The People of Italy by Gina Mussio

The title lends itself instantly to stereotypes of Italians: which ones I find true and which are off base, or generalizations I’ve created myself during my time here (everyone does it, even if you try not to.) There are characteristics of Italians that can be grating and I had one friend here who in her last two weeks was completely fed up with them all. I completely understood every complaint and argument she had, yet despite this, I didn’t feel the same way. I agreed on many of the stereotypes she had begun to hate, but don’t yet feel that feeling of extreme annoyance. Keep in mind that I am very biased when I speak about the people of Italy – I have both friends and family here who I love very much.

Instead, I would like to write about a questions many Italians have asked me in conversation: “What do Americans think of Italians?” With the country in a bit of political chaos (the ever-embarrassing Berlusconi is now out of the majority, causing a likely collapse of the Parliament if/when he is out-voted in the next confidence election) and a long-standing history of Mafia ruling the country, many Italians are wondering if this is all we focus on when we think of Italy. It was a strange question to me because I’ve pretty much only thought good things about Italy, as most people focus only on the good in the things they dream about. Still, I understood and tried to answer in the most correct, yet real way possible.

Yes, we think of food. Yes, we think of the general beauty of Italy, the monuments, fabulous vacations and art. Yes its also true that we think of the Mafia, but probably more in terms of films we have seen (“Godfather” anyone?). When thinking about our perception of the Mafia, I decided that we probably compare it in an Italian-American context more than anything, as I’m guessing most Americans don’t know the names or affiliations/actions of real Italian Mafia members.  Think: Little Italy, pasta-enlarged stomach, “Thas a spicy meataball” quotes. It’s awful, but if you weren’t already thinking it, you can picture it perfectly now.

Berlusconi? Well… that is a harder one to answer. What do you think of when you think of Berlusconi? My response was that the majority of Americans probably don’t pay that much attention (we’re incredibly self-centered right? kidding), but that if we do hear things about Berlusconi, our thoughts are probably something along the lines of wonder at how he has been continually elected, and what his job exactly is anyway. Discussions about Berlusconi are some of my favorite to have with Italians, as the emotions run wild. The majority have expressed some form of embarrassment, hence them asking me what the rest of the world thought of them when they hear the B name. I ease them with short reminders of our own B name politician, and it usually helps.

Stereotypes usually are not invented out of thin air – in my experience they usually start from some small grain of truth. Yes, all these things, the food, fashion, beauty, mafia and flirtatious leaders exist in Italy, however, your emotions about them all usually depend on your relation with the culture and the people. My friend was sick of it by the end of her stay, whereas my love for Italy seems to override any annoying characteristics that I run into, although a little prendere in giro, teasing, now and then never hurt anyone too much…

salute agli italiani!


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