A few weeks ago, someone at Viking Books asked me if I would be willing to review John Hooper’s book The Italians on my blog.
John Hooper is one of the most talented and experienced journalists living and working in Rome. He writes for “The Guardian” and “The Economist”; he has worked in Madrid and Berlin, and has covered conflicts in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland, Biafra and Algeria. His book “The Spaniards” published in 1986 won the Allen Lane award for a best first work of non-fiction in 1987.
So I immediately said “yes,” eager to read what Hooper had to say about Italy and Italians.
Hooper was posted to Rome in the early 90s, around the time I arrived in Italy. For many years we shared the same coffee bar, the “Bar Doria” at Via Della Gatta 1. When I would go down for my morning cappuccino or a quick panino and I would see him there, usually sitting and reading something as he ate (an un-Italian habit he explains in the book), I would tiptoe past and say respectfully “Oh Hello, John” not wanting to disturb a great journalist at work.
I see him as “Super Hooper” a Fast Train who gets the story, gets it right and arrives first – I guess that would be high-speed Freccia Rossa since we are in Italy, and by comparison I feel as though I am the frenetic, juggling journalist mamma—The Little Engine That Could—who would eventually huff and puff her way over the mountain of news to arrive at the destination. “I think I can. I think I can.”
On occasion Super Hooper and I have ended up on the same story, in the courtroom in Perugia covering the Amanda Knox trial, for example. I remember the first time he re-tweeted me, I felt honored and thanked him.
When I received a copy of the book, I feared it might be the usual Anglo romp through the Tuscan countryside, reinforcing the British-American love affair with all things Tuscan. It also occurred to me that it could be a quick, journalistic sketch of Italy emphasizing the easy clichés. Instead, as soon as I began to read The Italians I realized it was something much better. John Hooper has done his homework researching Italy’s history, geography, languages, art and traditions in detail. His analysis of politics, social and cultural history of the last 20 years is full of lively anecdotes but Hooper has also found studies and statistics to back up his points. For anyone wanting a sweeping, honest view of modern Italy, “The Italians” is a must-read.
I asked Hooper if we could meet to discuss this book and he quickly accepted. He managed to squeeze me between interviews for important papers like The Financial Times and The New York Times.
John Hooper is a tall man, with an aquiline nose, a goatee-style beard and mustache. He has an air about him that reminds me of an elegant, Spanish nobleman. His writing style, however, is very English, cogent and pithy with an occasional lovely turn of phrase.
I love the way he describes the Italian penchant for positive hyperbole as the “Italian talent for dusting life with a thick layer of stardust” or his comment on the nebulous state of so many questions in Italy, “Imprecision is, on the whole, highly prized. Definition and categorization are, by contrast, suspect. For things to remain flexible, they need to be complicated or vague, and preferably both.”
Hooper told me he thought long and hard about what sort of book he wanted to write about Italy because “it is a crowded field.” He finally concluded, “there is no one book that you could read before you arrive here to work or study that would give you clues to understanding Italy and Italians,” so he set out to write it.
Many of the Italian habits, traits and characteristics that Hooper describes in The Italians I have written about on this blog, but interestingly we come at them from different perspectives. Hooper is married to a British journalist; I am married to an Italian university professor and have raised three children in Italy, which sometimes leaves me neck-deep just trying to survive Italian life, whereas John maintains a detached, critical eye allowing him to discern nuances in Italian life and style.
I had fun comparing my experiences to his as I read the book. For example, Hooper points out something that I have noticed but never written about, the Italian use of verbal rather than physical violence.
“…there is plenty of violent behavior in Italian life—mafia killings, football hooliganism and a high level of domestic violence against women. But physical aggression is often replaced by verbal abuse, and verbal insults seldom lead to physical aggression. Knowing this, Italians will often say to one another things that, in other societies, would cause punches to be thrown or knives to be drawn.”
Hooper is so right. An example is one of the cameraman in the AP Television office, Paolo. Paolo is an amiable guy and a talented cameraman, but he becomes verbally aggressive behind the wheel of his car. Once out on a story, a car cut him off. At the next traffic light Paolo pulled up beside the offending driver, rolled down his window and said, “se lo fai ancora ti strappo er core e me lo magno.” – translated from Roman dialect that would be, “if you do that again I am going to rip out your heart and eat it.” Yikes! If someone said that in the US, probably the person in the other car would pull out a gun and shoot them. But it is typical of what Hooper is referring to—verbal aggression is chosen over physical violence.
(My Italian-American son also learned at a young age the fine art of the verbal insult, especially when defending his Mamma. See blog post: “Nico’s Traffic Rules”)
Hooper explores at length the Italian attitudes towards cheating which are, to say the least, very flexible. He describes how leading industrialist, former Chairman of Ferrari, Luca Cordero de Montezemolo, bragged to University students how he was the “world champion at copiatura” (copying).
Last year when my 13-year-old daughter took her 3-day “esame di terza media” a national exam taken at the end of junior high in Italy, I picked her up and in the car she bragged that it had been an easy day for her because there was the English language essay. “And when I was finished I wrote Giovanni’s for him because he was freaking out and couldn’t write anything,” she added.
