Travel to Italy

Until the 1990s, immigration to Italy was negligible, and even today it doesn’t reach the levels of immigration to Northern Europe. While the more progressive Italians go to great lengths to pave the way for a multiethnic society, the reality is that anyone who is not an ethnic Italian is quite patently an outsider. Even those attempts to appear integrated come off as awkward. Recently, a progressive newspaper asked to interview two of my friends about the odd nature of their marriage: He is Milanese, she is a Londoner of Pakistani descent. Apparently this was newsworthy. (Wisely, they declined the interview.) Needless to say, in a country where a mixed marriage elicits a media circus, the small communities of non-Italians”most notably Chinese, Albanian, and South Asian” tend to keep to themselves.

If there is any ethnic sniffing-out among Italians themselves, it is aimed toward southerners in the North, but for the most part, this is a thing of the past. Sicilians and other southerners who migrated to Milan and Turin in the 1960s have integrated into northern society, even reaching high posts in the companies where their fathers worked as manual laborers. Their children now speak with the same nasal accent and adopted local mannerisms. It should not have been too hard for them. Italians are masters of appearances, and most of all in matters of class. They go to great lengths to make themselves appear as well bred as possible. Trying to distinguish the rich from the poor is not so easy on first blush.

Attitudes toward money are giveaways to class anywhere in the world, but the verdict is a little trickier with Italians. They represent one of those rare nationalities with a reputation for being generous. The poorer a family is, sometimes the wealthier it will appear. Gifts are lavish, beyond the giver’s means, and when it comes to hosting a party or a dinner, Italians spare no expense. Maybe it is culturally assumed that this is the way that the aristocracy would behave under similar circumstances. Ironically, the only outwardly frugal people in Italy are, in fact, the aristocrats themselves. Like something from the pages of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, noble families who don’t have to work are often the most worried about squandering their dwindling capital.

Then there are more subtle clues into someone’s upbringing that don’t go unnoticed in Italian society: the manicure of someone’s fingernails, their political leanings, and the way they speak”all things that don’t require money, but indicate how someone was raised. Manners, not material wealth, are enough to convince people of your upbringing in an era when anyone with some luck in the stock market can buy a castle at a public auction or a noble title from the back pages of The Economist. In the past, one of the more entertaining litmus tests for class was soccer-team affiliation. For example, in cities with two Serie A teams, e.g., Rome, Milan, Turin, and (sometimes) Genoa, fan bases traditionally were split between the middle class on one side and the working class and aristocracy on the other. Take the example of Milan. Inter, a team owned for generations by an oilrefining family, was long seen as the bastion of the bourgeoisie, while A.C. Milan was the team of the working class”their fans were nicknamed the screwdrivers”and their political leanings were as red as the stripes on A.C.’s shirts. In Rome, the rabble-rousing proletariat rejoiced, in the most vulgar of terms, at every shortcoming suffered by S.S. Lazio, a favorite of the neatly dressed middle class. These days, even those lines have blurred, as ownership of clubs has swapped hands and technology has brought the games to anyone with a TV.

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