Friday, November 23, 2007

Italy - The Armpit of Europe???

Do you ever have those encounters that just tick you off so badly that you can’t get it out of your head? I had ones of those a few days ago and now it’s time to let it go. I am hoping a little venting here will do just that…

I met a friend for caffè at one of my favorite places in Sarzana (which also happens to be a favorite village of mine here in Liguria). Even as we were chatting, I couldn’t help but notice how nice Piazza Matteotti looked just beyond my friend’s head. How nice to enjoy a bell caffè, enjoy the view and a friend, all in Bella Italia. And then it started.

I know this friend has never been happy here in Italy and did not move here by her own choice. Well yes, because everyone has a choice, but hers was based on her husband being in the Italian military. So I understand it can be even more challenging for her than me who made the choice on my own. But there is a point when you either need to accept things the way they are or jump ship. In our conversation which was about them possibly moving back to Alabama where she is from, this friend made the most absurd and disturbing comment to me:

“Italy is the armpit of Europe.”

Yes, you read right and I imagine most of your reactions are as mine, a bit in shock and speechless. When I was finally able to get something out of my mouth I said, “But it’s beautiful here”.

“And that’s it.” The fastest, snappiest response I could have had.

I wish I could have been more eloquent from there but my only response was, “Then it’s probably a good idea that you do move (back the to the states).”

I continued to sit there for another half-hour listening to her bitch and complain about everything and anything Italian. This friend talks A LOT and it is hard to get a word in edgewise anyway, but my shock, or maybe disgust, left me without words to defend my Bella Italia. I left our little get together feeling as if this friend had just told me she’d seen Luigi cheating on me. Ok, drastic thought, but I am trying to make a point of just how much it hit me. And so I have spent days mulling this episode and now have some thoughts of the whole scenario…

When you live here, actually immerse yourself into the culture, it is very different, even difficult at times, especially when you are used to the organization and precision of the States (in my case). It is no longer about “sitting on the terrace with a glass of Chianti and watching the sunset over the Tuscan hills”. The beauty of Italy can actually become a beast!

When it takes you 7 trips to the questura, 3 to the communist club (that’s another story in itself) and 9 months to get your permesso di soggiorno based on marriage, that can be frustrating. When you wait in what you think is a line for the bathroom only to have 5 people cut in front of you, that’s annoying. When you know most people work half in black (cash) so that they can hide money from the government’s ever growing greedy tax hands, that’s just sad. And I can go on. There is an endless list of things in Italy that can make one disillusioned and disappointed in living here…at times.

BUT for every one of those, there is the gorgeously rewarding flipside. So I am going to start a list here of my reasons for why Italy is NOT the armpit of Europe. I am sure I will add to it as time goes on and please do feel free to add on your own in my comments area:

1. 2500 years of history (good, bad, scandalous, heroic, but always interesting) that shaped western civilization
2. The fact that most kids have read some of Dante by the time they are 14
3. The marriage between food, wine and life - you can’t have one without the others
4. Importance of family and actually meaning it
5. The rumble and glistening of olive trees when you can’t decide if they are green silver or lavender
6. Donatello, the master of near every medium of art including wood, bronze, gold, marble & paper
7. The passagiata, the afternoon stroll is the prefect way to start your evening and work off a big pasta lunch!
8. The crystal clear, pristine sea water in the bay between Portovenere and Palmaria
9. Dogs being allowed in dressing rooms in department stores
10. Hot, fresh Focaccia - sorry but it just cannot be duplicated in the states like it is here
11. Isola Bella near Taormina, Sicily
12. How a caffè latte can brighten up your whole day (not with that friend though)
13. “Pianeta Mare”, “Linea Blue” & “SuperQuark” - these informative shows on history and the sea put Mutual of Omaha & National Geographic to shame!
14. The smell of jasmine and wisteria EVERYWHERE in spring
15. Learning when what produce is in season
16. Turning the corner and finding another 1000 year old street or chapel
17. Looking up and realizing that’s not snow, it’s marble!
18. The milk, it just tastes way better, fresher here
19. Learning when what fish is in season and what fish are better “surgelato” (frozen)
20. Seeing the Pantheon for the first or 100th time, it never seizes to amaze me
21. Mastering walking in stilettos on 500 year old cobblestones
22. Chocolate from Modica or Lucca
23. Discothèques opening till sunrise
24. HEBA Morellino di Scansano - one glass is never, never, never enough
25. The voices of Pavarotti, Francesco Renga & Zucchero
26. Being able to jump in the car and drive to no where and still have seen a lot
27. Trains, even when they are not on time, it’s still such a convenient way to get around
28. Weekly markets: whether it’s food, clothes or junk, nowhere does the saying “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” means so much
29. La Twingo, best damn car I have ever owned!
30. Italians can do wonders with little space – it is amazing what you can fit into a 600 square foot home!
31. Nonnapappera, Grom, Vestri, La Piazza and Antica Delizia: gelatos from these grand establishments cannot be duplicated
32. My husband (ok that one is really biased)
33. The novelty of Variety Shows - ok, they may be cheesy, but even with the half dresses dancers there is something almost “old fashion” about them
34. Morning swims in Grotto Byron
35. Alessandro del Piero - the man who can still bring “class” to the game of soccer
36. The amazing variety of fantastic reading glasses by top designers
37. The bidet - once you know what it’s for and how to use it, you’ll never want to be without one
38. All the great stuff you can get at the “Farmacia” with or without a prescription
39. A strong respect for elders and their stories
40. The marble lavandina - chopping counter, sink and place to dry your dishes all in one
41. The smell of roasted chestnuts on the city streets during the fall
And so on, and so on, and so on....


