Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Two Italys

The first is the one that people want to see on vacation and the one they want to remember. It is that Italy of small villages perched on hilltops where everyone is happy, drinking an umbra (a shadow or small glass of wine) in the piazza, shopping for fresh seasonable vegetables everyday, squeezing their own olive oil, and doing most of what they have to do without a car. There are people in Italy who actually do live like this. For some it's a life style decision and for others it's just the way their life has always been.

But I see most Italians living a much different life, a life not so different from the life one would find in the US. We for example live in a city of 35,000 which is rated one of the best in Italy to raise children and has one of the best records for environmental issues. There are many physical differences from the US, people live mostly in apartments, roads are narrow, parking is difficult, walking is an acknowledged means of transportation, etc. But otherwise life is very similar. The soccer mom is predominant, kids are expected to participate in at least one sport while taking lessons in another, they take after school music lessons and generally keep their parents busy driving them to and fro. Major grocery shopping is done in the supermarket, clothes are bought in malls at department stores, people drive to work and go out of town to find better prices if they can. And there are outlet malls. I'm telling you there are some huge ones that funny as it may seem have the same pseudo Italian style architecture as the ones in the US. The biggest I've seen is in Tuscany the heart of the picturesque Italian country side.


  1. While I understand what you're getting at, it's important to recognize that there are *way* more than two Italys...in fact, IMHO there are as many "Italys" as there are people, both natives and expats -- and a lot varies by, yes, lifestyle choices but also socio-economic status. Expats, I would argue, may have a better chance of choosing our lifestyles as we've already chosen to come here -- but not all expats make the correct choices for themselves and/or have the wrong impressions going into the move. Socio-economic mobility for native-born Italians can be much more challenging, but that's a whole other topic.

    My point here is that it's important to remember that, for example, not everyone even has children (so there's no chance of being a soccer mom); some people have children who don't play sports (contrary to popular belief, not ALL little boys love calcio -- Paolo hates it); some people are retired and mostly shuffle back and forth to the doctor (and maybe their family does the shopping for them); some people's lives revolve around their grandchildren because they are the built-in babysitters; some women are stay-at-home moms or housewives without children; some people work in other European countries and only come home to their families once a month or less; some people live in makeshift tents or ramshackle buildings while others live in palazzi in cities and villas and everything in between; some people grow or raise most of their own food...I could go on and on....

    To say there are only two Italys pushes the country into two distinct boxes -- and that is a gross mischaracterization as well, IMHO, as it would be for just about any Westernized country.

    When we write about Italy as expats, we can really only write about our own experiences -- and to me, that is the beauty of blogs. We get to see what others are doing and how they are living. We can look at things they've tried and think, "You know what? I'd like my life to be a little more like that" or "I'd never want that life...wait, is that the one I'm living?!" and then we can make small or large adjustments in our life accordingly. Sometimes it's easier to see our lives and decisions through the lens of others'.

    Just to be clear, though, I, for one, despite living in a medieval hilltop village, shopping daily at the market, and pressing my own olive oil, have never sat in the piazza drinking wine -- our bar in the piazza doesn't even sell wine ;)

  2. Yes of course you are right. My point was just to illustrate the contrasts, kind of opposite ends of a lifestyle continuum. There is no ill intention here. I don't really think anyone reading it would assume that I'm saying everyone has kids that play soccer or that the only other choice is squeezing their own olive oil.

    My son also doesn't like soccer. The soccer mom is a generic term in the US that applies to parents who spend all their spare time as taxi drivers taking kids to various after school activities. It also denotes an attitude that kids have to have all those activities whither sports or music or trips to the library. The reference to parents and kids is made as an example of how life is similar for many people in Italy and the US as are the references to work and shopping.

    I don't know that we can only write about our experiences as expats. I think we also observe and can write about what we see. Perhaps we don't see it all or really understand some things but that shouldn't have to stop us from expressing our view of things.

    I'm sorry to hear that your bar in the piazza doesn't sell wine. What do people drink in the afternoon and evening.

  3. I actually appreciate the dichotomy. I don't think you really meant that there are only two kinds of Italian behavior, but that there are two types of Italians to foreigners: the imagined and the real. The imagined ones do the things we typically imagine Italians do, and the real ones are the ones doing things that we usually associate with "real" (whatever "real" is). Of course the "real ones" are diverse and incapable of being defined by one description (some young, some old, some married, some single, etc.), but pointing that out is almost besides the point.

  4. I think this is the reason why I get so upset at movies like "Eat, Pray, Love" that depict Italy as this haven of fulfilling the desires of the flesh with no guilt. It's a dreamland of sorts. Well, it can be. It depends highly on your circumstances, as it does so as well anywhere one may live.

    I don't know where my haven is, but it certainly is not in Rome. I lived there and left because I couldn't handle it anymore. But, I must say, I have an excuse to visit at least twice every year and it is a true haven when I do because I know I am not staying. ;o)