A NEW STATE OF MIND
We made a decision to create a new lifestyle in a different place hoping the process would generate new experiences. This is just one more admission on our part to having a low threshold for boredom and finding new experiences invigorating. An interesting aspect of new experiences seems to be, it tends to create a new state of mind.
By deliberate choice, we came to live in the historic center of a provincial capital town, ‘off the beaten path’ in central Italy. We chose to live in the older center of a town that has had the fortunate, good sense to consciously preserve the medieval character of the area. An impression that has grown on us is the level of respect the people of Ascoli have for themselves through respect for their cultural heritage. The path along which the people of Ascoli have travelled through time is for them an immediate, visceral experience in their daily lives. What greets us on a daily basis here in Ascoli Piceno is very different from the American southern California that had previously been home.
There is no question preserving the medieval character of Ascoli is an asset to promote tourism. But the people of Ascoli have long been committed to preserving their cultural heritage well before mass tourism became a reality. It seems that tourism is drawn to experience Italy because of the respect these people have for their long heritage rather than sites like Ascoli being ‘manufactured’ to promote tourism. This is not ‘theme-park-kitsch.’ This is the real thing far beyond what promotors could have manufactured and in a lot better taste.
But Ascoli is also a place in touch with modern technology. The already ample street lighting in Ascoli Piceno is in the final stages of being replaced by highly energy-efficient LED elements being installed in the existing, medieval appearing street lighting lanterns. Fiber-optic communication infrastructure is also in process of installation while preserving the historic character of the pavement.
Beginning to feel at home in a cultural environment different than your own does not happen overnight. I don’t think either one of us would try and pretend we are at that point just yet. In reality, we will probably remain the ‘stranieri’, foreigners, for some time to come. But in actuality, we have already come to feel very comfortable here; our state of mind has become surprisingly tranquil.
Beyond any question of a doubt, the warm and hospitable character of the Italian people as a whole is a strong factor in creating that perception. We have been incredibly fortunate in having been accepted by a number of very kind Italians whose company we enjoy very much. In addition to the immediate interpersonal element, there is the impression gained in simply being in the midst of the Italians of Ascoli Piceno. These are a highly gregarious people who smile expansively, gesticulate profusely and make most of us who hail from Anglo-Saxon roots appear we are on tranquilizers.
This is not to suggest I have the Italians ‘figured out.’ In some respects, I find some aspects of Italian interaction an enigma. It may be a facet of the long history of the Italian people enduring wars, becoming the fodder in any number of battles for power through the centuries from Popes to the nobility to outright dictators to the mafia. But it doesn’t take long to sense Italians are not very trusting of the ‘system’ to be fair. They assume it is up to them personally to protect their own interests. It is very common to see people maneuvering to get themselves in a more privileged position particularly where ‘taking one’s turn’ might be thought to be in order. The Italian expression, Furbo, refers to a sly individual who has mastered techniques to assert their own self-interests. Whatever the context, having people be Furbo is actually such a common occurrence, it doesn’t frequently rise to the level of conflict. Most Italians seem to just shrug their shoulders in acquiescence to this not un-common occurrence. The irony is, the same individual asserting their Furbo interests would very likely be a charming and very pleasant individual to sit across from over glasses of wine. Thus, one more example of being cautious before making sweeping generalities in complex social dynamics either of a population as a whole or even on individuals.
But here is where I am confused – where does the distinction between mildly tolerated furbo-ness and rudeness lie? Damned if I know. A wild guess I might make is the closer people are in contact with the core circle of family and friends the more behavior is governed by avoiding Bruta Figura, to bring disrespect on oneself. The further removed from those one has a relationship with into more anonymous contacts, the more likely Furbo-ness becomes an option. Come to think of it, having grown up in New York City, I have seen that dynamic working.
Ascoli Piceno also creates in our mind the sense of a more traditional Italy. It is a place where people have very deep family roots. It is not a place of rapid population turnover. It is common that family homes are traceable back for generations. It is a common practice we have noticed for people to state their family name first and their given name second. That seems particularly to be the case in business or professional circumstances. This suggests that in the stability of places with low rates of turnover, family reputation becomes an important factor. Coming from a ‘good family’ and additionally not bringing disrepute on the family name and reputation become very important.
