a curious Yankee in Europe's court

blog about living in Europe, and Italy

Musing about Beppe Severgnini’s “100 Reasons we are happy to be Italian”

Posted on the July 9th, 2014

This is an annotated Beppe Severgnini.

And what might that be, you may well ask if you’re not up to date on Italy’s culture today.

Severgnini is one of Italy’s most celebrated journalists and satirists. He writes a column for Italy’s top newspaper, Corriere della Sera, he is an Op-Ed writer for the New York Times, and earlier in his career he was the correspondent from Italy for the Economist. In 2001, he was awarded an OBE from Queen Elizabeth. There’s much more to Severgnini’s resume but if I don’t stop now I’ll have to send him a bill.

You may or may not know that all is not as well as it might be in Italy at present in terms of economic rosiness. I leave you to search for the details on your own, but I can tell you that the eloquent hand wringing of many Italians has increased to the level of Lady Macbeth and her spot removal problem. And not infrequently these Italians are blaming themselves for the hard times.

An example: Recently while out to dinner with some friends at a neighborhood trattoria specializing in fresh fish dishes, I heard one of them mutter between bites of the delicious roasted Rombo overlaid with a crosta of potato she had ordered, “How can we Italians be so good at food and so stupid about politics?” Her fellow country folk at the table immediately made noises of agreement.

In a recent Corriere column, Severgnini chose to provide some inoculation against this outbreak of nationwide self-flagellation. He titled it “100 Reasons we are happy to be Italian.” He offered it as “a list from the heart” to counterpoint the gloom-mongering. It’s a good list, especially for those who are fans of Italy and its inhabitants. But for the many who haven’t the time or patience to read a hundred of anything, I’ve pared the plaudits down to my favorite five.

Here they are, with their original numbering from Severgnini’s list:

5. Because no one else is so skillful at turning a crisis into a party

7. Because we have good taste. We instinctively recognize beauty

9. Because we’re interesting. Tourists, business travelers and Angel Merkel are never bored with Italians around.

28. Because we have our head in Europe, our midriff exposed and our feet dangling in the sea

88. Because we love exceptions and occasionally remember there are rules

And now my annotation.

Numbers five, seven, and nine are self-evident, in my opinion, so much so that if subjected to a planet-wide referendum on their validity they would probably get a happy nod of approval from all the tourists who’ve visited the country. But numbers twenty-eight and eighty-eight may merit some commentary.

Regarding twenty-eight, I submit to you that it is wonderful primarily because you need to be an Italian to know what it means. But the metaphor is interesting, and I’m happy to accept Severgnini’s word that the declaration is true.

As to number eighty-eight, I can here offer the perspective of a former Californian, married to an Italian, and resident in Italy for 13 plus years. Not long ago, husband and I were chauffeuring two friends from San Francisco from their hotel in Rome to a seaside restaurant for lunch. Though the fact isn’t indispensable to this anecdote, one of these friends is a Superior Court judge. So that may be why he mentioned wryly at one point that during the previous 20 minutes, he had ticked off five stop signs that my husband had breezed by without even slowing down.

Which brings me to the second half of Severgnini’s number eighty-eight statement – “…and occasionally remember there are rules.” In the US and in some other parts of the Western world, as we all know who live or are from there, the stop sign is sacrosanct (perhaps too much so — the Italians I know find the four-way stop a particular source of hilarity). And if that slips your mind too often, a police officer will soon remind you, or at the very least your fellow drivers will.

Not so in Italy, generally speaking. For many drivers, I’ve noticed, most stop signs seem to be invisible considering the zero effect they have on slowing forward motion. In my first years here, I often tried (futilely) to elicit some illumination from my husband about this habitual disregard of the stop sign. What was most confusing to me is that sometimes he does observe stop signs. So what is the determining factor in this behavior?

Finally after some time passed I had my answer, though it arrived via intuition rather than via spousal comment. I realized that the stereotypical belief that Italians don’t observe rules isn’t true. Rather, as Severgnini points out, they “occasionally remember there are rules.” What he doesn’t mention, though — a reality I now accept with resignation as we continue to fly by stop signs — is that only Italians seem to know precisely what these rules are.

In this regard, I’ve decided to add one one more favorite from Severgnini’s longish list, number 92:

Because governing Italians is like herding cats (but cats have more personality than sheep).

Yes, and what would the world be without cats?

(Here’s the link to the full list: “100 reasons we are happy to be Italian” May 16, 2014, Corriere della Sera).

