It’s taken me six years to understand something about Italian culture, despite being a legal resident of the country for that long. My epiphany was about how Italians help maintain their traditions, rituals, and artistry over time and throughout generations.
Several things got in the way of seeing this. First, my American experiences gave me a blurry lens that saw only the surface of what was happening. Second, what I witnessed in the summers when it’s hot and families take their vacation is not normal daily life. Finally, the two years of the COVID pandemic disrupted the pattern that I began to see several years ago. Now that these patterns have suddenly returned in full force, they are clearer.
Each August, Italy has a two-week period of a collective vacation. This is an intense time of festivals, performances, concerts, entertainment for children, community dinners, and other events in public places. Every public space seems to be furnished with stages, seating, tables, and other elements to host troupes of musicians, actors, and food vendors. Posters and billboards announce these events along provincial highways and local streets. The events are so numerous it is simply not possible to attend them all. Every town seems to host more than one, and there are scores of towns. In other words, hundreds of events over a few weeks.
It’s also a chance for towns to interact with each other. I attended a recent book reading in our village library. I recognized only a handful of people who live here. Most of the audience was comprised of people from other nearby towns. The subject was simply the old stations remaining from a rail line that was torn out 70 years ago. Perhaps a few of the people attending remembered riding it as a child. Regardless of their age, everyone was attentive.
Both the cities and small towns in our region of le Marche, in east-central Italy, manage to offer an enormous range of events. One hour to the north, we can see full presentations of operas in a massive outdoor amphitheater. An hour to the east, we can enjoy live concerts from rock to folk to classical music. In towns closer to ours, we can partake in enjoying local foods and local talent.
A few weeks ago in our town, three different events took place in one evening: a book reading, a boxing match for youth, and a dinner with pizza, kebabs, fries, and beer. A recent classical music concert was followed by a three-hour, multiple-course dinner on the terrace of a local restaurant. A few days later an annual event celebrated the setting sun as it aligns with the town’s arched entryway and suddenly bursts through with an intense explosion of golden light. Lasting only a few minutes, this spectacle nonetheless draws hundreds of people from throughout the region.
Many other towns provide similar offerings. They are, perhaps, origins of the occasional block party or backyard barbeque as in the United States. Some places, however, have an event with food and drink and entertainment every night of the week. It reminds me of the years when I lived in New York City where the choices are so abundant they are overwhelming. Yet, this is rural Italy.
Aside from the sheer entertainment value of these events, they possess a distinct and crucial social value. Bonds between neighbors and neighboring communities are celebrated and strengthened repeatedly. People see one another as individuals or families, with real feelings, real personalities, displaying a joy of life. I think that’s why people here in Italy can have widely different political and religious beliefs and not view other people with other beliefs as ‘the “enemy.” Incredibly, perhaps, some Italians still idolize Mussolini. But they can still sit down and chat with left-leaning folks over a nice meal. Things in common are stronger than things that are different. A lesson for America, perhaps.
Since we moved here in 2017, I’ve attended more than a hundred of these events, which are held indoors in winter and outdoors in the spring, summer, and fall. Everyone attending is polite but vocal, shouting “Bravo” from time to time. Certain artists, musicians, and authors have their faithful followers; we see them surrounded by friends and relatives after the finale in the lobby or in the street. The evening is permeated with shared joy, delight, and human connection.
At a community dinner held in a nearby hill town, numerous Italian families, including infants to elders, shared large platters of delicious meats, cheeses salad, and wine. The meal was prepared and served by a group of gregarious young people. Set in a garden with a panoramic view of the blue-gray Sibillini Mountains, with candles flickering as the sun dropped below the horizon and the evening darkened. The crowd attentively listened to stories about Italian places and people composed by an American writer. The book’s publisher read selected stories in his theatrical manner, complete with emphatic hand motions. The author blushed with each round of applause from the crowd. I know because that was me.
My family and I feel fortunate to have experienced this continual “social weaving” ourselves. Each of us has achieved a growing degree of recognition for each of our arts, in my case writing and sketching, in my wife’s case herbal medicines and custom clothing, in her son’s case operatic singing. Each of us is frequently approached by strangers, who introduce themselves and say they have heard about us. I can’t begin to express how heartwarming this feels.
We know that we are a curiosity of sorts in a region not known to have many American residents. Regardless of efforts to integrate, our accent, demeanor, personalities, and perhaps even posture stand out and give us away as Americans. Sometimes, we are the even perhaps the pazzi americani (crazy Americans). We are still occasionally quizzed by people we meet for the first time who always ask why we chose Italy. When we offer our usual reasons of stunning landscapes, a rich culture, and kind people, the look on their faces ranges from admiration to incredulity. Week by week, year by year, we are absorbing and adapting to cultural customs and norms. Not that this is easy, given a lifetime in another culture with big differences. With almost every aspect of life, it’s like being a child again, experiencing people and places and “proper” behavior for the first time. How often do you get to do that?