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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Fallen leaf on cobblestones

Posted on the September 18th, 2013

Rome, September 2013, photo by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato

 

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The Butterfly upon the Lavanda

Posted on the July 9th, 2013

The Butterfly upon the Sky,

That doesn’t know its Name

And hasn’t any tax to pay

And hasn’t any Home

Is just as high as you and I,

And higher, I believe,

So soar away and never sigh

And that’s the way to grieve –

Emily Dickinson

 

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If you’ve never been to Ninfa

Posted on the May 26th, 2013

If you’ve never been to the Garden of Ninfa, now in the month of May is one of the best times of the year to visit. About an hour south of Rome, the English style garden is set in the ruins of a medieval town.

From the Garden of Ninfa official website:

Though in ruins, Ninfa is a rare example of a complete medieval town. Abandoned for five centuries, it was described by the historian Gregorovius in the 1880s as the ‘Pompeii of the Middle Ages’. What we see today are the significant remains of a fortified town, encircled by a double girdle of walls, which reached its peak of prosperity between the 13th and 14th centuries. The urban layout is still clearly distinguishable, giving the garden a setting that appeals to the imagination. The main buildings, not all of them in good condition, are easily identified as the castle, the town hall (converted to a Caetani family house), and the churches of S. Giovanni, S. Biagio, S. Salvatore, and S. Paolo all situated along the outer walls.

Ninfa Garden, 2

The three photos posted here are from my visit to Ninfa last year at this time.

And go here for a quick video peek of Ninfa, provided from the BBC’s Italian Gardens series, hosted by Monty Don.

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Have orchids, will travel: International Orchid Exhibition

Posted on the April 24th, 2013

Orchid on display, International Orchid Exhibition, Monte Porzio Catone, Italy, photo by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato, April 21, 2003

Though these are the days of clouds and rain in Italy, on Sunday the organizers of the International Orchid Exhibition in the village of Monte Porzio Catone, near Rome, were granted lots of sunshine and fair temperatures for their annual celebration of the exotic blooms.

We dropped by for a few hours to admire the brilliantly vivid displays of exhibitors. I posted my photos of the event at Demotix.com — you can see them here.

 

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Commentary by Emily Dickinson

Posted on the March 26th, 2013

 

I started Early – Took my Dog –
And visited the Sea –
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me –

Emily Dickinson

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Two men fishing in rough sea at Ostia Lido, Rome yesterday

Posted on the March 25th, 2013

Turbulent waves and high spray yesterday at Ostia Lido, the city of Rome’s Mediterranean seafront, didn’t deter two fishermen from tending to rod and reel. (Photo by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato)

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Here, there and everywhere

Posted on the November 15th, 2012

I saw a thing of beauty this morning. And it was neither one of Italy’s gazillion art treasures or antiquities, nor something exclusive to this country. It can easily be found in many other places.

A piece of a branch from one of the sycamore trees that line the street near where we live had been snapped off and blown to the ground by last night’s winds. The small segment had come to rest near the curb between two parked cars.

It was the harmony achieved by its contrasting shapes that was most striking – the linear variety of the branch itself, the entangled geometry of the curled and dying leaves, and the delicacy of the seed balls hanging by their stalks. Enhancing all was a single hue of golden brown, saved from monotony by the range of textures composing each part of the branch.

Although torn away from the whole creation of the tree, the fallen piece remained complete in its altered form.

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower…*

 

 * William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

 

UPDATE: Today, while browsing my photo archives in search of another photo, I came across a long forgotten series of shots I made of the fallen branch (back in 2007). I’m posting one of these photos at the top of the blog, and moving yesterday’s shot of a sycamore tree in Rome to the bottom.

UPDATE 2: U-turn. Decided to take down the close-up photo of the branch and leave the imagination unfettered by the concrete.

 

 

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Walking Rome’s old Appian Way on a rainy day

Posted on the November 11th, 2012

We’re having a gray and rainy day here. Reminds me of a beautiful walk we took last year in similar weather along a section of Rome’s old Appian Way. I posted an audio slide show of the walk back then, narrating what we saw as we passed along. Here’s a re-post. (For best viewing, best to watch in full screen mode.)

 

 

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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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Bragging rights: How to Live in Italy

Posted on the August 31st, 2012

 

Notwithstanding the disgruntlement of my beloved Speck (above), I am happy to announce the publication of my new book, “How to Live in Italy: Essays on the charms and complications of living in paradise.”

The book is a collection of essays that I’ve written during the past eleven years of living in this uniquely beautiful and bewildering place on the planet. The book is available in print edition and as a Kindle ebook. Pricing is user-friendly and, of course, it’s listed on Amazon.com.

From reviewers and colleagues some favorable words:

Rebecca Helm-Ropelato’s book is about the enjoyment of differences, of what they tell us about others and, above all, what they tell us about ourselves. This voyage of discovery of her other home looks afresh at everything we take for granted, from landscapes, architecture and clothes, through languages, ways of expressing ourselves and of being with others, to food, drink, and pride in what we are and what we do. From Italy, with love.” Back cover blurb, MADALENA CRUZ-FERREIRA, a multilingual scholar, educator and parent.

