Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Reflection on Italy’s traditional evening stroll: La Passeggiata

The 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.

‟I 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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La 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.

Although 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.

“Our 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.”

Because the passeggiata is rarely listed among the “must see” sights in Italy, many tourists miss experiencing it, unaware it even exists.

“This 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.”

And 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.

In 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.

In 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.

Sprezzatura 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.”

“I’ll 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.”

“No, 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.”

But 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 park bench.

I 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 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 doesn’t 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 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.

While 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.

Watching 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.

In 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.

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.”

“Look at those men sitting together around that table,” Lucy said. “You should go join them. You look Italian. You’d probably fit right in.”

“Yeah, 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.”

“Or 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.

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