I have been so sad for my beloved Italy. My first extended stay there was in 2012 (I had been there on short trips prior to that date). On one particularly beautiful autumn day in Perugia, I was walking to my Italian class and I heard a voice from above. I looked up and saw a woman leaning from her balcony, like a modern-day Juliet. But she was not in love. She was gesticulating madly at my bare ankles. It took me a while to realize it, but she was telling me to go back in and put on socks. She kept insisting that it was “un freddino, oggi.” A cold one, today. I explained that I was from Canada and that it didn’t feel cold to me.
I thought of that moment when I watched the many touching online videos of Italians singing from balconies and windows these past few weeks, connecting in the only ways they can find. These images are particularly bittersweet because I suspect that in Toronto, we’d be filing noise complaints against each other in the same situation.
Since 2012, I’ve gone back annually, but that year was my first exposure to what I call the “large extended family” aspect of life in Italy. Italians up and down the boot will insist that their town and dialect and local pastry is vastly different and infinitely better than the one 20 miles over. And while my Italian is fluent enough that I can decipher some of those differences, to Canadian or American eyes there is still relative homogeneity in Italian culture.
There are more immigrants now, there are the culturally globalizing forces of television and the internet, but compared to life in even small-town Ontario, there’s always a feeling in Italy of being part of the same dysfunctional – and at times joyful and warm – family. There is a lack of privacy that can take some getting used to. It is telling that Italians don’t have their own word for privacy – they use ours. “La privacy.” (I do like that it’s feminine.)
It can be amusing, like when I was on a bus trip and Italians from the front of the bus got into a conversation with Italians at the back. They didn’t get up to talk to their new acquaintances. They just shouted back and forth. Eventually, people in the middle seats added their two euros.
I believe it is one of the reasons the screen window has not become a hit in a country where the lengthy mosquito-season, scary spiders and lack of effective air-conditioning ought to make it one. With a screen window you can’t lean out and tell a woman you’ve never met that she should put on socks. If you read or watch ‘My Brilliant Friend’ – the exceptional HBO series which began its second season this month — you will recall the numerous scenes in which people are leaning out their windows or off of their balconies talking to, or about, someone. (And if you aren’t watching the series, you are a fool.)
I am generalizing, and the balcony scenes of quarantined Italians likely appeal to us because they reflect a comforting stereotype in a frightening time: Italians emoting from balconies; Italians with accordions and mandolins; singing Italians; shouting Italians. And yes, it’s possible that in another month they will be throwing more than their voices from windows and terraces.
But I have lived on three continents and traveled extensively and can’t think of a people with more of a compulsion to communicate. Fittingly, Italians are addicted to their telefonini (cellphones) but that isn’t enough. This is a country where, apart from the famous baci and abbracci (kisses and hugs), it is commonplace to see people of all ages walking with arms linked – men, women, men and women. As the British journalist John Hooper writes in his book, The Italians, “No people on earth express themselves as visually as the Italians.” The need for the face-to-face is strong.
So much so that when I first heard of Italy’s nation-wide quarantine, I thought, “yeah, this will go well. A nation of pathological extroverts with limited respect for the law asked to obey the law and behave like introverts.” But they are, with few exceptions, doing what they can to make it work.
In 2016 my time in Italy coincided with a spate of powerful earthquakes; I was living 30 kilometres from the epicentre and one morning woke up feeling rather like the little girl in The Exorcist, as my bed shook and rattled. When I gave away my anxiety, Italians – friends, acquaintances and strangers – would try to reassure me, saying, Niente paura. No fear. Don’t worry. Of course, Italians have painful and extensive experience with earthquakes. Not so Covid-19. I don’t think a mere niente paura can provide much comfort against the current death and illness toll. That is where the interfering extended family and those magical musical moments come in handy.