Rebecca opens by describing herself as an ex-pat. Literally she is correct, but philosophically she’s wrong. It’s that word ‘culture’ which is the giveaway. Having married an Italian and set up home near Rome she has definitively given up her ex-pat status by embracing her new way of life. This is wonderfully expressed in her approach to learning the Italian language – ‘Sheer hard work’ as Rebecca suggests – ‘it also helps me to see my own language in a fresh light and with greater appreciation. Replace the word ‘language’ with ‘culture’ and you have the essence of not being an ex-pat. From Philip Curnow, “Angels, and No DemonsDelicious Italy blog.

Why another book on the pleasures, oddities, and difficulties of living in Italy? It might seem that every stone, ancient and modern, in Bell’Italia has been overturned by every stripe of writer on earth, but for those of us who love Italy–whether through living there, visiting, or even just reading about it from afar–Rebecca Helm-Ropelato’s How to Live in Italy will stir our interest for the varied, rich, exasperating, wonderful life in Bell’Italia… Helm-Ropelato gives us a wonderfully restrained look at today’s Italy, with a self-deprecating attitude that is winning because it is so honest. From Gregorio, Amazon reader comment.

All this tooting of my own horn has exhausted me so I’ll stop here.

For more information about How to Live in Italy, and where to buy, the book website is here. To see the print and Kindle ebook listing on Amazon, go here  (or see the book’s widget here on the right-hand column for more options.)

Special promotion: How to Live in Italy is available today and tomorrow to download free as a Kindle ebook (USA time zones apply).

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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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What Pebbles has to say about Monday

Posted on the May 14th, 2012

And I wholeheartedly agree!

 


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Springtime flowering along via Appia Antica (Rome)

Posted on the April 5th, 2012

Two images from a walk we took Sunday along a short stretch of the old Roman road, via Appia Antica.

 

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Italy loses a beloved musician: Lucio Dalla

Posted on the March 2nd, 2012

 

Yesterday, Italy lost one of its multi-generational popular music icons, Lucio Dalla. The singer-composer was on tour in Switzerland, according to news reports, cause of death a heart attack. Dalla was only three days away from his 69th birthday.

Outside of Italy, Dalla may be bestknown as the composer of the song “Caruso” which was recorded by several musicians, most prominently Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli, and Josh Groban.

Click on the screenshot above to see a video of Dalla performing “Caruso” with Pavarotti in 1992.


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Rare snowfall in Rome: Feb 4, 2012

Posted on the February 4th, 2012

Man walking his dog in the snow

We don’t often get snow in our neck of the woods here near Rome, and when we do it’s usually no more than a three-minute wonder. But recent weather forecasts predicting arrival of the beautiful white stuff were raising my hopes.

So yesterday, I loitered near our front windows watching the steady fall of the rain, hoping for the magical transformation into winter wonderland. Finally ’round midnight, my vigil was rewarded. I would say at least five inches fell — and it’s still here!

 


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Boat with orange stripes and its reflection at Lago Albano

Posted on the January 16th, 2012

I’ve often wanted to take a photo like this. With the perfect light we had here yesterday, my wish came true.

 

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Romano Prodi calls out Germany

Posted on the November 30th, 2011

It is a brilliant stroke by Romano Prodi in an interview yesterday with Spiegel Online International when he parries a challenge from the interviewer by asking bluntly “Is Germany better off with the euro or without it?”

The interviewer has just referred to German PM Angela Merkel’s stated opposition to eurobonds, and to Germans’ fear that it is primarily Germany that will carry the financial burden for the bonds. Excerpt:

SPIEGEL: …By now, Chancellor Angela Merkel appears to be completely isolated, with all partners exerting huge pressure on her. Will that be effective?

Prodi: That is the way politics works. But let’s be rational. Is Germany better off with the euro or without it?

SPIEGEL: With the euro.

In a later section of the interview, the subject of a “two-speed” Europe comes up. Here also, Prodi offers an interesting perspective. And he goes on to talk about a major criticism that he says he hears increasingly voiced about Europe’s power globally.

You can read the full Q&A here, which also includes some discussion of the current and past state of things in Italy.

I do wish Prodi hadn’t retired from Italian politics (and I’m not the only one).

 

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Stopping by Rome’s MAXXI on a September afternoon

Posted on the September 4th, 2011

Popped into Rome this afternoon to have our first look at the MAXXI museum which opened only last year. Full name: MAXXI – National Museum of the 21st Century Arts.

As the name reveals, the MAXXI’s official mission is to celebrate modern art and architecture (see website here). The museum was designed by renowned architect Zaha Hadid.

I liked the reflection of the blue sky, white clouds and nearby buildings in the museum’s big window high above, so I snapped a few photos, as you see.

The Guardian has a slide show here, if you want to see more.

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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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