A penchant for cardigans, spy novels and pop culture connections.
For years I have had to sit in conversations where people tell me what it means to be Italian after having spent a few holidays in Italy; where they see the best of the nation, and where they are treated like kings and queens because Italians just do that brilliantly. One such discussion involved being told that a moka coffee “is not served with sugar” as it is not tradition in Italy. “Bullshit” was my reasoned, one-word and highly sociological response.
There is a natural, ephemeral charm that comes out for guests, yes you feel welcome but it doesn’t mean that you see the true Italy.
What Italy really isn’t includes things like cookbooks with “-issima” added to the end, repeats of Montalbano, anything that uses the words “Jersey” and “shore”, or anything for that matter which includes American-Italian; they are two completely different worlds entrenched in years of misinformation and cultural dilution. Guttural and often nasal tainted pronunciations of Chicken Paaarm & taaagliatelli al fredo are as least Italian as they possibly come. I heed internal warnings that this is a form of cultural snobbery, but it is here for a purpose, and I’ll get to that in a bit.
And so it was with a tinge of irony that the New York Times came after Italian culture, well, kind of, they came after the spritz. They are right, it’s not a good drink, but then that’s not the point, is it? Because aperitivo, and certainly not Aperol, is never about the drink. If it was, there would have been demonstrations, strikes and some sort of legal act to protect its status; all things that remind us of Italy’s true disposition of creating a narrative that suits.
In what was a blindsided attack on the beverage, it was also one that “attacked” culture, Italian culture without ever bringing reference to it, not even once. A missed opportunity to understand that maybe, unlike New York or anywhere else for that matter, not everything, especially your drink, has to be perfect!
It is necessary, if only to recognise that I’ll be wading into territory that will even make many of my compatriots question my italianitá. What right do I have to talk of Italian life when I haven’t lived in the nation since 2004? “Qui, funziona cosí” (this is how it works over here) is the lazy yet effective baiting that I fall into regularly; be it Twitter or in person.
Elena Ferrante once wrote, “Being Italian, for me, begins and ends with the fact that I speak and write in the Italian language.” That’s less than some who wear loafers and pink shirts thinking that they fit the Italian mould, then. Giorgio Gaber once sang, “io no mi sento Italiano, ma per fortuna o purtroppo lo sono” (I don’t feel Italian, by luck or by chance, I am) even for Italians, knowing what being Italian is, can be confusing.
Part of the problem is that we’re all capable of creating our rose tinted spectacle version of il bel paese, some more unashamedly more so than others, of any nation and any time to be precise. But embracing a country for me, is not about mimicking, it’s about giving praise to the nuances of its cultural identity.
The spritz does that, it is a collective unabashed cultural beacon of Italian life. Forget the drink, it’s the act – it’s the most Italian thing that you can partake in, one that doesn’t involve near death experiences on mopeds or being immaculately turned out for a visit to the shops (I’ve seen this happen more than I ever care to). It’s bella figura in miniature, but a bella figura that we all have some access to; where class and income are equalised for THAT moment.
A collective time-out on life. Before bread is broken, before the insanity of night life begins, before sitting down for a meal, as a family – your real one or your chosen one – a time out to sit back, have a snack to avoid getting ‘hangry’, drink a drink and chill the fuck out.
Yes, the aperol spritz isn’t the greatest, but then why does it need to be? We are all searching for a space of cultural nirvana, Italian or not. Whether it is your own or if you are borrowing it. Culture that leaves politics and histrionics at the door, a fate that my own twitter game has taken over the last few years, undoubtedly.
If you were searching for your own Italianitá this is where you would start, and not at some “TIME 100 Best Places to Eat in Italy.” You will more than likely not find the best place to eat in that guide, anyway.
Aperitivo is an act worthy of the plays, scriptures and poems that have made Italy the romanticised nation that it is; and it’s the best face of it because it is the cultural patina that ties it all together. Fellini, Pasolini & De Sica captured the post neorealism, but to live that life, that drama is left for the experts, Italians themselves.
I’m not sure what “being Italian” is truly meant to mean, but at least aperitivo — good or bad — brings you to cultural ground zero. That’s more than any click bait title will ever achieve.