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living la dolce vita - exerpt
Why America Loves Italy
Archetypal wisdom -the wisdom of our collective humanity---is the buried treasure of our soul. Its message easily gets lost in the daily bustle of life in a cutting-edge society, which at times spirals ahead of itself. But fortunately, getting ahead of oneself is not an option in more traditional, time-weathered cultures, where the tempo still dawdles instead of hastening by. It is in this stillness of observation, that we remember how to reconnect with our basic instinctual truths, and experience lasting joy and well-being-which some of us liken to the promise of OZ.
No matter how many times I visit Italy, its magic never stales. I am breathless for the umpteenth time as my plane lowers itself through the thick morning clouds, to reveal the glorious emerald city below. My eyes, like Dorothy's, grow large with wonder and anticipation. We draw nearer the boot-shaped panorama, which is now a patchwork quilt of sunlit fields, and bodies of water so crystal blue they let you see through to their soul. I am always thirsty for her beauty; always hungry for her wisdom. And the rest of America, too, seems to be fascinated, enchanted, or at least curious about Italy. When it comes to Italy, we are never quite satiated; we always want for more. We want her leather, her gold, her art, her music, her sensuality. But perhaps what we need most of all is her ability to relish life.
The signs are everywhere: Italy is definitely on our minds. Consider the recent 5-fold increase in U.S. spending on Italian imports; the rising success of mafia-based television shows; the skyrocketing record sales of tenors Bocelli and Pavarotti-in a culture where opera hasn't exactly been a household word. The "I love Italy" show is among the latest in reality TV programming, and a new Gallup poll reveals that America's favorite non-English-speaking country, is without a doubt the Bel Paese. Syndicated columnist Eric Margolis wrote that even the French prime minister is asking his countrymen to be nicer to American tourists, in hopes they will stop abandoning France in favor of its boot-shaped neighbor. America has always been sweet on Italy: she is not just a newfound chic of the americani. But like an Italian marriage, our enamored attachment to this Old World paradise, while stable over the long-term---can fluctuate in intensity along the way.
Italy relishes the spotlight and is delighted by those who can appreciate her assets. She is proud of having preserved tradition while maintaining a cutting edge among her modern day competitors. She is not without her faults, but most of us are just as awed by her brilliance, as we are intrigued by her shortcomings. Italian culture has overtly and covertly left its mark on the U.S.---from its very name (after Amerigo Vespucci), to its buildings, fashion, music, and cuisine. Italian towers, temples, cathedrals, and town squares have historically inspired American architects. Many of our top chefs are trained in the culinary sophistication of Parma, or the inspirational simplicity of Naples, where oil, basil, garlic and tomatoes can be transformed into as many different dishes as there are days of the year. We now find ourselves eating pasta and pizza as matter-of-factly as we scarf down hamburgers. Giotto, Raphaelo, Michelangelo and Da Vinci have the ability to touch our souls even if we know nothing about art. Americans may very well love Italy because in her we find a connection to all of mankind.
Cross-cultural psychologist Harry Triandis wrote that culture is society's "memory" of what has worked in the past. It is responsible for the assumptions people make about their environment, themselves, and the way people should act. It stands to reason that the older a culture is, the more refined these assumptions would be. This is analogous to the differences in reasoning skill between inexperienced youth and their wiser (in most cases) elderly counterparts. The other day I sat spellbound, listening to a televised interview with the near nonagenarian Art Linkletter. Over the years he had seen both the best and the worst of mankind, from all parts of the world. He shared his views on war, terrorism, love and the surety that in the end, good really does win out, and tough times really do get better if you have the patience and wherewithal to weather them out. His confidence was so calming and reassuring; I felt lucky to learn from the wisdom of his experience.
Italy, too, has "been around the block" a few times, and her cultural memory has been shaped by her experience. Her centuries-long history has been wrought with battle, starvation, plague, domination, and natural disaster. Consequently, it produced a people that learned not only how to survive unthinkable hardship, but also how to sing, paint, make love, and pray as if each day was a personal gift. The indestructible spirit that characterizes Italian life baffles observers. We long for a bit of this magic to rub off on ourselves.
People of all ethnic backgrounds have talked to me about their special affection for Italy. Some likened their experience with Italy to Alice's journey through the looking-glass, where polar opposites-- like antiquity and modernity; sacred and profane; industrialized north and underdeveloped south-- coexist not only logically but as if they were meant to be found together. Amidst conflict and harmony, what is always obvious is a deep reverence for life, and a dignified civility among the Italian people. This shows in the way people behave and present themselves to the world.
