The First One Hundred Fifty Years

An Italian colleague asked me recently how people view Italy from the North American vantage point. I thought about it for two seconds and then blurted out “chaotic.” Afraid that I might have inadvertently offended him, I quickly added that, in spite of this, people marvel at how things seem to work out for Italians.

I was reminded of typical Italian chaos on a recent trip to Rome. After our plane landed, we were shepherded into the Fiumicino terminal via a narrow series of corridors which soon led to a dead end. On one side was a locked glass door through which we could see the inside of the terminal; on the other was a tiny elevator – not the kind one would expect was designed to handle large crowds arriving on a trans-Atlantic flight. My travel companion and I took it anyway, only to wind up in an empty and isolated security area from which there was no escape, except the elevator! Back down we went to rejoin our fellow travellers.

Eventually, a uniformed security person arrived and unlocked the glass door. After clearing customs, we made our way to the baggage area, where the overhead monitors indicated the flight number and corresponding carrousel, to retrieve our luggage. The screens showed that a flight from Toronto had landed at the very same time as our flight from Montreal. Carrousel number 6, the words read, but nothing about Montreal. While we waited patiently for the information about Montreal to appear, it dawned on us that maybe the people behind the screens were confused. Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver: what’s the difference? They’re all in Canada, right? Off we went to carrousel number 6, which we promptly found to contain not a single piece of luggage. Meanwhile, a few metres away, carrousel number 9 heaved under the weight of dozens of unretrieved suitcases and travel bags. We headed to carrousel 9, with our fellow-passengers in tow, and retrieved our bags. A middle-aged, English-speaking woman next to me muttered something in frustration about the confusion and that this is not the way things are done. I tried to explain to her that it’s normal for Italians to see no difference between Toronto and Montreal – like when people in North America lump together Venice, Florence, Milan and Rome. It’s all Italy, I said. She didn’t buy it …

This is the Italy that in 2011 is celebrating 150 years as a unified geo-political entity – a chaotic and messy, yet exciting and inspiring country of 60 million, teetering on the edge of the first world, cobbled together from a patchwork of nineteenth-century city-states, duchies, kingdoms and foreign-governed territories, speaking different languages and abiding by different customs, whose regional difference persist to this day. Though it is easy for outsiders to think of Italy as a monolithic cultural and linguistic bloc, the reality is that there are as many differences between north and south, between city and countryside, between coastline towns and mountain villages, as one can imagine.

In its first century-and-a-half of existence, Italy saw two waves of mass emigration, overcame two world wars, defeated a fascist dictatorship, replaced a king with a president, survived a terrorist/nihilist surge, and is now grappling with an immigration wave of its own, a secessionist movement in the North, endemic poverty and underdevelopment in the South, a strained political and judicial system, and an on-going battle with institutional corruption and the underworld.

But somehow it continues to inspire the world – at one extreme an example of myriad accomplishments, on the other a model of adversity overcome. This is what I retain most when I think of Italy – beyond the strident patriotic rhetoric expressed at sporting events and the superficial pride some find in Italian brands – that more so than any other country, Italy is tangible proof that political, social, cultural and regional differences can be placated through dialogue – another character trait that is decidedly Italian.

The view that in the midst of the chaos things will work out is engrained in all levels of Italian society and in all aspects of everyday life. May such a view continue to be exported across its borders!

Domenic Cusmano is the publisher of Accenti Magazine.

First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 21.

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