A few thoughts from my recent trip to Italy

A few notes I jotted down while my memories of Italy are still fresh:

Fig: A shot of Pisa city captured on my iPhone X
Italy was an experience of a lifetime; it was so refreshing to see a proud, old people content in living their lives the way they want to. Italy is a small country; it certainly feels cramped and overcrowded and yet manages to retain a sense of classy elegance with its cobbled streets, dusty streetlights, blue skies, brackish rivers and grand houses. In many ways it reminded me of Kolkata, another old, proud and overcrowded place with its unique charm and appeal.

Idiosyncrasies define humanity. If we did not have our weird quirks, we might as well give up to the machines. I loved how obstinately the Italian cling to their cigarettes. The world has long moved past cigarettes and yet the Italians can’t seem to live without them. Every train journey would end with nicotine-starved, sophisticated Italians jumping off their carriages while lighting their smokes in mid-air. Is it foolish? Perhaps, but you have to admire the bravado. 

Religion is everywhere in Italy, but never in an oppressive way. Almost every town square seems to have an old church in it; often with frescoed walls that depict beautiful images from Christian gospel. The churches are also filled with invaluable paintings and sculptures by great and insignificant artists. Only a sustained support of the arts and genuine admiration for beauty could amass a vast wealth of art in such a small country; I am truly jealous of the Italian people for this cultural inheritance. 

The only institution that outnumbers churches in Italy would be its cafes. Italians love their coffee (what an endearing quality!). You can see Italians lining up in these coffee bars at all times of the day and night to sip from tiny cups of espresso and munch small cookie bits. The baristas clearly take pride in their work; I can never forget the dimpled barista in Florence who made me sip my cappuccino four times till I acknowledged the drink was hot enough for me. 

And lest I forget to praise the train service. I crisscrossed the country on the sleek, high-speed trains that whiz by at over 250 kmph. The trains depart by the dot and have sparking clean toilets. The ticketing system is efficient and fast. One of my trains was delayed by about thirty minutes but otherwise the trains ran faster than scheduled. Commuting within cities was a breeze as well with plenty of metro lines and buses. Italy’s success with public transport suggests that overcrowding cannot be an excuse for India in denying its citizens fast and efficient public transport. 

Public transport is not the only place where India can learn from Italy. I think the Italian experience holds great lessons on how a country can deal with the seemingly oppressive weight of a long and glorious history. Italy’s history is daunting - the country has witnessed the Roman civilization, the rise and rule of the Catholic Church, the Holy Roman Empire, the split and subsequent reunification of the country, the rise and fall of fascism and the recent European project to join arms with old foes. And yet this history doesn’t seem to tear this country apart. I didn’t see any Italians admonishing the church for trying to erode the pre-Christian wonders of the Roman age. Even the ugly past of fascism seems to find a place in its history; albeit scorned with charming disdain by my tour guide in Milan. Italy seems to embrace all aspects of its history and accept that some historical puzzles won’t align homogeneously — a lesson India can learn from during its present struggles with reconciling its Vedic and Islamic histories. History need not fit a simple narrative. 

There were a few things I didn’t like. I was not crazy about having to pay for drinking water everywhere. I also found the great necessity of cash for making payments surprising in a first world country. I was also shocked by the prevalence of poverty - almost every tourist spot was teeming with beggars asking for alms. I expected Europe to have a better social security net. Italian drivers are shockingly impatient and are often rude to pedestrians. Crossing big thoroughfares can be quite challenging. 

To summarize, I think Italy is a must-visit place and I can’t wait to go back and explore the country some more.


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