When I arrived in Bologna, one of my first cultural experiences was on the city’s bus system.
After getting on a local bus and quickly realizing I was headed in the wrong direction, I lugged my bags off and wondered whether anyone would scream at me about the fare I never paid. But no one did. In fact, as I observed the locals, they rarely paid for their rides.
In my last blog post, I referenced Tobias Jones’ Dark Heart of Italy. In the book, Jones states that, “Italy’s moral minority always complains…that no one in Italy is ever, ever punished for anything: ‘nobody pays’…(they) complain bitterly and incessantly about the furbi – the ‘cunning ones’ – who appear to bend and break the law at will, without ever facing consequences.”
The problem with this system, as Tobias alludes, is that because no one is ever punished for their offenses, it creates a vicious cycle of abuse that is apparent across Italian culture, from Berlusconi to the city streets.
When I finally arrived close to my apartment, I asked for directions from an elderly local man, who inevitably told me, “Just take the bus, no one pays.”
After nearly two weeks of riding the busses here, I’ve honestly rarely paid for a ride. The ‘furbi’ might praise me, but this cycle of abuse comes with a price and I’m not convinced Italy can afford to pay it.
Given the apparent nutritional habits of the Bolognese, one wonders at their slender figures. Walking and cycling for transport, as well as consuming more fresh produce and less packaged food, may have something to do with it, but surely these alone are not enough to counteract all the pizza, pasta and gelato. I suspect a cultural factor may also be at play.
What I think I’ve noticed is the absence of the “more is better” culture prevalent in most of the U.S. For instance, compared to the American option to super-size, in a Bolognese gelateria you have the option of “piccolo,” which would be an unacceptably small portion for most Americans.
I believe this variation stems from a different relationship with food: Italians demand and consume superior products. Returning to the example of gelato, daily production with fresh and natural ingredients renders a real food with a genuinely appreciable flavor. We can compare this to mass-produced, highly-processed American ice cream, where the desire to eat is mostly motivated by the effects of sugar and fat on the brain’s reward center. The former is an aesthetic experience; the latter is simply stimulation, and hence conducive to excess.
Thus, I suspect American eating often falls into the category of reward-seeking behavior, whereas the Italians have a more purposeful, conscious, and sophisticated approach. The interesting point here is that a cultural factor appears to be compensating for the failure of homeostatic control to regulate the consumption of a highly palatable food.
You can learn a lot about a culture by how people spend their weekends. This past weekend, we took the local train to Rimini beach. The train, as rustic as it was, was cheap, ran on time and with almost every seat taken. After a short, relaxing, scenic journey on the train, we arrived in Rimini and were quickly shown the way to the beach by a helpful taxi driver and droves of bathing suit clad people. I marveled at how easily people are able to hop on a train at a moments notice to leave city life for a relaxing day at the beach. The country is set up for this kind of leisure, and getting there is half the fun. In comparison, a trip to the beach from DC would include fighting bumper-to-bumper traffic for 4-6 hours – just the thought of it makes me tense.
The Italians I encountered, especially on my beach trip, were incredibly helpful. From giving detailed directions, to teaching me vital Italian words like the names of the toppings on my pizza, or even going as far as bridging the language barrier by retrieving a mystery ingredient from the restaurant kitchen. Italians seem to go the extra mile to ensure that their customers are happy. But it goes one step further – they don’t even seem to care if you are a customer, they want to make sure you as a person are happy.
My Rimini beach experience got me thinking: Has American culture become so obsessed with being successful, that we have forgotten that customer service is about people? Have we forgotten how to relax and be happy?
Who is best placed to give a perspective on a country? An outsider or someone who has lived there all their life?
Perhaps the best perspective of all comes from a resident who has travelled and experienced other cultures and seen their own country from a distance.
It was a pleasure to welcome Miriam Pelusi to our class. I know her from studying on an MA program in Leeds and it was lovely to meet up on her home territory (she now lives in Rimini but had attended Bologna University as an undergraduate).
Like several members of the class, Miriam has read Tobias Jones’s The Dark Heart of Italy, and she introduced what she described as her ‘old new country’.
She spoke ofItalians’ love of food, football, family and fashion and addressed current concerns over gagging of the media.
On the subject of media, she was concerned about the representation of women’s bodies on television – and of the general lack of discussion of this issue (though she’s not alone).
For a more detailed account, you can see Miriam’s paper in English on the class wiki page.
I hope to see you again, Miriam. If not in Bologna, then perhaps in Yorkshire.
The visit showed the strength of global systems and standards, driven from the US. We saw something of the complex map of Europe – many countries, many languages, a network combining wholly-owned businesses and affiliates and a blurring of regional boundaries (at one point, I noted Greece linked with countries of the Middle East).
We looked at different models of communications coordination across Europe designed to suit a client’s best interests and avoid duplication and conflict.
We discussed the role of the public relations consultant and considered the enduring place of media relations in the public relations toolkit.
We also gained an insight into some Italian assets. Client relationships appeared exceptionally long-lasting, and Italy’s strength in areas like design, food and fashion were apparent.
Milan makes a statement. It’s a historic city that remains an important commercial centre – and one of Europe’s grandest cities. We noted the willingness of people on the street to help us find our way, switching easily into English to do so.
Nearly everywhere I go and look in this ancient city of Bologna, graffiti is sprayed across the walls of parks and monuments, to the insides of busses and even the outside of my apartment.
Most of the time, these graffiti are words in Italian; other times, works of art, and occasionally, one might even notice a few English words spray-painted.
Tobias Jones discusses the graffiti across Italy in his book on Italian culture, The Dark Heart of Italy. While I don’t know what most all of the graffiti has to say in this city, Jones notes that one can often tell a lot about a city’s political undertones through its graffiti. But why leave all this up?
Especially in a country so focused on aesthetics and tourism, it seems almost ironic and perhaps even detrimental to leave this graffiti up throughout the city.
But, perhaps, in this country where media and politics are tightly under the control of one man, citizens are left with no choice but to voice their opinion on the walls, for everyone to hear.
Italy is well known for its food, but I’m finding the culture surrounding the food to be even more interesting. The first thing I noticed about the food in Italy is the freshness of the ingredients. I didn’t even know that American pasta was lacking in freshness until I tried the pasta here. I’m also noticing how regional the dishes are. Pizza is done so differently in Rome than it is in Bologna. And within Bologna each restaurant has its own take on pasta bolognese (also known simply as ragu within Bologna).
But most interesting to me is the culture surrounding the act of eating a meal. As an American working professional, I tend to eat lunch at my office desk, while trying to type with one hand. I always feel there is no time to socialize with my friends, family and coworkers during the week. But in Italy, meal time is a celebrated event. Virtually all stores and offices close between the hours of noon and 3 or 4, and during this time you will find Italians dining together in one of the many restaurants and cafes. After work, cafes once again fill up for happy hour, but unlike in America, drinks come with tantalizing aperitivos, or small bites, which Italians share over conversation. Kwintessential, an intercultural communication site gives a great overview of the art of eating Italian food.
From a communication perspective, (since that is what we’re here to study) after a few days of partaking in this tradition, I am finding the food culture to be an important communication tool. From what I’ve seen over these last few weeks, these shared meals seem to facilitate relationships and trust much more quickly and deeply than those in the U.S. So, partly because its fun, and partly because its useful, I’m going to take a tip from the Italians and try to export this delicious and satisfying social culture to my U.S. life.