By Jane Hope Fox
Maps of Tuscany and Emilia Romagna are spread across the floor; Paolo Conte’s raspy voice fills the room…
Come me Vuoi…
Cosa mi dai,
Dove mi porti tu?
(How do you want me…
What do you give me
Where are you taking me to?)
Sexy, cool Italian jazz, derivative of ours, but more sensual, a little over the top as only an Italian can do it. I am drinking a smooth Barolo and feeling good. Another long trip to Italy is near and a shiver of pleasure washes over me. After the predictable, “not again!” remark from more than one friend, someone asks, “Why Italy?” Well, why not Italy seems the more reasonable question. While visiting Vienna, Barcelona, or Copenhagen, the moment of regret arrives, when nothing would feel better than taking the next plane for Venezia or Palermo. And once through customs, with the first blissful breaths of Italian air in my lungs, I would think, ” why make the effort to go anywhere else?” So what is it I find only in Italy?
I attended my first opera in Rome, Aida performed in the ancient Bathes of Caracalla under a half moon. I learned to drive a motorino in Florence and would go to the open-air market to buy purple eggplant and fat zucchini, whipping around corners, on my orange motorbike, fast and fearless, Italian style. I learned to dream in Italian and then, to fall in love in Italian. “My woman is my religion, take care of our love,” is heady when whispered by a handsome Neapolitan on a sultry Tuscan night. Being desired in Italy is being desired in cinemascope. “Love here is delicious,” declared Stendhal. “Anywhere else it is only a bad copy.” That grand romance that left me breathless and living in Italy for some years in a stone walled villa, would change me forever.
Italy is the only country I know where the boundary between illusion and reality is unclear; where fantasy and exaggeration are celebrated as a necessary part of daily life. As Luigi Barzini wrote in The Italians, “even instruments of precision like speedometers and clocks are made to lie in Italy for your happiness.” The daily interactions of life are meant to be pleasant and agreeable; even the most mundane social intercourse should be enjoyed.
Flattery is common and expected. It is inhaled deeply and daily like the aroma of freshly baked bread and subtly gives pleasure to one’s life. Waiters smile and deliver woman’s drink with Italian gusto, “alla sua bellezza.” If one asks a perfect stranger for directions, it is not unusual to be taken, with sudden familiarity by the arm, and with genuine concern, escorted to the address in question. After a few visits to the same shop, one is greeted with the warmth and intimacy usually reserved for friends. Once in Capri I was trying on a pair of shoes. They were high heeled and very sexy, with straps that encircled the ankles. Knowing my husband’s taste, I said to the salesman, “I am buying these shoes for a man.” He stared unabashedly at my legs in the strappy black pumps and replied, “No signora, you are buying them for all men.”
Hedonism, sexuality and high drama are celebrated vigorously. Spectacle and pageantry, history and tradition are relevant and pervasive. For all its trendy style and cutting edge design, on any given day one can find somewhere in Italy, a procession in splendid medieval dress, depicting a rivalry between two ancient city states, reenacted with theatrical fervor. Orson Wells observed with astute accuracy that “Italy is full of actors, fifty million of them in fact, and they are almost all good; there are only a few bad ones, and they are on the stage and in the films.”
Life is always interesting and filled with contradiction. Italians enjoy both an earthy provincialism and an urbane sophistication. They are religious yet irreverent. In the home of the Catholic Church we find pasta called strangolapreti (priest stranglers), and a popular sauce named puttanesca (in the style of the whore). They are conformists, slaves to fashion and tradition. Yet they practice with pleasure, the gleeful art of rule breaking. Traffic regulations are too restrictive and tax laws stifle one’s creativity. They are good at arranging their world to suit their needs. Italians are profoundly proud of their “Italianess,” yet share an innate distrust of the state or any anything that smells of patriotism. The love of family is deeply rooted, as is the love of flirtation. Italy is flamboyant and fiery, gaudy, grand and graceful. And just when I think I have understood her, there is yet another enigmatic surprise.
I have not mentioned the Fascists, eruptions of Mt. Etna, the Red Brigade or the Mafia. I know the darker side of Italy exists. But I choose to think of la bella Italia where clichés abound, the sun always seems to shine and dolce far’niente (the sweetness of doing nothing) is a guiltless pleasure.
Jane Hope Fox lived in Florence, Italy for four years. She is currently working on a book of Italian memoirs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org