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Northern Italy - 26 September 2011

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On Northern Italy

Italy is a lot like Sophia Loren. Absolutely gorgeous before our time, and still stunningly beautiful, but showing a little wear around the edges. Much about her (I'm talking about Italia now) is unique, and much is the same wherever lots of excitable people congregate. She can certainly teach us lessons worth learning. 

Her northern half, we are told, is different from the southern: more businesslike, quicker, very European, endowed with the wisdom of the centuries. We found this part of Italy to be very easy to get along with, and sympathetic, even while bewildering and almost too rich. Yet it was precisely that quality, concentrated richeness, that brought us here. On the verge of departing for another country, and then Italy's southern half, I have some notes I want to make.

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When we first arrived, the velocity and density of the crowds was overwhelming. While I have come to enjoy it and plunge right into its midst, Rochelle still finds it daunting. In every center of population, from small (like Cividale) to large (like Milano and Trieste) we have encountered the passagiata, the evening walkabout, when (it seems) everyone is out walking, window shopping, greeting friends, exercising the dogs or the children.

I think Italians love to be part of a crowd. Is it because it confirms that they are in the right place at the right time? It is very different behavior from a Western American like myself, who calculates if I am alone, then this must be the place.

Last night, rubbing shoulders inescapably with Italians of all sizes, ages, and colors, I almost could feel the elation of being part of something so big and wonderfully alive.


At left, the 4th Sunday shoppers in Cividale del Friuli, crossing the Ponte Diavolo
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Accommodating Differences

One of the striking characteristics of moving crowds is how easily they manage differences in speed and size. Trams, busses, cars, bikes, and pedestrians manage to coexist on streets barely wide enough for a single traffic lane ... without incident or without the slightest loss of velocity or communication. Groups engaged in earnest and demonstrative conversation split around a biker going the opposite direction without anyone breaking pace. It's the next thing to a miracle. We started hearing horns in Trieste, and noticed that we had not heard honking for three weeks.

I am almost reluctant to write this, but in almost a month in Northern Italy, we have not seen so much as a fender bender or a pedestrian collision, or heard a single word of angry encounter.

<p>out riding the baby around in Cividale</p>

out riding the baby around in Cividale

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The Walk

This one I only started to "get," in the sense of being able to do it myself, by the time we were in Padova. I had noticed that there is little eye contact amongst pedestrians and mixed traffic. Intention is not discerned by watching eyes; it is deduced from body language, and observes, in its purest form, Newton's first Law: An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion. Traffic moves smoothly because its intention never wavers. Italians do not stop in the middle of things to consider. They start across the street or up the sidewalk purposefully, and continue moving in a completely predictable manner. Tourists, particularly lost Americani, have a disconcerting habit of bolting sinto an intersection and then stopping dead while they consider their next move. Drivers, bikers, and walkers all have to stop, divert, adapt to this unaccountable behavior ... and do with remarkable poise. I have yet to see a flattened American.

One characteristic of this walk is that when walking through a crowded and tightly restricted area -- the meter-wide sidewalk beside three whizzing lanes of traffic, for example -- Italians do not look up. And, mostly, they don't run into each other (which deeply unsettles them.) This gives us westerner Americans two choices: we can look at the ground or in the shop windows or at our walking companion, and bull our way forward, inevitably eventually running into someone (most likely an old Italian Nonna; Nonna's walk by different rules; see below) and working on our sixth sense, collision avoidance. Or we cede the way with regularity. At first, this second choice is irritating, and that in itself is interesting. For those of us from the wide open spaces, co-existing with crowds doesn't come naturally, and our personal space is extensive and inviolate. 

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Babies and elderly women are the most rvered characters in the Italian drama. Obviously, babies do what they please (and I have more to say about parenting below.) This goes for Nonnas -- grandmothers -- too. They are surprisingly self-sufficient, and can be seen at any hour of the day with their shopping bags or, more likely, wheeled carts. They jump the queue at shops without a second thought, wander across streets against red lights, stop unexpectedly in the midst of busy purposeful traffic, and nobody gives it a second thought. While enjoying this high degree of autonomy, curiously, they are nearly invisible, wraithlike. I have consciously set out to get a picture of a Nonna to illustrate this section, and have yet to take one.

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Up-thrust Bras

If there is a business opportunity in Italy, it's up-thrust bras. Many Italian women of any age, whether they have it or not, seem to love to market it.

I am not complaining. Far from it. I am in heaven. Nobody here minds if you notice a nice ranck; in fact, it is expected.

Not only do I find it lovely and artless, I also think I understand the reason for it: the Mother -- starting with the BVM and running right through to the young woman flirtatiously dining in the next booth -- is the balance point around which Italy is organized. (If you doubt this, I refer you back to the photo of 76-year-old Sophia Loren at the top of this page.) Our response to the well-presented decolletage is not carnal, but comforted; we are not reacting to the temptress, but to the nurturer. 

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You may already have noticed my complete bewilderment at the way parenting is conducted in Italy. "Conducted" is the wrong word. Watching closely as children run wild in trains, act out in restaurants, and generally act as if no one cares what they do is: that's exactly right. Nobody does. There seems to be an abundance of off-handed love for children, but the helicopter attentiveness that seems to plague so many young ones in the US seems completely absent here. Ditto the paranoia about baby snatching, getting run over, etc. At the same time, we have remarked on more than a few cases where children have obviously had children, not because they didn't know what causes it, or were genuinely desirous of reproducing, but because babies and young are a sort of fashion accessory that has the inconvenient trait of becoming independent over time. Purses are much better, and dogs somewhat better, but somehow lack the cachet. 

Worth noting: despite the Church's strictures (here I grant the Vatican's minions an ironic capital C), Italy's birthrate is the lowest in the developed world. At 1.23 children per woman, Italians are not reproducing themselves, and so, without the immigration that is a growing problem here, the Italian population is in serious decline. The reason given for this is that Italian men are among the least involved fathers on the planet.

I want to note that there is nothing wrong with Italian children. They are delightful, outgoing, fearless, and quite, quite beautiful. It's the parents, and the absence of intelligent parenting, that is appalling. I believe this to be a recent phenomenon.

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