As time goes by, still reeling from the disappointment of the last Presidential election, I think more and more about moving back to Europe. Unlike many who have threatened an en masse move to Canada, I could do it fairly easily. The perennial dysfunction that has been an Italian trademark since Roman times looks welcoming from afar right now, it even beckons.
Running away is clearly not a solution. On the contrary, staying to make sure positive changes are enacted is the way to go, at least if one still believes in the goodness and fairness of this country. But believing in happy, or just endings, is increasingly more difficult.
Twenty years ago, a jury acquitted OJ Simpson, in the face of overwhelming evidence he was guilty, as I was reminded binge watching “The People vs OJ Simpson” on Netflix over the last two weeks. Last year, millions of people voted for Donald Trump, on the face of blatant incompetence, misogyny and racism. The parallel wasn’t lost on me: people don’t act on what is objective; people act on what they believe, myself included, and making them change their minds is much harder and more complex than just proving something to be true. At this juncture, I am convinced my beliefs are nobler and juster than anyone’s in the Trump camp.
I have never lived before in such a polarized society, and my impulse to decamp to somewhere more familiar stems from fear. I don’t see a way out that doesn’t involve disenfranchisement, a loss of civil liberties at best or violence at worst. I was in England during some of the Thatcher years but I was too wrapped in my young self to take a stand with miners or the unions. I was in Italy during the “Clean Hands” years, when a bunch of courageous magistrates brought to light endemic corruption. I cheered them on but with an Italian resignation that nothing would change.
Italians have lived through a difficult unification, two world wars, mafia wars, corrupt politicians, briberies and endless scandals since the dawn of the Republic. Not one single government has its mandate to the end: some things have changed for the better but change is painfully slow in a society that is endemically selfish. And I use selfish in its positive meaning.
There comes a time, for the individual citizens, when survival trumps everything else. Italians are known for the art of “arrangiarsi”, which loosely translate to “finding a way to get by”, no matter the situation. And hence the shrugging of the shoulders, the digging of the moat around the family unit, the shadow economy of work and services “under the table” and the ability to find lightness in even the direst circumstances.
Walk around any Italian city, of any size, between 7 and 8 pm and you will notice how bars, those establishments that, in the morning, are packed with hurried people downing espressos and croissants standing at the counter, are filled with the same people enjoying aperitivo – a light drink before dinner with whatever munchies are on offer.
Unlike having a drink here in the States, which involves sitting at the bar counter of a restaurant or in a hotel lounge, aperitivo is synonym with spending an hour, or less, with some co-workers to unwind from the day or getting together, always at the last minute, with some friends to catch up before setting towards home for dinner with the family. Sometimes it’s in place of a meal before a movie or theatre. Whatever the reason, or lack of, it is the expression of that Italian need to find joy in the every day which, for better or worse (mostly for the better) is the most beloved Italian trait.
Learning to find that joy is important right now, as important as staying vigilant and outraged.
On presenting the Best Supporting Actress Award last night, Mark Rylance said “Something that women seem to be better at than men: opposing without hatred.”
It is fundamentally true. And so needed right now, in these joyless times.
Top image: Caffe della Pace in Rome