Italy has more than enough of what it takes to be a successful country: locally grown agriculture surrounding every city; light industry; fashion; advanced secure banking system; deep water ports; popular cuisine; never ending coast line; art; history; culture; tourism and an incredible reputation for craftsmanship (Made In Italy). Yes there are too many outdated and inefficient rules and laws and traditions which frustrate citizens from being law abiding. Yes everybody believes they are unable to excel in their chosen field unless they have special contacts, friends and family, on the inside of the government. Yes there is too much government confusing corrupting conflicting with the average person’s interests. But all of her deficits can be easily overlooked when you consider the shear beauty of the country. The awe you feel living among these ancient structures is inspiring. Important and beautiful art is everywhere and the casual visitor is provoked, emotionally moved. But there is little to no new architecture happening here, and every innovation in art is happening everywhere else and not in Italy. To the local people Rome is a dead place, a museum (I think of it more as a zoo). Everything there based on some historic importance. The Italian culture which we Americans are so in love with is stuck in the past, rooted if you will, and stuck. Labor laws, banking laws, building regulations, music, art, design is all reflecting backwards, existing more for an administration’s ability to grant favors. And this is unexpected for a country whose citizens have historically contributed to innovations in every field of technology, science and art.
The only areas where this lack of progress is really useful are tourism and food, while food dominates the Italian social landscape. It is more important to the citizens than soccer, politics, religion, you name it. In the end the Coliseum is just a stadium, but how you properly prepare a plate of carbonara, this is relevant to daily life. Food, and its preparation, is number one in Italy. My wife and I run a Holiday Farm in Umbria where mostly Italians vacation with their dogs, so I meet a lot of really friendly people and all of them are experts on food. very few exceptions. We often share meals together and they explain the way each dish is done in their region of Italy. Way more detail than I am able to keep track of. And each of them swears that their way is the best, no, the right way to do it. Men, Women, boys and girls. Everyone cares about ingredients and recipes as if their identities depended on it. I found this obsession with food strange for many years, but not any more. It is reasonable and fun to highly prioritize food since we are always eating, preparing to eat, or cleaning up after eating. I am convinced that the reason why so many more people visit the Colliseum in Rome than the Pyramids in Egypt is the likelihood of having a taste bud shattering meal afterwards.
Italy has a mind boggling number of specialty items unique to its tradition. But so does France and Turkey and even North Korea. There is something special about Italy and her Truffles; Parmigian cheese, mozzarella di Buffalo, Balsamic vinegar from Modena; Wines; Extra Virgin Olive Oil, and insulin suspending variety of deserts. The list can go on and on. It is like this in every region of the country. For the most part these items are available from small farmers who you can know personally which increases the likelihood that you will be purchasing fresh and authentically produced products. Big companies are not able to inspire this sort of confidence in customers any more. Shelf life, rather than freshness, is the chief concern of large industrial corporate kitchens whose tens of thousands of daily produced items are made with synthetic nutrition added after the fact. Their use of questionable ingredients in terms of quality is a nagging concern to consumers, not to mention the additives and preservatives and artificial coloring etc that worry (with good reason) so many shoppers at the grocery store. Italians are busier than ever, have less disposable income, and they are turning American in that economics and lack of time compel them to forego their commitment to freshness in favor of price and shopping convenience. Getting to the farmer’s market becomes another task to plan in the busy life of a working parent, while the supermarket is just around the corner and has everything for a better (read lower) price. Recent higher obesity rates here are probably linked to this evolution in life style.
The easy to satisfy priorities of the Italian people (fresh ingredients, good soccer on television, and dramatic political material to discuss at the coffee bar) ought to trigger their post war mentality of “eating well is all that matters”, but they have seen the promise land of good living: Warm homes with roofs that keep the rain out; designer clothes made with quality materials by expert hands; vacations in far away exotic places. And post war no longer means WWII, and instead means Iraq or Kuwait. Italians are disillusioned and discouraged with their national condition. But its not like they don’t have enough money to shop for groceries, cook and eat everyday! Having a plot of land in the countryside is something nearly every Italian has because of the utterly confounding property laws which in effect leaves the property of a dead relative to numerous beneficiaries who then go to war in the courts for twenty years. There is a serious financial crisis here that has effected the national sense of humor, and the “I couldn’t care less” attitude, the “I am oblivious to those around me” attitude has grown darker and more cynical each year over the last five or so.
Italians are more different from we Americans than you would think considering how many Italians became Americans in the last hundred years, and how many Italians helped to build a great America, and how much we Americans love Italian history and food. The Chinese helped build America too, and they have awesome food which we are crazy for, and an incredible national history, but Americans don’t have a love affair with China. There is undeniably a special connection between The USA and Italy that we have never seen with any Eastern culture, not Japan, Korea or even Hawaii! We Americans like to believe that we have a lot in common with Italy, when in fact it is not as true as we assume. Living here reveals this reality.
