Wednesday, February 27, 2008
In Italy Nothing Beats Local
Not long ago we were in Rome in the theater auditorium of a university there listening to a panel discussion open to the public. The topic was an issue of international news coverage and the four guests on the panel were journalists and scholars. All were from countries outside Europe.
As the discussion began, each panel member introduced himself to the audience of, perhaps, three to four hundred people.
The most western of the panel members, educated in the U.S. and England, is fluent in English. On this occasion, however, he spoke in his native language and a translator rendered his words into Italian for the primarily Rome-area audience. The man is a university professor, and author of several books on international affairs.
After running through this brief bio, he mentioned that he had visited Italy several times. Often he had come to Rome, he said, but he also had traveled to other Italian cities. He mentioned Milan and Florence, and then added, "and the most beautiful of all, Venice."
A barely perceptible, disgruntled sound tremor rippled through the audience. The speaker, apparently unaware of his minor blunder, didn't even notice it. But I did and I smiled in sympathy. I knew well the speaker's misstep for I had made it a few times myself before I mended my ways.
Unlearning Yankee ways
It's all about local pride. In Italy, it is a strong, uncompromising, often shining force in the culture, in my experience. In short, to say to an audience of Romani (Rome residents), that Venice (or any other Italian city) is the most beautiful, is an insult. Just as it would be if the speaker were in Venice and so lauded Rome to the Venetians, or were in Florence, or Naples or Verona or Turin and did the same.
In the first year or so after I arrived to live here in 2001, we traveled often. Almost every weekend we were off on a day trip or a couple of nights away, not to mention a handful of vacation weeks here and there. Many of the areas we visited Franco had already seen and wanted to show me. Others were also new to him.
On our return home from these many beautiful places, when we visited friends who were our neighbors, I was happy to be able to talk about what we had seen. I praised the sights, the food and wine we had enjoyed. But I was puzzled by the muted response. Why? I wondered. After all, it was their country and its innumerable wonders I was describing. I thought they would be pleased to hear Italy's treasures so appreciated.
In fact, duh, I was in Rome but not doing what the Romans do. I was doing what Americans do. To praise Miami to someone who lives in Chicago, or to rave about San Francisco to a native of Philadelphia, as examples, is business as usual in the U.S. It's all one country, right? More often for most, our national identity is perhaps our strongest, it seems to me. (An exception is the entrenched East coast-West coast rivalry of New York versus Los Angeles).
But here in Italy, what I heard when I praised the Gorgonzola cheese of a city we had just visited, was a response praising the famous bread of our own small town. And what I heard when I talked about the cucina toscana we had enjoyed on a recent weekend in Tuscany was an immediate mention of the porcine mushrooms growing wild in the chestnut forests nearby to where we lived.
Eventually, I did finally get it, and understood my error. And now when I speak of somewhere we have visited, I adopt the detached tone and measured words of the Italians, who praise the other but not too much.
Finding home away from home
In this regard, one of my favorite memories is of when my in-laws came to visit us a few years ago. My father-in-law Bruno is a native of northern Italy. He grew up in a village in a mountain valley of the area of Trent. Bruno is unwaveringly loyal to his home turf to the exclusion of all others.
On our many visits to Trent, I have come to know the local products and recipes because they are the primary components of the invariably delicious food Bruno and my mother-in-law Sara prepare. On the table, also, for each meal are one or two bottles of wine, always local.
During that visit back then to our home, my father-in-law went along with Franco to the supermarket to restock on supplies. Bruno doesn't generally enjoy traveling, and I had been particularly concerned about making him feel comfortable. So I was pleased, and surprised, when I saw that he was smiling and seemed more content on their return from the shopping trip. I understood why immediately when Bruno proudly set out on our table a half dozen bottles of Trentino wine he had searched for and found on the store shelves.
From centuries ago to present day, if you read the travel writing, you will see how visitors who travel to Italy often go away puzzling about the wonderful secret of the Italian people and their way of life. What is it exactly, writers ask, trying to pinpoint it.
I don't have an answer to this, of course. But possibly it has something to do with this first allegiance of so many Italians to what's local, this love for the thing that is closest, most familiar, most treasured and most known.
by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato
Copyright © Rebecca Helm-Ropelato