Why Italians are so proud of – and yet unhappy with – their own country

Veteran journalist John Hooper shares his observations on Italians and life in Italy – a country where 'what you see is rarely what you get.'

Courtesy of John Hooper
'There is an intense conservatism about the Italians,' says Economist correspondent John Hooper, and 'a generalized distrust.'

John Hooper, Rome correspondent for The Economist and The Guardian, has lived in Italy for more than 20 years – long enough, he says, to understand that Italians today don't want to see their country change too much. Yet many of them are also deeply frustrated by its lack of progress.

Can a country unwilling to let of its traditions – everything from the primacy of its cuisine to the dominance of its churches – learn new ways?

Hooper recently answered questions from Monitor books editor Marjorie Kehe on his new book, The Italians, an exploration of the country’s character and contradictions.

Q. What's the biggest misconception most outsiders have about Italy and the Italians?

There are quite a few, but if I had to pick one I think I would say the idea that Italians are just a happy-go-lucky bunch who whistle and sing their way through life with not care in the world. They unquestionably prize life, enjoy living it and relish the pleasures it brings. But they are also a very pragmatic and cautious people – great savers, for example. There is an intense conservatism about the Italians, born of their historic experience of radical change (which has seldom been for the better) and a generalized distrust that is one of the biggest obstacles to social cohesion.

Q. Italy has gone so rapidly from being a largely homogeneous society to becoming a more diverse one. Is this going to mean major changes for the culture?

I suspect this is going to depend largely on where Italy positions itself on the scale that has multiculturalism at one extreme and more or less mandatory integration at the other. In Britain, which has chosen the multicultural route, the effects of immigration have been considerable: we often joke that chicken tikka masala has become the British national dish. My feeling is that Italy will stop a long way short of that. And for various reasons.

First of all, there is the Italians' understandable pride in their cultural achievements and a certain reluctance, though it is diminishing among the young, to experiment with foreign ways of doing things: I know even quite sophisticated upper middle-class Italians who flatly refuse to eat anything but Italian food.

Secondly, there is a very strong identification between Italy's national identity and Roman Catholicism, which leads for example to crucifixes being hung in schoolrooms and even many police station and government office. That could make it very difficult for Italians to find a modus vivendi with Muslims in particular. What is more, the feeling of wanting to "defend Christian values" has almost certainly been reinforced by recent events in the Middle East, notably the spread of ISIS.

Q. What's the biggest change you've seen in Italy in the years you've been living there?

I think I would turn that question round and say that what has struck me more than anything is how little has changed in the 20 years since I first came to the country to work as a correspondent.

Changes in attitudes towards women, for example, which were taking place in Spain in the 1980s are only just beginning to take place in Italy. I find it very surprising, for example, that almost without exception the words for jobs that carry responsibility and authority still only have masculine case endings, so that a female lawyer is not an abogada, as in Spain, but an avvocato.

The educational system has much the same problems it did 20 years ago – only now are the authorities insisting that professors should leave their jobs when they get to the age of 70.The state owned RAI TV and radio network remains a battleground for completing factions in which political considerations usually count for more than program-making criteria.

And so on. Italy is nevertheless an astonishing country and it is occasionally capable of making very abrupt changes of direction. It may be that we have seen, with the appointment of its young prime minister, Matteo Renzi, the beginning of just such a period of change. I hope so.

Q. What's the most serious challenge Italy now faces?

To find a way to become a modern, meritocratic, market economy, capable of competing with the other member states of the Eurozone and making a success of its membership.

Q. Most of us non-Italians think we would love to live in Italy but you cite research showing that overall Italians are quite dissatisfied with life in their own country. Why? What's the source of their unhappiness?

It’s economic. The economy has barely grown since the turn of the century. GDP per capita in real terms is back to its level in 1998. People who get poorer become unhappier. But among young people especially there is also deep-seated dissatisfaction with the persistence of the culture of raccommandazioni – the awarding of jobs on the basis of family and other connections rather than through fair competition.

Q. How about you? Have you enjoyed living there? More or less than Spain?

Italy is a journalist’s paradise – a news mine.  It would have been impossible not to have it enjoyed my professional life in Italy. But, having said that, I have not enjoyed having to deal with so many bad news stories. It is depressing to have to write constantly about an economy that fails to grow and a society that refuses to change and, until very recently, a large part of what I have written for The Economist would fit that description.

Leaving aside work, though, living in Italy has been an endlessly fascinating experience. It is a country in which what you see is rarely what you get – it is much more deceptive and secretive and idiosyncratic than people think (which is a central theme of my book). Spain or Italy? Impossible to say. My wife expressed the dilemma to perfection when she was asked the same question.

“Italy enchants the heart,” she said. “Spain grabs you by the soul.”

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