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One of Rome’s best kept secrets: Ostia Lido off-season

Posted on the October 21st, 2012

Fall days don’t come much more beautiful than the one we had in Rome yesterday. A gently warm temperature and perfect sunshine created irresistible weather for spending time outdoors.

We headed off for a waterfront lunch and a leisurely meander along the wide boardwalk at one of the Eternal City’s best kept secrets at this time of year, its beachfront Ostia Lido.

It reminded me of a similar beautiful day we spent there in January of last year. Here’s a re-post of a slide show I put together of some photos I shot then.

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Rescuing the childhood home of Francesco Petrarch

Posted on the July 13th, 2012

 View from childhood home of medieval poet Francesco Petrarch in Incisa, Tuscany

The medieval poet-theologian Francesco Petrarch is grandly known as the “Father of Humanism” and creator of the Petrarchan sonnet. For ordinary mortals, however, it’s more endearing that he could well be the patron saint of the lovelorn and broken-hearted.

As the story goes, while at church one day the 20-something Petrarch’s gaze fell on a beautiful woman named Laura. Though not a word was exchanged between them, he fell in love. Unfortunately for the young poet, Laura was married and happily so. The good news for poetry lovers and posterity, however, is that the heartbroken Petrarch spent the rest of his life writing love sonnets to Laura.

Here is a stanza from Sonnet 101, Ways apt and new to sing of love I’d find:

Ways apt and new to sing of love I’d find,
Forcing from her hard heart full many a sigh,
And re-enkindle in her frozen mind
Desires a thousand, passionate and high;

At the behest of his father, reportedly, Petrarch first studied law. He soon abandoned it, however, in preference for his first loves of writing and literature. His work and literary reputation in Europe were officially recognized in 1341 when he was named poet laureate in Rome.

On a recent visit to Incisa, a small town about twenty minutes south of Florence, we had a serendipitous encounter with a former living space of the medieval luminary. A friend we were visiting offhandedly mentioned that her new apartment is in the childhood home of Petrarch. She shared this tidbit just as we were climbing into our car to follow her through the town’s narrow streets to her front door.

Engraving on facade of childhood home of Francesco Petrarch in Incisa, Tuscany

Three minutes later we pulled up in front of a large medieval Tuscan residence, four floors of rustic design at the top of a steep hill. Originally built in the 12th century, it was the home of Petrarch’s maternal grandparents. Back in the day, it was within the protective security of the small city’s protective walls. The walls are long gone, but the house still has its tranquil view of the green valley below with the Arno river winding through it.

The newborn poet came with his parents from a nearby town to live in Incisa soon after his birth in July 1304, according to historical accounts. He remained there through his early childhood.

Unlike the celebrated and elegant villa Arquà Petrarca (now a museum) in a northern region of Italy where Petrarch lived out his last years, the more humble Incisa structure is much less wellknown. Its history also is more troubled.  The line of family inheritance to the property was broken in succeeding centuries, according to local sources.

The residence did continue to be recognized up until the end of World War II as a one-time home of Petrarch. It housed a small museum and library dedicated to the poet. In the chaotic aftermath of the great war, however, the residence fell into abandonment and neglect.

City councilman Gianfranco Mazzotta overseeing the restoration of childhood home of Francesco Petrarch

On our recent sunny day in Incisa, we were fortunate to bump into a lead player in the restoration of the former Petrarchal home there, local city councilman Gianfranco Mazzotta. In fact, when we first saw him, Mazzotta was energetically wielding a mop to clean the floor of the newly completed public meeting room on the lower level of the Incisa structure.

Do your city council members in the US do this? he calls out, smiling as he held the dripping mop aloft.

In a complicated arrangement, the ownership of the former Petrarch home was previously held jointly by private owners and by the Italian state. Mazzotta recounted to us the sometimes thorny process of negotiating a fair sales price of the state’s share of the property to the city of Incisa. His pride in his ultimate success in the battle is evident.

Completion of the full renovation of the Casa Petrarca is expected to be a year from now, at which point it will be open to the public. In addition to the public meeting room, the residence will comprise a small museum and a library celebrating the poet.

Casa Petrarca, childhood home of Francesco Petrarch in Incisa, Tuscany

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Tax rate for Italians one of world’s highest

Posted on the August 2nd, 2011

One of the key events on which the United States is founded is the historical act of citizens refusing to pay their taxes —  celebrated by patriots as the Boston Tea Party.  So it puzzles me a bit when I hear some of the descendants of these same brave revolutionaries routinely jeer at Italy as a place where people don’t pay their taxes.

