This month’s Italy Blogging Roundtable is going to be really interesting, for two reasons. First, we are sharing our topic with the COSI group folks (Crazy Observations by Stranieri in Italy). Second, we are talking about “authenticity“, one of my favourite topics ever.
In fact, it was one of the first topics I wrote about. Some of my posts were controversial… and ended up in a real fight! But I felt the need to speak up for some of the things I was truly passionate about.
The third reason why I think this month is especially interesting for me is that I am “la mosca bianca” (literally, the white fly) of the group, the odd woman out. I am the only Italian to participate in our “enhanced roundtable”. Let’s see how it goes then!
I started writing about what “authentic Tuscany/Italy” means 6 years ago. A simple question by a lovely foreign lady got me thinking. She was visiting my village and she was truly surprised that people could survive in such a small community. And then I wrote The place you call a destination for some people is home. We tend to forget this way too often.
Of course, any serious reflection about the authenticity of a destination cannot but go hand in hand with the issues connected with local travel, sustainability and gentle travel. Gentle travel is the way to go, I wrote in 2009, and I still believe it. Just like back then, I still believe
in travelling slow, so that we can properly enjoy what is local, and actually learn from it. We do all we can to offer our guests this very same experience when we are the hosts rather than the travellers: we believe in offering a true and authentic local experience, in allowing people to see Italy and our life as it really is by helping them to take advantage of what the areas in which we are located have to offer.
I believe in promoting a type of travel experience which does not change the area in which I operate, but rather touches the people who come here. I don’t want to exploit, but to enrich, both my homeland and the travelers who come see it.
And that is not a small thing. Tuscany, Italy and every place reached by mass tourism tend to change under the pressure of the tourist demand. You slowly start to morph into the object people expect to see. People stop coming to discover what Tuscany is like and start coming to see what they think it is like, and if it is not like what they had imagined (or had been led to imagine), they are disappointed and leave a thread of negative feedback behind them. And nobody wants that, so the destination “adjusts” so that it can be what people want it to be.
That is not healthy. That is like the plastic surgery you had to satisfy the aesthetic needs of your partner. It never ends well. And when the interest shifts from you to “the new you” (how many “new Tuscany” are out there?!), you are left changed, void of your identity, an icon, a set, an empty theme park.
We, the locals, should take responsibility for our choices, for our words, for the way we choose to promote our territory.
Like back in 2009, I still believe that words matter (“tourism is grounded in discourse” brilliantly wrote Graham Dann in 1996), and “local travel” should not be just a catch phrase.
I still hate the way movies/books like “Under the Tuscan Sun” or “Letters to Juliet” or “Eat, Pray, Love” depict Italy (see Letters to Juliet: here we go again) and huge commercial campaigns like the Gran Tourismo Project which pretend to discover hidden gems and only look into the big diamonds (please, please, read the comments to Hidden gems and popular spots, because they say it all). In so doing, they simply help those who don’t need help and push into the background those who are already in the background. See Because it’s not Florence everywhere… (aka the luck of the Irish).
I am still offended by the tendency of foreign groups to come teach us how you do things right, to bring along their own people, to exploit the area without giving anything back to the local communities (see Luxury travel and local communities). If you have to bring it from outside, it’s not authentic. Period.
Authentic travel is about accepting things as they are. Sometimes they are not as pretty as you think they are, but that is why you should travel and demand to see Italy as it really is. Travel should take you out of your comfort zone, show you things you are not familiar with, different things from what you are used to. A destination should surprise you, it should teach you that life as you know it is not all there is out there, and people can live differently and just as happily.
Expecting the unexpected, Maledetti Toscani, and The survival of the fittest – aka living in Italy are three posts about what you can really expect when you come to Italy.
10 more things about authentic Italian living
- Don’t expect everybody to have a relaxed pace, spend hours drinking coffee or playing cards at the bar and be friendly and ready to entertain tourists. Most people will keep to themselves, work long hours and will not want to mix and mingle with tourists.
- Don’t expect to be served a bowl of olive oil and bread to dip it in. We do not do that.
- Don’t expect to be able to try an authentic plate of fettuccine Alfredo or spaghetti and meatballs. Those are not Italian dishes. They are Italian-American recipes.
- Don’t expect lavender fields in Tuscany. Lavender is only used in private gardens. People growing it extensively are growing it because tourists wanted to see lavender fields in Tuscany. It’s exceptional.
- Don’t expect everybody to invite you over to share their meal. Italians have very little sense of privacy, but they do not open their homes to perfect strangers easily. If somebody does invite you over, it’s a privilege, not the norm.
- Don’t expect people to whistle at you when you walk by. If that happens, it’s not normal and it’s not acceptable. Ordinary Italian men will not dare whistle or comment on a woman passing by (they haven’t since the 60’s).
- Don’t expect all women to live in terrible conditions subjected to male power… Some women choose to be housewives and to look after their children and husband. It is not a crime, it’s a choice. The condition of women in Italy is the same as that of women in most western countries.
