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La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind

Severgnini, Beppe Author

9780767914390: La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind

You won’t need luggage for this hypothetical and hilarious trip into the hearts and minds of Beppe Severgnini’s fellow Italians. In fact, Beppe would prefer if you left behind the baggage his crafty and elegant countrymen have smuggled into your subconscious. To get to his Italia, you’ll need to forget about your idealized notions of Italy. Although La Bella Figura will take you to legendary cities and scenic regions, your real destinations are the places where Italians are at their best, worst, and most authentic:

The highway: in America, a red light has only one possible interpretation—Stop! An Italian red light doesn’t warn or order you as much as provide an invitation for reflection.

The airport: where Italians prove that one of their virtues (an appreciation for beauty) is really a vice. Who cares if the beautiful girls hawking cell phones in airport kiosks stick you with an outdated model? That’s the price of gazing upon perfection.

The small town: which demonstrates the Italian genius for pleasant living: “a congenial barber . . . a well-stocked newsstand . . . professionally made coffee and a proper pizza; bell towers we can recognize in the distance, and people with a kind word and a smile for everyone.”

The chaos of the roads, the anarchy of the office, the theatrical spirit of the hypermarkets, and garrulous train journeys; the sensory reassurance of a church and the importance of the beach; the solitude of the soccer stadium and the crowded Italian bedroom; the vertical fixations of the apartment building and the horizontal democracy of the eat-in kitchen. As you venture to these and many other locations rooted in the Italian psyche, you realize that Beppe has become your Dante and shown you a country that “has too much style to be hell” but is “too disorderly to be heaven.”

Ten days, thirty places. From north to south. From food to politics. From saintliness to sexuality. This ironic, methodical, and sentimental examination will help you understand why Italy—as Beppe says—“can have you fuming and then purring in the space of a hundred meters or ten minutes.”

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About the Author:

beppe severgnini is a columnist for Italy’s largest circulation daily newspaper Corriere della Sera and covered Italy for The Economist from 1993 to 2003. He is the author of the international bestseller Ciao, America! He lives with his family in Crema, on the outskirts of Milan.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

FRIDAY

Day One: From Malpensa to Milan



The airport, where we discover that Italians prefer exceptions to rules


Being Italian is a full-time job. We never forget who we are, and we have fun confusing anyone who is looking on.

Don't trust the quick smiles, bright eyes, and elegance of many Italians. Be wary of everyone's poise. Italy is sexy. It offers instant attention and solace. But don't take Italy at face value. Or, rather, take it at face value if you want to, but don't complain later.

One American traveler wrote, "Italy is the land of human nature." If this is true--and it certainly sounds convincing--exploring Italy is an adventure. You're going to need a map.

So you'll be staying for ten days? Here's the deal: We'll take a look at three locations on each day of your trip. They'll be classics, the sort of places that get talked about a lot, perhaps because they are so little known. We'll start with an airport, since we're here. Then I'll try to explain the rules of the road, the anarchy of the office, why people talk on trains, and the theatrical nature of hotel life. We'll sit in judgment at a restaurant and feel the sensory reassurance of a church. We'll visit Italy's televisual zoo and appreciate how important the beach is. We'll experience the solitude of the soccer stadium, and realize how crowded the bedroom feels. We'll note the vertical fixations of the apartment building, and the transverse democracy of the living room--or, rather, the eat-in kitchen.

Ten days, thirty places. We've got to start somewhere if we want to find our way into the Italian mind.

***

First of all, let's get one thing straight. Your Italy and our Italia are not the same thing. Italy is a soft drug peddled in predictable packages, such as hills in the sunset, olive groves, lemon trees, white wine, and raven-haired girls. Italia, on the other hand, is a maze. It's alluring, but complicated. In Italia, you can go round and round in circles for years. Which of course is great fun.

As they struggle to find a way out, many newcomers fall back on the views of past visitors. People like Goethe, Stendhal, Byron, and Twain always had an opinion about Italians, and couldn't wait to get home and write it down. Those authors are still quoted today, as if nothing had changed. This is not true. Some things have changed in our Italy. The problem is finding out what.

Almost all modern accounts of the country fall into one of two categories: chronicles of a love affair, or diaries of a disappointment. The former have an inferiority complex toward Italian home life, and usually feature one chapter on the importance of the family, and another on the excellence of Italian cooking. The diaries take a supercilious attitude toward Italian public life. Inevitably, there is censure of Italian corruption, and a section on the Mafia.

By and large, the chronicles of love affairs are penned by American women, who display love without interest in their descriptions of a seasonal Eden, where the weather is good and the locals are charming. The diaries of disappointment tend to be produced by British men, who show interest without love. They describe a disturbing country populated by unreliable individuals and governed by a public administration from hell.

Yet Italy is far from hellish. It's got too much style. Neither is it heaven, of course, because it's too unruly. Let's just say that Italy is an offbeat purgatory, full of proud, tormented souls each of whom is convinced he or she has a hotline to the boss. It's the kind of place that can have you fuming and then purring in the space of a hundred meters, or the course of ten minutes. Italy is the only workshop in the world that can turn out both Botticellis and Berlusconis. People who live in Italy say they want to get out, but those who do escape all want to come back.