Italian women respect themselves and take pride in making themselves attractive-no matter what their age. Italian men, with an intrigue all their own, unapologetically appreciate them. Most foreign women are happy to discover that traces of the mythical Latin-lover -though less exaggerated-- still exist in the form of gallantry and sexy flirtation. Indeed, the unabashed charm of both sexes makes playful flirting one of the true pleasures of Italy.
The practice of bella figura is based on the fundamental belief that one should always put their best foot forward. The desire to make a good impression and carry oneself with dignity influences the way Italians dress, talk, and behave. This practice also reflects healthy levels of self-esteem. That Italians like themselves is obvious, and bella figura joins their external image with their internal self-appraisal.
There also are other tendencies that promote an ambience of Dolce Vita. The art of arrangiarsi is one. Italians are openly proud of their ability to make the best of bad situations and adapt accordingly. Attitudes toward work, ambition, and money, contrast in an obvious way with those of their American counterparts. Italians, for example, will tell you they work to live, not the other way around. Their salaries don't come close to the average American wage; but this culture of renowned savers lives quite comfortably within its limits. When it comes to shopping, quality is preferred over quantity. A quality suit is a must, but so is a long vacation in the mountains or at the shore, once or twice a year. Don't we love Italy for all of these reasons and more?
Why I wrote this book
This book is not meant to be ethnocentric, and I am not blinded to Italy's faults. Certainly expatriates who thought life in Italy would guarantee them an instant fairly tale, are promptly shocked by the reality of inefficient bureaucracy, mail that may or may not get delivered, and long lines at town hall that often turn out to be the wrong lines anyway-although no one lets you know that until you reach the front. It can be maddening to have to empty out your wallet just to fill your tank with gasoline, or to not be able to resolve a utility bill because your records can't be retrieved from the heap lying on the floor. I realize that some Americans of Italian heritage hang on to contrived fantasies of an Italy that doesn't exist now and maybe never did-- outside of their ancestors' memories which themselves were colored by the passage of time; then reconstituted to fill in the gaps as the stories were told. Others are indeed aware of her faults, but love her nonetheless, as do native-born Italians themselves. In my opinion, objectivity about Italy's defects is precisely what enables me to objectify her goodness---which is every bit as real. From this goodness precisely comes an intercultural approach to well-being. "Living La Dolce Vita: A Life of Values and Tradition, Italian-Style" is based on the strong points of a very old and wise culture-a culture that has had a chance to evolve and refine itself over thousands of years.
In writing about Italy's brand of well-being I incorporated three important and essential elements: my own cross-cultural research (comparisons between Italy and U.S. cultures); the psychological findings on happiness and well-being; and my personal observations of growing up with an Italian family. My earliest training ground was the "old neighborhood", where the protagonists were not simply Italian immigrants but they were also my grandparents, aunts and uncles, paesani, comari, amici, storekeepers, schoolteachers, librarians, bakers, bankers. I watched them closely. I listened and learned. Our family and community ties are what gave us a sense of purpose and belonging. In the neighborhood, we were not outsiders with funny ways, but dignified human beings who were deeply committed to one another, and that alone made us happy. Conversation was set in colorful blends of southern dialect: Neapolitan, Sicilian, Calabrese---it was all there. One set of my grandparents lived in our house; the other lived only a way down the road. Over the years I came to realize how extraordinary these people were in their ability to adapt to a strange land where they were neither welcomed nor given help. They figured out how to start businesses despite the odds being stacked against them. Their mom and pop operations eventually flourished with a lot of elbow grease and hard work, yet they always managed to savor the joy of planting personal gardens, making wine, and teaching all of us kids the thrill of dunking a fresh piece of Italian bread into a simmering pot of tomato sauce. Someone was always available to tell us stories about the "old country", even though we learned life's real lessons not so much through their words, as through their example.
The stars of my old Italian neighborhood taught us how to survive hard times with our heads held high. They taught us about God; family and friends; simple nutrition; the dignity of hard work; the discipline to save money; and the importance of taking pride in oneself. Even today, despite the evolution of modern Italian society, these cultural tenets have endured both in Italy and in many Italian American communities across the United States.
My dual citizenship bears witness to my love for both countries. It also puts me in a unique position to understand how the two cultures might benefit from each other's experience. Americans live in a fast-paced, stressful environment. We are extremely efficient yet at times we feel a generalized void, which we can't quite put our finger on. Each of us knows someone who goes through life on automatic pilot; cares little about how they look; and whose only interest is in getting through another nine to five. Or perhaps this description hits closer to home. If it does, a fresh Mediterranean breeze is about to revive you by letting you catch a glimpse into a nation of life- aficionados.
