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Italy Observed

When traveling, one can't help but make comparisons between what one knows and what one sees for the first time. The experience can be disorienting, especially if travel includes a foreign country. In my case, Italy continues to surprise, even though I've been here over half a dozen times. Since 2001, just before 9/11, my wife and I have visited Italy five times, and each time it is full of surprises.But why Italy? What is it that makes one keep coming back, and not simply striking out for another part of the globe? Why Italy indeed! In so many ways it is similar to California, especially Northern California. Much of Italy and California have what is called a Mediterranean climate, with mild winters, long summers, fair winds, and low humidity. The similarities can be so striking that when staying near Naples, on the Island of Ischia, I rose from a deep sleep more than once and thought I was in Mendocino County as I looked out on to the coastline beyond the bedroom patio. I had to shake myself and remember where I was. Italy, like California has a long coastline with pleasant beaches and coastal towns to visit. Italy's tallest mountain, Mt. Blanc, at 15,782 feet is comparable to California's Mt. Whitney. Italy's total land mass is 116,347 square miles, whereas California is a bit bigger, at 163,656. Given the larger land mass for California and a smaller population (about 37 million), it is not surprising that Italy has a higher density of population, much of it centered in the urban zones. Nonetheless, there is plenty of farm and orchard lands, often nestled in broad valleys, to remind one of California. Grapes, olives, fresh farm produce, almond groves, sheep grazing on the hillsides, owner-owned fishing boats in the harbors all are reminders of the similarities between Northern California and Italy. Why Italy indeed!

Since the early 1600s, Italy has been a top destination for travelers. The English promoted what came to be called The Grand Tour. Richard Lassel, in the 1670s, defined such an endeavor as a voyage to expand one's intellectual, social, ethical, and political horizons. The rising English gentry flocked to Italy to polish their rough edges and complete their education of the world beyond. While the Grand Tour wound its way through France, and for some parts of Germany and Spain, the core focus was on Italy -- especially Florence, Venice, and Rome. The most adventurous travelers even continued on to Naples and as far as Paestum (a 6th Century B.C. Greek Colony) in Compania. It was a heady experience for the traveler newly exposed to the art, music, the "best people,” language, and ancient roots of European civilization. The luxury Grand Tour included a retinue of valets, cooks, coachmen, and a guide. Needless to say, times have changed. And, one might wonder, how much difference did the experience make on the outlook and understanding of those who undertook the journey. With the advent of rail travel by the 1840s, the great age of grand touring came to an end. In its place, tourism as we know it came into its own.

Today, nearly 44 million tourists invade Italy each year. On the whole, it is a friendly invasion (super-charged footballers excepted). The Italians are more than willing to play the good host and attend to every tourist's needs. They have come to understand the advantages inherent in trading in dreams of empire and world domination for healthy bank accounts derived from running hotels and B&Bs, trattorias and coffee bars, and shops with everything from gold jewelry and fashion clothes to toys and linens, you name it. Whereas England was once known as a nation of shopkeepers, now the Italians wear that distinction all the way to the bank. Not a bad outcome for a nation once power hungry for colonial empire status, a member of the Axis Alliance in WWII, and one that found itself bombed and invaded into submission by mid-1943. Il Duce's body was still warm when the welcome mat was put out for the invading Allies. World Domination, it seems, never really took hold in the minds and hearts of the average Italian.

It is in this light that I have chosen to return to Italy time and again. Something in the Italian "plan,” their life-ways, draws so many Americans to its shores. The Grand Tour is no more, but the impulse remains. There is something to be learned here, in Italy. That something can be deeper than Italian art, music, or culture. The way everyday life is lived beckons one to hold it up to the light and compare with one's native soil. Last year's stay in Tivoli, 29 miles east of Rome, is as good a place to begin as any.

Tivoli is not what the published guides call a prime destination, a must-see town. Tivoli is best known for two stunning attractions, typically sandwiched in by a bus tour lasting about four hours to view the Villa d'Este and Hadrian's Villa four miles away. On such a tour, the tourists arrive about 10:30, do a quick look-see, maybe have time to eat a quick lunch, and then re-board the bus for the trip back to Rome. By 4 PM, the town is once again itself, a place where average (I use the term in its best sense) people live, work, and raise their families. Therein lies the reason why we rented a vacation apartment and stayed for a few weeks. My wife and I wanted to try and better understand how Italians live. Not unlike Northern California, Tivoli has a flavor of its own. Call it unhurried. Think of it as connected to the natural beauty of the setting, nestled as it is on the lower reaches of the Apennine foothills. For me, the best part of the day was going to a children's park just south of the main plaza. It was a pleasant place to sit under 200 year-old pines, look out at the view toward Rome, and relax with an inexpensive cappuccino made at the concession stand in the park. There was a routine to the place that was, well, enchanting. The early arrivals, before 9 AM, were the old men, retirees. They would occupy the round Coca-cola tables, surrounded by plastic chairs. They would sit in the sun, smoke, and argue politics, gossip over family matters (not their own), and brag about their grandchildren. For all the world, they were "contento." It was not uncommon to see one or more grown grandsons arrive to visit with grand dad, sitting off to one side on a park bench. By 10 AM, with the immediate chores at home done, the young mothers with infants and toddlers began to arrive, strollers well outfitted for every need -- nappies, water bottles, toys, finger food. They took up the park benches, two or three mothers at each one, with the strollers lined up and the toddlers wandering off to the sand pile, while the women visited. Tivoli, after all, is an urban town, has been for two thousand years. Apartment living is the norm. By noon, when pre-school let out, the park was further transformed by the four and five year-olds, with mothers watching. It is assumed that by then grandmother was at home watching the young ones napping.

In so many ways, it is just this sort of daily scene that sets the stage for comparisons with life in Northern California. Family matters is the first priority. The difference, perhaps, is that here, in Italy, they make it work so damned well. The Italian standard of living, after all, is well-above the poverty level, universal health-care is the norm, many families can make it on one household income, the multi-generational family structure is widespread, and there is little talk of being "Number One!"

So went our stay in Tivoli, a microcosm of daily life in the "not just for tourists" Italy. We shopped most days at the open air vegetable and fruit market (the prices are comparable to the super-mercato), cooked, cleaned our 15th Century apartment, and drifted about the Gothic/Medieval quarter marveling at how families have occupied the same 3 and 4 storey buildings for a thousand years. Of course, made of stones, they last. The man at the enoteca (wine shop), always by the front door, would greet us. He sold a very fine line of local wines, drawn from 100 gallon steel vats, for about two Euros per two-liter plastic bottle. Maria, the bakery lady, often spied me before I could say a word and already had an apricot croissant half in the bag. The gelato at the corner was the best in Italy. Garbage and recyclables were picked up daily from the bins on the corner. Traffic? With so many medieval streets in our quarter about four feet wide, there were few cars -- only the toy-like models no self-respecting American teenager would be caught dead driving.Over the coming weeks, as we travel from Florence to Venice, and on to Rome, it is my intention to make some comparisons between what I find of daily life in Italy (selected parts of it) with that of Northern California. In doing so, I hope to shed some light on the challenges that we face in California going forward. I hope not to bore the reader with descriptions of the 10,000 Madonna con Bambino (Mary and the baby Jesus) paintings that crowd the travel guides. No catacomb crawling, no stale stories of Keats and Shelley in Rome, and no Michelin ratings of overpriced restaurants are allowed. The focus here is on the common experience of Italians and their sense of what is important and to compare that with that of Northern California. Italy observed is full of surprises.

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