Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Adventures in Italia

Living for over 3+ months in Italia has opened my eyes yet again to the possibilities that the world has to offer. I would happily live in Europe, especially Italia, if given a chance - like a work-abroad option by my company. There were a few things that I found particularly attractive about Italian and European culture. I present them below in no particular order.

I enjoyed the warm nature of Italianos - from north to south, they are very friendly and especially so in the south of Italy. I visited Sicily, a large island in the south of Italy, where the landscape was gorgeous, food was delicious, and the people were very warm. Italians are also very passionate, talkative, and emotional people. Food and cooking is a big part of life. Families are close and mothers really spend a lot of time on their children, so much so that Italian sons don't want to leave home and some remain lifelong bachelors! Italians also like to spend money on good clothes, good food and nice things in life - sometimes even if they don't have any!

One of my favorite things to eat were the bread that is served at the table before you order food. Taking some good quality balsamic vinegar coupled with olive oil and dipping the bread into it, creates a wonderful taste.

I had the pleasure of staying with some Sicilian girls while visiting Torino, the seat of the royal family of Italy. Sonia from Sicily was my host in Torino.  At Sonia's home, I was treated very warmly and felt a genuine sense of hospitality. Sonia treated me with some fish on the first day - a sign that I was a guest of honor. Funny story is - I was polite and did not mention that I did not like fish the first day but she found out anyways - we had a laugh while I recounted my childhood fish stories.

My Italian language teacher, Susanna, was always very warm and affectionate towards me - she reminded me strongly of my mother in many ways - as a matter of fact - she was my "Italian Mamma" while studying abroad.

All this reminded me culturally a lot about home - Bengali families in particular are very close with a lot of love, the mothers pamper their children a lot, there is generally a strong focus on good food and cooking. People are passionate and emotional. I come from a very emotional family and have definitely not deviated a lot from it. On a side note, mafias have risen in Bengal just as they exist in Italy!

There were some aspects that took more getting used to. For example, one of the first things that struck me about Italy in particular and Europe in general is how ubiquitous smoking is unlike in the US. There are local stores called "Tabacchi" everywhere you go in Milano. They are tobacco shops but they have diversified into other products like phone cards and jewelry. A lot more women also smoke here in Europe than in the States or for that matter in other continents.

Language is another challenging aspect for a new person. If you are visiting an European country other than Germany, it is best to learn some basic local language before you head out. This not only makes it easier to understand what's going on but also elicits a much more positive response from a local person. It shows that you took the time and effort to learn their language.

Traveling and living in Europe as a child, I never saw many immigrants. There were some, such as some in my family, who came there for highly skilled professions but never anyone who was doing manual labor or other unskilled work. I was surprised this time to see so many immigrants. The most striking ones were the ubiquitous flower sellers on the streets of Italy. I quickly realized that most of them were either from Pakistan or Bangladesh. Because I speak Bengali, I was able to converse with them and hear their stories - a very human story of migration. A number of them are brought into Eastern Europe by "agents" who charge these people around 10,000 euros. For someone so poor, this means borrowing money, using all their life savings and taking a high-risk trip to an unknown country in search of better fortunes. After entering Eastern Europe, they are able to move across borders and spread into different countries, some ending up in Italy. However, I was not convinced that selling roses in Italy was able to sustain them. It remains a mystery.

Before leaving Italy, I had the opportunity to visit one of the largest small producer fairs in Europe, in Milano, at fieramilano. It was quite spectacular and I don't remember having seen anything on that scale and quality before.

Another interesting fact that I learned that there are more Italians outside Italy than in Italy - 60 million in Italy versus 100 million outside. This is probably due to the waves of migrations in the 19th and 20th century that happened in Italy - a rural society slowly wanting to move into the industrial age.

Italy is also a country highly fragmented internally which also gives rise to a lot of unique sub-cultures.North Italians look down upon southerners. There are rivalries that exist between different sections within  a town itself. For example, in Siena, the Contrade, or districts, that exist have an intense rivalry that manifests itself in Palio di Siena, an ancient horse race, made famous in a recent Bond movie. These rivalries are so intense that I have heard stories of couples fighting over the church that they would get married in because they were from different Contrade.

I left Italy enriched, with knowledge of Italian language, food, some friends and some fashion!



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