Searching for the “Real” Italy

When my good friend Georgette from Girl in Florence approached me about collaborating on a group discussion on the topic of authenticity and Italy, I was a bit skeptical.  Talking about the “realness” of this jumbled country is not an easy task, and to be honest I didn’t know whether or not I would even be able to organize my own constantly fluctuating opinions into something even remotely worth reading.  However, the great thing about writing on a computer is that you, my dear reader, will never know how many times I erased the stupid things I was putting down on the screen and only have to suffer through the next few paragraphs until you get bored of me and can start scrolling on Buzzfeed for more interesting crap like babies who look like drunk people.  Now stop stalling and pay attention to what I’m saying because it’s important if you ever want to understand why an authentic Italy doesn’t exist.

So here we are, searching for an authentic Italy. The real Italy. The one that we’ve recently started reading about in travel magazines, or hearing about from our friends who invite us over for a home-cooked Italian dinner taken straight from their recipe book bought in Rome.  We sigh enviously when we see those stunning photographs of the Amalfi coastline from our neighbors’ summer vacation, imagining ourselves stretched out on those sun-drenched beaches and languidly floating in the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean.  We swoon over ruby glasses of wine brought back from Tuscan farms, exclaiming over the marvelous quality and taste of the balsamic vinegars and golden oils given to us as gifts from returning visitors, wondering how in the world such a place could even exist.  And with a sudden start, we realize that all this time, the Italy we thought we knew is another creature entirely.  We wonder if perhaps we don’t know as much about this distant land as we once thought. And suddenly, before we even have time to process it, the seed is planted—desire, that curious little spark that unfurls its tendrils and quietly seeps into your heart.

And slowly, after months of dissatisfaction at our ordinary lives, the longing becomes so unbearable that we must act.  We must visit this mythical country for ourselves.We scan the internet for flight deals, talking to everyone we meet about the best time of year to visit, what we should see and do while we’re there, taking recommendations for restaurants and daydreaming about rooms that are stacked floor to ceiling with strands of golden pasta hanging out to dry.  We pack our suitcases weeks in advance, armed with guidebooks and lists from trusted friends who have been there before, counting down the days to departure.

When the big day arrives, we manage to get all the way through connecting airports until we are being waved through customs in Italy by a bored-looking older gentleman who doesn’t even stamp our passports, only flicking through them with a cursory glance before glancing over our heads to the next person in line behind us.  We cram our bodies into tiny Fiats, allowing ourselves to be driven into a winding maze of shrinking alleyways at breathtaking speeds, craning our necks as we glimpse the dizzying heights of ancient buildings whizzing past us.  And as we venture out into the streets for the first time, a sinking feeling starts to wash over us as we realize that perhaps we may have been mistaken entirely.

Because surely this cramped, chaotic mess can’t be the same idyllic place from the photographs. The place in the photographs didn’t have shouting street vendors on every corner, hounding you as you walk down the littered streets.  And it must be impossible to grow such delicious food with the lingering cloud of cigarette smoke and bus pollution permeating the air. Why, we can’t even walk down the staircase without stepping over discarded ashes and empty beer bottles, let alone sleep with all that noise outside our window at all hours of the night! Impossible, we say.  It’s not the same place.  We can’t even get the internet to work in our tiny rented flat—how on earth can these people survive?! Surely there is some mistake.

So we rent a car, thinking to move to the countryside, or out to the edges of the sea. And we sigh with relief. Yes, this is better, much better, we think to ourselves as we hastily pack the last of our souvenirs into our bursting suitcases and thank the taxi driver who carries them all the way back down the stairs again (but not tipping him for all his hard work, no, because our guide book says all the real Italians never tip for these kinds of things).  And as we pull away from the cities in our rented Fiats, our hands grip the steering wheel tightly as we try to manuever our way out of town, cussing loudly at the insane drivers around us who honk and swerve around us as we desperately try to follow our GPS directions. But wait—wasn’t that the sign for our exit back there? How do you know? The same sign is pointing in 3 different directions, and we’ve definitely gone through this roundabout at least 2 other times. Are we lost? Oh god, what have we gotten ourselves into?

