Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What Makes Italy So Appealing?

Boboli Palace, 2002

It seems like every third person I know has been to Italy recently. A recent travel magazine said Italy’s a favorite destination for travelers from many countries. So what is it, then, about Italy? Other places have history, art, music and cuisine. What is it that draws them all together and charms us so in Italy?

I’ve been fortunate to go to Italy three times. The first time was on a cruise in late July of 1996. It was hot, humid and crowded. We were moving quickly, one day each in a lot of places. Italy 101, I called it. I don’t recommend this.

We returned to Rome six months later, in late December. It was bitter cold. But we had more time just to wander, mingle with people in the neighborhood where we stayed and just watch and listen.

The next visit was in late May, about five years later. We spent a week in Florence and another in Venice. We scheduled tours most mornings and just wandered around in the afternoons. It was a gloriously relaxed trip, full of unexpected pleasures.

Before I ever went to Italy, I wondered how Italians could be so complacent about living in a country that goes through governments about as quickly as Americans go through rolls of toilet paper. (Bad analogy, I know, but you get the gist. Until recently, it was nothing for Italy to have two or three governments rise and fall in a single year.) It took a while, but I finally concluded that that Italians deal with constantly changing governments and economic conditions by essentially not caring about them.

Of course, there are people who care. Italians are not fools. But living amidst such consistent inconsistency—governments, corruption, organized crime, geological upheaval, wars, etc.—Italians have adapted by not sweating the little things. There are a lot of things they can’t control. But they can give attention to living life richly with vivid relationships and good food, art, design, clothing and music.

The other day I heard Frances Mayes, whose Under the Tuscan Sun and other books have charmed people for twenty years now, interviewed about what it is that makes Italy so special. Turns out Mayes and I aren’t all that different in our take on this question (only she, being the writing professor, puts it more articulately).

“They’re very relaxed about time. They don’t fight it. They don’t invest it. They don’t race against it. They don’t bargain with it. They don’t spent time regretting it. They enjoy it. They make a point of savoring it. They live in it. They believe time is a river that you can float on.”

There, in a nutshell, was what I like about Italy. Through wars, occupations, governments good and bad, dictators, popes and whatever else history throws at them, Italians choose to embrace life, float above the tide and enjoy every moment of it.

San Gimignano View, 2002


  1. I totally agree with Mayes: they really do know how to enjoy the moment in life. La dolce vite is palpable in Italy.

    I read an article in the NY Times years ago, where Anthony Lewis was describing lifestyles in Italy, and he mentioned farms, for example. He said that these farmers could have streamlined operations and made them more profitable, such as what we do in the US, but...for the most part, they just don't care about that. They're not looking to make fortunes farming, but just to enjoy their closeness to the land:

    "...Italy is evidence that there is more to life--a civilized life--than the unregulated competition of the market. There are values of humanity, culture, beauty, community that may require deviations from the cold logic of market theory. So I am convinced after spending some weeks in Italy this summer." (Anthony Lewis)

    They know how to live. And they don't tear down and erase their past, they embrace it. In comparison, we'd probably have put a McDonalds and a convenience store where the Colosseum stands in Rome.

  2. Do you have Fred Plotkin's Italy for the Gourmet Traveler?
    He understands and articulates so much about what we love about Italy - and Italians.

  3. Chris,
    Well said! And the pictures are AMAZING!!!