Another fascinating aspect is the ability of Italians to not fall prey into taking themselves, or much else, all that seriously. We are in the midst of Carnevale, the pre-Lenten major excuse for a no holds barred party. Nothing is beyond the realm of being lampooned. Adults of all ages crowd the principal piazza in outrageous costumes. As serious as life’s problems can be, these are a people who still know how to laugh. And laughter is a very therapeutic state of mind. Carnevale deserves a discussion of its own. So we will return to Carnevale in a later post.
And that brings me to some of the subtler aspects of the ‘state of mind’ we have in living here in the center of Ascoli. One area is how we feel about our safety. During the process of obtaining our Carta d’ Identita, our resident identity document, it is standard procedure to be visited in your residence on an unannounced basis, by a member of the municipal police force. The object is to ensure you actual reside where you claim to reside and the circumstances under which you are living are appropriate. A few months after our arrival and having submitted our paperwork, we were visited by a very pleasant policewoman. When she asked if we had any questions, we enquired as to the crime statistics for central Ascoli. In making housing choices in the U.S. that was a standard part of the decision process for us. The policewoman looked at us with a somewhat puzzled look and then assured us that Ascoli Piceno is a very safe place with a very low violent crime rate.
Over time, we have come to internalize that assessment. Italians are something of night-owls. Social and entertainment events start much later than in the U.S. In going to people’s homes or to a restaurant for dinner, it is not uncommon for us to be walking home through the streets of Ascoli late at night. I mentioned earlier the ample street lighting. There are very few shadow areas on the main streets of Ascoli. At a late hour, there may not be many people out and about but I have to say, we have come to feel very safe and walk these streets at late hours without fear or apprehension. That is not an experience I am accustomed to having in other places and probably I might not have elsewhere in Italy. But that lack of serious concern for our personal safety has been one more factor in speeding the increase in our level of comfort.
I lack sufficient knowledge of Italy nor understand the matrix of factors that contribute to that condition here in Ascoli. Certainly, the conspicuous presence of representatives of the various law enforcement elements having jurisdiction is a factor. There are multiple law enforcement organizations in evidence just as there are in the U.S. But our sense is there is a more comfortable law enforcement presence here than I felt in the U.S. The overall impression is that public safety is a priority, a welcome perception by us.
By comparison, we sense in the U.S. there has been a growing level of apprehension and even cynicism that has roots going back a number of years. Over time, the state of mind in our homeland appears to have gone through a profound change. I’m of a generation that recalls an optimism and mood of exceptionalism of America being a place of boundless opportunity. Both Arlene and I represent an experience of upward, socio-cultural-economic mobility that seems far less possible today. There has been a significant increase in the rate at which income inequality and diminished opportunity has multiplied over the past thirty or more years. That negative development has become very evident in the U.S. but has also impacted the larger, world economy. The financial speculation industry has largely supplanted jobs that created assets replacing those opportunities with just betting on assets. Institutionalized ‘casinos’ have largely replaced places where things were made. In staying in touch with family and friends in the U.S. and monitoring news from the U.S. plus having paid a return visit a year ago, I can state the level of fear and anxiety I see in the U.S. today exceeds what we see and feel here in central Italy.
Although Italy in general, including Ascoli has been negatively impacted by the global economic disaster, we get the sense this area has not seen the volatility in the ups and downs we experienced in the U.S. There is an underlying sense of self-sufficiency here. The social stability and deep family support network ties must be a factor. Perhaps Carnevale also demonstrates when faced with absurdity being inflicted on you, laughter may be the most rational response you can have.
The Italians have a very long history in learning how to best survive dealing with a world in which power contests too often inflict harm on the people rather than on the immediate ranks of the instigators. The Italians appear to cling to stability where they can find it and that is most often close at hand. They invest themselves personally in what they feel they can count on. They have learned the unfortunate lesson that, generally, the holders of power are not particularly inclined to become benefactors to the world that has benefitted them. So is it any surprise that a little Furbo-ness comes to the surface now and again? The real surprise would be if the holders of the power would begin to make the world a little fairer. The Italians don’t seem to be holding their breath, and for now, neither am I. Italians seem to have had practice in making the best out of what has been dealt to them. In supporting each other through close and personal relationships, we are convinced they have the right idea.
We have come to realize and appreciate, we are not only in a new and different physical place, we are now in a more welcome and pleasant state of mind.