Sharp Monica

An honest voice in Italian paradise.

Italy versus Spain

Friday marked our three-year anniversary of moving back to Italy. We arrived directly from Norman, OK to Florence, a city we both knew well, Jason very well. Eleanor and Victor were much smaller, but no less rambunctious.

I returned to Italy with plenty of experiential knowledge; I have logged my time in the EU as a long-term resident in Spain, France, and Italy. Our year in Arezzo though held no candle to Florence. They are both Tuscan cities, but that is where the resemblance ends. I am an inveterate internal and external networker, and always seek to fit new information and scenarios into the framework of what I already know. (This was a way cooler skill before the interwebs took off.) As I prepared to get down to it, to fit myself and my family into communities in Florence, I thought back to my prior time in Italy, and in France. Technically, huge parts of these countries form parts of the Mediterranean Basin, the Mare Nostrum, and so, particularly given their shared linguistic roots and climates, even a curious observer might conclude they share much in common culturally. But in culture, as in all things, nothing is as it first appears.

For years my acquired Spanish was near-native. A different, equally intense era heard me yapping away in acquired French and cracking jokes about any number of inappropriate topics. But these languages went to ground as the reality of our new life in Italy began to sink in. Italian is the lingua franca here, overlapping in my brain in confusing ways like a Jack Ezra Keats illustration. He’s that guy who wrote The Snowy Day and illustrated it with wet tissue paper collages in bright tones, intense colors that bled impressionistically into one another. I can close my eyes and see this book because it was read to me approximately 20 times a year until the fourth grade. My layers of languages began to bleed into one another, and coherence was disappearing. Note: Don’t go to an Impressionist if you’re interested in accuracy and realistic detail.

I have written before here about how Florence is like France. The French influence is palpable, those fleur-de-lis everywhere, the pomp introduced by the Medicis to the French court in the sixteenth century. Florence is in Italy, and has many characteristics of Italian culture. But Florence is also its own particular culture, borne of international banking and commerce when the rest of the world was barely in communication with people outside of their roaming range. In Florence, an astute cultural empath can detect traces of France, of England. Campo Arrigo, the old English battle camp from the fourteenth century, monikered for one King Henry (hence ‘Arrigo,’ or ‘Harry’), who camped there with the English mercenary John Hawkwood. There are whiffs of Germany, from much more recent decades, mostly in the form of the Kunsthistoriches Institute, the vestige of protecting or actively stealing treasures of Florentine art and learning during World War Two.

One culture that is detected not at all in Florence is Spanish culture. Why is this?

It is true that Roman Hispannia was a part of the Roman Empire. Yet Hispannia must have felt a bit of an outpost, sort of a Lubbock, TX of 1920 but with its own solid history and much better wine. I wonder at times if Spain lost some of its historic connection to the Roman Empire after roughly 600 years of Umayyad rule. It is quite possible that the rest of the geographic and cultural relics of the Roman Empire felt that Spain had been split away and become something other than Roman for awhile.

The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was under Spanish control for centuries. I’d have to look it up, but very likely it was Charles V of Spain who annexed the toe and heel of the boot, along with Sicily’s triangular lily pad. I have never understood why that chunk of southern Italy is ‘the second Sicily,’ but suffice it to say, to this day there is much Spanish culture to intuit in southern Italy. The dialect, the late hours, the pastel Baroque architecture could not be further from Tuscan ideals. Perhaps the gender politics as well in Southern Italy take more after Spain than Italy at large. Scholars have shown how Spain’s centuries of economic domination and entrenched, heavy-tax hungry bureaucracy bled out southern Italy so that what is the mezzogiorno, or southern Italy, of today continues to struggle and lag behind everywhere north of Rome. The decadent absentee landlords cared little for the welfare of their indentured subjects, scraping to get by each harvest year.