“What?” I nearly shouted, “You wrote Giovanni’s English essay for him? Oh my God, how could you do that, they will kick you out, and they will fail you.” I blurted out. To make a long story short, for about five minutes I thought somehow I should punish her, report her, and do something to teach her that she had done something wrong. Then I slipped back into Italian mode and I started feeling rather puffed up with pride.
Hooper also chronicles the enormous interest, obsession really, that Italians have in how people look.
“….Italians not only want their politicians to dress immaculately; they and their media are endlessly scrutinizing what they call – using the English word—their look, the way they dress, in a search for clues to their true personalities. I remember a comparison that covered an entire page of one of the national dailies between il look favored by Silvio Berlusconi and that projected by his then rival for prime ministership, Romano Prodi. It began with their ties (Berlusconi stuck rigidly to a white bird’s-eye pattern on dark blue, while Prodi favored regimental-style diagonal stripes in various colors), and progressed by stages to their choice of underpants. Prodi apparently wore roomy boxer shorts, while Berlusconi favored clingy briefs. The source of this information about their underwear was not disclosed.”
The way one looks is part of the whole “bella figura”, “brutta figura” culture in Italy – the need to appear beautiful and never lose face. In his book, Hooper explains the obsession with dressing and some of the “rules,” including the necessity for men to wear long sleeve shirts with cuffs under their suit jackets even in the steaming summer heat in Rome.
I asked him if after so many years in Italy, he also obeys the dress code, “I am careful about the way I dress,” Hooper answered showing me his shirt cuffs and then pointing under the table to his pant legs explaining for a man in Italy to show skin between their socks and their pants cuff when they sit down is “somewhere between blasphemy and adultery.”
But, as Hooper pointed out, “bella figura” is much more than about the way one dresses, it is about not losing face. I’ve also written about that in my blog post: “Espresso, Corruption, Murder….and the Bella Figura.”
Hooper dedicates an entire chapter to women in Italy, something I have written about extensively in this blog (See blog posts “The Italian Super-Mamma” and “Not the Dolce Vita.”). He notes, “whatever else may have changed, the cult of the mamma in Italy has shown itself to be extraordinarily durable.” The problem that I am finding is that many young Italian women I know actually do not want to become Mammas because it is too hard to work and deal with children in Italy.
Perhaps the most insightful and discouraging chapter in the book is on the family where Hooper explores the Italian habit of children remaining at home well into their 30s. The children are referred to in Italian as bamboccioni –great, big children.
According to Hooper,
“The equanimity (or enthusiasm) with which Italian parents contemplate the prospect of their children remaining at home raises the intriguing question of whether it is not another reason for Italy’s increasing tendency to gerontocracy. By keeping children at home—and, in many cases, out of the labor market—parents are consciously or unconsciously reducing the natural pressure that would otherwise be exerted on their generation to move aside in favor of younger men and women. The bamboccioni are young, but not hungry. Since they do not have to find the rent for a flat or pay for their own meals, they also have fewer incentives for taking a job that is not commensurate with their qualifications – or aspirations.”
Hooper describes a concept “amoral familism” used by a sociologist in the 1950s to describe farmers in the Basilicata region of southern Italy. The idea was that “loyalty to their immediate family transcended any considerations of right and wrong…” Hooper explains that some thinkers have now applied that concept to all of Italy noting that former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi “has been the paladin of a new brand of amoral familism. From the outset, his speeches—rich in allusions to the family—carried an implicit message: that his listeners had a right to advance their family’s interests while paying only limited heed to the needs of society.”
Hooper goes on to note, “As the Italian family declines, there is a risk that amoral familism will dissolve into simple egocentricity….”
Hooper frequently takes advantages of a wide variety of words in Italian to describe Italian habits. Here is an example the various ways that Italians get away with breaking laws,
“the most comprehensive is the amnistia, which extinguishes both the crime and the sentence.” “Since 1990, there has been a preference for the indulto (pardon), which squashes the sentence but not the crime.” Finally, “one of the reasons Italians are so willing to try their luck at flouting the planning regulations (and dodging taxes) has been the existence of yet another from of legal forgiveness. This is the condono. Every so often the government of the day will approve a measure that allows Italians to pay a relatively small fine in return for having their debts to the state wiped our or getting official sanction for an illegal conversion or building.”
But despite all their difficulties, John Hooper says, “One of the Italians’ most engaging characteristics is their optimism, backed by determination to put their best foot forward in even the most daunting circumstances. It is an important, and delightful, part of what Italy is about.”
After the interview, we left the coffee bar, and walked across Rome’s Piazza del Popolo together. As we chatted, we passed Emiliano Fiacchi a street artist who imitates Michael Jackson who was setting up for his performance in the piazza. (See my Blog Post on Fiacchi: “Dancing through the Economic Crisis in Rome.”) To me Fiacchi demonstrates exactly what Hooper is talking about it –“determination to put their best foot forward in even the most daunting circumstances.”
We reached Piazza Flaminio and I ran to catch the tram home to deal with kids, dog, homework, piano practice and dinner, and Super Hooper headed for his interview with The New York Times.
“I think I can, I think I can.”