By Contributing Writer on Monday, November 24, 2008 - 14:20
by LaMile - Contributing Writer
When a journalist asked Barack Obama if he will ever come to Italy after Mr. Berlusconi called him “suntanned”, the neo-elected Us President said: “I would love to go to Italy”. Yes, everybody wants to visit Italy, what a wonderful country! Actually, it is. We have a very long history, we have such stunning monuments, and, even if not everywhere, amazing weather. That’s probably why for the rest of the world Italy is synonymous with art, fashion and great food. And it’s true!
Let’s start our journey from Rome, the capital. There you can see more than 3 millenniums of history, the Coliseum (70 and 72 AD), Trevi Fountain (Fontana di Trevi, started in XVII century), Piazza di Spagna (1725). Eventually the Vatican (it’s famous Saint Peter’s Basilica with a magnificent colonnade by baroque sculptor Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini), but remind: that’s another state, even if you won’t notice! Yes, you go to Rome and you find yourself in another country, the Vatican, so don’t ask why Italian politics are so conservative! And why we are the only Western European country without any law recognising same sex unions. But I will tell you more later! Rome is the third largest city in Europe, with more than three million citizens. Many of them are very, very welcoming, jazzy, and noisy; but hearty and nice. The weather is pleasant, the food is…wow!
If you go to Milan, in the North, you will find something completely different. The weather is cloudy (especially in the wintertime) and the best food you can get is a good sushi (there is a large Japanese community there). People are not that jazzy, and everyone walks the crowded streets hastily, speaking to mobile phones. Of course! Milan is the financial capital of Italy, the only city in the country where you can find more banks than churches. But most of all, there is fashion. In via Montenapoleone and via della Spiga you come upon show rooms, fashion stores and tiny models, beautiful, yes beautiful, but definitely hysterical (trust me if you find one, don’t dare to get too close!). And also Milanese lesbians are fashion victims…
In Milan there’s one thing you can’t miss: aperitivo (aperitif). Starting at 7 pm, bars and pubs get overcrowded with people of all ages, sexual orientations and incomes. All together they pour out from the grey buildings where they work and enter the Milanese “la dolce vita”. Spending from 5 to 8 euros you can get a cocktail (Mojitos, Daiquiri and Negroni sbagliato are the most fashionable!) and also have a sort of dinner: cold pasta, sandwiches, chips and salads. But at 9:30 pm, everything is almost finished! People must come back home: tomorrow is another heavy working day. Yes, because apart from the rest of Italy, in Milan you have to work at least 10 hours per day…otherwise you don’t get the real Milanese spirit!
If you’re looking for something less glamorous and more relaxing, you should travel way down South, to Naples, Sorrento, Capri, Pompei, for instance. Eat pizza and drink coffee: a real tasty and spiritual experience! Naples is astonishing, and two centuries ago, Goethe described the city as a natural paradise inhabited by the devil (a tip: best to be visited with someone who knows it well!). More on the South, you can go to Sicily, an island almost sunny for 364 days a year in the middle of Mediterranean sea, close to the northern coasts of Africa. People there are relaxed, lazy and smooth, and very very welcoming (even more than Romans).
The point is: Italy is not a unified country. Since 1861 it didn’t exist at all, the peninsula was just a crucible of municipalities, kingdoms and reigns, many of them ruled by foreign kings (the Borbone in the South, French and Austrian sovereigns in the North). The country was unified by Giuseppe Garibaldi, a typical Romantic hero, chief of an army supported by Camillo Benso earl of Cavour, prime minister of the king of Piedmont-Sardinia reign, Victor Emmanuel II. Garibaldi defeated the Borbonic troops and freed Italy from the “foreign invasion”. But what really happened then? Apparently a nation was created, but differences remained, not only by a linguistic point of view (we have so many different dialects), basically the North was an industrialised region, the South rural, its society still based on a feudal system. More then one century after, things seems to be remained the same: The North is rich, the South is poor. But it’s not that simple. Italians never feel themselves part of a nation. Encyclopedia Britannica describes Italy as "less a single nation than a collection of culturally related points in an uncommonly pleasing setting." And if you don’t trust my words, give Britannica a chance!
Moreover, on the New York Times “Country and Territories” you can read: “Italians tend to feel loyalty locally: to region or town or, most commonly, to the family itself”. Family, yes we have an odd sense of family: la famiglia is everything. But let’s explain it. The term famiglia covers so many different social structures. It’s the natural family (your parents, brothers and sisters, your relatives), but it’s also a sort of affiliation to a specific clan. If you’re thinking about Mafia, bingo! Along with pizza and pasta, some of our best products (often exported) are Mafia, Camorra and ‘Ndrangeta (respectively, from Sicily, Campania and Calabria, all southern regions, but all of them deep-seated in the rest of the country ). These are criminal associations with such a long tradition. According to some historians, everything began during the seventeenth century, under the Spanish domination, when people used to rely on local lords to get protection, mostly because the central power (it was a foreign one, and basically the king and his ministers didn’t speak a word of the regional languages) was perceived as oppressive, far and unfair. Once you asked local lords’ help, you entered a new family, a bigger one, with all duties and obligations, with a specific code (codice d’onore, honour code). Of course, this is just a simplification (scholars are still trying to give a proper definition of such tangled issue), but useful to introduce Italian attitude to politics.