- Don’t expect people to raise their children like you would at home. Every country has its own style. We do rely heavily on the grandparents and the grandparents love it and expect nothing different, if you are lucky enough to have them close-by. We are overprotective of our children, and we do not like for them to run around half-naked in January and covered in dirt. That’s right… Italian mothers!
- Don’t expect people to accept your dietary choices without rolling their eyes. Most people are starting to eat in an alternative way and to be familiar with different dietary styles but vegetarianism, gluten-free diets, and veganism are still looked at as something bizarre. Just ignore the comments (including those by my-absolutely-omnivore-self) and keep eating as you would at home (if you can…).
- Don’t expect to get in a relationship with an Italian man/woman and not enter in a relationship with his/her entire family. We come with a baggage. That’s right: mums, dads, granparents, uncles, aunts and lots of cousins. But don’t expect all Italians to have a large family with close ties either. More and more families are starting to be nuclear, with no close ties to relatives.
Italy Blogging Roundtable
This is a post in a monthly series called The Italy Blogging Roundtable. Here you can find the posts of the other bloggers who participate in the roundtable. Our topic this month was “Authenticity“:
- Italy Explained – Where is this “authentic Italy” everyone’s looking for?
- ArtTrav – Art and Travel: the authenticity of seeing art in person
- Brigolante – Italy Roundtable: Finocchi Rifatti al Pomodoro
- Italofile – Everything Is Authentic
- Driving like a maniac – On being authenticated
- Bleeding Espresso – Living Authentically: How Italy Forced the Issue
- Girl in Florence – Real or Fake? Shop Smart in Italy
- Englishman in Italy – How Authentic an Italian are you?
- Rick’s Rome – The Authentic Italian Culture Debate
- Sex, Lies and Nutella – How to be an authentic Italian (in 9 simple steps)
- Married to Italy – The fear of the fake: What “authenticity” means to a foreigner in a strange land
- Surviving in Italy – What des it mean to be authentically Italian?
- The Florence Diaries – Searching for the “Real” Italy
I loved your post Gloria and I am happy to have discovered your blog. I think it is really important to have a born and bread Italian commenting on this very important topic and you raised some very good points. I do agree that the tourism offices have to do their best to promote the territory as best they can, promoting slow travel, local artisans and help travelers see the Italy they would be proud of. I try and do the best I can at my blog but I always seek tips and advice from my Italian friends. Gentle and slow travel IS the way to go, you should check out the blog by my friend Anna of Green Holiday Italy. She heavily promotes that from her home base in Abruzzo and also happens to be a lovely person.
Ciao Georgette, thank you for your kinds words! I know Anna’s blog, and love it! I also know your blog and love it too! I am now looking forward to meeting you in person one day! Hopefully, we will be able to get together with Alexandra as well one day! 🙂
That would be lovely!
I will be visiting Tuscany for the first time…single woman traveling alone and not going the tour track — I never have, and I travel to learn. I am an organic gardener and naturalist living in Naples, Florida. Your blogs are filled with such passion, love and great information about your beautiful homeland. I particularly liked the blog about your childhood romp with frogs and corks! Lovely. I think I am taking your slow drive (2010 posting) from Civitella Marittima if you still advise…How is cell phone service for maps on the country roads of Tuscany? Again, thank you, Gloria.
Hi Donna, thanks for stopping by. The drive is still gorgeous. I am not sure if La Pievanella, that I mention in the post is still open, because the woman who used to manage it passed a couple of years back and I know that her husband took the business over but I am not sure to what extent. The drive is still well worth it though. Not much connectivity for cellphone, but still some. No problem for GPS I believe.
Un post bravissimo! I love the 10 things about authentic Italy list! I live in Canada but was born in Puglia and go back every year. My village is part of the ‘slow food’ movement and is a ‘Bandiera Arancione’ paese, but fortunately has not been ‘Tuscanized’ or ‘touristized’–sorry I can’t think of a better word. you are right, a place morphs into what people expect if people let it. Luckily it is out of the way enough that visitors need to make an effort and really want to go there! It’s definitely worth it. Ciao, Cristina
Thanks for your comment Cristina! What’s your village’s name?
My paese is Orsara di Puglia, provincia di Foggia. Here is my blurb about it: http://unpodipepe.ca/2014/05/25/benvenuti-ad-orsara-di-puglia/
It’s a gastronomic paradise. You should check it out if you are nearby…although it is not a place you just happen to pass by. Our own Peppe Zullo will be cooking at the Italian Pavillion at Expo in Milano for the month of May. Ciao, Cristina
It is great to see an Italians perspective of Italy. We expats / stranieri / zingero enter Italy with our rose tinted glasses firmly in place and suddenly remove them and start to complain bitterly about the driving or how slow it takes to get anything done. Personally I still have my rose tinted glasses firmly in place.
