It is rather popular in Italy to describe any city as being a jewel unto itself … if it just weren’t for its pesky inhabitants. “Ahh Naples,” they will purr. “Simply paradise! And the food – to die for. Too bad about the Neapolitans.” Or, “Genoa! A pearl on the Mediterranean. But the Genovese! Grumpy and stingy to a man.”
Behind these comments lies the inherent insecurity of almost all Italians, an insecurity bred by generations of hearing about how Italy’s past was great, but its present is less so. Decades of looking past the Alps to other nations where the trains run better, the buildings are more structurally sound, the salaries are higher, the politicians are more trustworthy. Or so they are told by the Italian media, which is fully and willingly complicit in the general malaise of the national ego.
So many Italians believe that Italy would really be a Shangri-La with better food if the Italians weren’t left to run the place, that I think it’s worth mentioning that Italy without the Italians would be the following: colorless, insipid, monotonous, staid, predictable. In a word, boring-as-hell.
That’s why traveling in Italy needs to be a social experience first and foremost … and it usually is, though unwittingly for most tourists. For lurking behind the stock photos of the Coliseum, the Bridge of Sighs, the David, and all the rest, what travelers bring home from Italy are the memories of the waiters, the hotel staff, the taxi drivers, the baristas, the butchers, the bakers, the everyday people that they encounter and who, perhaps without even wanting to, charm the pants off of them.
Perhaps no nation is as great as Italy precisely because of its people, who keep on being great in spite of their nation.