italy 4: italy and the italian … young country in an ancient nation

This and that about the Italian

Though Italy is a Catholic country and 90 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, only 18 percent are practising Catholics. Their relationship with the Church is limited to that of attending family events and the local priests blessing their homes during Easter. When faced with a problem, the Italians do not turn to religion to resolve their problems. Their  strongest social structure and support system is the ‘family’. A fountain head of love and affection, the family is also the ultimate home and source for jobs and money. It always comes through, in good times and bad. Italian families get together often and at all times remain in contact. To be a noble family in Italy one needs to be related to the Pope. There are now only four to five such families left in the country. A predominant characteristic in the Italian personality is ‘charm’. It is a way of life. And did you know that Pinocchio was in fact a character from Italian fables.

Government is the largest employer in the country. The average salary of the civil servant after taxes [in 2002] is US$ 1,100 paid 14 times a year; the two extra salaries being bonus and for Christmas. By law all government servants have to take 15 days off in summer. The average salary for white collar jobs is US$ 1,300 and they get paid 18 times a year. Southern Italy is more traditional with fewer numbers of working women. The average income of the Italian home is US$ 2,000 and the average size of an apartment is 100 sq. metres which costs approximately US$ 250,000. Faced with housing shortages, country houses outside the cities which often function as second homes, have been divided into apartments behind their outer conserved historical walls. Seventy percent of Italians own their own homes. They, however, hardly go to banks for money as the latter offer 10-year mortgages and extremely high interest rates. Children usually live with their parents till they are married, after which both the families contribute to giving them the deposit for the loan or making available an apartment for the newly married couple to move into.

With high labour and transportation costs, food is very expensive in Italy. Italians rarely use appliances and do not eat out much, buying their groceries in bulk and directly from farms instead. They also seldom travel abroad for holidays, restricting vacations to within the country. The greatest expense for the Italian is in fact clothing! Making a good impression is a necessity. Ingrained since childhood, once they leave their homes, even if it is to just buy daily groceries, or to post letters at the post office, the Italian is on display, dressed in their best rags. The most famous designers in the world are, therefore, naturally, Italian.

Italy currently has the lowest birth rate in Europe along with Germany—1.27 children per family. This is the result of two laws that changed Italian life forever. The legalisation of divorce in 1974 [on condition that a couple had been legally separated for three years] and the legalisation of abortion in 1981. Both these laws were against the very fabric of Catholicism and when legalised drove the Pope furious. However, they were put before the people in the form of a referendum. Northern Italy voted for it, whilst Southern Italy voted against. The majority vote resulted in the laws being included in the constitution. There is no capital punishment or life imprisonment in Italy. The longest sentence is 23 years.

Italians have a great respect for the dead. Their cemeteries are always well-kept and decorated. The sick and ailing are brought home to die. There are no funeral parlours in the country. Black and white posters are put up all over town to announce a death. Within 24 hours of the burial ceremony people visit the home of the deceased, paying their respects, starting with the priest and then followed with friends and relatives. The lady of the house remains awake throughout, playing vigil and host. In small towns, processions accompany the coffin on its way to the cemetery. No one talks. The only sound being the shuffling of feet. The family members then throw sand into the grave. Everybody, thereafter, goes back to their own respective homes. Death is one of the very few occasions in Italian life where no food is served.

All Saints Day, also known as Day of the Souls, falls on the 2nd of November in the Italian calendar. It is dedicated to those who died during the past year. In Southern Italy, widows traditionally wear black and do not remarry. Widowers wear a rope band around the upper part of their shoulders for 40 days and usually do remarry. Northern Italy is more modern with a mourning period of only two years. Till recently, there was no concept of donation of internal organs in Italy. It was only after Nicholas Green, a seven-year old Anglo-American boy, was shot down by bandits in Italy and his mother gave his internal organs away, that a law was passed which automatically donates all internal organs unless a card is found on the body which specifically forbids one to do so. And like often happens in life, from a negative painful event, a new positive beginning was promised.


My tour director, Colleen, taught me some Italian words today: arrivederci, goodbye, till I return to your arms again :); pronto bello [to a man] and pronto bella [to a woman] translated means Hi beautiful!; Pronto bellisimo, Hi, most sweet one; and La dolce vita, the sweet life. Patsietsa is patience, patience; Buon giorno, good morning right up to afternoon. Bonno serra, good evening; scuzi, and ciao ciao the every day, everytime, for every moment greeting. Italians, however, do not converse merely with words. The hands are just as important. For ‘No’ tilt your head, move it slightly and make a little kiss in the air. For good bye, curl hands towards oneself. Starving??? take your fist and hit the side of your abdomen. The food is delicious! your finger held to your cheek and turned. Insults. Please note never ever anything about ‘mamma’. She is above all and every thing.

And my journey begins

Today I leave for Southern Italy. It is very scenic. Rolling hills covered with lush green Mediterranean shrubs, cypress trees, spring flowers everywhere. The economy of Italy is focused more on the north of the country. That’s where all the industries are, with Milan as the commercial and industrial hub. Rome is the bureaucratic centre. Southern Italy’s main contribution could be defined as being more of a traditional, cultural one. It has given Italy its most delicious pastas, romantic evergreen songs, Sophia Loren, Al Capone and beautiful cameos made from shell. Casanova came from the north.

The story of St. Benedict and St. Valentine

Benedict, father of modern monasticism, was born in 480 AD. Sent to Rome from Siena, he soon became disgusted with the materialism of Rome and left to become a hermit and established Italy’s very first monastery and order in Monte Cassino based on the principle of “Living in poverty, obedience, work and prayer, and thence human weaknesses of greed, power and desire will be no more.”

Apart from prayer, the early monks also developed mediums through which Christianity could be kept alive. In addition to being religious centres, the monasteries, therefore, functioned as artistic schools as well; the Benedictine Monastery perfecting miniature art. In 1944, the original monastery was destroyed during the four battles of World War II between the Germans and the allied forces. Having won, the allies subsequently rebuilt the abbey. The Germans had used the monastery as their base and had removed the original Benedictine artworks to have more space, unknowingly and fortunately protecting them from the ravages of war and time.

En route, in Caserta I see the castle built by Charles II of the Bourbon family. Designed on the lines of Versailles in France, the castle has 1,200 rooms, 17,000 windows, 34 staircases and 1 bathroom. The mayor of Naples today uses it for social and official functions.

Terni’s claim to fame is its 17th Century basilica where the bones of St. Valentine are enshrined. Born in 175 AD, he was already the bishop of Terni by the age of 20 and performing miracles. Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor, became furious with him for spreading Christianity and had him arrested. St. Valentine was asked to repent but he refused upon which he was brought to the Piazza del Popolo [people’s square] in Rome and beheaded. It was only later, during the time of the Popes, that his bones were discovered and the basilica built to house them. His association with love goes back to young people wanting him to marry them; he used to perform the first ever Christian weddings in this church. 🙂


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