Thursday, November 25, 2004

Life with London Italians Pt.2

Mmmmm, the rich, beguiling, artichoke taste of Cynar, yummm
So, we're off to Sardinia for a few days in a few days. Barring a day trip to the seaside in August this will be my first trip out of London, since April and I haven't visited Italy since last August. For a man who rates pointless travel in his Top 3 list of things to do this has been a hard few months. It's the old paradox. I have the time but, until I know what I'll be doing for a living, I'm loath to spend what money I have saved. When I'm earning the money I don’t have the time. Variations on this theme crop up in most people's lives most of the time. In itself, money can’t buy you happiness but it can certainly clear a few of the obstacles out of the way. Right now, at this point in my life and the life of those around me ALL, absolutely ALL of their problems could be solved by the application of money. We all like and care for the people around us, want things to stay that way and we're not so foolish as to believe money is more important than health. If any rich people out there are living unhappy, loveless, pointless and drug-assisted lives as the result of being rich we would be more than happy to share some of the cause of their misery.
Anyway, off to Italy. My own attitude to Italy and its people is complex. I have an Italian name. To the initiated I look Italian. I say to the initiated because very many non-Italians have a highly skewed image of what to expect. At no point in my life did I sport dark black, curly permed hair or a horizontally striped T-shirt. The region of Italy where my family come from is hard, rough country. The summers are parched and the winters freezing and flooded. The people are dour and often taciturn. Their traditional diet is cornmeal and potatoes. Let's be honest here. If Italy was such a crash-hot country, packed with an abundance of yummy foods and cheerful, singing peasantry why did so many people leave the country in the first place?

In a similar fashion to Ireland and the Irish, or Jews and Israel, a lot of looking back at the home country with rose-tinted specs has taken place over the years. How I laughed when Tracy first saw where my family came from. Fully charged with a lifetime of pizza ads and pasta sauce labels, I think it's fair to say that she was unpleasantly surprised. Actually, some parts of Italy do conform to the romantic stereotype. They're in Tuscany and I can point at both of them on a map. I'd need an awfully thin pin and an awfully large map though.
In fairness, Italy, like Ireland, has become much more prosperous since the migration years. Both have transformed into comfortable, and frequently expensive, places to live in or visit.

But there's my problem. Whenever I visit Italy, on holiday or work, many of the people I meet consider me to be a queer fish indeed. As mentioned previously, I look Italian and I boast an exceptionally Italian, if embarrassing, name; kind of like the Italian equivalent of an English 'Arkwright' or 'Worthington' but a little ruder. For the life of them they can't understand why I choose to continue living in rubbish old England with its terrible food, weather, housing, crime levels, collapse in family life, football hooligans, curry fetish, lager louts and all the other things that make the UK what it is today. Isn’t it about time I moved back to my roots and re-established contact with the land of my forefathers? They view me as a sort of defector from the national team who isn’t quite past the point of redemption. All I have to do is acknowledge that Italy is better than the UK, all those embarrassing factors that caused past diasporas have long been erased and, yes, the boy's coming home.

And they're right. By any material standard; food, education, health, overall quality of life, Italy has long overtaken the UK. That's a 100% certainty. However, I could never imagine living in Italy.

Italians are so bloody annoying.
Their vanity. Their superficial obsession with clothes and bathroom tiles. Their four hour long game-shows. Their constant prattle. Their sheer all-encompassing smugness. God no.

Fifty years of deficit-funded social welfare has turned Italy into a nation of pampered lady boys. The State pays for their every need. The notion of working any longer than 20 hours a week or for more than two straight hours without lunch or a nap is an alien concept. The situation is not as bad as in Spain, but it's close. Italians generally acccept that sometime tomorrow their whole economic system will collapse but, hey, tomorrow never comes does it? And, anyway, they're in the EU now so likes of the UK with its relatively tight-fisted welfare system can subsidise the merry japes taking place further South, can't it.

There's one massive fly in the ointment though. Like other culturally homogenous nations, Italians are profoundly suspicious of other races and cultures. Their existing welfare system will start to look at lot less peachy to Italians once a large number of people perceived as not being 'Italian' start to draw from it. It's starting to happen now and the Eyeties don't like it.
Like a pale imitation of France, Italians like to convince themselves they have an important role in the World. Late night television in Italy consists entirely of extended talk shows that discuss World events along the lines of 'if we were in charge this is what we would do'. People not watching this stuff are consuming copious quantities of cable pornography, including my uncle who, to my undying admiration, has hacked his cable box such that he doesn’t have to pay for adult TV; limited only by the fact that he can only receive the sound and no picture. He still watches it though.

