July 29, 2002

Stories from Italy

Competition

Living in Italy is just plain different from life in the United States. Even though I live in a small town in Vermont and civility hasn't completely disappeared there, an Italian town makes Main Street, USA seem like a cold place indeed. People shout greetings to each other out of windows and cars, rushing into the middle of the street to say hello to someone driving by. Old women greet young children fondly and the kids are not too cool to absolutely revel in the attention. There's a lot of smiling and waving going on. A trip to town is an occasion, not simply a chore. I travel a lot and know the pitfalls of romanticizing or over-simplifying what we observe as visitors, but even with that caveat, there is still a huge qualitative difference between life here in Italy and at home.

Today, as I wandered down the steep streets of Positano and rounded the corner toward the old church in the apex of movement in Positano I heard loud male voices above all the other clamor. I knew these voices by their character. Young, testosterone-steeped men, full of bravado (braggio) and ego. In America, they'd be on a street corner or leaning against walls, generally menacing the population with their determined air of sulking hostility. I was, frankly, surprised, to hear them here in Italy. My heart sank as I got closer. Their voices were louder than everything else in town; they were clearly the young Alpha males, inconsiderate and indifferent to others around them. It sounded to me as if there was a contest of some sort taking place. It's hard to explain why, but something in the timing of the shouts and the laughter seemed competitive. I came to the corner of the church and turned toward the parking garage. There they were just as I expected; young men all about six feet tall, powerful and loud. It was, in fact a competition. The competition was not what I'd expected though. There was a fluffy little puppy being passed from young man to young man. The game was to see who could endure having his ears licked the longest. A man named Stefano won, surviving probably 17 seconds. The town also won, judging from the smiles of everyone who watched. The day won. Italy won.

 

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