Visiting the Old Town

There used to be one reason, really, to visit Italy. Brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends – all those who opted out of the great migration of the 1950s and 1960s.

Last October was the first time I ever visited Italy in the fall. In my previous journeys, five in all, I had gone in the spring or summer – beaches, mountains, sunshine, suffocating heat, old, unmarried aunts with moustaches scratching my youthful cheek as they kissed me, and the sense that Italy, as they say, is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there. Mid-August is when Italians themselves go on holiday. Stores, factories and entire cities close down – by all accounts, the worst time to be driving along the autostrade

Line-ups that are kilometres long before a toll booth are not uncommon; and if the boredom doesn’t kill you, another driver actually might.  Despite a first-rate highway system, Italians’ poor highway safety habits are augmented by a 130-kilometre-per-hour speed limit which virtually no one respects and that the authorities hardly enforce. Every year, I learned recently, some 300,000 people are injured on Italian highways, and about 5400 are killed – one of the worst records in the industrialized world.

The train, I suspect, is a much better alternative. Virtually any town in Italy has a train station, and unlike North America where cars are an obsession, Europe’s fascination with trains has never waned.

The government bureaucracy is convoluted and corrupt, we’ve been warned. Its disregard for the way it dispenses services to the population is legion. Those who “know” somebody can count on better treatment. Too many layers of too many people seemingly doing too many things that are too important. That’s the way things are in Italy; we’ve come to accept it (though the effects of this on the occasional visitor are surely incidental).

This may explain, in part, the characteristic view of Italians as short-tempered pessimists, and the uniquely Italian condition that you’d better try and get ahead any way you can, or you are going to be left behind. Behind what, I don’t think anyone knows for sure. I have this indelible memory from my childhood of Italians crowding together at the door, all trying to get on a bus at the same time – the notion of an orderly line-up, a totally foreign concept. No matter that the seats were all taken (if that was even the reason). Perhaps, the point was not to be the last one on.

The political system, non ne parliamo! Italian television, an often repeated bad joke! (Why some people fought so hard to bring RAI International to Canada I cannot understand!) The only form of creative expression I still remember with fondness is the music. Cocciante, Baglioni, Celentano, I Pooh, names learned in Italy during my youth that still resonate with me in my middle years.

These thoughts meander through my mind, as I try to relax en route from Montreal to Genova via Amsterdam and Ventimiglia on a KLM jet. Even Alitalia, Italy’s national carrier, is an emaciated giant – its direct flights from Canada virtually non-existent, its prices too high, and its personnel never really mastering the North American art of the friendly smile. Too much lost luggage…

At least the Italian healthcare system is first-rate.  Second in the world (behind France’s), according to the World Health Organisation – a source of pride and security for Italians, no doubt; and surely not lost on all the newly minted Italians “living abroad,” fancying the thought of retiring in the land of their forebears, their newly acquired Italian passport in hand.

As Italians like to remind the rest of the world, according to UNESCO, two thirds of the world’s historical artistic heritage is found in Italy. The Italian Tourist Board web site boasts that, “Tuscany, alone, possesses more artistic treasures than all of Spain, the second country in the world for cultural heritage.” About forty million people visit Italy from around the world every year. Nearly 400,000 Canadians did so in 2005, capping a steady increase over the past 10 years, and making Italy the seventh most popular destination for foreign travel by Canadians and first for length of stay.

My wife and I board the train that will take us from Ventimiglia to Genova. The slow but steady pace of the train acts like a tranquilizer. The coastline scenery is majestic, and the uncharacteristically warm weather reminds me of summer. It is late morning and the water of the Italian Riviera is warm enough to bathe in. A few, locals no doubt, take advantage of it. In the empty train car, but for the two of us, looking out towards the infinite sea fills one with an enduring sense of optimism. It seems that anything is possible.

There used to be one reason, really, to visit Italy.  Brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends – all those who opted out of the great migration of the 1950s and 1960s. But the land of opportunity quickly provided the means, for those who left, to go back and feed their nostalgia. For those of us who were of the second generation, the nostalgia was, of course, second hand, but palpable nevertheless.  Vacations in Italy were long: four, six or eight weeks at a time.

Before the trendy food and wine tours, cooking classes, and language courses; before the agriturismi gave vacationers an “authentic” taste of la dolce vita, Italian tourism was sustained by the multitude of Italian immigrants who made the yearly pilgrimage to the land of their birth. Vacationing in Italy in the sixties and seventies was “in” not because of the sophisticated attractions, but to satisfy the very human need to rejoin the tribe. It wasn’t a vacation, so much as the return of a prodigal son or daughter, young children in tow.

The desire to pass along Italy’s essence to the second and third generation has remained, fed by the sense that a part of Italy belongs to all of us, and that we all carry in us some part of it.

Today, the nostalgia is mostly gone, replaced by an uncertain longing. My friend Al comes to mind, who is planning a family trip to Italy this summer. His young adult daughters have never been to Italy. Originally from Calabria, Al came to Canada as a child.  “We’re landing in Rome and staying a few days before going on an extended tour. I want my daughters to experience a part of their heritage,” he told me. The visit to the old town, just a two-day afterthought.

I am eerily comfortable walking through the streets of Genova in October. I don’t feel like a tourist, and the Italians I see going about their routine in their smart business suits and briefcases don’t look like foreigners.

I walk past the statue of Christopher Columbus on my way to the train station. I need to purchase tickets for the second leg of our journey the next day. It is only six o’clock, but it is dark. I had not realized that in Italy the sun sets like in Canada; the days are long only in the summer.

In the spacious station, tempered glass windows separate the row of wickets from the people neatly waiting in line. I join the rear of the line. As the people ahead of me file one at a time to the wicket, I feel something both strange and familiar. A thin, young woman in jeans walks into the station and heads quickly for one of the wickets. “Signorina,” someone calls out, “you have to join the back of the line.” She stops in her tracks and nervously explains to the small, scowling crowd that she merely needs to check something with the ticket agent. It would only take a second. Would we mind? Grunting, the first man in line nods okay.

The next day, as the train pulls out of the Genova station bound for Torino, my thoughts turn to the familiar. As I settle into my seat, the view outside is not of an endless sea, but of a bustling city. But for the mountains behind us, this could be Toronto, or Winnipeg – a modern city waking up to a new day.  Trips to Italy are always baffling: both satisfying and frustrating, exceeding expectation in some ways, yet never quite living up to the build-up in others, and always leaving you wanting. Perhaps, one day I will come back and stay for good! Comfortable in my seat, I momentarily delight in the thought that this, too, could be my country.

First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 10.

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