One, the blanket condemnation isn’t true. Many Italians do pay their taxes. But for those who don’t, a chart published in the Globe and Mail last Friday offers some justification for the tax-dodging. It shows Italians being taxed at the third highest rate in the developed world (“Tax revenue as a percentage of GDP in the developed world” July 29, 2011).

Tax rates in the US, in contrast, are among the lowest, according to the chart, with the country ranking third from the bottom.

See chart here. (Saw link to this article on Informed Comment here).

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Italian women to protest Berlusconi

Posted on the February 12th, 2011

The video above is a promotional spot for the protests tomorrow by Italian women against Silvio Berlusconi in various cities of the country (“Lo spot con Isabella Ragonese la Repubblica, Feb 7, 2011). Ragonese is an Italian actress.

From Ansa.it (Italian women to stage anti-Berlusconi rallies, Feb 11, 2011)

Women will take to the streets of Italy’s cities on Sunday calling on Premier Silvio Berlusconi to resign after prosecutors this week requested he be sent to trial for allegedly using an underage prostitute.

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What the heck happened in Italy?

Posted on the December 16th, 2010

For those far away and only vaguely attentive to Italian politics, there’s a helpful summary of what happened earlier this week by Geoff Andrews on openDemocracy (“Silvio Berlusconi: endgame, prolonged” Dec 14, 2010).


The end of Silvio Berlusconi’s political career has been heralded more often than those of any other Italian leader in modern history… The strong sense of decay surrounding him remains pervasive, yet his day of destiny has once more been postponed. What explains this endless dialectic of shame and survival?…

Read full post here.

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Italian journalists are moving online

Posted on the November 18th, 2010

Italy has a reputation for lagging behind in its citizenry’s embrace of the Internet (see here, for an example). It’s true that things could certainly be better online-wise, but still the country does rank in the top 15 countries worldwide in Internet users, according to a recent European Travel Commission report. And it shows online usage steadily rising.

Nonetheless, as the report also shows, the percentage of the Italian population online is only 51.7 percent (30,026 million). That compares to 68.9 percent in France, 79.1 percent in Germany, and 77.3 percent in the USA.

In Italy, one online sector where some promising new developments are underway is journalism, according to an article by Federica Cocco today at OWNI.eu (“Italian journos search for escape route in oppressive job market” Nov 17, 2010).

Cocco reports on some of the current hardships many Italian journalists are facing in traditional media. As a solution, she writes, some of them are “trying to find refuge in the web.”

According to a 2010 survey by Human Highway and Liquida, Italy now counts 1.7 million bloggers – half a million more than last year. The study also concluded that 23.1% of the 24 million Italian netizens read blogs regularly, and the majority of them focus on current affairs.

Cocco also reports on the recent launch of two notable online news reporting websites.

Read the full article here.

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The professor vs the student: differing takes on Italy’s current troubles

Posted on the November 11th, 2010

Interesting New York Review of Books blog post versus comment exchange yesterday about the current and future troubles of Prime Minister Berlusconi and those of the country itself. Could be described as the case of a bemused view from above versus a most concerned view from within, seems to me (“Berlusconi: Will Someone Please Pull the Plug?”).

The blogger is Ingrid D. Rowland, Univ of Notre Dame professor based in Rome. Her challenger is Mauro Gilli who according to some Googling by me, is a doctoral student in political science and one of the creators of the Italian website focusing on economics and politics, Epistemes.org (can’t swear to my accuracy of Gilli’s ID but am fairly sure) (Update:verified by Mauro).

In her post, Rowland offers an entertaining historical glance backward at some shenanigans of various Roman emperors. In comparison, she finds Berlusconi’s scandals somewhat deficient. Gilli writes to protest that Rowland’s post is:

…quite empty of any substance once we take the anecdotical analogies to ancient Rome away.

I do quibble with the charge that Rowland’s post is vacuous. She reviews some details about the mounting dissension within the ranks of the Berlusconi government and, especially to my liking, points to the emergence of  a few Italian women leaders that are worthy of note.

Gilli, however, points out the context of what he describes as a far bigger problem for Italy than the replacement of one Prime Minister with a new one. And it’s this problem that Gilli describes that I myself hear most often lamented by the Italians I know.

Read blog post and comment here.


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Buon compleanno, Vivaldi!

Posted on the March 4th, 2010

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Antonio Vivaldi – March 4, 1678. He was born in Venice. Vivaldi is especially famous for his concertos. One of the most well-known is “The Four Seasons.” Another of his best-known works is “Gloria.”

In this video, cellist Yo-Yo Ma is performing selected segments from both these works.

