The involuntary compulsion to romanticise all things Italian, with repeated failure to acknowledge genuinely crappy situations.
I am a travel literature glutton. I read Any book written by Any author who has turned their back on Anything in order to run away to a foreign city. I’ll lay down with both first time amateurs and multiple-book offenders – anyone who’ll have me. While in other genres I am discerning and sophisticated in my literary choice, put the word ‘Italy’ in the title and I don’t even bother playing hard to get. Give it to me – clichés, derivative tone, saccharine narrative and all.
One would think, (or at least my despairing parents did) that after much time living in Italy I would see the ‘reality’ and inevitably foster a more balanced view of what is a far from perfect society or culture. Friends were somewhat relieved, almost slipping into smug, when my toilet stopped flushing, my electricity cut out and my Italian landlord refused to help me. “Aha! Now Kylie will concede; now we’ll see how rosy and romantic her beloved Roma is!” I don’t wish to come off as some nauseating Pollyanna but it still didn’t work. What is wrong with me? I see Italy’s flaws, yet I can’t help but romanticise life here.
I went from a six-figure salary in my own country to an existence where some weeks I live on tinned tuna and charity from amorous greengrocers at my local market. For a whole month whenever I needed to use the toilet I was forced to go outside and find a cafe where I could throw back an espresso as a pretext for using their bathroom. Nonetheless, that toilet-challenged month turned into the most socially rewarding period ever, as I was forced out into the local scene, alone, at all hours of the day and night. During this period, I even got sick and had to vomit in the dark (this is harder than you’d imagine), into a toilet that wouldn’t flush, without being able to call anyone because with no electricity I couldn’t charge my phone. But then a very charming local took pity on me and gave me the keys to his exquisite empty apartment in the centro storico and said, “Stay as long as you like, bella.”
After nights of aperitivo in a piazza, dinner on someone’s rooftop, gelato in an alleyway with girls as foolishly romantic as me and dancing with beautiful boys in a discoteca, I often stop off at the bakery in my street for a late night treat of biscotti. On one occasion, I learned from the baker who works the graveyard shift that the latest rumour among my neighbours was that I must be a high class escort, based on the fact that I’m always free during the day, live alone and have been seen coming home consistently at 4 or 5am. I should be offended at the accusation that I’m a prostitute but somehow I can’t help but delight in the idea that here in this seemingly immense city you can still find pockets that operate with the intimacy of a quaint Italian village. I love knowing that there’s a signora spying on me from behind her shuttered windows or that my butcher reportedly defended me in the local bar and told everyone I’m actually a giornalista. Having lived in a luxury high-rise apartment back home where no one even greeted each other in the elevator, here, I am more than happy to play by the rules. I don’t kiss boys when they drop me home on a Vespa, knowing the street is watching, and in return, when I’m sick or poor (or both) the generosity and kindness of these peeping neighbours is heart-warming.
So what is my point? I guess for any reader who is an Italophile or is perhaps travelling with one, who cares if we’re being myopic or applying double standards and viewing decidedly negative or banal things as poetic simply because they’re Italian. This city has been enchanting foreigners from Shelley to Picasso to Audrey Hepburn to Hitler (yes, even he was seduced) for thousands of years – let’s just call it Italitis, be grateful we’re inflicted and refuse a panacea.