Michelle | Bleeding Espresso said...

I think you probably know where I stand on this one, and it's firmly beside you. Great list.

No, it's not perfect here--nor is it anywhere--but if someone hates it *so* much, why spend his/her life being miserable? Yes I know there are always other factors to consider, often partners and their work, but if one half of the couple is so achingly unhappy as it seems many of those who moved here not so much by choice are, is that good for the relationship? Or for that person? Or for their children if they have any? Mah.

Personally I think there are people who just like to complain b/c that's their comfort zone; I'm not saying that's the case with this friend of yours or with some of the other expats in Italy who can only seem to find the negative, but I *can* say it's not how I would want to live. In fact, that's a big part of why I left the US and haven't regretted it for a day.

Roam2Rome said...

I'm 100% with you and Sognatrice!

It seems to be that some people feel power by fixating only on the negativity without stepping back to see the big picture and treasure the good.

Arrive to a new country just to look down on them makes no sense to me whatsoever!

No matter where you go, there will always be a good side to enjoy and a bad side to learn to maneuver, and what ever feedback a person gives you is not about the city or country, but about themselves and their personal preferences... that's all.

We definitely see that in a lot of the blogs that only seem to find negativity, and it always fascinates me.

Boh! Va savoir!

I agree with you. She probably wants control of her choices and forgets that she does have a choice... I agree with Sognatrice. It can't be good for the relationship, in the end. Poor you. Hope you feel better. Listening to that can be draining...

Anonymous said...

You forgot FRESH LEMONS from Lemon Trees and Prickly Pear Fruit from Prickly Pear Cactus! Napping in the afternoon and going for a promenade after your nap. Riding Vespas up and down cobblestone roads with your arms wrapped around your lover...oops...a little too much reminising...

lucca3 said...

I generally do not respond to blogs that I read, however, this one warrants a response! I have enjoyed reading your posts over the past year. They allow me to relive my time spent in Liguria.

There was a time when I was suppose to live in Italy with a great love. Instead I made the decision of staying in the States with family. I was young and felt like a stranger in a strange land. I wish I would have faced my fears head on because, one, I gave up a precious love and two, I gave up all the great things you wrote about on that list and then some.

I now read blogs like yours, recipes and posts on travel and food which are my passion. Obviously this post touched a nerve. Your friend needs to know that there are good and bad things about every country. Oh, how my heart longs for Bella Liguria. I miss many things listed, as well as, the sound of church bells in the morning (instead of the dreaded alarm clock), foccacia con cipola, the passeggiata al mare, the smell of eucalyptus trees when taking long walks and the elderly admiring the view of the mountains and sea on a warm evening. I can go on and on, however, I will simply say to your friend there is no country that can offer the precision or organization mentioned in the post that can make up for the void felt from missing the things on that great list. Go home to America, but, when you miss Bella Italia, I hope you will be so lucky as to have a friend to open their home to you and listen to you when you complain about life back in the U.S.

Anonymous said...

