Italy, myth and reality

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Editor’s note about the photo: We thought a perfect complement to Andrea’s essay about getting beyond the stereotypes of a culture was one of Glenn McClure‘s many amazing portraits he takes while on Italian Untours. See more of Glenn’s photos here at his website, or on this blog. The thoughtfulness he puts into his photographs is just exactly the kind of thoughtfulness with which most Untourists travel – looking deeper, seeing beauty in differences and states of “normal” other than what we are used to. We plan to feature his photos on a regular basis, as a reminder that life is so much richer than the cartoon character shortcuts we hold in our head. Enjoy Andrea‘s essay here which invites you to look beyond the stereotypes we might hold (good or bad) of Italian culture. 

Italy is so alive in American media. We are a culture obsessed with the Italians, whether in the reality of in-depth cooking and travel shows or the stereotypes of wildly gesticulating movie characters, sexy sirens, mafia dons or Italian mamas insisting we “mangia, mangia!” The name Tuscany is used to brand everything from furniture to processed foods to housing subdivisions. Where does the myth end and the reality begin?

While I dare not speak for the Italians, I would like to take a moment to further examine some of our flawed and romantic notions of Italy and Italians:

The hot head
The Italians are known for their passion and emotion. Our understanding of this is a bit overblown and distorted. We may expect hot-headed people gesticulating wildly as they speak and embracing strangers in a warm maternal embrace. The truth is that while the Italians are more demonstrative of emotions than their neighbors to the north, it is all a bit more understated. Think more of a people moved by the arts, of men unashamed to embrace each other, of a warmth that pervades everyday interactions. Extend your hand, not your cheek, for a first meeting.

La famiglia
Another aspect of Italian life that is perhaps over-romanticized is family life. Yes, Italians prize the family, and there is much love, tradition and obligation involved. We get reports of the
mammone, the bachelor who lives with his parents, doted over by a mother who does his laundry and irons his work shirts. He exists, but is not the norm. Many young people, here as elsewhere, are eager to leave the family home before marriage.

There is a saying in Italy: Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi. Christmas with your family, Easter with whom you choose. Yes, there is an expectation to be with family on holidays, but also the liberty to make Easter a holiday weekend away instead, the first long weekend of spring. The birth rate is down in Italy, one of the lowest in Europe. And many couples these days choose not to marry. But they do remain faithful.

Italy is dirty
I am startled periodically when a caller alludes to Italy being dirty. One can find graffiti and a bit of litter in most cities in the world. But the Italians tend to be preoccupied with hygiene. Please do not touch the produce in the market unless you are wearing the plastic gloves provided for the task, or let the shopkeeper help you. Italians tend to remove their shoes on entering their homes to not drag in dirt. And our landladies cringe when guests drop their dirty suitcases onto their nice clean bedspreads. (Ooops! Guilty of this myself.) Of course the bidet is another example, but that deserves an entry all its own.

How has Italian culture met with your expectations?

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