Passionate, unruly and latin-lovers? What’s more behind the classic clichés about Italians? A first-hand opinion of a native.
I was recently asked what it means being Italian for me. I’m aware that explaining what implies belonging to a certain people is always challenging, but I fear that talking about ‘Italianess’ can be very complicated. The common image wants us to be in a certain standard way – this cheerful, passionate, unruly people always singing opera or eating pasta – but I think we agree that this is how stereotypes work, they have a seed of truth, but they can be quite limited. I will try to give an honest opinion, but it’s obviously not simple being objective.
A living contradiction
Generally speaking, I would say we are contradictory: a young people with the baggage of a Methuselah behind our back.
We are a young country – as Italy, as a unified state, was founded only in 1861 – but our culture is millennial. There’s a say in Italy that states that our culture was born before the country itself, which sounds ridiculous but that’s definitely true. As people we carry a heritage which is important and rich. With our millennial history behind our back, we have a set of traditions and knowledge which should be a treasure to preserve and to use to our advantage, but that sadly too many times translates itself in an old mindset and a society that discourages initiatives and hates innovation. This is really bad, since, as people, we are naturally inventive and creative, but we are never given the opportunity to employ these talents and put them to use for the collective. It’s not uncommon seeing talented Italian researchers and inventors going abroad in search for work and opportunities: in Italy this phenomenon has even a name, the “brains’escape”.
Disenchanted and guarded human beings
This historical baggage, on the other hand, is what causes us to be pretty disillusioned and allows us to see things other younger (and more optimistic) peoples still fail to see: power infects people’s minds. There is no such a thing as “national pride” and “faith in one’s country”. Power can’t be trusted. Ever. We have learned that the road to hell is paved by the best intentions, so when we see politicians who promises miraculous solutions to all the problems, we know by instinct they’re not to be trusted. Once you gain the power, corruption is behind the corner. You probably think that political corruption is something typically Italian and this is certainly true to some extent, but I honestly think that it is everywhere, it’s just that in Italy is more “in your face” and so ingrained in the system that society started to think it is normal and almost to be expected. But I truly believe it is everywhere: remember, “Animal Farm” was not written by an Italian.
So, for all these reasons, we don’t trust politicians and governments. But, as a general rule, I feel like we just don’t trust anyone outside our small circle (mind, I’m not saying we’re not friendly, we just don’t trust easily!): this is said to be partly because of our history – a country invaded and conquered by basically everyone during the centuries can be that trusting – but, on the other hand, I think it’s thanks to this that the family bond is so close. In a country where the Government is something so distant and so oblivious of the everyday needs of the population and where public support, as a consequence, doesn’t exist, family is what sustains the system. There are not enough public kindergartens? Here there are grandparents looking after the kids. The rest homes are too expensive or the waiting list is too long? Here there is the offspring looking after the elderly. It’s also not uncommon having your neighbours helping you out if you need it, especially in the small towns. The catholic heritage and the lack of a public support surely have helped to grow a sense of family and community which I haven’t seen in many other countries. We are helpful and caring, I think.
Another aspect that an American who lives in Italy made me notice is that we are quite analytical people: our educational system, among the other things, wants us to study philosophy and argumentation, so we are often encouraged to think critically. I remember that, when studying Italian, we were also required to write essays where the presence of a personal opinion was part of the final evaluation, and when studying law and political economy we were constantly encouraged by our professor to go to vote and use the brain before making a decision. We often discussed in class when there was a poll or a referendum to go vote for. At school it was often more than just memorizing notions. The system of the compulsory education has always been ok in Italy, at least until some time ago. Also, our schools give an all-around education and this can be frustrating, as we are not “specialized” in something, but at the same time it can be an advantage as it gives us the chance to “connect the dots”, explore different fields and not feeling completely lost if we have to deal with things which are slightly outside our sphere of competence.
I think also we are quite excellent problem solvers: we are pretty good and quick to respond to emergencies, it’s when we have to organize and plan that problems spring out. Living in a country where you have to deal with floods, earthquakes, avalanches and crises of every sort, you just get good with first aid stuff and also in surviving, I would say. We always survive in some way or another. This is, however, not ever a good sign as, little by little, we are becoming used to “tirare a campà” (surviving), rather than actually trying to make things better for everybody. Unfortunately in this country it is a continue struggle against everything – unbearable bureaucracy and taxes, lack of work, nepotism, corruption, extreme gerontocracy etc. – and when you wake up every morning you feel like you have to go fighting a war and trying to get home alive with your nerves intact. I might sound a little too dramatic, but, believe me, even going to the post office can be a challenge here. People fight this rather oppressive atmosphere by trying to have the zest for life – enjoying the simple things, family, friends, a good laugh, food, sex – or, on the negative side, by becoming sluggish in front the TV, another big evil in our country. I believe that, sadly, TV played an important part in the corruption of our society. The advent of commercial TV caused a lot of problems as it was the one that started bombarding us with silly and sexist content. The most vulnerable part of our society was tricked into put their brains to rest and becoming obsessed with certain “values” this kind of television was promoting: machismo, gaining insipid status symbols and appearance.
I will conclude this entry on a more light note focusing on our artistic side. It happened that foreigners told me things like you Italians are so effortlessly artistic, how and I started to think about it. I guess that we surely have a rich heritage concerning the arts – we have techniques and secrets passed down from generation to generation – but what truly makes the difference, in my opinion, is not the procedure, but the sentiment behind a work of art. Being more in touch with our emotions, more willing to show them in comparison to other cultures, is what has allowed us to produce some brilliant things that literally “speak” to people, I guess. Being a true artist, in my opinion, takes a lot of courage because you have to be willing to show your vulnerabilities. Put your fears, your worries and your passions on a silver platter and say to your public “here, have at it”. Obviously this doesn’t mean all Italians are artists, it’s just that, in an environment where it’s more acceptable to put your emotions in display, it’s more natural to explore your artistic side, express your feelings in your work and it takes less effort to break the barrier with the public, who will immediately connect with you.
In conclusion I would say that as Italians we are our first critics and detractors: you rarely hear an Italian saying good things about the motherland. You are allowed to say bad things about Italy as well, we just don’t take well criticism directed toward our way of life and our food. Don’t question it. JUST DON’T.