Though it is my job--or one of them, anyway--I am always wary when it comes to talking about “Italy” in terms of culture and customs. Finding common ground in a country that prides itself more on disunity than unity is no easy feat.
Take political views, for example. Living in Florence, a solid bastion of the (extreme) left, it is nearly impossible to understand how Silvio Berlusconi could ever be victorious given the vitriolic treatment he gets at every turn around here. Of course all it takes is a quick glance at a geographical breakdown of election returns to see that old Berlusca is as adored in the North as he is despised in the Center.
Take soccer. Most people cite the World Cup as the only time the population of the boot actually get together and cheer for a common goal. Not so in Florence where the majority of folk loathe the Azzurri (Italian national team) given that it is primarily populated by players from Fiorentina’s “rivals”—Juventus, Milan and the like.
Take food. In Tuscany, you could write a lengthy cookbook on the various uses of the chickpea: cecina, pasta e ceci, torta di ceci, zuppa di ceci, and on and on and on. Yet once when I took a visiting Italian friend and her boyfriend to lunch at a local trattoria, the latter ordered the Baccalà alla Livornese because it came with ceci—which he had never seen before. He is from the mountains of Friuli in Northeastern Italy.
Take tomorrow’s festivities. Thursday, March 17, 2011 has been declared National Unity Day in honor of the 150th anniversary of Italian Unification. I am fairly certain that before this year only a minute percentage of the population could have spoken with any amount of clarity about the significance of that date. (It was the day that King Vittorio Emanuele established the Kingdom of Italy.)
The entire holiday was kind of sprung on the country—they only just declared it an official festa a few weeks ago—and after a fair amount of bickering between political adversaries, some of whom rue the day Italy was united in the first place.
So here, too, I find it hard to gauge the mood. Have “Italians” gotten into the spirit of "March 17"? There are some signs that they have: Tonight’s national evening news featured a corny montage of regular Joes singing parts of the national anthem—indeed most of the singers were wielding pizzas or waving other local foodstuffs from behind their deli counters (not doing much in terms of combating the whole pizza/pasta image if you ask me). There are scores of patriotic events planned for tonight and tomorrow, and everyone has been encouraged to fly the tricolore from their balcony or business.
In fact, a few days ago when I went on Florence daily La Nazione’s homepage I found a jaunty plea from the editorial office to vote in the “Most Beautiful Flag in Florence” competition. I was mildly surprised at this uncharacteristic show of patriotism, but then I got to the comments section where the very first comment (since removed, ahem) said: “Don’t you people at La Nazione have anything better to do than ask people to vote on stupid flags??”
Really, you just never know.