Americans are generally optimistic about the future even when we are fearful and exaggerating in our responses. We are less tolerant, indignant (angrier?) and a more violent nation. Italians are less of all these characteristics, and this is hard for us to reconcile. We all remember how Robert Deniro playing Vito Corleone in The Godfather murdered the Dark Hand in his stairwell during the San Genaro festival after twisting off the light bulb to make a hiding place in the dark. How could the Italian people not learn to be more violent and fearful of violence after that! Well, they didn’t because they are different from us. Even after a hundred years of Mafia killings and political bombings Italians are not overly fearful and reactionary. Perhaps their anxiety comes out in another way.
Italians generally expect that everyone is corrupt, and at best merely out for themselves. Integrity in business is laughable to them. Italians talk over each other routinely and we Americans find this rude. They don’t respect lines (rude again). They are consistently late for everything and have little sense of having offended. Their tolerance for imprecision is remarkable and frightening since they produce cars which need be precise or passenger may die. I can see some engineer saying “va bene, it is close enough”. I can imagine the Ebola virus winning in Italy “Its nothing! I only got a little bit of it on me!” Their lack of regard for efficiency and precision is frightening until it is applied to you with the “piano piano” approach to life. “A little at a time” “slowly slowly” is the literal translation, but it means things take time to develop, “Rome wasn’t built in a day”. e learned greater patience and tranquility from having to embrace this philosophy, having had it applied to me and my failures so many times by gentle loving Italian family members.This attitude is helpful when launching an undertaking because it reduces stress, and sometimes stress can become an activity we Americans engage in in order to feel we are busy doing something: worrying in this case. Digging a hole can be done with worry or without, you still have a whole afterwards. A work place with less stress is what many corporation spend time and money to create. This corporate policy is the best evidence of “Less is better. But only when it comes to stress.
There is no category that demonstrates better the differences between Americans and Italians more than food culture. We Americans generally eat food as a source of energy, and we like our salty fats and every kind of sweet thing. It is safe to say we are addicted to fats and sweets, and this dependence (or preference if you like) limits our ability to understand Italy. The Italian diet is based on appreciating all the flavors in moderation. We eat until we are stuffed, and if that state is not achieved then it was an unsatisfying meal. Quantity trumps quality for us Americans. Italians instead appreciate freshness, variety and complicated processes of preparation. Sour and bitter and spicey flavors are welcome and necessary. And Italians almost never overeat. Being stuffed to near explosiveness is inconceivable to them. They sit ten around a table crafted for six, extra chairs squashed up against each other, elbows pressing on elbows, in the most constricting and uncomfortable seating arrangement, and then numerous plates are brought to the table each with something delicious on it, but so little of it that you are desperate for the plate to arrive to you so that you don’t faint from hunger later that evening. After you empty the serving dish that you greedily nabbed, you start to notice that everyone else is taking just the tiniest portion from each plate and passing in on to the next diner. Everyone is getting a taste, but no one is going to get full at this table. Panic strikes in the heart of the American guest who is now certain that fainting will be a featured part of the evening’s festivities. But that is how they rock a dinner. Moderation. It is their post war touchstone. And the children are taught to allow the guests to have the best pieces of everything (which we Americans are all too grateful for).
Americans look at food as something we have to do. Italians get to do it. Americans eat at restaurants so we can spend time focusing on our friends. Young Italians invite you to their home so you can cook together, each contributing his or her specialty, and then they prepare the table and clean up as part of the social experience (although it is true that woman do nearly all the cleaning while men do a lot of the cooking). Whereas American men think of cooking as gay, or woman’s work, unless it is a paying job at a restaurant, in which case women aren’t really suited to perform adequately. The two countries have this misogyny in common in the professional field, but at home, when guests arrive, recipes and food preparation is the one crossover point between the sexes. All Italian adults can talk for hours about food. But when it comes to truffles they are about as ignorant as we Americans. Except that they have a basic idea of what a truffle is. They are not as a culture obsessed with gambling, or drugs, or porno, or tv or theater or photography. They have their hobbies which a huge thing in Italy. Or some obscure interest that they dedicate their free time to rather than watching the pathetic game and variety shows with half naked girls used as “screen dressing” for comedians who perform the most pathetic really lowbrow humor ( weird accents and making faces while wearing wigs). There is nothing worse than Italian television and they are all ashamed of it (and those who aren’t should be!). What is most un American about Italy is their gentle culture based on being patient and forgiving with children, caring for the elderly in home with the support of extended family, and their buracracy which is by any standard heavily layered, and is still essentially based on a sense of social responsibility in which people ought to be helped. This value, health care as a right, is completely un-American, even after Obama care, because we are more strident, less patient, more black and white. Italians are pretty non committal, until they aren’t, and then changing their minds is an exercise in futility.
“Getting rich” is the driving characteristic of the American culture, and “Making money” is what we have to settle for. This affords us a unique creative flexible view of things. Potential matters to us because change is possible. Not in Italy. What are the drivers of the Italian culture? Are they the same as the American ones? I don’t think so. Yes people want “more” of everything good, and less of everything bad. This is what drove us out of the trees and on to the ground millions of years ago. It explains why America is so successful at creating wealth. But how do we explain Italy (Rome was “the USA” of two thousand years ago)? There is no explaining it, no understanding it. You either enjoy it, or survive it, depending on your own character.