On arriving to Italy I was at once immersed again into its plush and vibrant culture. Immediately, I was engulfed by the hustle and bustle of Napoli, surrounded by the stereotypically greasy Italians with their gelled back hair and sunglasses, by pickpockets, and some of the biggest con artists in modern day Italy. As we were driving from the airport to my grandparents’ village in the province of Avellino, we passed a poster sign that read “oggi sei fortunato, prezzo speciale!” which reads today’s your lucky day, special price, referring here to petrol (which happened to be 1.14 euros a litre- that is about 39p less than the going rate in England- just in case this prospect can entice you car lovers to move to the motherland of sport cars- with cheaper petrol deals?) I automatically knew that this was some wily trick and that the sign was probably replaced every morning. My cousin turned to me and said why do you think they would go to the effort of replacing that sign every morning? Can’t you see it’s tattered and torn- it’s probably at least 5 years old and has never ever been moved. It felt good to be home.
We all have our preconceived ideas about the Italian culture- albeit from American film culture or Dolmio pasta sauce adverts, but it seems to me that in many Hollywood films the majority of Italian men are portrayed in one definitive manner- as slimy, animalistic predators, with their crisp starch shirts, designer belts and sunglasses. True it is that they exist and probably have an 80% chance of being called Antonio or Francesco since those are the most popular male names in Italy, but still I am never failed to be enticed and mesmerised by an Italian man. It is in times like this that I feel that the English language lacks words for expression and that in some ways; it just simply can’t express the same concept that another language can. Speaking two languages (admittedly my mother tongue being infinitely better than my Italian) this is something, which I have often taken for granted. If I can’t find the words to assert myself in one language I look to the other- and if I still can’t find it, well then I just make up a word for myself (When I was younger my sister and I often used to say “edwardo” which renders something along the meaning of an object or person being weird but also simultaneously interesting- only recently did I find out that “Eduardo” is an Italian boy’s name so perhaps this is not the best of examples…) Two of my closest friends- both from Eastern Europe, once told me that their own mother tongues (Bulgarian and Hungarian) have more words to express items and concepts than the English language (for example there is a word in Bulgarian that distinguished between fish bones and chicken bones- and no the word is more creative than just adding “fish” and “chicken” to the word bone). At first I was sceptical and didn’t really understand what they meant, but finally I think I can relate. The word “sprezzatura” in Italian is what is used to describe a certain nonchalance attitude or a studied air of indifference. The only other English equivalence, which I can think of, is the English (or rather American) concept of the ‘European man’– a cultivated and smooth talking man, one who is the master of his emotions. During my first year of university I pretty much hard-core fancied this Italian guy- it’s only on reflection of being in Italy and surrounded by so many other Italian men that I realised that the reason why I was hung up on him for so long was not so much the fact that I fancied him as much as it was that I am completely and utterly in love with the Italian culture and as a consequent- everything Italian. Living in a small town in Scotland, authentic Italian produce is not that easy to come by and so when it fell in my lap with my arms opened, I felt the need to grab the opportunity with both my bare hands. I mean you could have thrown a bloody vesper at me and I would willingly have made love to it.
I think what most western cultures don’t acknowledge- and especially in the UK and especially, especially in places like London, is that the Italian nation is a culture whose principle goddess is beauty herself. They worship anything beautiful- food, architecture, sports, and women. They appreciate that they are blessed by being surrounded by beautiful creatures and they are simply not shy to let this be known. Once an acquaintance of mine at my secondary school was recounting an incident of how this ‘creepy’ Italian man saw her sitting in Starbucks or whatever badly overpriced coffee shop she was frequenting (and don’t you worry I will definitely be getting onto il caffé) and proceeded to enter into the café and pronounce that she was “bella” and then simply left. Her conclusion from this whole experience was that he was trying to ‘get in my pants’ but I honestly don’t think that this was the case. I ensued to question whether he asked for her number or facebook or in any way implied that he wanted to ‘get with her’ or see her again, to which she replied with a face-slapping “well no… but he called me beautiful..”. At once I knew that the English knew nothing about the appreciation of beauty. He was only admiring and articulating his thought in the only way he had been taught to- to let the girl know she was an object of pure pleasure. The English still have a lot to learn.
The Italian language along with Spanish and French makes up what we called the ‘romantic languages’- by strict definition, because they all derive from Latin, however the Italian language is romantic in the other sense too; you do not simply speak the language, but when you open your mouth you’re practically singing a heavenly song. I mean what other language can make the word spazzatura– which means rubbish (food discard etc), sound so seductive? Or what other language can jazz up the sound of doctor’s appointment, elevating it to the level of an appuntamento –a formal appointment. Even if you can’t speak a word of Italian, just to say mi dispiace, ma non parlo italiano sounds like you’re humming a scared incantation. The language is just so rich and full of the long, unhurried and accentuated –oo’s and –aa’s. The slowness and luxury with which the words are spoken almost seem to reflect the leisurely and laidback pace of life itself. There’s a saying, which goes “dolce fa niente”- the sweetness of doing nothing. The Italians are truly the masters of this- you could leave your house at 10am in the morning for uno espresso o un cappuccino (yes, we’re getting closer to the coffee…) and peer down at your watch only to realise it is already 1pm- pranzo! I don’t even need to mention the fact that all businesses close at midday for their siesta and don’t reopen again until late in the afternoon- if they even reopen again that is.
And finally onto the coffee! There are countless coffee shops in London- from the chain branches of Starbucks, Costa (and I just have to say, I detest Costa’s coffee) to the little hipster and indie coffee places found tucked away like pockets of gems in the cave mine of London. My guilty pleasure is probably a chai latte (and it look me the longest time to admit that I liked it because I’ve always felt that it’s a typically American instagram-esque girl drink) but here in Italy they don’t have any of these crazy new inventions of coffee like ‘London fog” (a rich creamy, lavender tasting coffee that they sell in my uni town)- frappucino’s and skinny lattes simply don’t exist- and that’s because the coffee here is as pure and unfiltered (not in terms of texture) as possible. You’ve got to love that earthy smell you get from the machine grinder when you order an espresso shot.
I think I ought to mention now that I am describing my personal experience from my summer trips to my grandparents’ village in the south of Italy and the surrounding regions. The north of Italy, with cities such as Venizia, Firenze e Milano might be the economical and architectural power house of Italy but the south is in the running lead when it comes to the food aspect. Not only is it SO much cheaper than the north (which I found out the hard way when we were travelling over spring break, that a basic plate of pasta in Venice cost minimum 20 euros) but it is also so much better too. I admit that this is probably personal bias- come to think of it this whole article is probably very bias. My mother has often commented “I’ve never seen a person so in love with the cultural that they’ve been born into” and I think she’s right. I wouldn’t ask to be born into another culture, even if I was offered a million euros and a micro-pig. This is one blessing in life that I can never get tired to being thankful for.
I can already foresee that the next couple of weeks will be filled with indulging on pizza, pasta, formaggio, and binging on gelato, cioccolato, crema caffé and whatever other fattening (but not fatty) food I can get my hands on. A good friend of mine once told me that no Italian man will have me because they like some meat to hold onto in the bedroom, and I’m simply just a bag of rattily bones. Perhaps this trip will do me some good, and beef me up some what- at least if I’m going to get fat, I can rest assured that it will be on top quality food.