I have either studied or taught psychology for most of my adult years. Psychological well-being from a Freudian perspective emphasizes the importance of love and work. Humanistic theories like that of Rogers and Maslow focus on nurturing the positive side of human nature. Jungian psychology reminds us of the strong lasting influence of our ancestral past. Cognitive behaviorism teaches us how to think rationally, and help ourselves. Developmental theories underscore the importance of diet and exercise for maintaining well-being throughout the lifespan.
The Italian philosophy towards life reflects all of these core psychological principles. This became increasingly apparent to me as I prepared psychology lectures over the years. Italians say life is what you make it, and happiness is within everyone's reach. Ruminating in sad thoughts only keeps sadness alive. While it is important to enjoy life, it is also important to avoid excess, and exaggeration. A friend of mine from Verona once complimented me on my writing, for the fact that I didn't go overboard with superlatives, as was the typical americana style.
"When the tourists come", Giovanna told me, " it's one extreme or another. They say this pizza is "excellent", or "that portrait is really great!" Esaggerato! we want to say. "You exaggerate! Things are seldom black or white; excellent or awful. If they were, we'd have no room for anything in between!".
When I spend time in Italy it's like stepping into a time machine that zooms me back to the principles I learned in my childhood. Moderation is important but so are aesthetic beauty, good food, and plenty of social interaction. Italians work hard but not obsessively long hours. They live simply and don't complicate their lives with things that don't matter. They take the time to enjoy life, exercise their spiritual side, and keep interpersonal relationships strong and healthy. While I am most grateful to my Italian grandparents for sharing their wisdom with me early on, it may have taken my psychological training---years later---to make me realize that everything they taught me was right on the money.
The Purpose of this Book
The correlation between stress and physical health is also becoming increasingly evident. Many Americans feel stressed and unhappy in their jobs, or overwhelmed in their roles at home. As baby boomers are downsized in the workplace they are contemporaneously sandwiched between responsibilities to their own children and to ageing or infirm parents. We no longer have the time to play or laugh, or to pursue the interests we used to love. Many of us don't have time enough to enjoy the money we work so hard to make. Others find most of their money is eaten up by credit card debt anyway. According to a recent survey, of the 76% of Americans who own at least one credit card, 41% do not pay off the balance monthly and end up paying astronomical interest rates. This drains both wallet and peace of mind. We have credit carded ourselves into unthinkable debt and often lack the emotional support of friends and close familial connections. Persistent unrelieved stress may eventually lead to physical and psychological ailments, such as depression and anxiety. Depression affects twice as many women as men. This malady has been referred to as the common cold of mental disorders, because it is so pervasive in our society. Anxiety-related disorders have also been steadily rising in the U.S. The mobility of our society, which on one hand makes it technologically progressive, also leaves us feeling isolated and consumed with work. People turn to pills, Prozac, or alcohol, just to take the edge off of a poorly balanced lifestyle.
"Living La Dolce Vita: A Life of Values and Tradition, Italian-Style" shows you how to stop the ferris wheel of unhealthy habits and begin living life with serenity and enjoyment. Of course Italians don't have all the answers for living the sweet life; nor does every Italian live by the wisdom of their own cultural heritage. But in general, when compared to numbers in the U.S., the people of Italy's Mediterranean culture enjoy greater longevity, are less stressed; and show lower levels of heart disease, obesity, and mental disturbance. It seems the Mediterranean diet, combined with a physically active, socially-oriented lifestyle, and the ability to roll with the punches-makes for a strong mind, body, and soul. These elements of well-being can be Italy's legacy to us.
Italy's culture spans thousands of years: it is one of the oldest civilized countries on the planet. Besides the cultural influence of the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Etruscans, the Roman Empire established the principles of law by which we still live today. Testimony to the sophisticated genius of the early Italian people lay in their futurist engineering, architectural structures, roads, and irrigation systems. There is also extant evidence of early appreciation for the arts, love, and music, in everyday life. The early Romans already had the knack for striking a balance between intellectual pursuit, productivity, and enjoyment of life. This is all very important in understanding what makes the Italian culture revolutionary, yet in many ways unchanging. Throughout the centuries Italy has weathered the hardships of foreign occupation, national disaster, starvation, domination, the destruction of war and more recently, terrorism. The cultural elements responsible for her people's survival gradually became the stable, immutable keys to their well-being. Experiential wisdom and ingenuity gave the Italians the ability to survive, adapt, and live serenely no matter what life had in store. Theirs is a complex culture whose lifestyle is nevertheless surprisingly straightforward, based on nine powerful principles, which by no small accident, also correlate with the modern psychological findings on happiness.
