Monday, 13 August 2007

Italy: holidays, media, politics

We've just got back from a couple of weeks in southern Italy, where we caught the tail-end of the heatwave and had the best holiday weather we've experienced in ages. We've been to Italy nearly every summer for about 20 years now, ever since H. lured me away from my love-affair with the Greek islands: after visits to the Lakes and Tuscany, we returned a number of times to southern Sardinia, and for the past 5 years we've been to Puglia.

Apart from half a term's evening classes, my Italian is self-taught, but I can get by, and I can just about make sense of the local media. Buying a newspaper in a foreign country is always difficult: you don't want to be caught with the local equivalent of the Telegraph or Mail. In my younger, more radical days I used to buy l'Unita, now the mouthpiece of the Democratici di Sinistra, but formerly the organ of its predecessor the PCI, the only communist party it was cool for us Marxism Today types to support. Now I tend to read the more mainstream left-of-centre la Repubblica, though I was disconcerted to read recently (in Ian Thomson's superb biography of Primo Levi) about the paper's 'suspect anti-Semitism'.

Both newspapers, and the Italian press generally, are notable for their in-depth news coverage and for cultural sections that put the British broadsheets to shame. By contrast, Italian TV remains uniformly dire: wall-to-wall dubbed US imports interspersed with 'light entertainment' shows untouched by any concern with gender equality. My favourite - because it's so awful - is Rai Uno's daily summer breakfast show, Una Mattina Estate. A glamorous female presenter introduces a succession of male 'experts' in suits and ties, who stand behind little tables (reminiscent of Nationwide or Blue Peter circa 1972) and discourse about holiday health risks, or kitchen equipment, or the fruit or vegetable of the day (I've watched whole programmes dedicated to onions), before the weather forecast is read out by an air force colonel in full dress uniform.

The best books in English for understanding contemporary Italy, especially its complex political landscape, are those by Paul Ginsborg, a British historian who teaches at Florence University and is close to the DS. Italy and its Discontents is an ideal introduction to recent Italian history, while his History of Contemporary Italy traces the roots of the present situation back to World War Two and its aftermath. Ginsborg's book about Berlusconi is also recommended, though I found his recent foray into the theory of political activism, The Politics of Everyday Life, rather bland and disappointing. For a less academic and more popular survey of Italian life, you could do worse than look up the writings of my college near-contemporary Tim Parks, who went to Italy to teach English, married an Italian and stayed on. Italian Neighbours and An Italian Education offer fascinating insights into daily life in modern Italy, while A Season with Verona charts the often alarming experience of following Parks' local soccer team.

Both Ginsborg and Parks discuss the divide that persists between north and south in Italy. This year we met an otherwise charming family from Bologna whose views of their southern compatriots were characterised by hoary stereotypes. We've always found southern Italians warm and courteous: and their habit of greeting you with 'Salve' rather than 'Ciao' makes those school Latin lessons seem a little less irrelevant.

Arrivederci, Italia. A presto.

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