As the time period for my Italian citizenship application to be processed comes to an end, I’ve found myself drawn more often to thoughts about what it means to be Italian. As a foreigner, sometimes it just seems like a jumbled up pile of puzzle pieces – where you’re pretty sure at least a handful of pieces are missing before you even start putting it together. Naturally, I was interested to read The Italians by Rome-based journalist John Hooper, which was released earlier this year.
The Italians really delves into the nitty gritty of Italian history and life, from what happened to Italy’s feminist movement to the veline, the way Italians think of religion, do things and do it. (Ahem … we are talking about Italians here folks.) Because life is full of all these things. Yet, how do all these different things define a people? Hooper shines the spotlight on a series of different aspects of being Italy, whether it’s eating gnocchi in Rome on Thursdays or the importance placed upon una bella figura, and goes behind the to uncover what drives Italians to do what they do.
Throughout The Italians, Hooper presents an impressive number of statistics, surveys and reports to help tell his story. While tremendously researched, I was left wondering whether all the numbers really had helped me feel like I knew the Italians better. Yes and no. Yes, because it presented a surprising amount of information to process through and wonder about that I wouldn’t normally consider. No, because I think for me numbers don’t tell the whole story. It’s always more important to step outside of stereotypes, statistics and reports to remember that Italy is complex and the Italians tantalizing and persistently mysterious people.
There’s nothing that compares to traveling and meeting Italians, living with them, talking and laughing with them and sharing little moments of daily life. The you begin to grasp what it means to be Italian on a more personal, tangible level. After eight years in Italy, just when I think I’m starting to understand what it might mean to be Italian, something happens that turns everything upside down again. And for me that’s the beauty–and challenge–of learning to live in a new country.
Everyone tells their love story for Italy differently, and I felt that the book was true to the description as “an eye-opening, heartfelt true-love story.” This is Hooper’s way of sharing a deep love and fascination with Italy and its people. I enjoyed reading his story, especially picking up the little tidbits of cultural history along the way. I was even able to explain to my Italian husband why soccer coaches in Italy are addressed as “Mister,” which is something he didn’t know all the details about, and when I hear the Italian national anthem I wonder more about its meaning and history thanks to Hooper’s fascinating discussion.
If there’s one thing I know, however, it’s that in the end the Italians don’t fit in a book. The vibrancy, dichotomies, energy, charm and challenges that create a people become infinity diverse at a personal level. But that’s just my approach to understanding the world, which I feel leaves a lot more room for wonder, surprise and discovery. Yet, I learned a great deal reading The Italians by John Hooper, and I would recommend it to anyone interesting in delving a little deeper. It’s another piece of the puzzle that many expats in Italy spend a lifetime putting together.
by John Hooper
Viking (January 29, 2015)