The Human Condition:

If I Had to Live Abroad – November 1, 2015

Uffizi Gallery

If I had to live somewhere other than the United States—and I really have no plans to leave—then I would choose Italy as a place of refuge and exile. Of all the countries of my admittedly limited travel experience, I found Italy to be the most livable.

When we were traveling in the late 1980s to mid-’90s, my wife and I spent several weeks each on different occasions in England, France, the Netherlands (with a side trip into Germany), and Italy. And of the four, the friendliest, most spontaneous people—despite the language difference1—the easiest travel and accommodation arrangements, and the least day-to-day hassle were to be found in Italy. The art, architecture, history, and the food weren’t bad, either.

I know, the Italian government is in a perpetual state of chaos, the economy is in virtual collapse, and it takes forever—plus, it is rumored, a certain amount of discreet emolument—to obtain any kind of licensing or official action. But the Italians always seem to survive. And they do it with a cheerfulness, a flair, a sense of taste and style, that we earnest, plodding Americans can only admire.

Somewhere near the end2 of his massive history, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William L. Shirer compares the German people’s attitudes toward Hitler and the Nazis with those of the Italians toward Mussolini and the Fascists. The Germans, Shirer suggests, belonged to a relatively young culture that only started to come together in the middle of the last millennium, and they believed implicitly in Hitler and his promises of national glory. But the Italians, having survived in a culture dating back two thousand years and more, which had gone from empire and world domination, through abandonment and barbarian invasion, the Renaissance and the Inquisition, territorial partition and foreign occupation, then revolution and reunion, were a relatively older and more sophisticated people. They tolerated Mussolini and his thugs so long as they provided jobs and made the trains run on time, but the majority of Italians never believed in him.

When your folk wisdom goes back two millennia and comprises the worldview of Roman legionaries, Gothic nomads, Byzantine clerics, Papal intriguers, Medici connivers, Carabinieri bravos, and Garibaldi patriots—not to mention the earlier influence of Greek colonizers and Phoenician traders—your personal attitudes become warm and rounded, like the stones in a fast-flowing river.

Although Italy is a constitutional republic with multiple parties, I’m pretty sure most of the people in office are some kind of socialist, and not a few are probably doctrinaire communists. But despite whatever private beliefs a man or woman in modern Italian politics might hold, I can’t see anyone seriously trying to move the country toward the sort of top-down, command-and-control economic system, with state control of all industry and commercial outlets, that the Soviets and the Cubans have tried and failed at, the Venezuelans are trying and failing at, and the Chinese once tried and have now abandoned in all but name only. For one thing, the Italians seem to be pretty bad at paying and collecting taxes. For another, they aren’t much better at respecting and obeying government edicts and regulations. The country seems to have two kinds of law: the one we honor, and the one we follow. Everything else is negotiable.

It’s a system that works, more or less. And it’s one that no clique, or party, or national movement will ever co-opt in order to lead the average Italian into some kind of far-off utopia.

Consider the food supply. In the U.S., our food production and distribution system is a wonder of biology, chemistry, market reach, and logistics. For example, when was the last time you or anyone in your family seriously considered the growing season? You want apples? Oranges? Avocados? Do you wait for the local harvest? No, you go to the grocery store. If you’re not buying apples that were fresh picked from the harvest in Washington State in the autumn, you’re getting apples that were cleverly stored for months in the right atmosphere at the right temperature—or were fresh picked from the harvest in Chile, where the seasons are reversed. Our growing, packing, and preserving techniques mean there’s not a flavor or a taste you for which you have to wait a minute or a month to enjoy.

The Italians can buy into this same bounty, of course. But when we visited the country, I also saw something uniquely Old World. From the train window as we traveled down the Po Valley, I could see small, obviously family-owned farms with one kind of crop growing in the fields, but also herb and vegetable gardens in the dooryard and fruit trees splayed out against every south-facing wall.

In Florence, we ate at a fine restaurant called Il Latini, where the dining room had hams, cheeses, and salamis hanging from the ceiling and shelves filled with jeroboams of wine. When I asked the waiter about these foods on display, he said they were from the farm which was owned by the family who ran the restaurant and that everything on the menu came from there. When your land has been overrun through the ages by the Vandals and Goths, the Austrians, the Spanish, the French, the Germans, and finally the Americans, you like to know—on a personal, familial, obligational basis—someone who has a wheat field and knows how to mill grain, a vineyard and knows how to press wine, and a pig sty and knows how to butcher and cure a hog. It’s just a matter of survival.

When I came to Berkeley in the 1970s, I became aware of “riot architecture.” That is, banks and stores along Shattuck and Telegraph avenues would have brick and cement fronts, and any windows would be narrow and high up. The free-floating protests of the 1960s had changed the way landlords and renters thought. But this style has nothing on the architecture we saw in Italy. In the oldest buildings, dating from the late Middle Ages, you don’t see any windows on the ground floor, and all those on upper stories have real, working shutters in solid wood.

In Rome, in the neighborhoods around the Piazza Navona, you see medieval remnants of the old Roman insulae: whole blocks turned into a single four- or five-story building. The outside, at street level, is all small shops—actually niches cut into the exterior wall—with no access to the building’s interior and protected at night with a roll-up door of steel slats.3 You enter the building itself through just one carriage-wide entry protected by a massive gate. The entire life of the building—which is usually cut up into several apartments, sometimes including a small hostel, a bed-and-breakfast, or an old convent occupying a number of rooms—is centered on the central courtyard and interior balconies. It’s a huge lifeboat where, at night or in times of social unrest, you can close that gate and shutters, roll down the shop doors, and survive for days or weeks at a time on your own well water and what’s in the larder.

In Florence, in the early ’90s, I got to talking with the old man who ran the cambio, the currency exchange, underneath the steps at the Uffizi Gallery. A proposal was in the air at the time for dividing Italy into separate countries north and south, and I asked how he felt about that. The man shrugged. “I’m a Tuscan,” he explained. Then he pointed up and down the narrow, cobblestone street. “In fact, this is my street. I would put a chain up at either end.”

You might chide the Italians for being backward, almost tribal, in this way. They have a traditional view of family, property, and personal obligations that is at odds with our modern, cosmopolitan, globalist perceptions and tendencies. And yet, for the most part, the Italians welcome visitors and will make accommodation for almost anyone who stops by—for in their long history they have seen almost everyone come through their country and either be assimilated or moved gently along.

I don’t know whether this is the worst form of primitivism or the most advanced form of sophistication. But I like it.4

1. My native language is English; I took six years of French in junior high and high school; and everyone in the Netherlands seems to speak English as a strong second language. Yet the Italians seemed to make a greater effort to make us feel at home, and they blossomed with what English they had if you just approached them with a shy smile and a cheerful Buon giorno!
       I remember an exchange I had with a security guard at the Sforza Palace in Milan. He had no English and I had no Italian, but I was intensely curious about the rows of square holes I could see on the inside face of the stone walls. Were they for ventilation? Openings to some kind of internal structure? With my pocket dictionary, much flipping back and forth, and a bit of pantomime on his part, we determined they were left over from original construction. Rather than erect a scaffolding, the stone masons just laid beams in the wall as the courses rose. When they were finished, they drew out the beams and left the holes.

2. I can’t find the exact quote now, so I’m paraphrasing here.

3. I saw these same roll-up door and window coverings on many individual houses in other cities. It may be nice to protect your home with an electronic alarm—but better to raise a shield that takes a battering ram or an acetylene torch to breach.

4. In fact, I borrowed this style of social organization—personal, familial, and obligational—as the eventual solution to some of our current problems in my novels of the near future, Coming of Age.