After family, the second principle focuses in the importance of friendship. Italians say chi trova un amico trova un tesoro, he who finds a friend has found a treasure. Friendship, in Italy, is serious business, thus cultivating two or three solid friendships is preferable to maintaining numerous superficial relationships. A friend is willing to do a favor at any time and any place, and the small irritations of closeness are overlooked. Not making time for friends is inconceivable. In true friendship neither physical nor emotional distance has a place. A real friend tells you what you need to know, and that is something to be grateful for; not offended by.
Third, is the principle of love and romance. In a land where half-naked bodies adorn billboards to push dish detergent, you can be sure that in Italy is not love shy. The message of passion is everywhere-- in art, writing, and music. There is nothing more emotional than a Neapolitan love ballad, or more sensual than the writings of Gabriele D'Annunzio. Love is both unabashed and elevated to near sanctity and forgiveness and willingness to try again makes most marriages indestructible.
You won't be surprised when I tell you that the fourth principle involves the mealtime experience. The central source of psychological and physical nourishment in every Italian home is without a doubt, the family dinner table. It is where simple nutritious food makes the body strong; and warmth and love fortify the soul. Mediterranean meals incorporate the simple fresh flavors of pasta, tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, fish, good crusty bread, cheese, and a healthy glass of table wine. When coupled with a healthy dose of delicious company, mealtime becomes a true Dolce Vita phenomenon.
For the fifth principle, the key is that Italians work to live, not the opposite. Wealth to Italians means more than money. It also means stopping to admire the sun-topped peaks of la Monte Rosa in the springtime, or to take that afternoon espresso at the local bar. While it is important to feel satisfied with the work one does, it is also important to know how to enjoy other riches of life.
Sixth, putting your best foot forward is the rule of thumb in the sunny boot, and Italians have fun with it. The importance of making a good impression is reflected in the clothes Italians wear, in the cars they drive, and in the way they conduct themselves when out in public. Titles are a dignified formality---and Italians love pomp and circumstance. Everyone has some kind of title, even if it is just Signore or Signora.
Also, fitness is built into the Italian lifestyle, in regular walking or carousing around in bici, on a bicycle. It is not unusual to look out your window in the morning and see even elderly women in mink coats riding their bikes at a slow steady pace, with grocery bags either tucked into the wire baskets in the front of the bicycle or wrapped around one of the handlebars. Physical activity is just a way of life.
Seventh, is knowing how to effectively communicate, with words or without. Life is art, and Italians use their rich colorful lexicon together with gestures and body language to get the message across, whether or not they use actual words. The human interchange is what is important, and when all is said and done, everyone understands each other quite well.
Next, is being able to weave a feeling of spirituality into the fabric of daily life. While the traditional Roman Catholic Church plays a less formal role in the lives of modern-day Italians, there continues to be a deep reverence for life and a sense of personal and social responsibility. Although they no longer attend Church in droves, most Italians admit to praying frequently; sometimes on their way to work while riding their Vespa. It is also not uncommon to stop in at a church during lunch hour to light a candle. A constant awareness of God's presence guides people's actions. This is reflected in how they see themselves, and how ultimately they treat their neighbor.
Finally, it's all in the attitude. Patience and civility are words that best characterize the Italian experience. This is most apparent in the ability to take life as it comes. Italy's daily bustle can be like an ocean in stormy weather: there are choppy whitecaps and occasional flooding, but it always manages to return to serenity, often through the comfort in maintaining daily routines. If they are used to going to a specific bar for coffee and pastry in the morning, they will likely frequent that same bar for years. Neither emotional outbursts, nor bureaucratic inefficiency, nor workplace issues, have the power to destroy the spirit. Mi arrangio is a common reaction to the frustrations of living in Italy. It means, "I'll get by, no matter what", and many times a good festa, party, is just what is needed. Italians always find a reason to celebrate-be it holy day, local produce fairs, carnevale or even one's name day. Partying is good, laughter is key, and regular R & R is an indispensable rejuvenator.
Now it's time to soak up some of the magic of the Bel Paese for ourselves.
About the Author
For more information you can visit her website at www.mindlifesolutions.com.
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