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Discover the Real Italians
In his new book, Corriere della Sera columnist Beppe Severgnini takes readers on an amusing journey through Italy to undo the romantic notions some Americans have about the country and its people
OCTOBER 1, 2006 - We all know how beautiful Italy can be. We know about its rich history and how a sun bath feels different just because you're in the Tuscan hills or Sicilian beaches at the height of summer. We also know how tasty the food, how friendly the people. Most of the readers of this site can boast relation to some Italians, and they remind you of their beauty and fabulousness every chance they get.
But now author Beppe Severgnini wants us to take the real Italy - and the real Italians - off the pedestal and look at them up close and personal. In his latest book, La Bella Figura (Broadway Books, 2006), he teaches history, undoes stereotypes, expresses beliefs and most of all pokes fun at his people. Lovers of Italy - and especially those who visit frequently - will know exactly what he is talking about.
No stranger to the United States, Severgnini lived in Washington, D.C. for a year and wrote Ciao, America!, his witty and sublime look at American life. That book helped me to understand how my father - a native Italian - related to his adopted home in the United States. And it made me laugh until I almost peed my pants. It was that good.
Severgnini is one of my favorite writers because I feel like we share two inside jokes: Italians and Americans. That's why I couldn't wait to get my hands on La Bella Figura. The book, although not quite as amusing as Ciao, America!, delivered on its promise to delight and interest me.
The premise is simple. Severgnini is taking readers on a tour of Italy that features stops at the airport Malpensa, through highways, churches, coffee bars, soccer stadiums, Naples, Sardinia, and his hometown of Crema among other places. The title means the “good figure” and, as Severgnini explains, is different from creating a first impression; it's sometimes about putting up appearances. To know the true meaning of the phrase is the starting point for truly knowing Italians. This title sets the stage for the behind-the-scenes look at the show Italians put on for us tourists.
Like most of Severgnini's work, it is straightforward and does not pretend to be high brow. The words are conversational and you feel as though he's talking to you about his thoughts on Italy over coffee. Every once in a while, he says something that you can completely relate to because your Italian family - even if living abroad - is still like that.
Two parts of the book were so true to my life I had to read them out loud to my parents. First, he says that relatives serve as lenders for young adults:
The family is a bank. Loans for first homes almost invariably come from parents. There are no formalities, no interest, and quite often no obligation to repay the capital. Subsequent loans, for vacations, cars, and other major expenses, are also not uncommon. Does this create psychological dependence? Well, it depends on the borrowers and the wisdom of the lenders. Still, it's an alternative to American-style premature adult debt.
I know Italian American parents - my own included - who secretly deposit money into their adult child's savings and constantly try to pay for everything. It's a disease, but one that no child is looking to cure - in Italy or Italian America. The other part of the book that got to me was when Severgnini talked about the Italians and their gardens.
The vegetable garden is a place where social mechanisms are endlessly reproduced. There's solidarity (I'll lend you my shovel”), suspicion (“Why has she got more water than I?), competition (“My radishes are redder than yours”), envy (“Your chicory sprouts earlier than mine”), distrust (“I'll keep the padlock”) and pride (“This is my kingdom”).
That paragraph basically reiterates every conversation my father has with his relatives about his garden. Although I must admit, the tomatoes are of far bigger concern to my Italian Americans than the radishes. In any event, Severgnini was speaking my language. And I understood him truly and profoundly.
As I was lingering over the pages - making the experience last longer by limiting myself to a half hour of book reading everyday - I read the bad reviews in newspapers across the country, including The Washington Post, which had raved about Severgnini's first foray into the American book scene. But I didn't care. These critics don't understand him the way I do. They're not as close to the material, so they can't appreciate it.
For instance, many of them thought statements like, “You've been to Italy when you know the result of the Juventus game, not before,” was either clichéd or incomprehensible. Anyone who really knows about Italian culture would understand that Severgnini is just stating fact. It is the way in which he expresses such truths that has those of us who are in the know feeling like we are part of an inside joke. I find myself laughing easily with Severgnini, and I like that in an author. It's the same thing I find appealing about Dario Castagno's Too Much Tuscan Sun (The Globe Pequot Press, 2004), which had Americans chuckling at their absurd behavior when traveling abroad. Let's face it, Americans and Italians are a funny people especially when we mix.
The thing I love most about Severgnini's work, however, is that I feel like I'm catching up with an old friend when I pick up one of his books or even surfing his Web site. At his site, you'll be charmed by the cartoon drawing of Severgnini that looks like Harry Potter if he were to give up wizardry for Wall Street and his wand for a briefcase. There, you'll also find a fabulous list of “motivi per amare l'America” or his “reasons for loving America.” If you don't get a kick out of the fact that he refers to pancakes as the soul of the nation, then I'm not sure you have a heart.
You will find a friend in Severgnini, too, especially if your name ends in a vowel. The next time you're looking to curl up with a good book, consider La Bella Figura. I don't think you'll be disappointed unless you're looking for some overly intellectual study on the Italian mind. This book is pure fun and nothing more. Accept it, embrace it, love it.
For more information on Di Meglio and her work, visit www.francescadimeglio.com.
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