On 19th September 1974, I set out from University College London bound for the Mezzogiorno in order to start my field research for a PhD in geomorphology. Hence, today marks the 40th anniversary of my involvement with Italy, something that has grown and diversified over the years.
I am now bilingual in Italian and able to give as good as I get in three dialects. I am familiar with 147 of the 150 largest cities and towns of Italy, and the three I have never visited (Vibo Valentia, Iglesias and Carbonia) are small and remote. I know all 20 regions and 109 provinces (my favourite place is Sabbioneta, followed closely by Montepulciano—but don't tell anyone!). Twenty-four years ago I wrote and published my first book in Italian, which appeared in hardback in Bologna. I now have family and property in Italy and a long experience of working with and within Italian universities, schools and other institutions from the far North to the Deep South and islands. For five years I occupied the position of Scientific Director in the Region of Lombardy's Advanced School of Civil Protection. In past years I have had a (rather disjointed) dialogue with the current Prime Minister and I have a rich but mixed experience of appearing in Italy's mass media.
For the past 700 years there has been nothing on Earth quite like Italy. Italians regard their nation with an odd mixture of pride and shame. It has given the world cultural riches beyond anyone's wildest imaginings, but it has also consistently defied logic. In short, it has disappointed as much as it has inspired. Nevertheless, many of the stereotypes about Italy are no more than that. It is a country of individualists, and one that tolerates individualism more than do most other nations, but it is capable of extraordinary feats of organisation and collective effort. In the applied part of my field, civil protection, it has created the best models and produced the greatest synergies. Yet one consistent trait in Italy is that it is nearly perfect, but, in the modern world, the utter inability to remove that word 'nearly' leaves it hanging on the brink of great achievement. A Swiss professor of pathology once told me that, in his opinion, Italy is the place where genius is closest to madness. He was from the German-speaking part of his country and his view was entirely consistent with the Swiss love of order and predictability (Canton Ticino, where they speak a sort of Italian, is regarded by some Swiss as the Alabama of Switzerland). But perhaps he had a point.
One effect of the individualism is that, more than any other country, Italy is the land of diversity. It is usually amusing to watch the incomprehension between northerners and southerners, at least if it is benign rather than unpleasant, as they struggle unsuccessfully to understand each other's cultures. It is disorientating to ask for directions in Val Venosta only to find that one's German-speaking interlocutor pretends not to understand any Italian—and yet on the other side of the valley they speak Ladin (a mountain language) and no German. It is amusing to see the disdain that the people of Livorno have for the inhabitants of nearby Pisa, and how that is represented in the Vernacoliere, their monthly satirical magazine, or the haughtiness of the Florentines when they regard the Sienese, and the reciprocation of the latter. Occasionally, the safety valve lifts (on social media, perhaps) and out boils all the suspicion, incomprehension, distrust and disdain that each city state, or pocket-handkerchief territory, harbours for the rest of the country. I had an early introduction to this when, in 1974, I was taken to see a self-proclaimed 'republic' in the hills of the Province of Matera founded by a man who fell out with the administrations of the towns of Tricarico and Grassano and set up his own fiefdom at the crossroads half way between them. None of the local inhabitants thought this unusual.
It is always interesting to see how Italians regard the British. The official ties between the two countries are much less significant than the informal ones. The United Kingdom is a sort of alter ego to Italy. It is not always admired, and not always respected, but it is never ignored. Italian knowledge of Britain is generally limited to London, Oxford, Cambridge, Brighton and Plymouth (perhaps I should add the indigenous Italian community of Bedford, but it is in danger of being eclipsed by Asian Britons). This represents a sort of colonisation attempt, and the rest of the country is hic sunt leones. Indeed, Italian journalists have written books to explain Britain to Italians, from which one would think that there is no inhabited land north of the Severn-Trent line—works that are almost as bad as the Brits' literary efforts to explain Italy (it cannot be done). I once met an Italian in Dorchester, who was completely disorientated and trying to act like some brave pioneer. I did also once meet one who toured the Scottish Highlands in a Fiat cinquecento (the original model), but that was regarded as equivalent to going the wrong way across the Sahara Desert.
My grandfather worked for Negretti & Zambra, the Clarkenwell instrument makers, which was eventually swallowed up by another British company—Marconi. In 1944, my father did a stint in the Italian Navy aboard ships such as the Reale Incrociatore G. Garibaldi, and the minesweepers Indomito and Fenice. Fascism had collapsed and they used these ships in British convoys. It all amounted to a certain predisposition to italianesimo, acquired, I suppose, by cultural osmosis. The dilemma of those of us who are propelled into new cultural domains is that we can never completely abandon our roots and never completely assimilate the new environment. For instance, I can never understand why there have to be at least three chat shows on Italian television every night of the year, nor why they always consist of a table full of people shouting at each other and not listening to what anyone else says. After a long sojourn in Italy, I once interrupted a speaker at a round table discussion in Germany. The consensus was that I should abjectly beg forgiveness of all participants. In Italy, he who shouts loudest wins—probably using a mobile phone in a crowded place. And, by the way, on one occasion, I heard a phone play a can-can during a benediction by the Bishop of Prato. Thank God it wasn't a funeral!
In 40 years some habits die hard. Weeks ago I overdid it on Amaro Lucano, an after-dinner liqueur that my father once described as "alcoholic syrup of figs", referring to the laxative he was given as a child. It was pure nostalgia, as I did my PhD research on soil erosion that eats away at the ground around the Amaro Lucano factory at Scalo Pisticci in the Basento Valley of Basilicata, southern Italy, at least 86 km from the nearest city. Forty years of momentous change have passed, but at least Amaro Lucano is the same, although possibly a little watered down compared to how it was in 1974, or 1894?