The Italians

An introduction to Italian mentality

Who are the Italians? What are they like? Let's take a candid and prejudiced look at them, tongue firmly in cheek, and hope they forgive my flippancy or that they don't read this.

The typical Italian is courteous, proud, undisciplined, tardy, temperamental, independent, gregarious, noble, individualistic, boisterous, jealous, possessive, colourful, passionate, spontaneous, sympathetic, fun-loving, creative, sociable, demonstrative, irritating, charming, aggressive, self-important, generous, cheerful, cultured, polite, unreliable, honourable, outgoing, impetuous, flamboyant, idiosyncratic, quick-tempered, artistic, a gourmet, ungovernable, elegant, irresponsible, hedonistic, lazy and industrious (contradictory), an anarchist, informal, self-opinionated, corrupt, indolent, flexible, patriarchal, frustrating, inventive, sensual, practical, irresistible, impatient, scheming, voluble, friendly, sexist, musical, sensitive, humorous, garrulous, petulant, macho, noisy, happy, fiery, warm-hearted, a suicidal driver, decadent, religious, chauvinistic, an excellent cook, stylish, bureaucratic, dignified, kind, loyal, a fashion victim, extroverted, tolerant, self-possessed, a tax dodger, unabashed, quarrelsome, partisan, a procrastinator, scandal-loving, articulate, a bon viveur, conservative, nocturnal, hospitable, spirited, urbanised, confident, sophisticated, political, handsome and a football fanatic.

You may have noticed that the above list contains ‘a few’ contradictions (as does life in Italy), which is hardly surprising as there’s no such thing as a typical Italian. Apart from the differences in character between the inhabitants of different regions such as Campania (Naples), Lazio (Rome), Lombardy (Milan), Sardinia and Sicily, the population also includes a potpourri of foreigners from all corners of the globe. Even in appearance, fewer and fewer Italians match the popular image of short, dark and slim, and the indigenous population includes blondes, brunettes and redheads, tall and short, fat and thin people.

History

Italy became a unified state only in 1861 and most people have more loyalty to their town, province or region than to Italy as a whole, considering themselves Florentines, Milanese, Neapolitans, Romans or Sicilians first and Italians a distant second, summed up by the word campanilismo – literally ‘loyalty to your bell-tower’. There’s long been a north-south divide (gulf), the more conservative northerners dismissing the less inhibited southerners as lazy, lawless, cunning, corrupt and primitive peasants, while southerners consider northerners to be serious, industrious and money-grabbing foreigners who got rich from exploitation. One of the few things that unites Italians (sometimes in despair, more recently in joy following the World Cup win in 2006) is the national soccer team.

Compared with most other European countries of a comparable size, Italy attracted relatively few immigrants in the 20th century (the massive industrial expansion in the north was achieved by the migration of workers from the south) and the country is still trying to come to terms with the huge influx of refugees and immigrants in recent years. Nevertheless, Italians generally live in harmony with their foreign population ( stranieri) and are among the most tolerant Europeans (particularly when it comes to free-spending tourists).

When Italians and foreigners come into contact, it often results in a profusion of misunderstandings (few foreigners can fathom the Italian psyche), which does little to cement good relations. Italy has the most stifling (and over-staffed) bureaucracy in Western Europe (even worse than France and Spain) and any encounter with officialdom is a test of endurance and patience.

Government offices

Government offices (if you can find the right one) often open for only a few hours on certain days of the week, the person dealing with your case is always absent, you never have the right papers (or your file has been lost), the rules and regulations have changed (again), and queues are interminable (take along a copy of Dante’s Inferno to help pass the time). It’s all part of a conspiracy to ensure that foreigners cannot find out what’s going on and therefore pay more taxes, fees and fines (or preferably go home).

Official inefficiency has been honed to a fine art in Italy, where even paying a bill or using the postal service (which used to be a truly world-class example of ineptitude – it’s now more efficient than it was) is an ordeal. Italians are generally totally disorganised (summed up by the word casino, which roughly translates as a shambles but also means a brothel!) and the only predictable thing about them is their unpredictability. They seldom plan anything (if they do, the plans will be changed or abandoned at the last moment), as one of the unwritten ‘rules’ of Italian life is spontaneity.

Don’t expect workmen to arrive on time (or at all) – when they do finally turn up they probably won’t have the right tools or spares anyway – or jobs to be finished on schedule. Italians are dismissive of time constraints and have no sense of urgency, treating appointments, dates, opening hours, timetables and deadlines with scorn (about the only events which start on time are soccer matches). Don’t plan on doing anything at all in August, when the whole country goes on holiday and all business (apart from tourism) comes to a grinding halt.

Italy is infamous for its corruption (not to mention the Mafia), which pervades all levels of society, from the government to the humblest peasant. Tax evasion is the national sport and you certainly don’t need to be engaged in the hidden economy to be part of it – the ‘black’ list includes many of Italy’s richest and most famous people. In 1985 a bill was introduced to curtail tax evasion among the self-employed, which led to a national strike!

Fines

Fines are always negotiable, particularly if you argue loud and long enough, as is your tax bill if you know someone who works in the tax office. Bribery ( la bustarella) is part and parcel of everyday life and everything and every Italian has a price: if you have enough money or contacts you can get anything done; without either, it can take aeons to accomplish even the simplest task. There’s one law for Italians and another for foreigners – particularly foreigners who don’t speak Italian.

Most Italians are anarchists; they generally do what they want when they want, particularly regarding motoring (especially parking), smoking in public places (a ‘no-smoking’ sign is usually seen as a good reason to light up) and building.