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Italy’s Bocelli wins a star

Posted on the March 2nd, 2010

Today Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli is to be given his own star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, ANSA.IT reports (Mar 2, 2010). Bocelli attributes the award to his popularity with the USA public, according to the article.


After debuting at the Sanremo Song Festival in 1994, where he won the Newcomers section, Bocelli has gone on to sell 70 million albums worldwide – 24 pop, eight opera – and has performed at some of the world’s top music venues with the likes of Sarah Brightman, Celine Dion, Christina Aguilera and Laura Pausini.

As was the case with Pavarotti, Bocelli has been criticized by some for his popular cross-overs into pop music. When asked about this, according to the article, the singer dismissed the criticism, describing himself as a musician and “not genre specific.”

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Italian photographer Masturzo wins first place for 2009 photo

Posted on the February 13th, 2010

An Italian photographer, Pietro Masturzo, has won the premier award at the 53rd annual World Press Photo Contest. The photo was taken in Tehran last June. It shows a woman shouting in protest from a rooftop.

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Open borders not so pleasing to Italians or to their neighbors

Posted on the February 4th, 2010

Last month, Pew Research Center published the results of a 2009 poll that reveals highly negative attitudes of many Europeans toward immigration, with Italians being the most unhappy (“Widespread Anti-Immigrant Sentiment in Italy” by Juliana Menasce Horowitz, Jan 12, 2010).

…in the fall of 2009, more than eight-in-ten Italians said they would like to see tighter restrictions on immigration.

Titled the Global Attitudes Project, the Pew surveys are conducted in 55 countries, and have been  ongoing for the past decade, according to the article.

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You say spaghetti, they say tagliatelle!

Posted on the January 17th, 2010

I almost missed this, mamma mia! A last minute bit of web surfing turned it up. Today is the 2010 International Day of Italian Cuisines.

And the star of this day is tagliatelle al ragù bolognese. More often humbly christened spaghetti and meatballs in the U.S.  In England, absolutely irreverently, spag bol.

From the sponsors of the mouthwatering event:

“…hundreds of chefs, in more than 50 countries, will simultaneously prepare this dish to say “no” to the forgery and counterfeiting of Italian products and cuisine around the world.”

The sponsor is the GVCI (Gruppo Virtuale Cuochi Italiani) — English version is the Virtual Group of Italian Cooks. It’s a network of over a thousand professionals in Italian food and wine who work all over the world, according to the Group’s website.

Depending on where you are on the globe, you may still be able to find a restaurant participating in the event — see map of locations here.

If not, you can whip up your own dish of the tagliatelle at home. The authentic recipe is here — including the homemade pasta itself.

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Avatar finally opens in Rome

Posted on the January 17th, 2010

Into Rome yesterday for the 2:40 showing of “Avatar.”  Late to open in Italy, “Avatar” just arrived here on Friday.

Saw the film (English language version) at Warner Village cineplex next to the Piazza Repubblica. Being that it was afternoon, and a very dull gray, chilly afternoon at that — no crowds, walk in, no waiting, great seats.

I wanted to see it in the theater, as I’ve read many others did also, because of the visuals and special effects. This moviegoer’s opinion: rave reviews justified! Wasn’t walking on air on the way out, though. The film’s theoretical context is too true to present day, tragic, real world conditions.

Checking out critics’ reviews, I liked Robert Roger Ebert’s (Chicago Sun-Times, Dec 11, 2009) take:

“Avatar” is not simply a sensational entertainment, although it is that. It’s a technical breakthrough. It has a flat-out Green and anti-war message. It is predestined to launch a cult. It contains such visual detailing that it would reward repeating viewings. It invents a new language, Na’vi, as “Lord of the Rings” did, although mercifully I doubt this one can be spoken by humans, even teenage humans. It creates new movie stars. It is an Event, one of those films you feel you must see to keep up with the conversation.

“Avatar” is doing fantastically great in overseas boxoffice, much better than domestic performance in USA, according to this  update from the Hollywood Reporter (“‘Avatar’ still dominating overseas boxoffice” Jan 10, 2010):

Now the second-highest-grossing title ever worldwide, “Avatar” wound down a month of total foreign theatrical domination on the weekend with a boxoffice tally of $151 million – $8 million more than was reported Sunday and a 10% increase from the prior weekend — from 15,301 screens in 111 markets.

“Avatar’s” overseas cume (cumelative earnings) of $915 million significantly outpaces comparable domestic action, more than double its $430.7 million domestic take in the U.S. and Canada.

And that was a week ago.

