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  • A Plea to Italians Everywhere
    Learn about how the sex scandal facing Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi speaks to a whole set of problems with modern-day Italians and those who label themselves as Italian
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    Italy is making me sick lately. Every time, someone brings up the homeland on the American news, my stomach churns just a little bit because I'm not sure I can take anymore of the embarrassment. I feel like a parent whose teen keeps getting detention for shenanigans that range from getting caught making out with someone under the bleachers to shoplifting while the whole town gossips about the kid's turn to the dark side.

    Bad enough are the American reality TV stars who call themselves Italian and drape themselves in Italian flags while either getting drunk, having sex with a stranger, punching someone in the face, or all of the above, and the hundreds of the recently arrested, real-life mobsters whose last names end in vowels and proudly call themselves names, such as Lumpy and the Fang. But the homeland itself is embroiled in its own absurdity and scandal.

    For starters, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is reaching all-time lows as he confronts a sex scandal that has him under investigation for allegedly giving young women money, gifts, and rent-free housing in exchange for sex, which was prostitution the last time I checked.

    As wire-tapped conversations emerge that prove at best that pretty girls can get whatever they want in Italy (especially from dirty old men) and at worst that Berlusconi is a pedophile who chases after and buys the affection of teen girls, I can't help but notice a disturbing change in Italy. The Italy of my father, who fondly remembers camping out with his family in the woods of Buceto on the island of Ischia and playing soccer in the piazza with rocks if that was all they had, is long, long gone. That innocence and Old-World sensibility, if it ever existed, seems forever lost. It has been replaced with a spoiled nation, obsessed with youth, highly immature, and downright irresponsible.

    La bella figura, the idea that one should always look right and appear to have it all together even if that's not the case, has people worrying about their Prada shoes rather than their children's college education. It has them going to the disco to have fun (read: drink too much, get high, stay up all night) rather than going to work in the morning. And it has them believing that image is reality, as The New York Times so aptly pointed out recently.

    "As described in the Italian press, it is a world in which older men hold court and flirt with leggy showgirls and where middle-aged women, a prime audience for Mr. Berlusconi's channels and an important bloc in his electorate, swoon over young male heartthrobs. It is also a world in which bad girls confess that they just want to leave 'the world of spectacle' to get married and settle down, as [Karima El-Mahroug] (one of the alleged women receiving gifts from Berlusconi) said in her interview, to the applause of the [television] audience," as reported in The New York Times.

    The story also points out that Italians might trust journalists even less than Americans do. Part of that is because they don't really want journalists to tell the truth. In 2009, my family's native Ischia faced a scandal of its own, in which hotel owners were accused of draining their sewage and spilling their garbage into the ocean on Ischia's largest and most popular beach Maronti. For an island that survives on its tourism industry, it was a big blow. Most of my friends and family on the island would tell me, “It's the journalist's fault because they shouldn't be reporting this kind of thing on the news.” And I would pounce, “No, no, no. It's the fault of the people who are dumping garbage into the ocean. If you don't want it printed or on the news, then don't do it.”

    These arguments I would have with my people made me realize the bigger problem in today's Italy. No one is held accountable for their actions – ever. If you know the right person in town, you don't have to pay taxes or follow parking rules or even pay for a meal. It's a country that lives on favors and bribes. It seems this goes as far up as the prime minister.

    Worst of all, if you do something you should not, it's always someone else's fault. You cheated on your boyfriend of eight years, but he didn't always compliment you and he made you wait outside his house for too long when you picked him up for a date and your families had beef before you were born, so it's your boyfriend's fault the affair happened. You were drunk and hit a pole with your car, but the town should not have put that pole there, so it's the town's fault. You outright lied to your cousin, refused to talk to her about it when she wanted to confront you, and stopped talking to her, but it's her fault because she should just know and accept your bad behavior. Welcome to Italy!

    I must admit all this immaturity stems from the fact that adults in Italy remain children far longer than in the rest of the world. Even American kids, who go off to college and are returning home after graduation more often nowadays, grow up faster. Kids in Italy usually live at home until they marry and sometimes move their wife and kids in with their families of origin. They go to college sometimes well into their twenties and thirties before graduating. And few, if any, work while in school. We've all laughed about the mammoni, boys who still have mamma cooking and cleaning for them well into their 40s and 50s. But we shouldn't be laughing. This creates a society in which people are perpetually 15 years old. It breeds hedonism, where no one takes true responsibility for anything and everyone is lazy, and Berlusconi can get away with childish, boorish, and downright criminal behavior as long as he keeps up with the plastic surgery, thus maintaining boyish good looks, and entertains the people in a fine suit.

    My friends in Italy say it's no big deal that Berlusconi was having flings with young girls for money and that he shared these girls with his buddies. That's what rich older men do, they tell me. And many of them believe that Berlusconi does a decent enough job running the country that his crimes don't matter. They also think that if you don't have the right connections, you're destined to an average life that has you moving two doors down from your childhood home, if at all, and stuck in a dead-end job. That's life. Americans ponder aloud if the American dream is dead, and it seems the dolce vita of Italians isn't so dolce either.

    Maybe it's the American in me, who believes we create our own destinies, but I don't think we have to accept this ugly reputation. Instead of just griping (as I've done here), we should redeem Italians by living a respectable life ourselves in the United States, Australia, Argentina, or the Boot itself. If each of us as an individual refused to accept behavior like Berlusoni's in our leaders and took responsibility for our actions and lived a crime-free life, we'd already be off to a good start. Don't appreciate that someone like Snooki has ended up representing your culture? Then, do something great to cancel out Snooki's contribution – volunteer for the poor, study hard and make something of yourself, respect yourself, write a novel. Get out of the house, move away from mamma, and do for yourself, Italian men. Worry less about your outfit when you walk into the piazza and more about your ideas and visions for the future. Grow up.

    We all long for that dolce vita or sweet life that Italy is always promising the world. People take pilgrimages to Rome in search of the fountain of youth. But the sweet nectar that the Italians have been guzzling for years seems to have gone to their heads. It's time to sober up and restore the good names of Italians, one Italian at a time. I'm ready to do my part. Are you?

    Di Meglio is the Guide to Newlyweds for About.com, and you can read about her life and work at the Two Worlds Web site.


    Article Published 1/23/11

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