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The Italians

Do Italians do it better?

They certainly like to think they do, regarding most foreigners with a mixture of pity and disbelief at their abysmal dress sense and national cuisine. Italians take a pride in doing everything well, a which is the reason that everything in Italy from the cars to the ice cream is done with such impeccable good taste and dedication. Take for example, the Italians in India who now cultivate some of the best charas and have invented designer chillums.

The obsession with design and beauty finds its expression in the phrase ‘fare una bella figura’ (‘to make a beautiful figure’) and Italians respect those who take care for their appearance. Even if an Italian chooses to be a freak he will still often ensure that his dreadlocks are just the right length and his rebellion against society will last as long as it remains in fashion. Italians can be quite conformist and will wear, think or act whatever is trendy at that moment.

The most striking thing about Italians for the traveler is that where most of us can’t wait to leave home as soon as we hit 18 or 19 (or are kicked out, depending on the case), Italians often live with their folks until into their 30’s. Really. They might branch out on their own for a bit during university years or to relocate in search for work but if they can help it they will hang onto the apron strings of their parents for as long as they possibly can.

This is in part due to the high cost of living and rent in Italy relative to the salaries but also forms part of a sticky culture of family and nepotism. Italian children are much loved and frequently spoilt, growing up with the expectation that everything will be done for them. Any money they earn goes to those all-important Gucci clothes and the Louis Vitton handbag. Not to mention the Prada watch and designer hair cut.

The parents for their part worry for their grown up children as they would for an 8 year old. When away from home Italians will call their parents regularly and one of the first question will be:

“But are you eating well?”

“Si, mama.”

“But when was the last time you got a good plate of pasta?”

Not that Italians ever mind talking about food. They will discuss recipe ideas with the earnest determination of city planners and you might walk into a heated argument somewhere only to find there was a disagreement about the preparation of polenta. Italians frequently meet each other to go out and eat at a restaurant and whilst eating they may fall silent whilst they chew their food. It’s a serious business.

There’s something quite charming though about people who can devote themselves so utterly to the simple pleasures of life. It’s rare to find a truly languid Italian as they’re generally completely engaged with whatever they’re doing at the time. Ask directions of an Italian in the street and he will very likely respond as though he were on stage, awaiting the great moment to make an impression. Likewise, Italians will start up long, merry and flirtatious conversations with one another for the sheer joy of it.

One of the most entertaining ways to spend time in Italy can be just watching people in restaurants. Italians get so excited when they talk that their eyes take on the gleam of Labrador dogs about to go for a walk and their hands give a subtext all of their own. There are a variety of expressions in Italy communicated with the hands alone and are worth learning if you want to understand their drift.

All of which makes their driving terrible. Travelers in Italy have observed that most Italian drivers have one arm hanging out the window as they go along – and if that arm should start moving then you know you’re in trouble because the other hand will be holding a cell phone…

Italians are generally warm, talkative (mama mia!) and also well-cultured, digesting film, theatre and books with all the best intellectual character of Europe. They’re also suckers for the mass media though and cheap, sexy images. Watch an hour of Italian TV and you’ll see a variety of dusky Italian babes in bikinis simpering on stage next to middle aged male Italian presenters.

An Italian porn star made it to parliament, Mussolini’s granddaughter made a career on politics on the basis of her name and a good cleavage, and Italians voted the corrupt criminal, Silvio Berlusconi into office for his cheap charisma and wealth alone. The premise was apparently that if they had a rich, vulgar idiot in charge of the country, then your average poor, vulgar idiot could get rich too. The other half of Italy couldn’t wait to get rid of the corrupt and revolting Berlusconi and the degree of the hatred he inspired is a testament to the strength of Italy’s Left, the only country in Western Europe with a large communist party. But that’s getting into Italian politics and, trust me, you don’t want to go there.

Italians in the north of Italy are cooler and more reserved than the rest of the country. They drink more heavily and are unlikely to start up a conversation with a stranger on the street. Things free up in the centre of Italy though the Tuscans have a reputation for being quite closed until they know you better. Southern Italians are the colourful, feckless folk of the Italian stereotype but are also the kind of people to take seriously whatever the Pope (il Papa) has to say at any given moment.

Italy is also an aging society with a dropping birth rate and, as it takes most Italians so long to grow up, with age comes status. Ability or talent is apparently not enough to secure a promotion or a more lucrative salary – you’ve got to have a few grey hairs too before you’re taken seriously.