CHAOS OR CHARM
Or maybe it is chaotic – charm that you sense in trying to acclimate to life in Italy. In so many ways, Italians are attractive people. There is that sense of personal pride that requires a person to be attentive to making La Bella Figura – that ingrained sense that is so impossible to adequately translate into English. To say it means ‘ to make a good impression’ is to just scratch the surface of the concept. The dynamic to have a positive sense of yourself is something every Italian must acquire while still in the womb.
I recall a commentary being made by Simon Schama on the making of a documentary series on Italian artists. Schama remarked that it was necessary to cast Italian actors for the roles, “because it was impossible to teach non-Italians to walk like that!” Italians seem to naturally project a positive sense of self. To sit at a table with a glass of wine on the main piazza during the evening passaggiata is to study a demonstration of spontaneous choreography. So many Italians we see of every age group and gender seem to walk with an upright posture and grace that makes so many us from across the pond seem stoop-shouldered and downright slovenly. Even young Italians in conversation with you stand erect, poised and look you straight in the eye with a pleasant engagement that is immediately captivating.
I’m completely out of my element and way below the necessary pay grade to offer any observations on fashion. I leave that to the resident expert who has always demonstrated an exceptional personal talent in that area. I will simply observe that it seems a rare occurrence for an Italian of any age or gender to be seen in public in what would clearly be considered bad taste. We have yet to encounter anything approaching the apparitions of non-existent taste that regularly frequent American shopping malls – Dio Grazie!
In this central region of Italy, there is a fascinating genetic blend of the various strains of people who make up Italy. There are the dark haired and flashing dark eyes more common to the south and fair complexioned, blue-eyed, northern featured Italians. Many Italians here are trim and women are in evidence with figures the fashion modeling houses advocate. In summer, a well-done and made visible tan is a required fashion statement. And then there is the phenomenon of observing trim women doing routine shopping negotiating very uneven cobblestone streets or riding bicycles in high spiked heels – apparently all in the name of -Fashion!
In becoming aware of so many trim people, it is made all the more remarkable in the midst of a cuisine grounded in Pasta. What could be the counterbalance? But then you can’t help but be aware of the high percentage of smokers in Italy. While the Mediterranean Diet is the common staple of everyday eating here, and no doubt accounts for an increasing longevity, then there is the offset of very common smoking. It is banned indoors, for the most part, but in the summer, one dines often at an outdoor table. So a quick check of surroundings and wind direction is in order.
Italy is full of contrasts. I think I am beginning to get the idea I am seeing a ‘relaxed vitality.’ Never mind that seems like a contradiction – this is Italy and there are contradictions all over the place. A biochemist one day may see the high consumption of nicotine and caffeine fueling the Italian vitality neurons established at conception and stimulated ever since.
It doesn’t take long before you are aware of another seeming contradiction. Perhaps it is rooted in a very strong sense of self, but Italians also seem seriously committed to avoidance of virtually any form of regimentation. In some circumstances, that antipathy can almost rise to the level of anarchy. One reason driving in Italy can require some accommodation is the reality that for some Italians, ‘inconveniences’ such as traffic lights, stop signs, speed limits, lines down the middle of the highway or painted lines delineating parking areas should only be considered as “suggestions.” How can one be taken seriously if word got out you had lapsed into ‘compliance?’
Here is an example of the kind of chaos you are likely to encounter on a daily basis. In the bank the other day, there was only one teller counter open, a not uncommon occurrence. A few souls of insufficient ego metal had actually formed what might have been very, very loosely considered a ‘line’ – which I joined. But off to the side, wandering about in an ill defined pattern, was another gentleman. As the line very slowly progressed, at a certain point a ‘discussion’ became necessary as to who was before whom and who was after the gentleman still milling about. Later, as my place in ‘line’ moved to create the false impression that I might be next, a woman approached who had been sitting elsewhere in the lobby to inform me, and the others behind me, that she was next. I have come to realize these kinds of incidents are merely a means for some Italians to make their presence known and be taken seriously. After all, why should an Italian identity be diluted being immersed into something like a line? Most Italians seem to take this kind of ‘set piece’ for granted and just roll with it. I’m in process of becoming Italianized so I pretty much roll with it now as well and actually start to smile because I had been wondering from what quarter the line chaos was going to come.
So the upshot of all this is to ask the question, “OK, factoring this sort of thing in, how are you now feeling about Italians?” My instant answer is that I am still delighted to be here and so very grateful for the warm reception and extensions of genuine friendship that have enveloped us. Perhaps these other facets we are experiencing help mature us in grasping that most every interpersonal engagement comes with its pluses and possible minuses. It is generally very difficult to have one without the other. The importance in deciding on relationships seems to be where does the preponderance of those plus and minus opposites lie? For us there is no issue – the Italians continue to fascinate and attract us and are adding an incredible richness to our lives – warts and all. God knows, they are very kind in ignoring our deficits so how could we do anything else but attempt to reciprocate.
The Italian zest for life and having personalities strong enough for a vigorous engagement with life are probably what attracts so many of us ‘outsiders’ to this place. In reading Beppe Severgnini’s book, La Bella Figura, (available on iBooks), I ran across a quote attributed to Liugi Borzini in the 1960’s:
“The art of living, this disreputable art developed by the Italians to defeat regimentation, is now becoming an invaluable guide for survival for many people.”
Just maybe we became anarchists in our own right by dispensing with so much material stuff that we had believed to be essential. We did it so we could go part way around the world just to start a new, largely undefined life. It seems we intuitively believed the Italians had discovered, or is it developed, an approach to make the most out of life no matter what external circumstances have imposed. That is probably why we still really like Italians, warts and all.
Note: The image above is typical of the chaos on an Italian street. The vehicles are parked on top of and blocking a marked crosswalk. The white vehicle is also sticking out with its rear well into oncoming traffic. Italians simply take this sort of thing in their stride.