The Italians

Gotta love ‘em.

Or not.



The province of Alessandria, within Piedmont (Piemonte)

The province of Alessandria, within Piedmont (Piemonte)

I am predisposed to, of course, given my ethnic roots, and the trip to Fubine and environs confirmed the best of “my people” — a love of la dolce vita, good food, good wine, good conversations. We experienced extreme, heart-warming generosity from distant relatives we had never met and from strangers on the street. Add the physical beauty of Alessandria, the base of our exploration in Piedmont, and you have the ingredients for a memorable vacation. As my mother said more than once, “I feel like I’m in a dream.”

Still, there are some maddening, contradictory qualities to Italy, the people, their society, as opposed to the folks we  met. These observations are generalities, subjective of course, and perhaps not much different than the ones visitors to the US could make about us. The details might differ, but the contradictions are here as well. In any event, here are a few of the things that struck me after our brief visit.

The love of long, lingering meals endures, even at lunchtime, though breakfast can be as lightning-paced as any fast-food feeding frenzy here. From the first day, I saw groups of people – co-workers, friends, perhaps relatives – gathering in the restaurants for their leisurely midday meals. Imagine stores, banks, government offices here closing for a couple of hours every afternoon so most people can enjoy a civil meal with loved ones, share company and conversation, at the expense of someone else’s convenience. Why, how utterly selfish. And ultimately civilized, showing that the pursuit of commerce is not more important than physical sustenance and inner rejuvenation. Besides, it’s not selfish when everyone does it.



Even on a Saturday afternoon, as we walked the streets of Asti, we saw the previously bustling main drag turn strangely quiet as most folks took that siesta break. It might have originated in the desire to get out of the hot midday son, but it endures, I think, as a cultural tradition that stokes inner calm while cooling the body.

And yet, despite that leisurely pace at lunchtime, and the slow strolls of evening around the local piazza, speed is not totally foreign to the Italian way. On the road, the drivers were  as maniacal as I was warned they would be, even on the hilly, twisty narrow strips of asphalt that cut through the Piedmontese countryside. No scrapes for us, but one accident detoured us from our planned route after one car forced another to take evasive action, flipping the latter onto its roof. No fatalities, thankfully, but I saw plenty of those roadside crosses that mark the spots where others were less fortunate.

Speed also marks the Italians’ speech. Not that I understand more than a dozen words of the language, but I think the rapid-fire delivery of most people we met would have left me in the dust even if I were semi-fluent. Yet there’s a beauty to the tongue, in both its fluidity and speed, that made me yearn to study it. Maybe before the next trip…

We were of course surrounded by the language, though in a few places, some people did speak English, and Milan and Asti had multilingual help in the restaurants. French popped up a few times too, and I managed to use some of my distant high-school vocabulary to communicate on at least one occasion. As we walked the streets or sat in restaurants I was struck by this: Italian conversations are just so, well, Italian. The stereotypes ring true, with the swooping of hands to punctuate the words, the simultaneous conversations erupting around a crowded tables, voices and emotions rising as points are made. But the eruptions weren’t fueled by anger; it’s just an accepted way of communicating, a stimulating burst of words that brings people closer, instead of stirring alienation. (And I could not stop thinking of Vinnie Vedecci, Bill Hader’s Italian talk show host on SNL. It’s parody, but it’s not. And the smoking, too — man, the Italians still love to smoke.)

Yeah, the Italians love to talk so much, whether seeing friends on the street or while asking for help at an info desk, that we often wondered — when do these people work? OK, some of the older guys we saw in the  klatches  standing all over the sidewalks and street corners might have been retired, but the number of people of all ages strolling, talking, having coffee during normal work hours seemed strange, especially in the small towns. How do things get done? (Some might say, well, they don’t). And this is in the industrialized, fast-paced (relatively speaking) northern part of the country; I can only imagine what the Mezzogiorno is like. But as I found myself saying often, hey, nice work if you can get it.

The church in Fubine - dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta

The church in Fubine - dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta

Some other quick observations: I mentioned the generosity of strangers. On two occasions, old ladies we stopped on street for directions insisted on taking us to our destinations (of course, one took us to the local church, where a funeral was going on, and not the cemetery, which is where we really wanted to be. Though to be fair, if we had stuck through the ceremony, I guess we could have followed the hearse there). Then, in the next moment, you might see some fat middle-aged guy elbow an old lady out of line at a deli counter. The kindness and rudeness juxtaposed so easily, and left me baffled.

Another puzzlement: the green movement seems to have taken hold in a big way. At one small train station, receptacles for four kinds of recyclable garbage dotted the platforms, and seemingly every other street in even the smallest town has even larger bins, including one for organic matter. But then head into a public restroom, and you’re just as likely to confront a hole in the floor or a toilet missing its seat, like an old Caddy stripped of its hub caps, than a toilet we would recognize. (Oddly enough, the best one my mother used was in a cemetery, perhaps out of consideration for grieving family members who shouldn’t be forced to squat in such a time of sorrow.) There seems like a disconnect in this disposing of waste, but evidently not to the Italians.

So, some first observations from our little trip, none meant with any condescension. And as I said, I know visitors here would be struck by even more contrasts and contradictions. More notes on the Italian adventure in future posts.


~ by mburgan on May 29, 2009.

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