The other day I was tackling my overstuffed inbox and became sidetracked (which is one reason why it’s overstuffed) by an opinion article in the New York Times which dredged up the topic of Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s lifelong and very public taste for hedonistic activities. My plan to delete as many emails as possible was derailed as I immured myself in the debate over Italian lifestyles, politics and how many of their media outlets are controlled by the Prime Minister, thereby stifling their society.
I love Italy, and have traveled there a handful of times. It has taken some time to acclimate to the country, Rome, in particular, with its imposing ruins poking up out of the rubble of other empires. The number of sites which must be visited, whether sacred or historical, at first take overwhelmed me. The Piazza San Pietro, with its double rows of columns bordering an imposing ellipse, breathes heavily down on their visitors; the sheer weight of rock in the piazza, unbroken by any vegetation to soften its edges, is awe-inspiring and intimidating. But then, the Eternal city begins to relax. The city, which on first visit can seem as huskily dry as an ear of corn, with little more to it than its illustrious ruins, becomes unsheathed, revealing the plump, sweet kernels of its true personality. Walking along cobbled streets, closed in by old walls stained and mottled with the wear of generations, the busy metropolis mellows into shadows.
Italy unveiled itself to me on our most recent visit, a year or so ago. We traveled with a group of rather boisterous friends, linked together by Vermont Bike Tours, for a week pedaling the back roads and hillsides of coastal Tuscany. Paradise found, for sure.
One thing that’s for certain: when you spend six hours a day on a bicycle surrounded by other people, there are a lot of barriers that fall by the wayside. No matter how skilled a biker, that many hours in the saddle will open up any human, particularly once they’re grounded. We had the pleasurable company of our leaders, two Italian men in their late-30’s who kept us going with charm, wit and lies about how many hills were left to scale that day. Post bike, over beer and wine, we had the unique opportunity to learn about life in Italy.
What I learned surprised me. Although they loved their life “on the road,” there were times when they wished for stability, and were openly envious of married lifestyles. Both had been in relationships, here and there, with nothing ever developing towards a longterm situation. I didn’t push for information, but it did make me wonder: if both professed an interest in marriage, why didn’t that happen?
At the conclusion of the trip, the group returned to Rome, leg-weary but satisfied with having spent a week seeing a portion of a beautiful country in a different manner than do most tourists. We were leaving the next morning, and much of the trip’s magic was waning. As much as I enjoy group vacationing, at times, it’s nice to be with your partner, alone. With the exception of one lunch, we’d been surrounded by people the entire week; occasionally, it felt a bit like summer camp. Dr. K and I wandered around the Campo de’ Fiori, poking into shops, eventually discovering a quaint medieval alleyway tucked into the heart of Rome. Edged by little cafes and shops, we spent several hours catching up after our forced march (well, roll, to be more accurate) over a couple carafes of wine and lunch.
Eventually, we strolled into a tiny purse boutique featuring all handmade offerings. While the salesgirl wrapped up my purchase, she commented on how well we seemed to get along. It was kind of an odd statement, seeing as how she hardly knew us, other than through a brief sales transaction. When I laughed, and said, “Well, that’s probably because we’ve been married since we were five years old,” she pressed me for more information. She wanted to know how long we really had been married; she said we looked young. When I told her 25 years, her reaction was unusual, and upsetting.
The shopgirl said that she would like to marry, someday, but didn’t think that was likely, even though she had a live-in boyfriend. I asked, “Well, at some point?” but her reply was a firm “No.”
“People don’t marry here, and they don’t often have children either, because no one wants to bring children into the world with such unstable relationships. Men don’t stay with their women long,” she told me.
We returned to the States, and I didn’t give this conversation much thought until I read the article about Berlusconi and his treatment of women. Scanning through the comments, as always, I garnered a varied viewpoint, from both Italians and Americans; overall, most felt that the prime minister’s behavior, while expected in the political realm, went way over the top.
The article did pique my interest, and I decided to compare marriage rates in both countries. I found that there is a steep decline in marriage rates in Italy, little co-habitation and low rates of non-marital childbirths. Marriage rates in the US were also declining, but not to the extent of the Italians. I found evidence that many young Italians elect to live with their parents well past the age when their American counterparts leave home. Most parents did not take steps to further their children’s independence, thereby encouraging them to develop and mature, and take on the social responsibilities of a family. I wondered why, and whether Italy’s paternalistic society has something to do with it. Italian history is replete with powerful men; their women seemed to live out of the limelight. Many commentators believe that Italy, even as a modern democracy, still places women in a subordinate position.
The Italy of Romeo and Juliet doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Did it ever?
I decided to evaluate the question on the home-front, and when my first available resource, daughter Isabelle, walked in the door, I asked her how many of her friends (male and female) intended to marry at some point. She said most. Granted, she’s only 16, but when questioned further, she said, even in high school, more than 70 percent of her friends were in a relationship.
Is this because we foster independence at home? Certainly, there are plenty of examples in US media, and of our celebrities, both political, Hollywood and in professional sports, which denigrate women in our society. Still, most of our friends are married, and intend that their children will one day move away from home.
I have to think that creating mature, independent, yet caring individuals has something to do with it. A tough goal, but one worth pursuing.
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