Monday, March 12, 2012

Ubiquitous evening passeggiata
a reflection of Italian lifestyle

Saturday, March 10
After going to the cinema in Lucca to take in the afternoon matinee of the French film Intouchables (Quasi Amici is the Italian title), we get some gelato, wander around and take part in the evening passeggiata, one of our favorite parts of life here.

I struggle with words to describe la passeggiata. It is a slow and gentle stroll through the pedestrian parts of the center of any city, usually beginning just before dusk. It signals the end of the work day, offers a breath of fresh air and allows people to chat with friends and neighbors. On weekends whole families walk together, sometimes splitting apart for smaller conversations and then joining together again.

“For townspeople of all ages, the passeggiata reinforces a sense of belonging,” writes Dianna Hales in an article in “The greeting of friends and acquaintances, the swapping of gossip, and the sharing of the latest news weave everyone into the human fabric of the community.”

I could say that people dress themselves carefully for this stroll, but the fact is that most Italians almost always look good in public. Clothes are stylish but not garish. Colors are coordinated; styles are modern, classy and form-fitting, never faded or sagging. Sweat pants and sweat shirts are virtually non-existent. Yet these people dress in a way that looks natural, effortless. It is another example of sprezzatura.

Sprezzatura in fashion, according to Johnny Liu of style and shopping website Omiru, is “artful dishevelment—dressing like you don’t care, taking a nonchalant attitude with your appearance—when in fact you do take time and effort to create your look. The trick to pulling it off is subtlety, confidence and an otherwise impeccable outfit.”

Because Italians love their
uniforms, even the poliziotti
are well dressed for occasion.
That it does take time and effort to appear effortless is confirmed by Italian author Annalisa Coppolaro-Nowell. “We pay great attention to the way we look and dress,” she writes in her book, How to live like an Italian. “That is why our parties are such a feast for the eyes; even in other countries and cities, if you go to an Italian party, people look beautiful and smart and the d├ęcor is usually brilliant.”

Yet it is not the clothing that impresses me as much as the personal interaction. I instantly sense that something is fundamentally different about these people, and as I sit and watch carefully, I notice the way they interact. Many people walk with their arms linked together. Of course this applies to couples of all ages and is not unique to Italy. But it is also common to see teenage girls with linked arms, a sign of close friendship, and teen girls linked to their mothers. Middle-aged women walk with arms linked to their aging mothers. Sometimes sisters walk on either side of a particularly old mother to offer both physical and emotional support.

This closeness is not limited to the women. While it is unusual to see boys walking with linked arms, there still is a physical closeness and comfort with contact not seen in other countries. I see a cluster of boys talking loudly and easily with each other, and one puts his hand on the other’s shoulder and leans closer to share a story he does not want everyone else to hear. It is also possible to see middle-aged men with arms linked to their fathers, and even occasionally a young teen linked with father or mother, something that would be social suicide in America. The closeness of Italian family ties is typically something that people note and admire about Italy, and the passeggiata develops and encourages this trait as well as puts it on display.

While most people walk in groups, those walking by themselves seem perfectly comfortable among the crowd. At a certain age—maybe around 60—men walking on their own adopt what Lucy and I call the old man’s walk, leaning forward slightly, with hands clasped behind their backs. I occasionally practice this myself when walking alone so I will be ready when my time comes.

Gelato and cell
phone are two
The most interesting to watch are the teenagers and young adults, who perhaps have the most at stake when it comes to making a good impression. This is their chance to strengthen alliances, make new ones and impress the opposite sex. In a way, the passeggiata of young people reminds me middle and high school dances, charged with youthful energy, enthusiasm and passion. Of course this event takes place every night, so the stakes are not so high and the participants more relaxed, experienced and comfortable.

Giovanna Del Negro, in her book The Passeggiata and Culture in an Italian Town, writes that this is “a socially sanctioned opportunity for flirting and courting.” Parents approve, she says, because “the rhetorical skills learned in the piazza become useful in the marriage market, the work place and the complex politics of the town.”

The passeggiata is the place where many romantic relationships begin, according to Mari Accardi, who grew up in Sicily and is now a tour guide with Rick Steves. “A boy may send some glances toward a girl, and if she is interested, she sends some back. Then it's up to the boy to take the next step, to say ciao, ask for her name and see if she wants to get a coffee.

Though I love watching the passeggiata, it sometimes makes me wistful and envious of those who have grown up in Italy. Had I been raised here, maybe I would have developed better social skills as a youth, and then I could be more like the old men who sit around chatting, arguing and playing cards with their lifelong friends. Or at least by now I would have mastered the old man walk.

1 comment:

  1. Such a pleasant activity. Great writing Paul. I thought the comment about the youth having the most at stake was particularly insightful on your part. Great pictures as well.



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