When we host foreign visitors here in Tuscania they usually get around to politely
asking us to "explain" Italy to them. If we undertake such a conversation in a moment of
weakness it will prove to be time consuming, frustrating and, in the end, useless. So we
tell our guests that it is quite reasonable for them to be perplexed by Italy and that their
bafflement is a sign of discernment because, after all, Italians are perplexed too.
|Tuscania has a high school, but its not appropriate for
every kid. Some youngsters travel each day by bus to a
neighboring town to attend a high school having a different
focus. Local kids don't much like walking. The lucky ones
arrive at the bus stop in a tiny utility vehicle called an
"Ape". You don't need a driver's license for an Ape
because it has horsepower of a lawn mower.
People come here to get their drinking water because the
faucet water at home won't do. Europe says it contains too
much arsenic and other nasty things. All towns in the area
face this problem, and some have resolved it. Citizens
here are patient. They know that some day even Tuscania
will have potable water.
|Waiting for something to happen. Something is bound to
happen. Something will surely happen. In the mean time,
a fella can always chat. But don't interrupt me when I'm
talking, please. If there's nothing new to talk about today
we can discuss what happened yesterday or the day
before. If that's too boring, we can alway complain about
The carnival comes to town several times a year to
relieve the tedium of winter. They just show up without
rime or reason. The little kids really like the rides. The
older kids stand off to the side. They wish they could
ride too, but ultimately find it more satisfactory to look on
scornfully at all this "kid stuff"
|Almost everyone comes to the park sooner or later. It's
cool there on summer evenings. You can get a beer, or a
coffee, or a coke. You can watch the kids play (if you are
old) or you can play yourself (if you happen to be young,
or want to pretend that you are)
The older kids ride their bikes to the park, the younger
ones are accompanied. Here we see a grandmother who
sews while her grandchildren climb and scream. The girl
here was quite happy to be photographed. She explained
that the little chap by her side was her brother. That was
just the beginning of her tale.
|The parks are used by young and old alike, for a wide
range of activities. When it's warm, but not too warm, the
park is the perfect place for a snooze in the grass or on a
bench. Cultural activities are sometimes scheduled for the
late afternoon or the early evening.
Firewood is readily available in Tuscania and is
inexpensive. Given that winters here are mild, some homes
in the Centre Storico are still heated by a wood burning
stove. The wood is dumped in a pile in front of the house.
The owner must cut it into smaller pieces and store it.
The City maintains the medieval walls that encircle the
Centro Storico, cutting the weeds at the base and
occasionally doing fairly serious masonry work. Most of the
people who work for the City are handy not due to special
training but because there is a long standing tradition of
doing things yourself. The man in the picture at the right is
building a fence.
The city band marches on just about every occasion, be it
religious or "secular" (not religious). The songs are always
the same, but no one seems to object. You'll see lots of
signs here in Italy. They are generally ignored or not even
noticed. This one cautions people at the train station to
"Make sure you don't see a train arriving, and then cross
the tracks rapidly." Good advice, no?
I came to understand that Italy is neither a terrestrial paradise nor a hell on earth. It's a place where everyday
life presents a series of challenges, yes, but a place but where virtually no one feels lonely or disconnected.
Walking the baby.
Hanging out the wash
to dry. A picnic in the
country with friends.
|Explain Italy? I don't think so!
Everyday life in Italy
In Italy people often say "We'll see" and "nothing lasts forever" because they are
reluctant to accept things at face value and because, even if something actually were
as it appeared to be, this reality is unlikely to persist. Indeed, my winter of discontent
gradually subsided as I formed friendships with local people and developed a deeper
understanding of the enduring cultural verities of Tuscania. Things were not, I realized,
as they had seemed to be. Things are as they are and as they must be.
It also helped me a lot to discover the joy of complaining. In the U.S. complainers and whiners are scarcely
tolerated. In Italy, on the other hand, they are usually appreciated. You can almost always find an appreciative
audience of people who are happy to sympathize when you begin griping about some seemingly simple
transaction run amok. If you can draw a crowd, your audience will likely contribute reports of wrong doings and
stupidity they have experienced themselves. Complaining doesn't (usually) result in solutions, but it's fun. And
perhaps more importantly, it creates real bonds of human understanding and solidarity. Few Italians know the
meaning of "lonely".
If I had written a book about Italy in my first year it would have been of the "charming
but quirky" variety. However, the book wouldn't have been very informative because
there was still quite a lot I didn't understand then. I assumed that there was a good
explanation for every anomaly or problem which I would grasp as soon as my Italian
Severgnini observes that the first kind of account is more typical of female than male
writers whereas the latter kind of account, which inevitably gravitates towards a
catastrophic conclusion, is more likely to have been written by a man. An angry man.
My Italian did improve, gradually, but the explanations weren't forthcoming. I began to
realize that many things in Italy worked either poorly or not at all. In this period I grew
increasingly frustrated with everyday life, increasingly irritated by the many small
inconveniences that abound in a small provincial town in Italy. This kind of unhappiness
feeds on itself. More and more little things began getting on my nerves. For example, a
note on a shop window that says torno subito (I'll return right away") indicates a time
period that can range from about 30 min to 2 weeks. It never means "right away". By
the end of my third year in Tuscania I was sufficiently provoked to have written still
another "catastrophic" account of Italy.
My key to a better understanding of how things work in a small town in Italy was the realization that "today"
seems relatively insignificant when considered in the context of a very long and imposing history. Take, for
example, my issues with punctuality and exactness. I started with the assumption that "time flies like an arrow".
This is not the view of modern physics, nor does it describe how time is perceived in Tuscania. When a
merchant sticks a torno subito note to his door a literal translation simply won't do. The meaning of the note,
when considered in a broader social & historical context, is something like: "Come find me at the corner bar if
you need me. And if not today, then tomorrow."
There are pessimists in every country, but this sense of "must be" in Italy is usually a reflection of realism
rather than evidence of a character trait. Take tax evasion as an example. Tax evasion always has been and
always will be rampant in Italy. If you get caught you'll have to pay the taxes you evaded and a fine, but you
won't go to jail. Italy's parliament could substantially reduce tax evasion by making it a criminal rather than
administrative offense. But that won't happen because it would expose many Senators and Deputies to the risk
of jail time. Despite all the unfairness, many Italians -- who are real heros in my view - pay their taxes honestly.
I'm not able to explain Italy to anyone, least of all to myself. I have lived here in Tuscania full-time now for a
decade and, yes, I have some ideas about what is life here is all about. However, I find it easier to commun-
icate what I know through pictures than words. Here are a few.
The incomprehensibility of daily life in Italy has not prevented many authors from writing
books that purport to explain Italy to foreigners and/or to Italians. One of my favorites is
Beppe Severgnini's La Testa degli Italiani (The Italian Mind), Beppe, a well regarded
journalist from northern Italy, playfully observes that foreigners' attempts to explain Italy
generally fall into one of two broad categories:
- Italy is presented as a country with a few charming quirks that oozes art,
elegance and unhurried charm, a place where emotions run free and deep and
every adversity can, in the end, be overcome with a smile or a joke;
- Italy is described as a potential paradise that one could fervently love if only it
weren't the case that nothing works very well any more, not even in the North,
public services are bad and getting worse because tax evasion is rampant, laws
are contradictory and neither respected nor enforced. And so on.