Friday, March 18, 2011

ON THE ITALIAN MIND:FOOD FOR THOUGHT


An article by Rachel Donadio in the Jan. 22, 2011 New York Times caught my eye:
"Surreal--a Soap Opera Starring Berlusconi." These lines particularly hit home:

"Italy remains a land where complex networks of connections and family ties can still, as in feudal times, count more than merit or position, whether in getting a job or a bank loan. In my experience, Italians have a highly sophisticated understanding of power dynamics, a keen sense of whom you have to say yes to, and with whom you can get away with saying no."

We have been learning this the hard way, but we are lucky to have Italian friends who are generous enough to teach us how things work here. 

Another entertaining source of wisdom on the subject is Beppe Severgnini's "Bella Figura." He says that Italy is neither hellish ("too much style" for that), nor heaven ("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 in the course of ten minutes. Italy is the only workshop in the world that can turn out both Botticellis and Berlusconis."

He is also quick to point out the ambivalent relationship Italians have with authority, which is why "in Italy, rules are not obeyed as they are elsewhere. We think it's an insult to our intelligence to comply with a regulation. Obedience is boring. We want to think about it. We want to decide whether a particular law applies to our specific case. In that place, at that time."

In an article on the Italian art of "arrangiarsi," Linda Falcone attempts to define this ability to arrange oneself as being "all about overcoming obstacles. Italians love to jump fences, and they do it with an agile grace that people from Anglo-cultures can almost never pull off....Unavoidable obstacles will always exist, but outsmarting The Inevitable is mostly a question of personal adaptability. To the Italian mind, even the most challenging of life's truths can look appealing if properly arranged in colorful piles."

Marlena De Blasi's "Lady in the Palazzo" has many examples of all of the above. She and her Italian husband experience many false starts while trying to make a deal to buy the home of their dreams, and he tries to interpret for her a perplexingly shady step along the way: "Listen, Italy is the most corrupt nation in Europe. Being Italian, I can acknowledge that. But when these sorts of arrangements are struck between individuals, they become far more than legal contracts. More like vows. The parties are joined in conspiracy. Everyone moves to the same side of the table. In fact, this may be the single form of collaboration that thrives in this land of individualists. Does any of this make sense to you?"

Well, as we think back on all the hoops we had to jump through to get our own former ruin (actually the fourth that we bid on, expecting to get), what De Balsi's husband says is definitely starting to make sense to us. I suspect that to compare the uniquely Italian "arrangiarsi" to the quintessentially French (and equally untranslatable) "se debrouiller" is going to take a lot of thought, and is probably at the heart of my blog project.   

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