Italians (and, it seems, Italian officials) make up their own laws and choose those they wish to obey ‘a la carte’ (all EU directives are totally ignored). If it wasn’t for the large fines for often minor offences, Italians would happily ignore most laws. Most Italians rely on instinct rather than morals or laws!

Italians are unbridled hedonists and are mainly interested in food, football, sex, alcohol and gambling (especially the men). The main preoccupation of Italians is having a good time and they have a zest for life matched in few other countries. They take childish pleasure in making the most of everything, grasping every opportunity to party, and are at their most energetic when making merry.

They’re inveterate ‘celebrators’ and when not attending a feast ( festa), family celebration or impromptu party, they’re to be found in bars and restaurants indulging in their favourite pastime – eating and drinking.

Italians have a passion for food, which consists largely of pasta, pasta and pasta, with lashings of tomatoes, garlic and olive oil.

They’re committed carnivores and eat anything that walks, runs, crawls, swims or flies – particularly Italy’s fast-disappearing wildlife. Like other southern Europeans, they eat most of the objectionable bits that other people throw away, including feet, ears, tails, brains, entrails and reproductive organs (Italians could never be called squeamish).

Family celebrations routinely last from dawn to dusk, with a constant stream of food and wine – if eating was an Olympic event, the rest of the world needn’t even bother to turn up! Italians also know a thing or two about drinking, washing down their food with prodigious amounts of wine, and they’re one of the world’s larger consumers of whisky.

Making love

When not eating and drinking (or singing or watching football), Italians are allegedly making love. Italian men have a reputation as great lovers, although their virility isn’t supported by the birth rate, which is one the lowest in the world. Italian women are beautiful (at least until they marry), although what they see in greasy, crooning, smooth-talking, mummy’s boys who only come up to their knees is anyone’s guess. The macho image of Italian men has taken a pounding in recent years, as women have stormed most male bastions and today are just as likely to be found in the university, office, factory, professions and the government, as in the home or the church.

Italian men are car fanatics and worship all things automotive (particularly if they’re red and made in Modena); they have a passionate and enduring love affair with their cars, which are more important to them than their homes, wives and children. Many Italians are loath to forsake their cars under any circumstances and would rather endure endless traffic jams than resort to public transport. In fact, Italians rarely actually drive anywhere these days; when they aren’t in a traffic jam talking on their mobile phones they’re looking for a parking space.

Cars aren’t for driving in Italy, but for posing – nothing is guaranteed to draw a crowd in Italy quicker than a blood-red Ferrari or even an exotic foreign machine, provided it looks as if it can do a million kilometres per hour. Italians are among the most ill-disciplined drivers in the world and their frenetic, aggressive driving style is enough to intimidate all but the most battle-hardened motorists. The only way a foreign driver can survive is to drive like an Italian, which means ignoring all signs and road markings, parking restrictions, speed limits and traffic lights, and driving everywhere with their foot to the floor and one hand on the horn.

Italy is one of the most politically unstable countries in the EU

Enough of this frivolity, let’s get down to serious business. Italy is one of the most politically unstable countries in the EU, although this amazingly seems to have little outward effect on the country’s economy. There have been numerous changes of government since the second world war (Italy changes its government as often as some people change their socks), largely due to the country’s system of proportional representation, which almost guarantees shaky coalition governments (an attempt at electoral reform in recent years doesn’t appear to have had much effect).

Italians have no time for politicians (who they blame for all their ills), whose public standing has sunk to record lows in the last decade following a succession of scandals, including fraud and involvement in organised crime. Not surprisingly, Italians are the most passionate Europeans and firmly believe in a united Europe and a single currency (so would you if you’d had the lire!).

Among the biggest concerns facing Italians are unemployment, drug addiction, asylum seekers, refugees and illegal aliens, the environment and pollution, pensions, health care, property crime, housing costs and the widening gulf in prosperity between the north and south. However, by far the biggest challenge facing Italy’s leaders is how to reform the economy (e.g. debt-ridden public companies and a huge social security deficit) without provoking a revolution.

Lifestyle

Despite the country’s problems, Italians enjoy one of the best lifestyles and quality of life of any European country, or indeed, any country in the world. The foundation of its society is the family (particularly the mother) and community; Italians are noted for their close family ties, their love of children and care for the elderly, who aren’t dumped in nursing homes when they become a ‘burden’. In Italy, work fits around social and family life, not vice versa.

The real glory of Italy lies in the outsize heart and soul of its people, who are among the most convivial, generous and hospitable in the world. Italy is celebrated for its simple, relaxed way of life, warm personal relationships and time for others, lack of violent crime (excluding gang warfare), good manners and spontaneity – Italians are never slow to break into song or dance when the mood strikes them. For sheer vitality and passion for life, Italians have few equals and, whatever Italy can be accused of, it’s never plain or boring.

Few other countries offer such a wealth of intoxicating experiences for the mind, body and spirit (and not all out of a bottle!). Italy is highly addictive, and while foreigners may complain about the bureaucracy or government, the vast majority wouldn’t dream of leaving and infinitely prefer life in Italy to their home countries.

Put simply, Italy is a great place to live (provided you don’t want to do business) and raise a family.

If you’re willing to learn Italian and embrace Italy’s traditions and way of life, you’re invariably warmly received by the natives, who will go out of their way to welcome and help you. Above all, you need to accept Italy as it is, warts and all (life is so much better when you stop banging your head against the wall), and just lie back and enjoy la dolce vita.

Viva Italia! Long live Italy!

This article is an extract from Living and Working in Italy from Survival Books.


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