People and Places

Final report from Italy

Posted on March 8, 2014

This has mostly been a work week starting on Monday night with a lovely welcoming dinner at the home of Gabriella Ganugi, President of the Florence University of the Arts (FUA). We spent the subsequent day touring the FAU campus (multiple locations around Florence), meeting with FAU staff, and then joining most of our SNHU study abroad students at a lovely closing dinner at Gonza, FAU’s student-run restaurant. Wednesday was a morning train to Torino and another welcoming dinner, this time with the leadership of St. John’s International University (SJIU). SJIU is an American model institution, licensed in New Hampshire, and I was here to chair a review team for the NH Post-Secondary Education Commission. In that work, I was joined by other NH higher education colleagues from New England College, UNH, and PSEC.

Institutional reviews are incredibly satisfying and challenging activities, as one seeks to really understand an institution, offer it collegial feedback, and think through its strengths and its areas for improvement. The two day process is exhausting in many ways, especially as we try to leave with at least a first draft of the team report. Looking at another institution is also a great way to get a fresh perspective on one’s own school. I think all institutional reviews have three predictable stages: A) the “Oh my Lord, how can this place survive?” phase, in which you see all its problems, B) the “Don’t you just love these people and their commitment and mission?” phase, in which you embrace all its virtues, and C) the “Here’s what we really have here,” balanced view phase in which you hope you achieved the most accurate and objective view possible. The team members spend a lot of time checking in with each other, triangulating and confirming.

 All of what I’ve described becomes a delicious task when it takes place in Italy. One tours a campus in the US and… well, it’s a campus – pretty familiar and predictable. But when your campus is a palace built in 1500 it can pretty darn impressive (All because your brother became pope; the lesson, it’s good to get one of your family members to be pope. Very good.).

And the meals the hosting institution provides are a lot better than what we come to expect from most American dining facilities, as good as they have become. Though there is a downside. I’ve eaten more pasta (the standard “primi” course after starters or “antipasti” and before the main course, the “secondi”) in one week than I have in the last two months.  This was amazing rabbit in Florence:

I may have to pay an overweight fee not on my luggage, but on me. Torino is an especially wonderful place to eat because it is the home of the slow food movement, the attempt to rediscover the old ways of growing and preparing food, supporting local providers, shortening the supply chain, and making better, healthier, tastier meals.

I’d say that a good 60% of all conversation in Italy is, in fact, about food. A lot of discussion about where to eat and who has the best X or Y, then conversation during the meal, analyzing the quality of the dishes, and then post-meal analysis, and then preliminary conversation about where to eat next. Sprinkle in a little competitive analysis about regional cuisine, and that’s a lot of talk time. The rest of conversation seems evenly divided around one’s home town (NY versus Boston is tame stuff in comparison), one’s football team, and politics.

SJIU is just down the road from the training site and home of Juventus, one of the great Italian football teams. At a lunch I said to the head of the Piedmont Chamber of Commerce, “You must be a huge Juventus fan.” He gave me a stricken and indignant look like I had accused him of being a pedophile and said, “I love my team, Torino FC, my father’s team and my grandfather’s team and the team of my son.” Quickly trying to recover, I asked “How are they doing?” and he said “Awful, again. But that does not matter. They are my team.” I get it. I’m from New England. I lived through the Sidney Wicks years of the Celtics, the long championship drought of the Sox, the Bears thrashing of the Pats in the Superbowl (when they finally got there, only to look like pretenders in the face of that ferocious defense), and the sadness of Orr’s departure. It’s easy to be a NE sports fan now – these are the glory years – but it builds character to root for a perpetual loser, especially when you could jump on the glory bandwagon just down the road. Hell with Juventus. I’m with Torino FC too – I had new respect for the guy.

I know its cliché, but Italians really are a passionate people. Some of it may be the soaring musicality of their language, which brings drama to the most mundane of comments. Compared to the wry passive-aggressive wit of the British (no people says “sorry” more often and with less sincerity), Italians seem to live in a largely irony-free zone where one is expected to feel strongly and care deeply. Whether it is about wine, one’s football team, a recently read book, or a 500 year-old painting. The awful economy and dysfunctional political situation here weighs heavily on people (almost everyone we met, especially the young, would love to move to America – they apparently have not heard of the Tea Party or Ted Cruz), but there seems more palpable joy and energy in everyday life than we observe in many other places.