The twisted sexuality of Italians should not be understated. For reasons I do not fully comprehend, what would be considered specialist tastes in the UK are much more mainstream in Italy. I remember a work visit to Italy a few years ago with a colleague. We were travelling on a late night train and Andy found a comic book in the luggage rack above his head. Only it was like no other comic book he'd ever seen back home in Blighty. It featured an intricately drawn alien, with a trifurcated member, gang-banging a series of voluptuous Earth women all on his own. To complete Andy's education in the twisted psyche of Italian society, I took him for a walk the following night and pointed out a few of the legions of fur-clad, hard-working, East European transsexual prostitutes that make a very decent living in every major Italian city. I then bought him a few glasses of Cynar, brewed from fermented artichokes, and he returned home to England a very confused man indeed. To my certain knowledge, no pizza ads or pasta sauce bottles feature pictures of cheerful Italian men with a Bulgarian shemale on one arm and a keg of artichoke hooch under the other.

OK, so Italy does have its limitations when it comes to settling down there, but what about a visit? Of course it's a great place for a holiday. Its food and culture are second to none. But I still have a couple of problems, more of that another time



Anonymous said...

In the defence of Italy.

I find Italy refreshing. Particularly coming from New Zealand. Its foreign but still western so there is a broadly similar life style / environment (ie its not PNG). However the priorities are in a delightfully different order. For example cars. In New Zealand the most important factors in deciding which new car to buy are the perceptions of reliability and ease / cost of getting parts. Hence NZ’s most popular new car has been for years the reliable but dull Toyota Corolla. In Italy I suspect reliability falls way down the list of factors for Italians (try and argue Fiats and Alfas are bought for their reliability) and right up there is how it looks (I do realise that patriotism and the fact that Cousin Carlos works in the local Fiat dealership are also involved but these unnecessarily cloud my argument). Try convincing your average New Zealander to buy a new car on the basis of how it looks and all you’ll get is “hmmmh” as they walk away to the local Toyota dealer.

Then there is a relaxed willingness to enjoy the moment. A good example being a NZ work colleague in a car with an Italian colleague in Milan rushing to get to a meeting. The Italian in a furious rush still pulls over (illegally parking it) to get out and have a coffee alfresco at a side walk café before getting back in the car and continuing the furious rush to the meeting. Ahh…perspective.

I do concur with the observation of male lady boy tendencies. It would get on my wick if I were to live there. After landing at Malpensa airport I knew I was in Italy when I went to the toilet and while I went to the toilet and washed my hands ‘Guido’ came in solely to spend several minutes preening his hair and eyebrows. I also knew I was in NZ when I went to the toilet in Christchurch airport (admittedly during redevelopment) and was confronted by a crudely fashioned temporary stainless steel trough (Gidday mate, welcome back!).

The flipside of the more relaxed attitude to life is the frustration it causes if you need something specific to be carried out on time. Not such a problem on holiday but this does get annoying on a continual work basis.

Another thing that I suspect may annoy me if I were to live in Italy is the lack of the northern European binge-drinking attitude to alcohol consumption.

My observations are born of about a total of about 8 weeks in Italy as a tourist, but hey you’ve got to base it on something. In conclusion, I'd give it go.

Stef said...

I can't remember what show I was watching but last time I was in NZ a couple of cast members from Lord of the Rings were being asked for their opinions on Kiwi girls.

To help their answer along the interviewer said something like ...

'Come on. They're the salt of the Earth but a bit ave' don't you think?'

I may have mentioned this story before but the first time I visited NZ we stopped off at Cave Stream on the way to Arthur's Pass. I fancied following the cave through to the other end but, unusually for me, had no torch or spare clothes. No worries, we met a couple who were doing the stream and they let me tag along, clad only in my underpants.

Neither of these events could have ever imaginably occurred in Italy.

That's New Zealand's single greatest resource - a complete, total and refreshing absence of pretentiousness.

Italy does have its strong points, particularly for the visitor, but living there? Give me NZ any day. It's about 5,000% more honest, real and grounded than Italy, or the UK come to think of it.

Re. the drinking culture. This may come as a surprise but Italians do drink until they're sick. Not drunk. Just sick. Two half pints of insipid lager usually does the drink, sometimes just the one.