As our frustration and blood pressure level rises with each passing kilometer, we complain amongst ourselves.  How can these people get anything done, we ask? Everything is so much more difficult than it ought to be.  There are no clear directions anywhere, everything is so confusing and complicated, and every time you ask someone for directions you get a different answer! We throw our hands up in the air in defeat. Fine, we concede.  We just have to get through the next few days and then we will finally be home where everything makes sense.  We stop at a roadside restaurant, staring dejectedly at our plates of cold sandwiches and Coca-Colas in defeat. This is definitely not the authentic Italian experience we were looking for, we think sadly as we climb back into our overstuffed rental car, staring moodily out the window as we drive through miles of industrialized towns.

And then suddenly, without warning, we turn the corner and are driving along the most beautiful stretch of road we have ever seen in our lives.  We gasp with excitement, pulling over on the side of the road and hitting our hazard lights, not caring about the honks from exasperated drivers behind us as we snap picture after picture of the glittering blue sea stretched out for miles ahead, hugging the cliffs where brightly colored apartments are stacked precariously along the edge, forming an impossible Tetris combination of ancient architecture and land. A peaceful feeling washes over us, soothing the jagged bits of anger and resentment that’s been lingering in our hearts over the past few days as we watch the sun sink down into a blanket of sapphire water, lighting up the sky with a comforting golden glow. And we smile as we realize that perhaps we are experiencing a moment of pure authenticity that has nothing to do with Italy, but with our own satisfaction instead.

This post has been a collaboration with #italyroundtable and your favorite blogging misfit group #COSItaly. Read on for more!

Jessica – Where is this “authentic Italy” everyone’s looking for?
Gloria – The odd woman out’s view on “authentic Italy”
Rebecca – Italy Roundtable: Finocchi Rifatti al Pomodoro
Alexandra – Art and Travel: the authenticity of seeing art in person
Melanie – Everything Is Authentic
Kate – On being authenticated
Michelle – Living Authentically: How Italy Forced the Issue
Georgette of Girl in Florence-
Pete of Englishman in Italy – “How Authentic an Italian are you?”
Rick of Rick’s Rome: “The Authentic Italian Culture Debate”
Andrea of Sex, Lies and Nutella: “How to be an authentic Italian (in 9 simple steps)”
Married to Italy – The fear of the fake: What “authenticity” means to a foreigner in a strange land
Surviving in Italy – What does it mean to be Authentically Italian?
Unwilling Expat – Leading an authentic life in Sicily

5 thoughts on “Searching for the “Real” Italy

  1. Oh Gina, lovely writing (as always). So many people dream, long and yearn to visit Italy – it is sort of a semi-legal drug that has made bloggers like us quite popular as people seek to live vicariously through others ‘living the dream’. We all know it’s less rosy than the illusion implies but at the same time, you like me, are so attached to this country. As you said ‘we are experiencing a moment of pure authenticity that has nothing to do with Italy, but with our own satisfaction instead,’ and at least for me, this is true!

  2. Hi Gina. I loved your latest blog, it brought back many memories of our trips to your land of choice. Eons ago when I was in college Neil Postman’s book “Teaching as a Subversive Activity” was a well-known title (How many students actually read it is another issue.). A major theme in the book was readying us “New-Lefters” as “Crap Detectors” with an aim to unveil the shortcomings of our society of the 1960’s and ’70’s. In 2015 we’ve become a nation of crap detectors clamoring to point out every foible we see, or think we see. The reality of Italy is that it does manifest great beauty and charm but one heck of a lot of crap if you’re caught in the minutia of the moment. I think the secret to perpetuating the illusion is like falling in love. One day you notice your perfect partner has occasion to belch, or not pick up their dirty clothes or not act quite the way you’d prefer they would do. We need to mentally guide our perception back to the whole person, which is still pretty perfect and not get caught up in the crap that we all carry with us. Italy is pretty perfect as well, even with the warts. Love you!

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