Monday, May 29, 2017

Italia - musings on culture

Along the Cinque Terre - Manarola
It surprises me how much I will miss Italy. While I'm glad not to be living out of a suitcase, I felt a certain sadness as we boarded our last flight. Yes, we were on an extended vacation, a trip many years in the making and certainly we were headed back into our routines, work, schedules - but I caught the scent of something beautiful in Italy that I simply didn't have time to fully savor.

People have been waxing practically poetic over different parts of Italy forever. I may actually have to do some reading to see if any of these writers capture what I'm still trying to put into words. I also wouldn't want to simply highlight all the wonders without acknowledging the problems that continue to nip at Italy the Country's heels. Italy, like the U.S., is a country of contrasts. Governing bodies and local communities struggle with social and economic issues. People there are grappling with a changing world, natural disasters, violence, and cultural identity - in ways that feel very familiar to my own social and political landscape back here in the states.

Here are some of my musings...

Italy is more than castles, wineries, cathedrals and archaeological ruins. One of the things I savored the most was the language. I don't speak Italian, perhaps someday I will, but it is a language that seems to favor the expression of emotion. To speak even the most basic greeting requires an emphasis on syllables that immediately proclaim engagement - certainly whether or not you are truly glad to see someone. You can't be shy with Italian - its the difference between diving in or simply sticking your toe in the water. I was shy with my Italian. Andy could speak Italian like he had spent years there - it suits his personality perfectly. He's not shy, certainly not timid. Acknowledging my internal struggle to give myself over to this expressive language had me wondering about my own reticence and who I am trying to be in the world - as opposed to just being in the world.
We wandered through Tuscany - literally wandering through the countryside on foot - and what I kept coming back to was a sense of place and community. I am a mutt of European origins whose family - say, the past 5 generations - have moved from one state to another until finally landing in the Northwest. I am well aware that the generations after me will continue to move as well. In talking to our guide, her cultural identity was based in Seina. What does it feel like to grow up and live in a region where your family has lived for all the past generations you can think of? What differences in perception and values are crafted out of those very different familial ties to place?
We meandered from ancient Etruscan burial chambers to the high end shopping district in Florence. From trains and wifi and modern wine-making operations to narrow, cobblestone roads, stone terraces and nazi bunkers. Old ways and new innovations melding together. And the communities that call these towns, villages and cities home have continued - sometimes thriving, sometimes struggling. Famine, war, plague, occupation, corruption, natural disasters, attrition - more than a couple millennium's worth of human history at its worst (and best) and still, these communities pull together and embrace their own, unique cultural identity. Look at Seina with its Palio race held in the main plaza of the city. Talk to anyone from Seina about their Contrada - or neighborhood team. It makes football fandom in the U.S. look like child's play. Look deeper and you see a city that has embraced a way for its citizens to take pride in their city and neighborhood; it's provided a venue where emotions can run high and be acted upon via a horse race that is all about luck and fortune. What a way to keep volatility focused - to channel potential civic unrest into a shared experience for the whole city.

I'm going to go out on a limb here but I tend to think of Americans as pretty idealistic. Here's another generalization - we spend more time and attention reading about national politics (with much gnashing of teeth if you are opposed to who is in charge) than we do in our local communities. I have yet to live in a community that is not filled with transplants from some other part of the world. I've lived in 9 different cities/towns, each a suburb filled with folks who lived there because of a local industry. Suburbs. I know there are folks here in the U.S. who live in the same towns that their great-grandparents lived in and there are some who can trace back even farther than that. The west coast isn't like that for descendants of white settlers like me. And so, in some ways, my sense of community is very different. My sense of cultural identity is as muddied as my heritage. It is easier, perhaps, to try to identify with a national character then a local community. "I'm American" as opposed to "I'm a Northwesterner, a Californian, a Seattle-ite, an Anacortian" (take your pick).

Yet, what I noted in Italy, and in other parts of Europe, was that the local communities are first and foremost the foundation stones of living before the sense of national identity. External conditions (like who is President or Prime Minister) change but the connections of family and community are constants. Rulers come and go, rulers shake things up, cause a little trouble, maybe do some good, but the people are going to rely on their families and local communities to see them through.

I picked up Iris Origo's War in the Val d'Orcia, a memoir written about living through the Nazi retreat in Italy by the author and her family in the province of Siena. What struck me about this particular war journal was the author's ability to share her impressions about what was happening on the national level but also the nuanced way she - and her neighbors - managed the influx of refugees, partisans, allied prisoners of war and the Nazi troops retreating before the allied front.

Talking to our city guide in Siena, she shared just how culturally embedded it is for the city - and the people - to bend like reeds under the heavy foot of invaders (even if that's the Medici family) and continue to do what it takes to live and manage their lives. Nationhood is relatively new to Italy but dealing with would-be emperors or despots is not.

For me, personally, family and community are essential in my life and yet, I haven't used those - in my own head - as cultural identifiers. With a country larger than all of Europe combined, how is it even possible to culturally identify as American? Sure, there's language, shared historical markers, social and cultural norms that come with living in what is called a first world country - but I am more aware than I ever was as to how incredibly different my world view is from people who live in other corners of this country. There is no language or shared experience that is going to change that. So why not localize my sense of identity to region, to family, to my community? In doing so, can I release some of the angst and rage I feel for the political machine that masquerades as national government? Do I begin to understand that perhaps States should have more rights in the governance of their regions? And in wondering about this, does that mean I have to give up my passionate care for the lands and issues of other states?

No. How I see my cultural identity doesn't mean I am not a citizen of this country and that the national government shouldn't function in the best interests (as I define those interests of course) for the people and the natural habitat within the boundaries of this land. I am citizen of a large federation with my cultural identity anchored on the west coast. My values and beliefs (and ideals) are shaped by both of those factors.
And - thinking about this helps me bring my idealism home to roost. Home home, as in my local region and community. It's here where those idealistic notions need to be tested and explored.

Travel out of my region and learn other ways of knowing and being.
Travel abroad and see the multitude of other values, beliefs, and ideals.
Learn, savor, and realize that my perspective on the world is limited to my own experience.