I had just finished my oil-covered bruschetta appetizer when the young waiter appeared to whisk our plates away and clear the table for our main course platters–gnocchi, rice, octopus. Before he could walk away, I stopped him by asking in my most polished Italian accent where I might find the bathroom.
I knew, however, all was already lost. It was clear by the way he silently appraised me with an up-and-down sweep of the eyes that to him I was just another foreign tourist. Perhaps it was my flared jeans, which had gone out of style two years ago in Italy, or the emerging holes at the hem of my black cotton v-neck t-shirt. To He Of The Impeccably-Pressed Black Button-Down, to this twentysomething Florentine waiter whose white apron remained spotless in the face of innumerable drink spills, I was an underling. He did not, nor would he ever, consider us kindred spirits.
Nevertheless, out of politeness, he asked my parents and I where we were from and what brought us to Florence. My mom explained that she and my dad were on vacation from the States and that I was studying in Italy this term.
“Here?” he asked.
“No,” I said, “in a really small town. Near Venice.”
You’ve never heard of it, I thought. “Paderno del Grappa? In the Veneto?”
At that last word he wrinkled his nose, as if physically repulsed. “The Veneto?” He waved his hand in a dismissive shooing motion. “Why would you want to study there?”
Florence, I knew he meant to imply, was the only place worth studying in all of Italy. And why not? It is, after all, the home of all the great Renaissance thinkers, painters, sculptors and architects and houses most of the relics of these great men within its city limits. Couple Florence’s historical significance with the fact that it’s cradled neatly in the heart of the rolling hills of Tuscany and that it’s made up almost entirely of red-roofed buildings and you’ve got yourself an extraordinarily inspiring place to think and create. Picture the perfect study spot, multiply it by a few square miles, add some mint-green and pale-orange stripes of marble, and viola! That’s Florence. A study spot for the ages.
I understood the waiter’s point, but the fact was, he wasn’t merely suggesting Florence was an inspiring city for scholars. He was suggesting the Veneto was ugly and drab. He wasn’t giving me helpful advice; he was introducing me to the subtle geographical warfare that’s present everywhere in Italy.
My friend Marco was born in Verona, a Veneto city whose residents unconditionally support their now-dismal home soccer team as a Chicago Cubs fan might have done in the 1990s. He was elated upon hearing I was to study in his home region; though he regretted I had to live in folksy Paderno del Grappa, he joyously announced Verona was a mere hour or two away by train. I told him I’d like to travel all around Italy while I was there: Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples…
“DON’T go to Southern Italy, whatever you do,” he warned me in an ominous tone. “Not Naples, and especially not Sicily.” As far as Marco was concerned, Italy got worse the farther south you traveled.
Why do people in different regions of Italy despise those in other regions? To an outsider, the entirety of Italy is beautiful and worth visiting. Why do they refuse to admit that parts of Italy other than their own hometowns contain spots of interest and beauty? I understand a certain degree of rivalry; after all, we Northern Californians always joke that Southern Californians are too shallow, fake and sun-drenched for our taste. But we certainly don’t hate each other. I continually tell people that San Diego is one of the loveliest and most culturally rich places in the state. So, Italians, what gives?
To understand these ancient rivalries, Americans must understand that Italy is just that–ancient. Roots here run deep; families raised in a specific Italian town may not leave that town for 10 generations. Thus, allegiance to an Italian region morphs into defense for that region and, ultimately, denunciation of the rest of Italy. We Americans, ever a mobile people whose culture is decidedly not formed from ancient history, don’t understand these multiple generations never uprooting. When I have kids, they will most likely leave the nest and start their own lives somewhere else; their kids will probably do the same. We move on. Italians stay put.
I never thought I’d say this, but maybe the Italians can learn something from us: geographic tolerance. That waiter doesn’t know what he’s missing if he’s never woken up to the sight of the snow-covered Dolomites out his bedroom window.