Not all rosy reception in Italy, however. Parents groups staged a protest because “Avatar” was released here with a general admission rating, unlike the PG rating of most other countries (“Italian parents stage ‘Avatar’ protest” Variety, Jan 14, 2010):

In Italy, the “Avatar” general admission rating prompted the Italian parents org Moige to complain that “the decision represents a discrimination against the protection of Italian children,” citing the fact that U.S. President Barack Obama saw the film with his kids, Malia, 11, and Sasha, 8, in accordance with its PG rating.

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Learning Italian: Weaning Venice from the bottle

Posted on the June 15th, 2009

This week Elisabeth Rosenthal wrote an informative and interesting article for the New York Times about official efforts underway in Venice to persuade the locals to drink tap water rather than bottled (“City Known for Its Water Turns to Tap to Cut Trash” June 11, 2009).

Italians are the leading consumers of bottled water in the world, drinking more than 40 gallons per person annually…

My translation

Questa settimana Elisabeth Rosenthal ha scritto un articolo molto informativo e interessante sul New York Times riguardo sforzi ufficiali in corso persuadere i veneziani bere acqua dal rubinetto invece dell’acqua in bottiglia.

“Gli italiani sono i consumatori principali nel mondo dell’acqua in bottiglia, bevendo più di 151.6 litri per persona annualmente…”

Franco’s correction of my translation

Questa settimana Elisabeth Rosenthal ha scritto un articolo molto informativo e interessante sul New York Times riguardo agli sforzi che il Comune sta facendo per persuadere i veneziani a bere acqua di rubinetto invece che dell’acqua imbottigliata.

Gli italiani sono i principali consumatori nel mondo di acqua imbottigliata, con una media annuale procapite di più di 150 litri…

Related article on Ariannaeditrice.it here (“Acqua in bottiglia: la vergogna dei canoni di concessione
by Claudia Pecoraro, April 2, 2009).  Italian only.

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Learning Italian: Passato Remoto, more or less

Posted on the May 20th, 2009

This week in class, we’ve spent a couple of days studying the Italian verb form Passato Remoto. The conjugation of the verb essere (to be)  in present tense, as an example, is  sono, sei, è, siamo, siete, sono. In Passato Remoto, the conjugation transforms into fui, fosti, fu, fummo, foste, furono.

When and how to use Passato Remoto?

Well, I did try and write a paraphrase of what the teacher told us today but, with only a half-formed understanding, I failed miserably.  Looking for help,  I did a quick online search for Passato Remoto (English-language websites) and discovered I had a lot of company in my confusion.

So, I decided the safest thing to do is post an excerpt from an Italian textbook I’m using: (“Grammatica avanzata della lingua italiana” Alma Edizioni – Firenze, 2007 edition )

“Il passato remoto, rispetto al passato prossima, ha la caratteristica di essere più utilizzato nella lingua scritta. Per quanto riguarda il parlato la sua diffusione é piuttosto alta nel sud, scarsa nel centro Italia (a parte la Toscana) e praticamente nulla nell’Italia del nord…

“Al di là delle sue caratteristiche stilistiche e geografiche il passato remoto rende un discorso lontano non tanto nel tempo quanto nella sua percezione psicologica: una favola, una novella, un racconto, anche il testo di una canzone o di una ballata, al passato remoto collocano la narrazione in una dimensione epica, lontana dalla realtà di tutti i giorni.”

Rough translation:

Passato Remoto, respective to passato prossimo, has the characteristic of being more utilized in written language. As regards the spoken language, its diffusion is rather high in the south of Italy, scarce in central Italia (apart from Tuscany) and practically non-existent in northern Italy…

Aside from some of its stylistic and geographic characteristics, passato remoto is used to express distance not so much in time as in a psychological perception: a fable, a novel, an account or story, also the text of a song or of a ballad, in the passato remoto place the narration in an epic dimension, far from the reality of the everyday world.

Verb humor

Our teacher also told us about the common use of passato remoto in spoken Italian in south Italy and in Tuscany. For example, if a Tuscan is talking about a trip to the beach over the past weekend, he or she likely will prefer to use passato remoto, even though in time, the trip happened only the day before.

In Napoli, our teacher said, the use of passato remoto is so favored in everyday speech, that Italians share a longstanding joke about it: In Italy when someone knocks on a front door, or rings the doorbell, the standard response from the person inside is “Chi é?” (Who is it?). But in Napoli, so the joke goes, when the knock or doorbell ring happens, the response is “Chi fu?” (Who was it?).  Because you see, it already happened… ahem… so it’s past tense.

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