In the spirit of the holiday season, it is appropriate to try and commercialize everything. It’s gotten me thinking about cultures and the differences between Italy and the US. I thought it would be a rather glorious thing if I could shop these cultures for the best of both and create one that is my idea of Eden. So I pretended like I was in the great Costco of Civilizations and was pushing my cart through the “Cultures of the World” aisle, filling it with choice items from the two cultures I know best. Here’s a little of what it would look like.
This is the basic foundation of an ideal culture. It’s got to be beautiful. Italy and the US are both beautiful, but I think Italy edges out the US slightly on a “beauty per square mile” scale.
Italy is about the size of Arizona and packs a lot into that small space. And it also has not one, but two independent countries inside its borders (the Vatican and San Marino). So there you get a beauty bonus. Three countries for the price of one.
Here’s the thing about Italy – it has it all. Mountains (I’m talking about the Alps here, not some wimpy mountain range), plains, gentle hills on the inside surrounded by the impossibly blue waters of the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas. The almost 5,000 miles of Italian coastline contain some of the most magnificent scenes in the world. Vertical cliffs that plunge straight into the sea. Pastel colored villages that somehow were built into those cliff sides, looking more like they grew there rather than being intentionally placed there. Beaches that are strewn with shells, rocks, and all manner of ocean secrets that have been washing ashore over the millennia.
The US has some of the most amazing spots in the world – the Grand Canyon, the Rocky Mountains, the deserts of the Southwest, the charm of Northeast villages, the grace of the South with Spanish moss adorning stately oaks. But the reason I give the beauty prize to Italy is because it’s consistently beautiful. There are great expanses of the US that are yawn-inducing. Boring, flat, and nondescript. You really don’t experience this so much in Italy. Again, on a “beauty per square mile” scale, Italy wins.
This one goes to the US. Despite what many people feel is the most turbulent time in American history, our form of government is a model for the world. Since the end of WWII, Italy has had 69 different governments. The US has had 15 different Presidents. Our system is certainly not perfect and I’m sure if you stop random people on the street, they will be happy to give you their take on what’s wrong with our government.
Italy has somewhere around 14 political parties. I say somewhere around because they come and go. They merge with other parties and dissolve altogether. There are some consistent ones, but there are always a slew of choices that you can align with. The problem with that many parties, in my opinion, is that they are too narrowly focused on specific issues. Governing doesn’t work that way – the problems in any country are diverse and varied and singling out a few topical issues overshadows the others. And once you get past those core issues, you find that you really don’t agree on much else.
Our government has survived for roughly 250 years. Italy has only been a unified country for about 160 years and during that time they have been a monarchy, a dictatorship, and only in late 1940s did they adopt a constitution and a republic form of government. So even though Italy has been a civilization for 1,800 years, they’ve only been a unified country for 160 years and a republic for less than 80 years. And they didn’t have James Madison and Thomas Jefferson designing their government, although perhaps they should have been informed by them a little more.
Italy wins this one hands down. The emphasis in Italy is on family and the benefits that come from enjoying life. Wages are not high and unemployment is, but somehow these people are fundamentally happy. They have a strong sense of community and they value time spent together.
Their attitude is much more laid back, despite their reputation as hot-headed and impulsive. They value living and all that encompasses. They are not slaves to their careers and most don’t put an undue emphasis on material things or fat bank accounts. This is probably the primary difference in Italy and the US and the thing leaves most Americans scratching their heads. But for me, it’s sheer bliss. It puts the emphasis on life and living and not on money and power.
This is a tough one because bureaucracy is an unwelcome annoyance in any language. I’m going with the US on this one, however. Italy has taken complications to a new level and they seem to take pride in just how convoluted they can make things. This applies not only to government, but most businesses as well. It brings to mind that scene from “Meet the Parents” where Ben Stiller’s character is trying to get on a flight. There’s no one else waiting to board, but the by-the-book gate agent has her procedure and by God she’s going to stick to it. Take that and multiply it by about 4,000 and you have Italy.
Here I want to take a little from both cultures. Italian food is fresh and simple. Very straightforward, very seasonal, and very good. They use local ingredients and “farm to table” is not a trend, it’s a way of life. The quality of the ingredients and the cooking methodologies combine to make it superb.
I do love the choices in the US, however. In Italy, you get Italian food. And while I love that, sometimes I like something different, like Mexican or Indian. These options are not available in Italy, at least in the small villages, like where I live. For my ideal culture, I would take the base Italian food and sprinkle in some ethnic choices for some variety. Since I’m culture shopping I can do this.
This one is easy. Italy has world-renowned riches when it comes to art and architecture. The Pantheon, the Duomo in Florence, the David, the Pieta, the Birth of Venus. Living with these treasures everyday creates an appreciation for artistic expression that you just don’t see in the US on a regular basis.
Here’s another one I would like a hybrid on. For classical music and opera, Italy can’t be beat. For 20th century music, the US gets my nod. From swing to rock and roll, the US spawned what we think of as modern music. Since I’m shopping in the “Cultures of the World” aisle, I might throw in a dash of England. I simply cannot live without the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Or Pavarotti.
I could easily live in my house in Anghiari without a car. My basic needs are covered within walking distance of my home. If I do need to venture out for some major purchase, like a snow blower, I can take the bus and be there in about 15 minutes. I can also take the bus to the big city of Arezzo in about 30 minutes, where a train will take me anywhere my heart desires.
We have a car for a couple of reasons. The main one is we like to explore far and near and like the independence of having our own wheels to take us to these obscure places. The second is that we’re American and can’t imagine life without a car.
In Atlanta, it’s possible to live without a car, but life becomes exponentially more complicated. For example, I’m staying about four miles from the home of my nearest grandchildren. It’s about a 10 minute drive. I could take a bus to get there, but it would take an hour and 15 minutes. That’s right – a four mile trip would take over an hour. It’s possible, but certainly not convenient.
I love being able to walk to shops, restaurants, the post office, the doctor, the hair salon – really anywhere I need to go. I like that even though we have a car, we don’t use it everyday. I like that when I walk to the piazza, I run into people I know and I can stop and visit with them, maybe even have a spontaneous drink together. I like that when I do this, I feel like part of the community and the human interaction is just as important as the errand I’m running.
There are other factors that go into making a place a haven. But, to me, these are the ones that consider both practicality and intangible, quality of life issues. Of my eight factors, Italy wins four of them, the US wins two, and the other two are split. If I had all the money in the world, I would divide my time between these two cultures. But I don’t, so visits must be carefully planned and meted out with deliberation.
My heart is truly split between these two places and I love them both. For now, I’m happy to spend most of my time in my adopted country with visits back to my homeland. At this stage of my life, I am more mesmerized by the intangible lifestyle options that Italy offers than the practical advantages to life in the US.
One long Sunday lunch with friends where time is suspended and food comes on big platter after big platter and you’re overlooking the most magnificent view you can imagine – well, it just doesn’t get any better than that to me. Those times make me happy to be alive and happy that I’ve discovered that the path to joy is often the simplest one. But oh how I wish those lunches could be shared with my US friends. You can have a long Sunday lunch here, but I can tell you it is not the same. It’s not just the act of having lunch, it’s the mindset of giving yourself over to the moment and not thinking about what time you need to leave so that you can get to the store before you have to do the laundry. It’s an abandonment of responsibility, worry, and care. This is something you have to experience to understand. And once you understand it, you don’t want to let it go. And to me, this is what life in Italy offers that US does not – living in the moment and learning how to completely let go of your burdens.