Culturally rich, Italy has produced the world's best in art, architecture, music and literature. But Italy's greatest wealth is its people: the gregarious, charming, Italians that seem to know how to do everything bigger and better. They love their food, their families, their music and their heritage. They exude confidence, charisma and hospitality. Venice has its canals, Rome its Coliseum, Florence its heritage of art, Tuscany its color, and the whole country boasts hundreds of miles of seashore; but of all the beautiful and historic sights Italy has to offer, the best treat a visitor will find are the colorful Italian people.
Italy has a population of over 58 million people in an area slightly larger than the state of Arizona. The traditional Mediterranean culture has had its influence on the central and southern parts of the country where most Italians are shorter with olive skin and dark hair. Farther north, the people are taller, blond and have lighter eyes, due to the Germanic influence across the Alps. But tall or short, light or dark, all Italians are gifted with the same collective outlook on life. They enjoy it. They are lively, sociable and have a passion for everything they do. They express emotions more freely than most and are not afraid to give hugs, kisses, and other displays of affection. Italians love to laugh and talk loudly, usually emphasizing everything with hand gestures. They are quick to welcome strangers into their towns and homes, and are always ready to share a meal or a story, a good joke or a song.
The large majority of Italians are Roman Catholics and for centuries, this has affected their art and architecture. There are a vast number of religious monuments and paintings as well as local traditions based on Christian celebrations and the lives of the saints. Italians love a reason to celebrate. Easter and Christmas are joyously planned for and observed by feasts, sweets, decorations, plays, and of course, elaborate gifts.
Italians are proud of their artistic heritage. Museums, churches, courtyards and statues all over the country proudly display to a watching world the treasures of some of the greatest artists: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael, to name just a few. Opera is also an Italian creation. From highly educated city dwellers to simple farmers or poor villagers, all the people know opera and enjoy singing it boldly while they work. Many know entire scores of operas by Rossini, Verdi and Puccini, and will attend an operatic performance whenever possible.
Whether living in a large city or a tiny village, the people of Italy work hard and enjoy their leisure time. It is common for the people to work five full days and then a half day on Saturday, but unlike we busy Americans, Italians will take a lengthy lunch break each day, often going home and spending several hours eating and resting, before returning to work for several more. In the evenings, hearty meals are adoringly prepared and savored, and the people can often be found strolling and socializing late into the evening.
Food is a thing of beauty in Italy. Italian food is an extension of the rich, fertile fields and seashore that are such a part of the people. Seafood, veal, chicken, fresh fruits and vegetables, and of course, pasta, is prepared with spices, sauces, and tender loving care. Strong coffee and decadent layered desserts are staples of each meal. Mealtime is not rushed; fast food is a foreign concept. Italians, as with all things, enjoy their food, and enjoy the social interaction that is such a part of sharing a good meal.
Walking through the narrow streets of Florence, gliding along on a gondola in Venice, or riding a bicycle through a tiny northern town; any visitor will see that the Italian people have homes that are simple and practical, but beautiful and colorful. Balconies full of potted red geraniums hanging on bright blue railings; red checkered curtains blowing in the breeze; tables full of apples, grapes, fresh cheese and bottles of local wine; tiny gardens and courtyards with statues of saints, crawling vines, bunches of flowers and cozy benches. The homes reflect the things the people of Italy love: beauty, color, and camaraderie.
Italy offers so much for the visitor. It is important to learn the history, hear the music, see the artwork and worship in the cathedrals. But most importantly, take the time to know the people. Your life will be richer as a result.
By Paulla Estes