In our house the cooking changes from authentic Italian to English-Italian depending on who is cooking.. Sometimes I have to wait until Mrs Sensible is in another room before I throw some oregano into some sauce I am attempting to make 🙂
Thank you for your comment! I get to enjoy both perspectives: my husband is Canadian! 😉
Thanks for this post Gloria! I am Italian too and I often get really annoyed by reading about so called ‘authentic’ Italy. I use myself the word authentic probably too often (usually when I preach about not using cream in carbonara) but I agree it’s a truly abused term. What I find difficult is to reconcile me being Italian with what foreigners often expect of me: I don’t make pasta from scratch, I drink cappuccino after lunch if I feel like it… am I not ‘truly’ Italian then? Is there only one way of being Italian? I love to think of Italy as a place with a past, a present and a future and I think to live it authentically we need to embrace all of these aspects (see it for what it really is as you say), instead of fixing some of them in a postcard-ready destination embodying what tourists expected to see. Sorry, bit of a rant here, but the issue really resonates with me! Grazie ancora per il post.
Grazie a te per il commento!
I wondered how you would deal with this topic since you did mention that you’ve already written so much about it. Your list in the end is perfect, I married a whole family for sure. I think it’s cuz my own is so small!
I hadn’t read your old post about “how can people live out here”. I get the impression you were a little bit offended by the lady’s comment!
Here’s a question for you: how can a place that attracts a lot of tourists REMAIN authentic? Like: san gimignano….
Not so much offended as taken aback! I had never thought that the idea of living in a small community could be so obscure for some! 🙂 As to your question, I don’t think it can. But there is a difference between changing in the sense of adjusting to offer the services tourists need (restaurants, restrooms, parking lots) and changing the way a destination looks to please the tourist’s idealized imagery of the destination. It’s the second mutation that I abhor!
i really liked this post. Most of my italian friends do not fall under any traditional stereotypes, maybe their parents do-but that’s it. Life in italy is hard. They enjoy themselves but it’s a struggle at best.
When I go there, it is always quite a trip. I do get a lot of invitations, and I love to try everything-i do appreciate going to someone’s home or eating out at a friend’s favorite restaurant. My female friends are pretty liberated-and I noticed no cat calling from guys coming my way. And half the meals cooked for me where made by men!!
I live a slower pace than they do-it’s fascinating to me how much more worldly they are. I think italians love to travel to other countries too, and really appreciate from their experiences instead of dismissing another culture.
I’d like to go back with my kids-i do think they adore children way more than people do here. Italy never just meets my expectations-it usually blows them away!!!
thank you Cindy!
I agree with Cindy. When I go to visit my friends near Milan, their life is exactly as she described. I enjoy spending time with them and their friends. They are hard working and have traveled the world. Their life is not slow paced by any means. I too find my life much less stressed and slower paced. I listen to all their issues about taxes, government, corruption , prices and illegal immigration. But, they enjoy what they have and take pride in their national culture and authenticity. I always asked them not to do anything different while I’m there. I want to discovery their life & culture.
Thanks for your comment!
I’m an Italian who grew up in the UK and recently moved home to Tuscany. I cannot agree more with this article and have spent half my life explaining to people why spaghetti bolognaise, for example, is not ‘authentic’. (See my blog post about authentic Italian food: (http://chestnutsandtruffles.com/2015/03/03/five-things-you-didnt-know-about-italian-food-probably/). I’ve also spent quite a lot of time translating between frustrated expats and even more frustrated Italians, where almost every problem has been based on a mere linguistic misunderstanding. I’m going to read your post about hidden gems now, since I live in the Valtiberina Toscana, which I think qualifies for the name. So pleased to have found your blog.
Ciao Luca, thank you for your kinds words! Valtiberina certainly qualifies as a hidden gem. 😉
The comment about ‘how do people live here’ made me laugh, as I get the same thing all the time from people here. I grew up in a village which has a population of 571 – and that’s when it’s combined with a couple of outlying villages! When I was a child we had a village shop and post office, from where you could get day-to-day staples, but that’s long gone. And yet, as you say about Civitella, we live very happily. So we have to drive to the supermarket? Well, a lot of people doing a big shop for a family would do the same, even if their supermarket was close by. And maybe there aren’t as many people in the village as in the city, but everyone knows everyone else, and socialises together in the one village pub. I’ve felt far lonelier and isolated in big cities than I ever have done in the countryside.
However, yes, that’s my personal reality, and I can understand that someone who’s never experienced it for themselves would find it hard. So (desperately trying to stay on topic haha), I suppose I would sum up by saying that authenticity, for me, is about living and experiencing things in the most appropriate way for me – which means that, for everyone else, it will, most likely, be a different thing.
That’s right Kate. It takes me more to get to the supermarket in Pisa than when I am in my home village! Just crossing the city in traffic is more time consuming than having to drive a longer way to get to the next town.
Gloria I had to write and tell you this is one of the best things I’ve read in a long time. You have it spot on, we are in a Borgata up in the mountains in Piemonte and are one of only four families living here……..9 adults and 4 children in total including us.
Being part of a working community of four generations ranging from age 86 to 6 is a joy, the people here have slowly embraced us, we have been here two years and each day is a learning curve.
It’s not always pretty or the way friends imagine it should be, it’s just real life in the mountains.