With our visits to Milan and Torino we have over many trips now seen much of Italy, from the far west coast of Sicily to these northern, almost Germanic northern cities. So it was with real pleasure that we earlier this week returned to Florence, for Tuscany remains for us the heart of Italy. Yes, it is swarming with tourists even in this off-season and everyone seems to speak English (unlike in Torino, where English-speakers were rare), but there’s a reason everyone flocks there. It is magical. From its ochre and golden colored renaissance buildings to its hidden piazzas or squares to an embarrassment of artistic and architectural riches.

 If the citizens of Rome or Milan or even Palermo can tell you why their city is best, Florentines actually seem less boastful, because they walk with the self-assurance that Florence really is and needs little defense in its claims.

Even in just a day or two, one can almost become numb to the beauty and art that surrounds one at every turn. Outside our hotel window in the Plaza Republica is a Donatello (not a replica, but the actual sculpture).

On our way to lunch we stroll through the shadow of Brunellischi’s dome, an architectural marvel atop the Duomo. There is every few yards a church that would be the star attraction in almost any other Italian town. There are alleys and squares where Michaelangelo and DaVinci and Caravaggio walked and it’s easy to get lost, but lost in a lovely alluring way. Doing so, one might come upon what is reputed to be the best tripe stand in all of Florence, where they leave out bottles of wine so customers can help themselves for free, for what is a meal without wine?

Milan and Torino have imposing broad avenues and a rational Roman grid system of streets, all lined with gray and often monumental Neo-Classical block-long buildings. They thus seem more Germanic, closer to Berlin, than Italian. Florence, in contrast, seems to reflect the soul of Italy and all of what’s best about it. I actually started to list all the things that Italy is really great at producing and when you think of it, it’s one heck of a list:

• Cars (from Fiat’s cute 500 to the most beautiful, fastest, iconic cars in the world);  • Fashion; • Food; • Wine; • Design in general; • Road bikes; • Gorgeous motorcycles; • Boat building.

It has abundant high skill craft businesses in areas such as ceramics and glass. We met a packaging designer who works for a Napa wine company that needed a special bottle and she tried sourcing it in the US, China, and elsewhere, but could only find a firm capable of creating what she needed in Milan.

Even as I write this, we are hurtling across the countryside on the Eurostar, at almost 200 miles an hour. The train is quiet, smooth riding, has fast wi-fi, and is comfortable. It puts our Acela to shame. It’s a remarkable place.

A taxi driver, bemoaning Italy’s current economic and political mess, said, “We could be a country like Germany if only we would be more serious.” Funny way to put it, but I think I know what he means. Italians deserve better. Corruption and organized crime are rampant, widespread, and extend to the upper reaches of society. Bureaucratic morass actually serves as a shield and a tool for misdeeds. Italy’s city-states have a long history of ruling families, the Medicis and Viscontis of old, and that tradition seems to hold stronger still than a broader democratic ethos. You can vote as often as you like, but little changes, because power remains behind the scenes and out of reach and accountability. More than one business person lamented, “It’s very, very hard to do business here.” I’m not sure I’d like Italy to be more like Germany, but Italians deserve better from their political and business leaders. Instead, they get Berlusconi.

But on a happier note, there’s always another meal to anticipate and that means talking about something more joyful than politics or economics. So it was that we had lunch in an outdoor café today, where a lowly ham and cheese sandwich becomes art when the ham is from Parma and the cheese is buffalo mozzarella, and the bread is crusty perfect and the tomato taste like a tomato. The charming waiter who bid adieu to two young women customers turned and asked us, “Do you think they enjoyed more the food or me?” When we said, “You, of course,” he bowed theatrically and went about his business, a smile on his face.

We have returned to Milan for our flight home tomorrow, staying again at The Yard, where we were greeted like old friends, by name, and upgraded.  Here we are with the owner.

A week in Italy only whets the appetite for more.

That was the theme of most of my conversations with our SNHU students. They are eating up their Italian experience (pun indeed intended!), traveling on weekends, learning about wine apparently – note that everyone holds by the stem, not a red Solo cup to be found:

One of our students worried that she can’t imagine how she can live on campus after this experience. That’s the beauty of travel. It opens our eyes to other ways of being, shakes us out of our habits, challenges our ways of thinking about not only the profound, but also the everyday way we live our lives. I think it helps us aspire for better in our home country, casting upon a more critical eye and greater appreciation. It is why we have in our family such a passion for travel. It’s why Italy remains at the very top of our list of favorite places and we can never go more than a year or two before returning. Like our dinner tonight, we are already talking about it.

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