current issue of Ambassador magazine contains my photos and article on La
Passaggiata. You can read the text below, or enlarge the pages from the magazine
and read it that way.
think we stepped into the middle of a parade,” my wife exclaimed. Lucy and I
were taking an evening stroll in the city of Pompei in the region of Campania,
and we found the streets and squares packed with locals wandering around while going
no place in particular. It was our first experience with a famous Italian event
that exists in every decent sized Italian city.
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passeggiata is a slow, gentle stroll through the pedestrian parts of the
center of any city, usually beginning just before dusk. It marks the end of the
workday, grants a breath of fresh air and allows people to chat with cousins, friends
and neighbors. On weekends whole families walk together, sometimes splitting
apart for smaller conversations and then joining again. People greet friends,
swap gossip, share the latest news.
the Covid-19 virus has put a damper on this Italian tradition, restrictions have
eased in recent months, and the passeggiata has returned—with mandated
restrictions, such as increased personal space and the use of masks for close
conversations. If anything, the months of isolation have increased the Italians’
appreciation of this social rite.
love for life, sunshine and the beauty of the outdoors is even stronger now,”
said Elena Benvenuti, a private tour guide in Lucca. “During the quarantine,
the few privileged people who were allowed to go out to walk their dogs were
ready at the door before their pets, even in the bad weather.”
the passeggiata is rarely listed among the “must see” sights in Italy, many
tourists miss experiencing it, unaware it even exists.
is astounding,” Lucy said. “How did we miss this up to now? It’s like a multi-generational
town party. It reminds me of one of my quilts, but where each patch is a
person, woven together into one human fabric.”
speaking of fabric, Italians know how to dress up. Even the most fashion-challenged
person must appreciate these daily sidewalk shows. As we walked around in our
blue jeans and nondescript sweatshirts, I couldn’t help but appreciate these
well-dressed and coiffed italiani.
the typical passeggiata, clothes are stylish but not garish. Colors are
coordinated; styles are modern, classy and form-fitting, never faded or
sagging. Sweatpants and sweatshirts are virtually non-existent. Yet people
dress in a way that looks natural, effortless, which brings to mind the courtly
mannerisms cited by fifteenth century Italian count Baldassarre Castiglione,
who served in several royal courts.
his book Il Libro del Cortegiano—The Book of the Courtesan—Castiglione gave
advice on how to be a gentleman. He even invented a word to describe his ideal,
sprezzatura, which means the studied carelessness that conceals art and
presents everything said and done as something brought about without
laboriousness and almost without giving it any thought. Author Dianne Hales has
explained that the closest English translation “is nonchalance, which fails to
capture the behind-the-scenes preparation and hard work that underlies the
ability to carry off things that are exquisite and well done—be it a duel,
debate or dance, executed with such ease that it inspires the greatest wonder.”
This is the essence of another Italian expression bella figura, which means to
make a good impression, literally present a good figure.
has been described by fashion writer Johnny Liu as ‟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.”
never be that Italian,” I told Lucy. Though I grew up in America, I have since acquired
Italian citizenship and purchased a house in Tuscany—yet I know to my Italian
friends I’ll always be considered American. “Are they just born knowing how to
dress and look sharp and beautiful? I think I’m missing that gene.”
it’s obvious that they’ve learned it while growing up,” she said. “I’m sure
they pay plenty of attention to the way they look and dress. But we’re from the
state of Washington. We’ve made the grunge look famous.”
a passeggiata goes far beyond simple fashions. Old people walk slowly, faces
lined with character and experience. I can imagine that the old man I see might
have been, one hundred years earlier, my own great grandfather, walking along
with hands behind his back, or playing checkers with another old timer on a
instantly sense that something is fundamentally different about these people.
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. Middle-aged women
walk with arms linked to their aging mothers to offer both physical and
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 doesn’t want everyone else to hear.
is also possible to see middle-aged men with arms linked to their fathers, and
even occasionally a young teen boy linked with parents, 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.
most people walk in groups, those walking by themselves seem perfectly
comfortable. At a certain age—maybe the mid-sixties—men walking alone adopt
what Lucy and I call the “old man walk,” leaning forward slightly, with hands
clasped behind their backs. Body language specialists suggest this posture
demonstrates a self-confident person who has lived a satisfied and fulfilled
life. I occasionally practice this myself when walking alone so that I can look
naturally when doing it in public.
the teenagers interact during the passeggiata is another fascinating
experience. Groups meet, mix and split into different groups. Rarely is anyone
walking alone, and if they are, they’re probably on a cell phone, planning a
rendezvous. Teenagers and young adults perhaps have the most at stake when it
comes to making la bella figura. This is their chance to strengthen
friendships, make new ones and impress the opposite sex.
a way, the passeggiata of young people reminds me of school dances, charged
with youthful energy, enthusiasm and passion, a socially sanctioned opportunity
for flirting and courtship. Parents approve because the interpersonal skills
gained are useful in the workplace and the complex politics of life. Of course,
this event takes place every night, so the stakes are not so high and the
participants more relaxed, experienced and comfortable.
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.”
at those men sitting together around that table,” Lucy said. “You should go
join them. You look Italian. You’d probably fit right in.”
I wish.” I replied. “I probably couldn’t understand their dialect, and I get
lost in social groups even when the men are speaking English. But I do envy
them. If I had been raised here, maybe I would have developed better social
skills, and then I could be comfortable sitting around chatting, arguing,
playing cards with lifelong friends.”
at least by now you would have mastered the old man walk,” Lucy said.
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You can see all of the current issue of Ambassador here.