Luigi Barzini’s ‘The Italians’ opens with a chapter dedicated to Italy’s foreign visitors, from those who land on the peninsula knowing precisely what they wish to do, see, and taste, and who waste no time setting about the business of experiencing Italy with tireless pragmatism; to those more accidental types, easily derailed and seduced, here for reasons mysterious to themselves and outside observers alike. Many types exist in between: students, artists, runaways, American nouveau riche in search of a guilt-free decadent lifestyle, in their minds unobjectionable only in Europe. Of the ‘vast majority of tourists, the millions driven by some unknown urge,’ Barzini is frighteningly astute in his appraisals, perhaps mildly offensive at times, though never truly unkind; the ‘experienced foreigners,’ on the other hand, those ‘who know why they come to Italy and what Italy is,’ receive gentler treatment, but also less page space and insight. It is the crude novice, not the veteran Italophile, who provides the behavioral stuff worthy of examination.
A charming and self-assured introduction to a complicated subject, chapter one of ‘The Italians’ is full of colorful, spot on descriptions that still hold true today—it was published in 1964—never truer, in fact, than from May to September, when we 17-ers find our seats occupied by disarmingly light-eyed souls sporting practical shoes and the unmistakable air of essere in vacanza. Every summer, you see, we undergo our own localized invasion here in the Mugello countryside, a region many Northern Europeans prefer to the Chianti, our sun being just as Tuscan, our goods and services less dear. For these few months, foreign-plated campers driven by Dutch, German and English traverse our green hills and dot our horizons; blond heads and faces tinged pink with wine and sun frequent our grocery stores and fill up our train cars; and brow-furrowing dialogue floats out of SUV windows at our gas stations. On any given summer day, tow-headed children can be seen splashing in agriturismo pools, blissfully ignored by their uber-relaxed, poolside parents.
Despite the heightened 17 havoc—they travel to Florence a lot, the barbarians—I quite enjoy this breed of invader. Maybe because they are so at ease here, so unlike the dazed, desperately-seeking-David tourists who daily block my path to work in town. Maybe because often I eavesdrop on these linguistically-close folks and can relate: their comments on the great food, the ubiquitous rude waitresses, the horrific road quality, and so on, make me grin and shake my head in empathy. In these moments I am, albeit very fleetingly, slightly less of a stranger in a strange land. ‘It’s them, not us, right?’ our eyes say when they happen to meet. ‘They do things oddly here, don’t they? That’s not how we do things in England / America / Germany, is it?’ I like watching them have their hedonic, casual way with Italy. And I am always somewhat envious watching them leave for their respective homelands, back to their cheaper and faster everything.
Often I feel more bonded with these short-term invaders than with the people among whom I’ve been living all these years. Our shared status as outsiders, together with our common cultural background, is a powerful pull, believe me, that even now as I write this influences my sympathies and judgments.
Take this couple seated near me on the train, probably retired, and certainly Northern given their once-blond hair turned a silken white no Italian has ever seen on dear old nonno. They have already caught the attention of my fellow Italian commuters with their appearance and behavior. Now they are pulling sandwiches out of their travel pack, and I, in turn, am poised to defend them (well, in my mind at least) from the doubtful Italians looking on. Sandwiches? At this hour? These foreigners! they are thinking, I’d bet my life on it. Then they, the Italians, quickly dismiss that which is not worth comprehending, and return to their crosswords and cell phones. Italians have been living with invaders since the dawn of their history, after all. They know a foreign threat from mere folly.
I, who have lived with Italians for ten years, see the couple differently. To me, their sandwich-eating is quaintly practical, while Italians consider it out of place. Their mode of dress is too shabby for the Italian public, yet I appreciate the way their choice of clothes privileges comfort while maintaining hints of personal taste, those ‘garishly-coloured clothes’ and ‘barbaric sandals’ Barzini notes. (Italians don’t mean to be snobby; it’s in their makeup to view everything first and foremost in aesthetic terms. Something to do with being brought up among all that art). The woman wears her non-descript persona with ease, and I know the Italian women nearby suffer to see, and are confounded by, the way she has made peace with her pale, varicosed legs, the way the Italian sun has brought out an unappealing patchiness to her makeup-free complexion. Yet she smiles. She is intoxicated by Italy and (hopefully) unaware of the collective sizing up she will be subject to throughout this day. If she possesses even half of the cool confidence she exudes to my eye, however, she’ll hardly take notice.
You see, one of the thornier aspects of trying to make your home in another country is that you cannot shed the social and cultural layers that make you who you are, that formed and are still forming your beliefs. You can try to adapt to the country’s norms, marry one of its own, observe its holidays and ride its trains daily, but you will never fully take on its world view. In great and small matters alike, the moments in which I realize this most clearly are those like the one described above, when trying to see others through Italian eyes.
Back to Barzini. Although ‘The Peaceful Invasion’ seems a strictly one-sided assessment, much of its genius derives from what Barzini reveals about Italians, too, via his examinations of others. Understand how we (Italians) view them (foreigners), and you (reader) learn about both groups, surely the rationale for opening a book that is in essence a treatise on the Italian character with a chapter dedicated to foreigners. But could Barzini, writing almost fifty years ago, have known that one day people like me would be reading his descriptions of people like them–and would feel such a division of loyalties? That his observations would enlighten, yes, but also affirm the inevitability of us and them to an altogether unpeaceful effect? Especially for those of us inhabiting the murky in-between.