Tuesday, March 04, 2014


Italians value life. The Italians think that life is something to be savoured, unlike the Americans who think life is to be won, or the English, who think life is to be endured.

There’s the relentless, pervasive emphasis on good food. There is also, at least in northern Italy, an emphasis on peace and quiet. It’s not overt, but once you notice it suddenly you see it everywhere. On the trains there’s no obnoxious muzak, no teenage girls shrieking at each other, no hip hop leaking out of headphones. The doors don’t ping as they open. There are no automated voices warning you to mind the gap. Each station is announced, but only once, and sometimes not even then. On the street people murmur softly into their phones or, if they’re playing games, they turn the sound off. The lights at crosswalks don’t beep. In the restaurants there’s often no background music and conversations are muted. It’s as if every noise the average society makes has been audited and everything extraneous has been edited out.

I even noticed this circumspection when my travel buddy said something funny as we walked down the street and I laughed out loud, and then realised that I hadn’t heard the sound of overt laughter ever since I got here, unless it was coming out of my mouth.

In short, northern Italy is for introverts what Bali is for extroverts; a place where you feel in your element. Where your preferred way of doing things is the right way. It allows you to let down the barriers you erect to keep the loud, hectoring, demanding world at bay, and instead lets in a wonderful serenity.

By contrast, my hotel now has several busloads of Chinese tourists staying at it, and it’s been enlightening to see them descending on the restaurant for breakfast along with the handful of Italians who are staying here. It’s like watching a herd of wildebeest stampeding over some graceful gazelles. The Chinese are the anti-Milanese, in that they live to be as noisy as possible. They shout and scream pleasantries at each other. They crash crockery and clatter cutlery as if they’re trying to hack through their plates to the table beneath. Their cellphones bleep and trill at top volume, then they bellow into them. After the almost cloistered peace of the last few days, it feels like a literal assault.


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