This week I tell a tale of two cultures in the same country. Not counting port visits during Mediterranean deployments, I have lived in Italy four times: 1956-1965; 1972-1974; 1985-1988; 2015-present. Returning to live in Formia almost 30 years after living in Pozzuoli and more than 40 years after living next door in Gaeta has allowed me to consider what has changed in the country where I grew up – and what has not.
When I lived in Gaeta and Pozzuoli, the Cold War was still raging (in its own way). International politics and the news were all about the faceoff between the USA and the USSR. The Communist Party was the opposition party, and the second strongest in Italy, but Italian Communists had little in common with their comrades in the rest of the world. Since then, Italy has changed its Constitution, disbanded its old parties, and altered the educational system, the courts, and many other aspects of society. My friend Luca had to give me a rundown on what happened to the old familiar lineup, how the DC, PCI, PSI, PLI, PMI, MSI, and PRI have been replaced by Forza Italia, Lega Nord, Partito Democratico, Five-Stars, and others I did not recognize. Divorce, abortion and civil unions are the current social issues, and the hot political topics have nothing to do with the Americans or the Soviets: the economy, the banking crisis, immigration, unemployment, and the brain drain of university graduates leaving to find work abroad. Russians vacation on the Adriatic Coast, and I was able to cross the former Iron Curtain to ride my bicycle in the former Yugoslavia.
Italians have always had a flair for the theatrical, with a tradition dating back to the orators of Ancient Rome (e.g., Cicero, who came from Formia). Until the Second Republic and the new Constitution, the politicians pretty much looked alike: stodgy white men in tailored dark suits. Today, the theatre and the actor have turned to comedy and sometimes farce, and one must laugh to keep from crying. Yet, they are all serious, and most really want to deliver on their promises. But, oh, what promises!
Italians have always been rightly proud of their food, and that concern today is shown in the supermarkets, where the provenance of every food item is carefully shown. “Shop local” is a way of life today, as Italians try to avoid the headache of additives and unfamiliar ingredients in outside food. In 1986, Italy had some of the strictest food safety laws in the world, but standardization under the European Union has diluted some of that assurance.
Italians are not immune to the magnetic appeal of fast food and convenience shopping. Italians in 2016 are facing an obesity epidemic as McDonalds and its lookalikes grow their European markets. Heart disease, diabetes, and other lifestyle chronic diseases are on the rise, as more people drive everywhere, breathing diesel fumes (60% of European cars are diesel), when they used to walk to the bus or train.
In 1987, I could still find plenty of Italians who did not speak English. But today, English is so pervasive that Italian scholars and linguists are worried about the impact of anglicismi, which includes the use of English words, for which there are perfectly good Italian words. Indeed, Italians have even established a “correct” way to use English in their language, and they very often give the English imports a new connotation lacking in English. For example, one never uses a plural form: one computer, two computer; one slip, two slip. A slip, by the way, is not a lady’s undergarment; it’s a man’s thong or brief.
The internet and the wireless phone are even more pervasive than they are in North America, and not just among the young. Everyone has a cell phone and uses it. Italians enjoy better internet coverage and mobile data service than Americans. In the cities, coverage is complete from at least four major competing providers; in the country, at least one or two of them will cover everywhere. I have been without bars in large parts of North America (like the hostel where I am writing this blog), but never in Italy since I returned last year.
Italy is officially a Roman Catholic country, and at least until 30 years ago, 96% of Italians called themselves Catholic. But there has always been a strong anti-clerical sentiment among a large part of the population. Today, I find that there is less anti-clericalism and more apathy. Italians of all ages and both sexes simply ignore the Church as not worth their energy or their passion. Those that are not practicing Church-goers still profess that they believe, but they don’t feel bound by the rules and authority of the Church. The unbelievers seem to get along with the practicing Church-goers, in that happy Italian way of accepting differences that has allowed them to survive so much history. But Italy is slowly becoming the secular state that its Constitution promises. Lifelong partners may raise their children without getting married; women’s rights and gay rights are center-stage and making headway; and while the Church is still very powerful (and Pope Francis wildly popular), opposition by the Vatican is no longer certain death for legislation introduced in Parliament. Or so it seems to this ignorant observer.
The digital age has made many processes in Italy more efficient and has certainly increased the ease of travelling and living in the country. I have found almost all bureaucratic gauntlets faster and simpler to run, from applying for an ID Card or a Sojourner’s Permit to buying a train ticket or paying a utility bill. I remember when the simplest encounter with a government agency meant several trips to service windows where countless paper documents had to be typed up while you stood there, and often you had to come back. The steps today are often the same, but each one is faster, as the bureaucrat types on a keyboard and gets results and approvals on the spot.
I am not sure that it is progress, but many things that were run by the government are now completely private or operated as a corporation with the government as a major shareholder: utilities, trains, postal service, wireless, internet, many bus lines, airlines, salt, alcohol, etc. The shift has not been clean. I can feel the weight of the bureaucratic tradition in these newly privatized “companies” in the attitudes and tendencies of the employees, and in the quirky little rules left over from the patriotic days of State control. For example, three of the four major wireless providers offer their services completely online and accept all major credit and debit cards and PayPal. But TIM (the service provided by Telecom Italia, formerly, the State telephone company) still requires paper at the front end, and won’t accept a credit card not issued by an Italian bank. And don’t get me started about the trains: for a good read, check out Italian Ways by Tim Parks. It’s more fun.
One thing that has stayed the same is the ability of Italians (and most Europeans) to get something done quickly, once the decision is made. Italy switched from analog television to digital terrestrial television (called “HDTV” in the USA) in just 18 months – the whole country. They banned smoking on the trains with near perfect compliance overnight. And they are still the most accepting, hospitable and friendly people in the European Union, both to foreigners and to each other. The level of ethnic resentment I observed among Italians would not register in France or England. This is a generalization to be accepted as such: I am talking about an atmosphere and the tone of the public discourse I observed, not individuals or groups.
There you have it: a taste of my sense of what I am finding as I ride through the land of my youth all these years later. My apologies to any readers that I may have offended, but if this blog elicits some commentary, that is for the good. Thoughts, anyone?
Trip update: Last Saturday, we rode our bikes to Vanier Park to watch the first night of the Honda Celebration of Light, an international fireworks competition. The Netherlands put on the most amazing fireworks show that I have ever seen – until Australia put on its show Wednesday night. With colours and artistic forms that I have never seen, the Aussies kept me mesmerized.
It was a special treat to ride away from the departing crowd (still walking to their cars) and join the parade of thousands of cyclists speeding in an orderly file along the bikeways of Vancouver, with their blinking red and white lights. Those who biked to the events were home long before the motorists got to the first or second intersection.
Tonight we will miss the final competitor: the United States, represented by a fireworks show from the Disney people. We are on Vancouver Island at Tofino for the long weekend (Monday, 1 August is British Columbia Day). On the way here, we stopped at Cathedral Grove in the MacMillan Provincial Park. Here stood some of the tallest fir and cedar trees in the world until a violent windstorm on 1 January 1997 ripped through the waterlogged forest, ripping ancient trees from the earth and creating several swathes of “windthrown” devastation. The trees are decomposing very slowly as the forest grows around them. Some of the survivors are more than 800 years old.
Until next week,
Smooth roads and tailwinds,