Join the bestselling author of Ciao, America! on a lively tour of modern Italy that takes you behind the seductive face it puts on for visitors--la bella figura--and highlights its maddening, paradoxical true self
You won't need luggage for this hypothetical and hilarious trip into the hearts and minds of Beppe Severgnini's fellow Italians. In fact, Beppe would prefer if you left behind the baggage his crafty and elegant countrymen have smuggled into your subconscious. To get to his Italia, you'll need to forget about your idealized notions of Italy. Although La Bella Figura will take you to legendary cities and scenic regions, your real destinations are the places where Italians are at their best, worst, and most authentic:
The highway: in America, a red light has only one possible interpretation--Stop! An Italian red light doesn't warn or order you as much as provide an invitation for reflection.
The airport: where Italians prove that one of their virtues (an appreciation for beauty) is really a vice. Who cares if the beautiful girls hawking cell phones in airport kiosks stick you with an outdated model? That's the price of gazing upon perfection.
The small town: which demonstrates the Italian genius for pleasant living: "a congenial barber . . . a well-stocked newsstand . . . professionally made coffee and a proper pizza; bell towers we can recognize in the distance, and people with a kind word and a smile for everyone."
The chaos of the roads, the anarchy of the office, the theatrical spirit of the hypermarkets, and garrulous train journeys; the sensory reassurance of a church and the importance of the beach; the solitude of the soccer stadium and the crowded Italian bedroom; the vertical fixations of the apartment building and the horizontal democracy of the eat-in kitchen. As you venture to these and many other locations rooted in the Italian psyche, you realize that Beppe has become your Dante and shown you a country that "has too much style to be hell" but is "too disorderly to be heaven."
Ten days, thirty places. From north to south. From food to politics. From saintliness to sexuality. This ironic, methodical, and sentimental examination will help you understand why Italy--as Beppe says--"can have you fuming and then purring in the space of a hundred meters or ten minutes."
Severgnini--Italian newspaper columnist and author of the pesce-out-of-water memoir Ciao, America!--must have wanted to emulate Luigi Barzini, author of the 1960s classic The Italians, in this somewhat tepid sociological look at his countrymen. Severgnini writes pleasantly enough (and Giles Watson's translation is smooth, for the most part), but his observations are anything but sharp. He organizes this overview as a kind of geographical "tour," with a chapter about car sex in Naples and another on the Italian countryside in Tuscany. Sweeping statements, such as "Italians have the same relationship with food that some Amazonian people have with the clouds in the sky--one glance and we know what to expect," abound, and they have the ring of truth, but they're rarely backed up by supporting anecdotes. In today's shrunken world, jokes about how Italians love to see half-naked women on television ("The new Italian icon is the Semi-Undressed Signorina") and abuse their cellphone privileges simply aren't new. The collection ends with the hoariest of devices: a letter from an imaginary American friend who has taken Severgnini's tour and reminisces about the beautiful "girls" in a Milan disco. Barzini, too, often wrote in generalities, but he had the advantage of coming first. (Aug.)
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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June 11, 2007
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Excerpt from La Bella Figura by Beppe Severgnini
FRIDAY Day One: From Malpensa to Milan The airport, where we discover that Italians prefer exceptions to rules Being Italian is a full-time job. We never forget who we are, and we have fun confusing anyone who is looking on. Don't trust the quick smiles, bright eyes, and elegance of many Italians. Be wary of everyone's poise. Italy is sexy. It offers instant attention and solace. But don't take Italy at face value. Or, rather, take it at face value if you want to, but don't complain later. One American traveler wrote, "Italy is the land of human nature." If this is true--and it certainly sounds convincing--exploring Italy is an adventure. You're going to need a map. So you'll be staying for ten days? Here's the deal: We'll take a look at three locations on each day of your trip. They'll be classics, the sort of places that get talked about a lot, perhaps because they are so little known. We'll start with an airport, since we're here. Then I'll try to explain the rules of the road, the anarchy of the office, why people talk on trains, and the theatrical nature of hotel life. We'll sit in judgment at a restaurant and feel the sensory reassurance of a church. We'll visit Italy's televisual zoo and appreciate how important the beach is. We'll experience the solitude of the soccer stadium, and realize how crowded the bedroom feels. We'll note the vertical fixations of the apartment building, and the transverse democracy of the living room--or, rather, the eat-in kitchen. Ten days, thirty places. We've got to start somewhere if we want to find our way into the Italian mind. *** First of all, let's get one thing straight. Your Italy and our Italia are not the same thing. Italy is a soft drug peddled in predictable packages, such as hills in the sunset, olive groves, lemon trees, white wine, and raven-haired girls. Italia, on the other hand, is a maze. It's alluring, but complicated. In Italia, you can go round and round in circles for years. Which of course is great fun. As they struggle to find a way out, many newcomers fall back on the views of past visitors. People like Goethe, Stendhal, Byron, and Twain always had an opinion about Italians, and couldn't wait to get home and write it down. Those authors are still quoted today, as if nothing had changed. This is not true. Some things have changed in our Italy. The problem is finding out what. Almost all modern accounts of the country fall into one of two categories: chronicles of a love affair, or diaries of a disappointment. The former have an inferiority complex toward Italian home life, and usually feature one chapter on the importance of the family, and another on the excellence of Italian cooking. The diaries take a supercilious attitude toward Italian public life. Inevitably, there is censure of Italian corruption, and a section on the Mafia. By and large, the chronicles of love affairs are penned by American women, who display love without interest in their descriptions of a seasonal Eden, where the weather is good and the locals are charming. The diaries of disappointment tend to be produced by British men, who show interest without love. They describe a disturbing country populated by unreliable individuals and governed by a public administration from hell. Yet Italy is far from hellish. It's got too much style. Neither is it heaven, of course, because it's too unruly. Let's just say that Italy is an offbeat purgatory, full of proud, tormented souls each of whom is convinced he or she has a hotline to the boss. It's the kind of place that can have you fuming and then purring in the space of a hundred meters, or the course of ten minutes. Italy is the only workshop in the world that can turn out both Botticellis and Berlusconis. People who live in Italy say they want to get out, but those who do escape all want to come back. As you will understand, t