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Discover the Danger in Romanticizing ItalyFind out why it is imperative that Italians abroad face the harsh realities of their homeland
I've been romanticizing Italy all my life. I can trace my lineage on both sides of the family to the small island of Ischia off the coast of Naples. It's alluring. Stunning beaches, healing thermal waters, lush vegetation, and beautiful people offer an image of paradise. One great grandmother comes from Sorrento, which is equally sunny and promising, gorgeous and enchanting. Who can blame me?
But after having lived in Italy with my native Italian husband and his family and seeing with my own two eyes what Italy really is, I see danger in these romantic visions. We're doing a great disservice to the homeland and ourselves when we don't recognize harsh realities.
Many of us grew up with this idea that Italy is historical and beautiful. My uncle always says, "Everybody, they want-a piece of Italy." How many of us revel in vacations to see the family and discover our roots? For those, who can't afford it, that visit to Italy remains a top the bucket list.
The image of paradise grew for me throughout childhood. It is what drove me to spend so much time in Italy and learn the language. This all led to my meeting with the man who would eventually become my husband. It's only now that I truly see the truth my family saw, which made them flee paradise for the United States of America.
Consider my father. He was 13 and the baby of the family when he left the island for the United States. He never saw the ugly, the famine, or the desperation. He remembers fun, playing soccer in the piazza, a rooster for dinner on Christmas, and hiking in the mountains in search of porcini mushrooms. It was a delicious childhood for him.
If you speak to my aunts, however, reality was far different. After World War II – and during it for certain – my family experienced hard times. Money and therefore food was scarce. As the youngest and the one born at the end of the war, my father always got fed. Indeed, he gets angry when anyone in the family suggests putting food on the table for everyone was ever a problem. But it was.
Even though tourism was becoming a possible alternative to living off the land in the 1950s, my aunts wanted greater opportunities, a better life. They began whispering in my grandfather's ears about following his eldest son and his own brothers to America. Nonno eventually conceded. Still, my father took with him beautiful memories of being a young boy shouldering no responsibilities and experiencing no pain. In America, he worked from the time he was 14 – in factories, at the grocery store, and as a landscaper. Holding down three jobs at once and earning a high school diploma wasn't exactly going to win against those days in the piazza. When I was a kid, he would regale us with stories of fun in Ischia. His rose-colored view colored my vision of the place. When we visited Ischia, I just kept falling in love. Of course, I was only experiencing Italy as a vacation.
When I began dating my husband, the rose-colored glasses quickly came off. I began talking to young people. You could see the jealousy in their eye. You were American. They were not. You were able to go to college. If they did, their degree meant nothing. They were still waiting tables or opening doors in hotels. They were scraping by but they could not afford the luxury of ambition. Dreaming was for fools.
Things are far worse now. Those in their 20s are often unemployed and living at home indefinitely. Adulting does not even seem possible, let alone a gripe to have and splash across a coffee mug. I think some Italian kids would feel blessed to be able "to adult."
I'm also reading Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend, the first in the series of Neapolitan books about growing up in Naples, and watching Gomorrah, which is based on real events surrounding the Camorra, the organized crime syndicate in the region. The corruption of government and business has torn apart Naples and its surrounding areas. It seems hopeless. This isn't new. The Ferrante books describe this violence and immorality going back to when my father was growing up in Italy.
Yes, the south is different from the north. Things might be different as you move up the Boot. But one comes with the other at this point. And the economy of the entire country is on the brink of crisis. The political stability has been doubtful for generations. While things might have improved for people since my father and his family left the island in 1960, they are still mostly just getting by.
So, why is it dangerous for Italians abroad and others to romanticize the country? Well, by not recognizing the flaws, you are abetting the country's stagnation. Even if you don't mean to, you are condoning the wrongs being committed. Silence, after all, speaks for the status quo.
None of the transplanted countrymen, who have had any successes, are doing anything to better the place. They might come for a visit, say a few words in Italian, and take a dip in the ocean. But they don't even see the suffering right in front of their face. I don't blame them. I didn't see it at first either. But trading in those rose-colored lenses for some transparent ones would help.
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