Saturday, September 20, 2008

Cannonball Read #2: La Bella Figura by Beppe Severgnini

The people who would build a public space that looks like this are without question worth getting to know. In America, we so often militantly separate our public and private lives...our parks are expansive with well delineated borders, away from our residences and businesses. This may sound weird, but Siena, seen above, reminds me somewhat of the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art...both are huge public spaces that nonetheless comfortable and intimate. This piazza is enormous; they actually hold famous horse races here (we missed them by about a week). Still, walking into this space under the clear blue sky feels like walking into a cocktail party. People are relaxing, talking, reading, watching, just being...all surrounded by their community, watching from the apartments ringing the piazza. Let's be honest here. The second I saw that there was a Salvatore Ferragamo shop in the Roman airport, I was in love with Italy. (I am easy, and do not apologize for this.) But in Siena, it felt like home.

My relationship with the Italian language, however, has been somewhat fraught with peril. Though I am usually pretty good at languages, Italian has not come exceptionally easily to me. When Professoressa explained the concept of la bella figura, though, I saw the light at the end of the tunnel, and a reminder of why I'd wanted to learn the language in the first place. La bella figura is where I relate and aspire to the Italian culture...the idea of always, ALWAYS being well put together, regardless of whether you're at a cocktail party or picking up flu medicine in the grips of an insidious winter plague. Obviously, there is more that I love about Italian culture...the ebullience, the friendliness, the passion, the engagement with the world around them, their excellently insane politics (which relates back to the other attributes), but it is the concept of fare la bella figura that floats to the top of all these.

Beppe Severgnini used this phrase to title his analysis of the Italian mindset, and both the choice of title and meandering mode of the text are perfectly suited to that particular Italian je ne sais quoi that makes them both infuriating and inexpressibly wonderful. The book is ostensibly based on ten days of travel through Italy, though to imagine this tale strictly as a travelogue would be a massive error. Severgnini takes on any number of topics, with wonderful humor and real incisiveness. He reminds me of Bill Bryson, who also manages to reveal the true soul of a group of people by observing their ancillary tics and small, wonderful habits. Everyone can appreciate broad categories...who doesn't like food? Who doesn't like communication? But it's the details in which one can truly appreciate the ways that the Italians just do things differently...the pageantry and consideration of food, the "OMG hands everywhere" mode of communication, the elegance in absolutely everything. Severgnini covers all of these ideas and many, many more, and he does so with such wit that one cannot help but finish the last page with a deep and abiding adoration for this curious country across the pond. A GREAT read, and a must for anyone planning to travel to have an eight hour flight, it's the perfect time!

Italian Side Note: Last night was Italian Movie Night, featuring three authentic Italians!! Last semester, after the purchase of the Giant New TV, we started having sporatic movie nights with our awesome professor. Previous movies included Suspiria and Johnny Stecchino, and last night's feature was Facing Windows, which you all should go out and rent IMMEDIATELY because it is great. It is a great drama that is basically about figuring out what you really want your life to be about and how hard that can sometimes be, while also having some beautiful, beautiful cinematography and some legitimate Willy Wonka style childhood amazement moments. There is one scene featuring startling pastry (just trust me) that elicited an out loud "ohhh!" from me...and it had nothing to do for sugar cravings, but instead with the beautiful presentation of the whole scene. Fantastic movie. It was also a blast to hear some native Italian spoken at a normal speed, and again I was somewhat reassured by how much I DID take in, as opposed to unnerved by how much I missed. The Italians in question were my professor of THIS year, who is from Naples, and two Italian assistants who came with my professor from last year.

217 pages.

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