Italy As Antimodern Refuge

For everyday living, I see how much this country has to offer

“Italy abandoned running the world, or a wide swath of it, a long time ago. It’s an exhausting business, as a United States that will hand the mantle to China some time in the second half of the 21st century has found. When you get out of that line of work, the need to maximize efficiency, rationalize effort, raise productivity, modernize relentlessly, is diminished. Other pursuits, like that of beauty or pleasure, tend to take their place, or at least assume greater importance.

Perhaps in such a context, a Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s showman precursor to Trump, or a Matteo Salvini, should be viewed more as theatrical sideshow than anything else. The world needs a country where relief from modernity is still at hand. In Italy, the human gesture, the consoling word, remain everyday currency, whatever Salvini’s machinations.”

The quotation above comes from a recent column by Roger Cohen, a columnist for the New York Times. I will leave the comments about Silvio Berlusconi, Donald Trump, and Matteo Salvini aside for the moment, because my reason for citing the quote lies in Cohen’s representation of Italy as a repository of a set of person-centered values and practices that retain little purchase in the United States and other countries, where Cohen sees instead an exhausting modernity that has degraded the way people treat each other.

In talking to Italians about this idea, I find that just as many agree with it as disagree. Some say that Italy is beautiful but that some Italians are ruining it. Others say that the Italy of kind and generous people, of la bella gente, has diminished over the past few decades; that this image of Italy and Italians used to be more accurate than it is now. From Italians living abroad, I sometimes hear that they miss other Italians, their humor and kind gestures, but that they do not miss Italy itself, its subtle political inefficiency and mild social dysfunction. Still other expatriots miss Italians as well as another Italy, the Italy of beautiful beaches, highly varied and sophisticated cuisine, stunningly elegant architecture, and other features that make it uniquely appealing to people throughout the world.

If you are an ambitious young person, I can understand why leaving Italy to pursue opportunities abroad would have its allure, to work in banking in London or, well, maybe now Frankfurt, or to get a job or start a company in IT in the San Francisco Bay Area, assuming that you could afford and are willing to live in a region that many people are fleeing because it is too expensive, too crowded, too dangerous, and too dirty.

But for everyday living, I see how much Italy has to offer, especially so many of its small towns and villages that were largely abandoned decades ago as the country’s shifting economy made living in these places either difficult or impossible. I know that I just stated a contradiction, but it is in these small towns and villages, less so in the cities, where Italy as the antidote to the discontents of modern life lives on, if perhaps most efficaciously as a model and a reminder of how good life can be.

I write this in Savignano Irpino, a small hilltop village in the province of Avellino, in the region of Campania, not far from Naples. In such a place, which has a thousand or so residents at most, you can see the beauty of life in the faces of the people you meet, and you can hear it in their voices. You see it in the quality of the produce that is sold off of the back of a truck, and in the funny interaction you have with the person who sells it to you. There seems to be a humor that underlies everything in these small places and in the people you meet, and in the conversations you have with them, a humor that is essentially human, but which even the dogs and cats seem to share; there is no reason to think that they do not participate in and respond to the local culture as well, if perhaps with a decidedly different ontology.

Now, clearly I am painting a pretty picture based upon a selected and limited set of experiences that I have had with some people in some places in Italy. And to be even more clear, many of these places are as livable as they are because they have received development funding from the European Union, a result of the kind of regional distribution of resources that is less common in North America, and therefore because of sound, large scale economic and political structures and institutions, but also because of the competent local administrators who run them. But even in the big cities, when buying a train ticket, for example, or when taking a bus from one region to another, where the soul crushing, global, urban modernity flares with all of its sharp corners and edges, I have been the recipient of ‘the human gesture, the consoling word’ from someone behind the glass, something which I cannot easily identify or remember having experienced during the long time that I have lived in the United States.

And clearly this kind of life is not for everyone. I know people who would find this kind of small and intimate approach to be dull and suffocating; and fair enough, they would have a point. But if you listen to the complaints that Americans and others have, it is that many of the niceties of human society have been deteriorated; or they say that something is missing from life and they just can’t put their finger on it.

The irony is that increasing amounts of money, the American way toward progress, cannot buy the kind of culture and ambiente (it means ‘environment’, but without the indelible green reference that the word carries in English; maybe ‘ambience’ is better) that is on offer in abundance and for free in a small mountain village in Italy. I imagine that there must be some places in the United States where this kind of culture exists, in Vermont or Oregon or Colorado maybe, but there will not be the same mix of culture, agriculture, cuisine, climate, landscape and history that makes these small borghi of Italy so special, so livable, so human, and so beautiful.

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