During World War II, we were allied with Germany and Japan. Mussolini, il duce, the Fascist Italian head of state, wanted to bring back the country to the glory of the ancient Roman empire. And (too) many Italians followed him in such excited (and stupid) ambition. We didn’t get too far, fortunately. But enough to issue racial laws against Jews. The war was lost, and Mussolini defeated by Americans, supported by Italian anti-fascist patriots (Partigiani, while the period was called Resistenza, resistance). After that we joined democracy, but in an Italian way: After the Fascist era in Italy, the country has taken turns more than 60 governments. That’s another point: we don’t have a strong sense of democracy. For about 40 years Italians voted Democrazia Cristiana (Christian Democracy), a party, as the name suggests, deeply tied to the Catholic Church, lead by Giulio Andreotti, a very, very obscure political figure. On the opposition there was the Communist Party (the biggest in Western Europe). During the ’80s Bettino Craxi, leader of the Socialist Party, was elected as prime minister. And in the ‘90s (thanks to a team of prosecutors) Italians discovered that all the ruling parties were corrupt, that they built up a system, both political and economic, based on payoffs.
It was the end of the so called First Republic. Well, the Second one was exactly the same. Except for the sudden arrival of a new political figure, Silvio Berlusconi! He began his career many years ago as singer, yes! He used to sing and play piano on cruise ships with his lovely friend, Marcello Dell’Utri (who has been condemned for being in collusion with the mafia). Perhaps he wasn’t a great singer at all, so he decided to turn at real estates, and became a builder. With more success, eventually. At the beginning of the ‘80s, thanks to the help of Craxi, he opened three TV channels (Canale 5, Italia 1 and Rete 4). At that time the only national TV channels were state run, and now the situation is quite simple: three TVs state run and three commercial channels owned by the prime minister, plus another one (La7) very small. For this reason Italian TVs is quite boring. Everybody complains about it, but… Here comes another peculiar characteristic of our spirit: we do complain, all the time, about everything, politics, economy, administration, society, and soccer!
Oh soccer! The essence of Italian spirit. There is just one moment when we consider ourselves a nation: when Italian soccer team plays. In 2006, we won the World Cup, I’ve never seen so many Italian flags on the streets, on the balconies, on the buildings. I guess people learnt the anthem for the occasion (don’t ask Italians to sing it, because many of us don’t know all the words!). Maybe I’m too harsh: Not all Italians are Mafiosi, not every Italian is in love with Mr. Berlusconi, and we are not all Catholic (and white)! We enjoy one of the world's highest standards of living, we have also been central to the formation of the European Union, and we do feel ourselves European, especially the youngest generation (unfortunately, according to the latest poll, one Italian in five is over 65 years old!), we travel a lot, we study abroad and we look at US and Europe as positive models (many of us didn’t sleep waiting for Obama’s election!), but there are creeping conservative forces that tear down any possibility of change. The Catholic Church, for instance! But before we start this discussion, I just want to make clear: I’m not speaking about religion, but about the political influence the Catholic establishment has on Italian society.
Let’s start from a simple observation: there is no openly lesbian celebrity in Italy (except for pop singer Gianna Nannini, who admitted being bisexual at least!), there is just one lesbian MP, Paola Concia, and the desert all around! Few lesbian movies, I barely remember just one: Benzina, Gasoline. Gay men are better represented, but I mean, not all of them are Dolce&Gabbana! This year, for the first time on the state run TV was broadcasted a series with a wanna-be and a lesbian character. But, you know, it was closed after they kissed! What else? Homophobia is spreading all over the country, despite the fact that Italians are basically tolerant; we don’t have any law recognizing same sex unions; and the most offensive word you can tell a man is “fag”, (dramatically the word is not banned on TV!). Last year, the leftist ruling coalition intended to issue a law on same sex unions, a kind of conservative-ultracatholic revolution took place. On May, 12 2007 hundreds of thousand of activists overrun St John Lateran square protesting against the Government proposal (I suppose the Church has enough money to pay all participants train and bus tickets!).
But please, don’t be disturbed by my words, come to Italy…well, INVADE US!
[Check back next week for the portrait of Norway!]
(proof read by Laura)