I recently returned from my first big trip, a tour of Northern Italy. I visited Florence and Venice, Couch Surfed near Verona, received a private tour from the proprietor of a provincial winery in Lazise, reconnected with my friend, Wilson, who is teaching English in Mantova, and made a one night excursion into Bologna.
I was unsure what to expect from Italy… if anything, I crossed the French Alps into Italy with zero expectations. Since I have primarily travelled in France, this was the first time I visited a country where I didn’t speak the language at all (although my French allows me to follow some Italian). I returned to France with an incredible appreciation of the Italian food, culture, history, and people.
The rest of the world tends to think of Italy as a country where everyone eats pizza, speaks Italian exuberantly, and generally carries themselves like Nintendo’s Mario and Luigi. In reality, Italy is a culturally fragmented country and its recent elections are very representative of that. Italy as a unified country is technically younger than the United States, with unification only taking place in 1861 following the Congress of Vienna in 1814 and the Revolutions of 1848. Before this unification, Italy was divided into a number of large and small republics such as the Venetian Republic, the Italian Republic, the Papal States, and the Kingdom of Napoli in the south. Additionally, part of Northern Italy was included in the Austrian Empire.
So there are distinct cultural differences depending on where one is in Italy, especially between the North and South. Southern Italy tends to fit the pizza, pasta, and Mediterranean lifestyle we often think of, while Northern Italy has a more German ethos and culture (many people are bilingual in German and Italian). It is awesome to learn about these cultural differences from natives of the country, because they often do not surface in our education in the United States.
But one of my favorite moments in Italy came from the most unlikely source. When I romanticize about Europe and its history, I am captivated by the incredible salon lifestyle in the major cities of Europe at the turn of the century. Expatriates and native Europeans gathered in cafes/salons across Europe to discuss philosophy, art, economics, science and politics. From Paris to Budapest to Berlin to Vienna, brilliant people like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemmingway, Claude Monet, Albert Einstein, Joseph Schumpeter, Arthur Koestler and others gathered and collaborated in cafés and salons to create some of the most monumental works of the 20th Century.
I have always thought it would be incredible to somehow observe and participate in that salon culture. When I was in Mantova with my friend Wilson, who I haven’t seen in a year, we stayed late into the evening at a small café discussing the expatriate experience in Europe, spirituality, Christianity, Buddhism, philosophy and everything else in between. When I mentioned my fascination with the salon lifestyle of the 1920’s to Wilson, he responded, “Well guy, we’re doing that right now.”