My Spanish language continued to sink below the waves of Italian as that ocean increased in surface area and in depth. If I caught a snip of Spanish in town, tears sprang to my eyes. I saw a tourist couple from Cordoba two years ago who asked me to take their picture, and when they complimented me on my accent, I jauntily returned the compliment. Laughter erupted, who cared about that picture? In a different year I probably would have been invited for, and then joined them in, a drink in one of the bars on Via dei Servi.

In the 36 months since we arrived, my shadow Spain has felt like a petulant friend in the background, wanting to know why we don’t hang out anymore. Spain, I am sorry, I want to tell her, Italy is just that demanding. I’ll never forget all those happy Spanish times, but Italy – can we talk about Italy. And Spain says no and shuffles away in sniffles.

What is it about Spain that I miss, in contrast to Italy?

Spain don’t care. She is insouciant. She is a survivor. She is a bit rough around the edges, but her appeal is found in her steel core. Italy cares. A lot. Italy wants to look nice. She wants you to think she looks nice. Spanish doesn’t even have a catchphrase like ‘bella figura.’ Spain just is. Spain is the Lost Generation Gertude Stein in Paris to the Murphys in Nice. Spanish people look and act as they wish. If you don’t like it, go find some other friends. Italians (Florentines) are constantly checking one another, looking, looking sideways, surreptitious side-eye, seeing who looks nice and who does not look nice, who is suave and who is stumbling. The Italians here might help you, but they might judge you after hours. (I realize these are gross generalizations and would like to offer a sincere apology now to my local Italian friends, who have been handpicked for their international mien.)

I had two serendipitous conversations last week, within days of each other: one with a Spanish woman from Malaga, also named Monica, and one with an Italian friend, Mariella, who looks like an Italian Heather Graham, originally from Palermo but relocated to Florence, and now dividing her time between Florence and Madrid.

La otra Monica and I were at an agriturismo with a couple other families. She came to Italy a couple decades ago, and stayed for love, as is so often the case. (Oh, Italy …) Even all these years on, she confessed that she found Florence cold and difficult to navigate, the people reserved and full of judgement for outsiders. Her Italian, she said, never felt natural; she could never feel fully at peace here. I felt a cool wave of realization and shock roll over me as I realized – I thought my adjustment struggles had more to do with not effortlessly mastering Italian! But now I see that perhaps I am experiencing Italy from a core Spanish identity, and my responses and confusions are near identical those those of a Spaniard! This was a revelation. Just hearing her explain all this in Spanish and I was listening with tears in my eyes.

I saw Mariella at a work-related event with Jason; Mariella used to work for the RFK Center for Human Rights, headquartered in Florence (nice job, Kennedys). Her accent is so Madrid that I had to laugh, slightly nasal, with an agreeable inflection uptilt at the end of each sentence. She loved Madrid, she said, having moved there for a PhD program at la Universidad Carlos III. After years in Palermo and Florence, Madrid was comfortable, was home for her. If she could swing it she’d move there for good.

‘And you know,’ she said, her blue eyes widening, ‘the Spanish can actually run a city, unlike what so often happens in Italy. I think,’ she continued, leaning in conspiratorially, ‘ that their dictatorship is a much more recent memory. They follow rules, they work together, unlike the anarchies that reign in Italy.’

I chuckled but she had a point. I could see it. Italy’s never won points in the global arena for calm administration and management. Not since Rome, anyway. The Roman hangover has lasted approximately 1600 years. Well, Florence did alright, it could be argued, for a few centuries in there; the Florentines somehow managed things when they weren’t launching boiling oil through one another’s living room windows.

It is tempting to draw a line around the Mare Nostrum and attempt to draw conclusions. And yet those conclusions retreat like a stormcloud on the horizon.

I will have more to say on this topic. My Spanish subaltern is diminished, but not deceased, and returns to life when Spanish culture draws near. How strange to have invested decades of travel, inquiry, research, two degrees into a culture and language that is so close, yet so far, from where we are now. And yet I am happy here, in Florence. It is a new set of challenges well-suited to me. But, oh, Spain …

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