italians and the living room -- 8/21/20

Today's selection -- from La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind by Beppe Severgnini. Italians and their living rooms:

"Fifty years ago, T. S. Eliot wanted to understand what the components of English culture were. The interest is typical of those who have become English but were not born that way. Eliot scribbled down this list: 'Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth-century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar.'

"Three years ago, two American humorists, Rob Cohen and David Wollock, listed '101 Great Reasons to Love Our Country.' They started with freedom, the Constitution of the United States, and apple pie, going on to Times Square, Route 66, Sam Adams beer, Las Vegas, and breast implants, and then threw in Madonna and light switches that actually work.

"Could we compile such a list for Italy? It would be wiser not to, which is why we'll try. My list would include Baroque, knowing the right people, titles, cell phones, abstract nouns, Vespas, deck shoes, parking, sweaters draped over the shoulders, espresso, and the living room. Actually, I'd put the living room first. It's the political and geographical hub of the Italian home. It's the nerve center of Italy's grand design. The country's fate is decided in the living room. Ministries and boardrooms are only there to tidy up the details.

"Twenty-two million households. Twenty-two million living rooms. Some people still call such a room a tinello (eat-in kitchen). The name is out of date, which means it's interesting. It's a diminutive of tino, the container used to carry grapes at harvesttime. Then the name was transferred to the room where the servants ate together. Nowadays, vintages are planned scientifically, domestic help works freelance, and tinello just means the room next to the kitchen. In other words, it's a small dining room. It's too shy to call itself a living room, and too practical to use just for meals.

"In recent years, the eat-in kitchen-cum-living room has edged out the reception room of the better-off (who never used it), and the kitchen of the poor (who used it too much). There's a TV set, a sofa, two armchairs, coffee-table books, cushions, stereo, ornaments, pets, and polemics. The tinello -- vaguely related to the Victorian drawing room, where the lady of the house received visitors -- is no longer a female domain. Modern Italian males tend to take an interest in activities that were traditionally reserved for women, such as arranging the furniture, choosing the drapes and upholstery. Men always have a firm opinion and questionable taste.

"That's another reason why the eat-in kitchen-cum-living room is worth studying. It is the focus of the Italian family, just as the kitchen is the nerve center of the Russian or American household. It's the place where the family talks about everything, all the time, from births to weddings, schools, vacations, expenses, and things to purchase. Children's education begins -- when it does begin -- around a table laid for dinner. When a couple splits up -- which happens quite a lot, especially here in northern Italy -- it is in the tinello that the partners argue, state their points of view, and try to salvage what they can.

"Think about the Italian families you know. Have you noticed how much they talk? Too much, some might say. OK, but at least they talk. In the English-speaking world, many families communicate via adhesive notes on the refrigerator. Everyone has his or her own separate life, and grabs something to eat in between attending courses and meetings at school. Not in Italy. Around an Italian table, people reason, argue, and learn to defend (or change) their points of view.

"This is what the London Observer has to say: 'The idea of regular meals in the company of their parents, let alone spending a minute longer under the familial roof than they have to, seems to be repellent to the average Briton under thirty; seeking independence, self-expression and sexual adventure. [Italians] sit around the table, regularly, once a day or at least several times a week. They learn how to manage a knife and fork, how to behave and how to talk. Consequently, young Italians are, by and large, gracious, well-mannered and fluent.'

"Many Italians might say, 'It's not fair! Foreigners criticize us for our politics, our corruption, and our television, and then praise us just for our family life?' 'Just'? Knowing how to behave in company, behaving politely, and communicating easily are substantial qualities. We should keep them in mind, and be proud of them."



Beppe Severgnini


La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind


Broadway Books


Copyright 2006 by Beppe Severgnini


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