I do not usually respond to the blogs I read either, but I just ran across this blog and I could not help myself...
My boyfriend is in the Italian Military and the majority of our relationship has consisted of me spending my time back and forth between the US and Sarzana until we can figure out a more permanent situation.
The first four months I lived in Castelnuovo, basically I was alone at the top of a hill with no friends, no family, no car, and no sense of direction. The only thing I had to keep me company were my "learn Italian" grammar books and of course my boyfriend when he wasn't at work. There were definitely days that were challenging, but never a day that I wished I was somewhere else. I just did my best to keep an open mind and remember that I was in a new place experiencing and learning about a new culture and just tried to appreciate the differences.
When I finally got tired of being alone up on the hill I went to my boyfriend with a list of phrases that I insisted he teach me in Italian. The next day I bought my first bus ticket and found my way to Sarzana to the weekly market and to explore on my own, and that is how I spent the following few months...
My life in Italy is definitely different than my life in the states and there have been some times that I have wanted to pull my hair out (first trip to the grocery store, trying to get an internet connection, paying bills!!!), but almost all of the differences have been a positive experience for me.
Luckily I have an amazing boyfriend who is patient and understanding which has made my adjustment to life in Italy so much easier for me.

Anonymous said...

I understand your friend's negativity. I too finally felt that I could not assimilate into the Italian culture (too many frustrations) so I left it. That would be my advice to her too, but she probably wants to remain married and soldiers in the military aren't given a choice as to where they are stationed, so then my advice to her would be to grin and bear it and think of it as only being temporary. Then she can enjoy better the good things Italy has to offer.

Anonymous said...

I am another southern girl married to an Italian military officer/pilot. I have been in Italy for the past years. I can understand both your points of view and most of that of your "friend". I probably know her. That makes me sad. What I can tell you is that we often do miss home and want to go back. A large number of the guys who have married American girls have moved to the States when their commitment to the Marina Militare is finished and are flying for helicopter companies/comuter airlines or have found other jobs. They make great money and have purchased homes. Something that our husbands don't and many can not provide until 12/15 years in the military. (Have you been to visit military housing at Ceperana or Luni?, It's gross) Some women have gotten fed up and gone home. I can give you many reasons: Living in Catania or Taranto or Augusta for three to four years at a pop. You wouldn't like it. Living with a limited salary and you are not able to have stable employment to help out. Trying to raise children and possibly work with little or no help. Most of us have college degrees that are more useful as toilet paper here. We expected to do more and feel like we failed ourselves, parents, families. It is one thing to "chose" to live in this area, to still be single, to not have children, to be young, to have a companion who can make the time to be with you. I have been all of that and had all that and I can tell you that it is another thing to be the wife of an Italian military officer/pilot. It is great, it is hard, it is often very lonely, it can be scary.
Sarzana/La Spezia has been a real treat after more than seven years in Sicilia/Puglia. Things are cleaner and better organized. There are major airports within more than a five hour drive. You don't have to sift so hard to find the good stuff. You learn to ignore the fake communism and the anti-americanism. You make friends, you go the beach, you teach a few English lessons, you turn on SKY/Fox news and the broadcast makes the US seem near and sometimes absurd. You adjust.
For those of us who have lived here for many years we have seen Sarzana go from nothing, become something and now, I don't know, change, decline, whatever you want to call it. I live in the centro storico which is sort of like living at the mall 24/7. It has become a challenge, but it is still home and we love it. I pray that the local admin/Mayor Caleo will get their stuff together and clean it up. Lets hope La Spezia's ASL doesn't comletely destroy our beautiful hospital that was functioning quite well. Keep up your beautiful blog, it reminds me to remember all of the reasons I love it here, other than HIM, who I love most of all.

Anonymous said...

You might not know it, but many Italians call Liguria and especially this area "l'ascella di Italia (the armpit of Italy), they also call La Spezia 'la pisciatoio di Italia", which roughly translates as urinal of Italy. We will 'assume' that this is because it rains so much here. Your disgruntled friend is probably just repeating something she has heard her husband and many others call this area. It takes a while to absorb all of the 'culture'. You also might not want to get too personal in your blog, there are people who know both of you and she might be hurt/embarrassed if she read your blog. It is a small town and you might hurt feelings.

Anonymous said...

Dear anonymous - I would like to point out that no name was ever used in this blog. But I do have the right to express my opinion as I see fit. And my blog is my freedom of speech platform. The only thing personal in it is my feelings.

According to your email, you seem to know me or who I am. But if you really know me then you know I am not someone who would be cruel intentionally to anyone. This was not about hurting someone's feelings. It was about shedding a positive light on a country that can be difficult at times but I have come to love. My friend's comment was just a platform to express my opinion. Basta.