Not long ago I was invited by the local primary schools, where I’d been doing some teaching, to attend an end-of-term show by the pupils. It was a large affair with professional sound crews and lighting engineers, guest stars and journalists buzzed around a huge stage before show-time. As the crowd packed in to the rows I shrunk to the back trying to look as inconspicuous as possible, I would show my face and slip off quietly later. I didn’t shrink enough however, as the school principal – well-practiced in beady observation techniques- soon spotted me and took my hand. “You’re one of the guests of honour.” She said, pulling me to the front. “You sit in the reserved seats in the first row.” I was plonked down right in the middle of the red-cushioned row….totally alone with my back to an enormous crowd of local dignatries and anxious parents. All during the build-up I scanned the entrances looking for some possible company, some face I might know that would be allocated one of the thirty seats that lay empty beside me. None appeared and the final uno-due-testings by the sound team signalled the concert was about to commence. The auditorium went quiet as I sat looking up at the stage, not daring to look behind and trying to look as casual as possible. The overture started, stirring orchestra music and what sounded like a large choir. I sat as low in my chair as I could and waited for it to finish. After a few moments something made me look round. To my absolute horror I was faced with three hundred people all standing to attention with their hands on their hearts, singing loudly……the national anthem.
Oh nooo! I cringed. I struggled to my feet ashamed, put the wrong hand on my chest and tried to mouth words I didn’t know. I was fooling no-one. I felt the eyes bore into my back and knew that my chances of ever escaping unnoticed had just evaporated into thin air. I was here for the duration.
Rule 1, If you ever decide to settle abroad, learn the national anthem.
It’s quite astonishing to realise that Italy is only 150 years young, today! 17th March, the day Italy was unified by the march of Garibaldi, despite attempts on his life by the French and others who wished to hang onto their foreign investments. Today also provides the answers to a couple of questions that have intrigued me about the country on my travels round its towns and cities. I’ve been struck during conversations with bar owners and farmers, professionals and students and by watching TV journals just how diverse the country is…and how modest it is about its achievements.
“But you had the first world-class empire.” I argue. “The genius of Da Vinci and Michelangelo, the power of Medici, the vision of Columbus and the adventures of Marco Polo. What’s not to boast about? I mean, look at your cities. Is Venice not a wonder of the world? Is Florence not the finest? And is Rome not packed with century after century of romance, intrigue and glory?”
The reply is always the same. “But the empire was the Romans, not Italians. Da Vinci was from Tuscany and the Venetians built Venice. As Italians, what have we done?”
Their self depreciation is tempered only by their more modern-day (and to them the more relevant) successes. Versace the empire, Ferrari the engineer, Marconi the inventor and Fellini the artist, oh and four world cups. Get them on the subject of food however and the real pride and passion of the Italian suddenly burns in their eyes.
This is the other benefit of its youth. Italy is still too young to have seen its cultural palate homogenised and blended, assimilated into a mish-mash of bland uniformity….fish and chips, the burger. It protects its regional differences fiercely. Amalfi for Limoncella, Naples for pizza, Milan for Milanese, Parma for proscutto crudo (Parma ham) and parmigiano (parmesan cheese), and Reggio for Frittole (sweet pork trotters, ears and other bits). The TV journals are supplied with an endless series of different regions and customs to visit and explore, the people an endless itinerary of places to holiday in and visit..all rich, all wonderful. Even the language still varies from region to region, town to town, village to village. You can still tell the difference between a Neapolitan song and a Sicilian, a Venetian building and a Florentine.
“We are Calabrese first and Italian second.” I was informed by a good doctor last week. “We feel proud of our Greek heritage here in the South, the first democracy and the blood of the great philosophers still runs in our veins. The amphitheatres still exist and are still used, the plays that fill them are the same.”
To me Italy is a land of contradictions and opposites that co-habit happily together because of them, not in spite of them. Modern technology is embraced with the same enthusiasm as its ancient traditions, it’s engineers and physicists are sought-after all over the world while the ‘new world’ seeks the path home to see the ‘Old Country’
There’s an independence of spirit and a self-reliance that volunteers people to the idea of a nation without feeling subjugated by it. They will criticise themselves endlessly and argue the toss about nothing…until lunchtime. They will worry about Japan and know the tragedy that unfolds there, the seismic repercussions all-too-familiar in the faults that lie beneath the sea beside us, but they are young and they are survivors.
I’m proud to feel part of today, even a little choked, but that’s just a measure of how welcome these people have made me feel. Today might see a strange New York….Irish and Italians celebrating different things together, here we’ll enjoy the warm weather, drink a little red wine, hum along to Verdi and toast Garibaldi
Auguri Italia! Happy Birthday and thanks for inviting me to the party! I’ll just go now and brush-up on the national anthem.