Luigi Barzini’s The Italians opens with a chapter dedicated to Italy’s foreign visitors, from those who land on the peninsula knowing precisely what they wish to do, see, and taste, and who waste no time setting about the business of experiencing Italy with tireless pragmatism, to those more accidental types, easily derailed and seduced, here for reasons mysterious to themselves and outside observers alike. Many types exist in between: students, artists, runaways, American nouveau riche in search of a decadent lifestyle, in their minds unobjectionable only in Europe. Of the ‘vast majority of tourists, the millions driven by some unknown urge,’ Barzini is remarkably astute in his appraisals, perhaps mildly offensive at times, though never truly unkind. The ‘experienced foreigners,’ on the other hand, those ‘who know why they come to Italy and what Italy is,’ receive gentler treatment, but also less page space and insight. It is the crude novice, not the veteran Italophile, who provides the behavioral stuff worthy of examination.
A charming and self-assured introduction to rather a knotty subject, chapter one of The Italians is full of colorful, spot on descriptions that still hold true today—it was published in 1964—never truer, in fact, than from June to September, when disarmingly light-eyed souls sporting practical shoes and fanny-packs launch their occupation of the Tuscan countryside. For these few months, foreign-plated campers driven by Dutch, German and English visitors traverse our green hills and dot our horizons; blond heads and faces tinged pink with wine and sun frequent our grocery stores and fill up our train cars; and brow-furrowing dialogue floats out of SUV windows at our gas stations. On any given summer day, tow-headed children can be seen splashing in agriturismo pools, blissfully ignored by their uber-relaxed, poolside parents.
Despite the heightened havoc this annual invasion brings, I quite enjoy this particular breed of invader. Maybe because they are so at ease here, so unlike the dazed, desperately-seeking-David tourist groups who swallow city walkways whole as they graze and shuffle through Florence’s daunting cultural landscape. Or maybe because I often eavesdrop on these linguistically-close folks and can relate: their comments on the wonderful food, rude waitresses, and scant public bathrooms never fail to evoke a knowing, commiserative grin. In these moments I am, albeit very fleetingly, slightly less of a stranger in a strange land. ‘It’s them, not us, right?’ our eyes say when they happen to meet. ‘They do things oddly here, don’t they? That’s not how we do things in England – America – Germany, is it?’ I like watching them have their hedonic, casual fling with Italy. And I am always somewhat envious watching them leave for their respective homelands, back to their cheaper and faster everything.
Often I feel more bonded with these short-term invaders than with the people among whom I’ve been living all these years. Our shared status as outsiders together with our common cultural background is a powerful pull that even now as I write this influences my sympathies and judgments.
Take this couple seated near me on the train, probably retired, and certainly Northern given their once-blond hair turned a silken white no Italian has ever seen on dear old nonno. They have already caught the attention of my fellow Italian commuters with their appearance and behavior. Now they are taking sandwiches out of their travel pack, and I, in turn, am poised to defend them (well, in my mind at least) from the dubious Italians looking on: Sandwiches at this hour? they are surely thinking. These foreigners! But then they, the Italians, quickly dismiss that which is not worth comprehending, and return to their crosswords and smartphones. Italians have been living with invaders since the dawn of their history, after all. They know a foreign threat from mere folly.
I, who have lived with Italians for many years, see the couple differently. To me, their sandwich-eating is quaintly practical. Their mode of dress is too informal or even shabby to the Italian eye, yet I appreciate the way their choice of clothes privileges comfort while maintaining hints of personal taste, those ‘garishly-coloured clothes’ and ‘barbaric sandals’ Barzini notes. The woman wears her nondescript persona with ease, and I know the Italian women nearby are confounded by the peace she has made with her own pale, varicosed legs, the way the Italian sun has brought out an unappealing patchiness to her makeup-free complexion. Yet she smiles. She is intoxicated by Italy, and unaware (hopefully) of the collective sizing up she will be subject to throughout this day. If she possesses even half of the cool confidence she exudes to my eye, however, she’ll hardly take notice.
You see, one of the thornier aspects of trying to make your home in another country is that you cannot shed the social and cultural layers that make you who you are, that formed and are still forming your beliefs. You can try to adapt to the country’s norms, marry one of its own, observe its holidays and ride its trains daily, but you will never fully take on its worldview. In great and small matters alike, the moments in which I realize this most clearly are those like the one described above, when trying to see others through Italian eyes.
Back to Barzini. Although The Peaceful Invasion seems a strictly one-sided assessment, much of its genius derives from what Barzini reveals about Italians, too, via his examinations of others. Understand how we (Italians) view them (foreigners), and you (reader) learn about both groups, surely the rationale for opening a book that is in essence a treatise on the Italian character with a chapter dedicated to foreigners. But could Barzini, writing over fifty years ago, have known that one day people like me would be reading his descriptions of people like them–and would feel such a division of loyalties? That his observations would enlighten, yes, but also affirm the inevitability of us and them to an altogether unpeaceful effect? Especially for those of us inhabiting the murky in-between.