As you will understand, this is not the sort of country that is easy to explain. Particularly when you pack a few fantasies in your baggage, and Customs lets them through.

***

Take this airport, for example. Whoever wrote that airports are nonplaces never visited Milan's Malpensa or Linate, or Rome's Fiumicino. Or, if they did pay a call, they must have been too busy avoiding people shouting into cell phones and not looking where they were going.

An airport in Italy is violently Italian. It's a zoo with air conditioning, where the animals don't bite and only the odd comment is likely to be poisonous. You have to know how to interpret the sounds and signals. Italy is a place where things are always about to happen. Generally, those things are unpredictable. For us, normality is an exception. Do you remember The Terminal? If the film had been set in Malpensa Airport, Tom Hanks wouldn't just have fallen in love with Catherine Zeta-Jones. He'd have founded a political party, promoted a referendum, opened a restaurant, and organized a farmers' market.

Look at the childlike joy on the faces of the people as they stroll into the shops. Note how inventive they are at thinking up ways to pass the time. Observe the deference to uniforms (any uniform, from passing pilots to cleaning staff). Authority has been making Italians uneasy for centuries, so we have developed an arsenal of countermeasures, from flattery to indifference, familiarity, complicity, apparent hostility, and feigned admiration. Study the emerging faces as the automatic doors of international arrivals open. They reveal an almost imperceptible hint of relief at getting past Customs. Obviously, almost all the arriving passengers have nothing to hide. It doesn't matter. There was a uniform, and now it's gone.

Note the relief giving way to affection as they retrieve their suitcases from the carousel. At the check-in desk, they weren't sure they would ever see their suitcases again, and did all they could to pass them off as hand luggage. Listen to the couples quarreling, their accusations lent extra ferocity by the embarrassment of performing in public ("Mario! You said you had the passports!"). Admire the rituals of the families coming back from holiday. These spoken exchanges--Mom wants to know where their son is; Dad shouts to the son; the son answers Dad; Dad tells Mom, who has disappeared in the meantime--are the same ones that echo in a New York hotel or a street market in London.

Malpensa encapsulates the nation. Only a naive observer would mistake this for confusion. Actually, it's performance art. It's improvisation by gifted actors. No one believes for one minute he or she is an extra. Everyone's a star, no matter how modest the part. Federico Fellini would have made a good prime minister, if he'd wanted the job. It takes an outstanding director to govern the Italians.

***

What else can you find out at an Italian airport? Well, Italians' signature quality--our passion for beauty--is in danger of becoming our number-one defect. All too often, it prevents us from choosing what is good.

Look at the cell-phone displays and the saleswomen perched on their stools. Many of them can't tell a cell phone from a remote control, but all are indisputably attractive. Do you know why the phone companies hire them instead of using skilled staff? Because that's what the public wants. People prefer good looks to good answers.

Think about it. There is a lesson to be learned. We are prepared to give up a lot for the sake of beauty, even when it doesn't come in a miniskirt. "Never judge a book by its cover" sounds like an oversimplification in Italian. We judge books by their covers, politicians by their smiles, professionals by their offices, secretaries by their posture, table lamps by their design, cars by their styling, and people by their title. It's no coincidence that one Italian in four is president of something. Look at the ads here in the airport. They're for cars, bags, and cosmetics. They don't say how good the products are. They tell us how irresistible we'll be if we buy them. As if we Italians needed that kind of reassurance.

***

If this passion for beauty stopped at saleswomen, clothes, table lamps, and automobiles, it would be no big deal. Sadly, it spills over into morality and, I repeat, induces us to confuse what is beautiful with what is good. Only in Italian does there exist an expression like fare bella figura. Think about that. It's an aesthetic judgment--it means "to make a good figure"--which is not quite the same thing as making "a good impression."

There's an elderly French lady in trouble over there. She's just collected two huge suitcases and can't find a baggage cart. If I went over and offered to help her, she'd probably accept. At that point, something curious would happen. I would split into two. While Beppe was being a Good Samaritan, Severgnini would observe the scene and offer congratulations. Beppe would then acknowledge his own compliment, and retire satisfied.

Ours is a sophisticated exhibitionism that has no need of an audience. Italians are psychologically self-sufficient. What's the problem? Well, we like nice gestures so much we prefer them to good behavior. Gestures gratify, but behaving takes an effort. Still, the sum of ten good deeds does not make a person good, just as ten sins do not necessarily add up to a sinner. Theologians distinguish between actum and habitus: a single incident is not as serious as a "habit," or "practice."
In other words, if you want to understand Italy, forget the guidebooks. Study theology.

***

An aesthetic sense that sweeps ethics aside. A formidable instinct for beauty. That's the first of our weak points. But there are others, for we are also exceptional, intelligent, sociable, flexible, and sensitive. Offsetting these are our good qualities. We are hypercritical, stay-at-homes, so conciliatory and peace-loving we seem cowardly, and so generous we look naïve. Do you see why Italians are so disconcerting? What everyone else thinks o...

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