the diversity even if it’s the 14th time and even if I stay in the same hotels (from where I can head out in many directions)!
    A presto

    • Max, thank you very much for telling me about this issue. I’ll go ahead and disable the shares for now, but could you tell me what type of device that you’re viewing it on? Mobile, I assume? Grazie, Rick

        • Hmmh…OK, that’s weird. I use Chrome on my PC and it looks fine. But on your suggestion, I disabled the sharing banner on the left. Hopefully it’s better now. Thanks again for the heads up.

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