Today is the first installment on Italy. Or, more specifically, what it’s like to be an American living in Italy.
Let’s begin with a little background. As you may know, I originally came to Italy in May of 2000. I was in the Army at that time and had just completed a two year tour in Germany. During my first year in Germany I had an opportunity to visit a friend from back home who was stationed in Naples, Italy. I spent a week and a half between Naples and Rome and was just absolutely floored by how beautiful it was. So when I got back, I immediately filled out a 4187 request form for a transfer to Italy when my tour in Germany was up. I forgot all about it until several months later while on duty in Kosovo when I found out that I had been approved for Italy. I had to add on an extra year to my enlistment in order to have the requisite two years remaining for a full tour but, although I didn’t like the Army, I did so without reservation. It was, after all, Italy. Bella Italia. And the main reason I had joined the Army in the first place was to explore Europe. I came to Italy full of excitement and expectations of what lay in store for me. And for once, my lofty expectations were not only met, but exceeded. I loved Italy so much that I reenlisted twice just to be able to stay here. It hasn’t always been paradise (September 11, 2001 and its aftermath was a particularly difficult time), but I can’t imagine being anywhere else. I finally separated from the Army this past December but was lucky enough to land a job here as a civilian. Unfortunately, my contract is year to year, so I may have to leave anytime. And so I must do everything I can to enjoy this beautiful land and all it has to offer while I can. Even if I had to leave tomorrow, I’m satisfied that I’ve gotten more than my share out of this place.
Let’s start with where I am. The name of the city I’m located in is Vicenza. It’s pronounced “Vee-chenza” (Please don’t call it “Vin-chenza”, as there is no extra “N” in there. This is sort of a pet peeve of mine, one which my brother delights in exploiting as he knows it drives me up a wall. God bless him). Vicenza is located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of Venice and is smack dab in the middle between Verona and Padova. To see where we are on the map, click here . Milan is about a 2 hour drive west of us. Florence is about 3-4 hours south of us, and Rome is about 4-5 hours south.
Vicenza is somewhat of a wealthy city. When I got here, I was told that the Veneto region is the richest region in Italy and that Vicenza is the richest city in the Veneto region. But it’s not flashy wealth. You wouldn’t know it by driving around. Unlike most places I’ve been in Europe, there are quite a few people here who drive SUV’s. SUV’s are not a good idea here for two reasons – 1) Gas is roughly 5 bucks a gallon and 2) The streets in downtown were made hundreds of years ago. Even the smallest of cars have trouble negotiating them. But nonetheless, there are a lot of them around here.
One thing I’ve learned in my time here is to forget about the stereotypical notions you probably have of Italy. Italy is a lot like the US in that every region is different and extremely varied. So whatever stereotypes you have mostly come from one particular region or city and are usually not the norm all over. Italy can almost be considered two countries – North and South, separated right around Rome. The north, in general, is where the majority of the industry and wealth are. The south, in some parts, could almost be compared to a third world country (sorry Adele!). Unemployment is very high in the south. In fact, many people in the north believe that Italy actually should be split in two. They complain that they’re paying all the taxes to basically subsidize the south, who they see as living off government handouts.
The dialects of the Italian language are as varied as its inhabitants as well. In fact, often people from different regions have difficulty understanding each other. When I first arrived in Italy, I was dating a girl that worked in the nearby sports bar. One day she came over and we watched a movie called “Il Postino” which is a fantastically beautiful film that takes place in the south, close to Naples (Napoli). The film is in Italian with English subtitles, but the Neapolitan dialect was so strong that she was having tremendous difficulty understanding it. Such is the Italian language.
You could spend years exploring Italy and still never even scratch the surface. Just when you think you've got things figured out, Italy throws you a curve. I like to describe the country as "organized chaos". It never seems to make any sense, but you just go with the flow and somehow things always work out.
Now that you've got a little background, we'll jump right into what it's like to live here as an American in the next installment of "Bella Italia"...