Friday, March 18, 2011

Italy: I hate you then I love you; I love you then I hate you

Disclaimer - I may say many nasty things about Italians in this essay. I am, in fact, Italian (non-English-speaking Norman-Sicilian father living in Orvieto; grew up in Rome; Italian was my first language). The following should be taken as an expression, therefore, of exasperated love, rather than xenophobia.

If two men, traveling together and chatting amicably, enter an EMPTY train-carriage, in which ONE girl is sitting quietly, reading, in a 4-person-section, they have a few options...

a) Sit in an unoccupied 4-seat section on the other side of the compartment, and talk easily and quietly among themselves (most considerate).
b) Sit in an unoccupied 4-seat section across the aisle from Girl, whereupon Girl would be only mildly annoyed at overhearing their conversation. (considerate)
c) Sit in two of the three unoccupied seats in Girl's section, which would be intrusive, given that the rest of the compartment was empty, and speak quietly. (a bit inconsiderate, but forgiveable)

But NO! This is ITALY! Therefore, the only conceivable option MUST be


I was Girl, in case you were wondering.
Don't mind me! I'm just trying to enjoy the scenery.

Every time I go back to Italy (twice a year, more or less), I have a rather uniform set of reactions. I begin by feeling that at last I have come, returned to my ancestral home, immersed myself in the beauty and poetry of Classical Rome, orange groves, olive trees, and the unparalleled perfection of cicoria in padella. I learn to appreciate my feminine beauty. I let my hair grow long and curly and turn my face up to the sun in piazettas. This lasts about two days.

This is shortly thereafter followed by the realization that I CANNOT STAND ITALIANS, and that in NO WAY am I suited to Italian culture, and that I can NEVER COME TO ITALY AGAIN. I've worked for six weeks in Liguria; I've lived for years in Rome; I've spent many summers in Ischia. And the result is always the same uncanny disconnect - this place, in which I was raised, into which I was born, is entirely antithetical to several fundamental aspects of my existence. (Even as various Italianate qualities make me completely incapable of living outside Italy, alas!)
The Horror! The Horror!

It was only during this latest excurse to Sicily that I put my finger on it:

The culture of "la bella figura" - the Italian idea that every action and every moment and every turn of the head must be beautiful and graceful (to which I subscribe), leads collectively into a culture in which everybody is simultaneously actor and objet d'art.

 Marvelous as this sounds in theory, in practice it means that I am always visible - as an objet d'art, I exist explicitly for public consumption. Therefore, it is perfectly acceptable for Italian girls to publicly point, stare, and laugh at me for my "foreign" dress sense, old women to loudly comment on the unsuitablity of my shoes, and young men to follow me in their cars, insisting that I speak to them.

I am not a self-for-myself, in Italy. I am a self-for-others, condemned to playing out my Art-Muse-Virgin-Whore-Mother role by being beautiful, graceful, and charming, whether or not I particularly feel like it.

This plays itself out, too, in drastically difficult understanding of privacy (an old boss of mine in Liguria couldn't understand why I didn't WANT to "befriend" my pupils outside of lessons, even as I felt that she was expecting me to "work" well beyond the agreed-upon hours. Likewise, I've had to hide from flatmates in Rome in order to avoid being forced to eat with them because they had decided I didn't eat enough that day - my body, their business!).

I - well and beyond even my Very English Gentleman - like clearly delineated social situations. Public/private. My time/your time. Alone/with others. My space/your space.

This dichotomy does not exist in Italy. All time is public time. All space is public space. At no point am I allowed to be invisible or for-myself; I am expected to, by virtue of being female, young, and reasonably attractive, share myself with others. My body is your property - feel free to comment on my footwear, fashion, or fitness as appropriate! My room is your property - come in uninvited and refuse to let me read in peace! My time is your property - be as late as you like upon making an appointment with me, especially if I've inconvenienced myself in order to be on time!
This is me, in Italy. Except
sans penis.

When I was growing up in Ischia in the summers, my Italian friends and I used to wander the town together, like a pack of feral dogs, aimlessly drifting from one street to the next in an endless passiagata. I always hated the "aimless wandering" form of social intercourse - still find it hard when expected to do so with Italian friends - and yet it's so tied into Italian notions of space and time. What could be more Italian than avoiding the pub/work, home/bar dichotomy by turning a public street into "social space," time into indefinite "social time," such that everyone in it - whether an innocent passerby or a tagalong half-breed like me - gets dragged into the unbearably, endless process existing-for-others?

That's not me. I love beauty and piazzas and sun and ruins. I love existing as an objet d'art. I find the lack of immediate sensuality and un-examined selfhood (as opposed to Anglo neuroses), to be lacking outside of Italy. But the difference is that, outside of Italy, it is my choice to behave in a "visible, artistic" matter (blogging, for example, or indeed any form of writing). In Italy, I feel as if that choice, that sense of autonomy and self-hood has been taken away from me.

Up Side: Exhibit A
The positive side of this, I suppose, is that I get to be a "self" in a different way. In existing in the Italian fashion, in-myself and for-others, I don't exist for-myself, constantly narrating my own life story, verbalizing and intuiting my own experience. Self-overhearing is so completely foreign to Italy: I can't imagine an Italian "Hamlet." One just is, one is one's body and senses and experiences. And that, I suppose, is refreshing, especially for a neurotic like me. For all my complaints, I do love sitting by the sea, editing the latest draft of my novel, eating pasta with sardines and simply experiencing sunlight without having to fit it into the novel of "the girl who reads/eats/experiences sunlight."

But is it worth the cost of losing myself in the process? In good news, it looks like I'll be at Oxford another year for a master's, so my brief flirtation with the idea of doing graduate work at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome is out, so I'll won't have to contend with my Italian shadow-self.

(I suppose this explains why, unlike many TLGers/expats here, I haven't found Georgia to be difficult/a culture shock at all! Compared with Italy, it's practically Scandinavian! Except for heavily-Austrian-influenced Trieste, which is wonderful, in part because people leave me alone there!)

In "The Rebel Angels," Robertson Davies writes of Maria Theotoky, a half-Gypsy medievalist whose academic selfhood is constantly threatened by her Gypsy past. She discovers that she needs both the root and the crown. Can I come to terms with my roots?


Zumbooruk said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sam Jackson said...

Very interesting observations. My first reaction is to point out that your views, however sane and reasonable they may be, are at odds with the world not only of the Italians, but those worlds that the digital info-barons would have us all inhabit. Looking at you, Zuckerberg. Private isn't good for monetization, after all!

My second reaction is to go back to writing my senior thesis, because I really really should. Alas! ;)

Anonymous said...

haha! I enjoyed reading it :D So do you think that Italy and Georgia share things culturally?