A Beautiful Figure and 'The Italian Mind' Beppe Severgnini is a newspaper columnist who's been helping fellow Italians make sense of U.S. culture for years. Now, he is turning his wisdom and wit toward his homeland, exploring the nuances of life in modern Italy. For instance, Severgnini says, traffic laws are interpreted a bit different in Italy.
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A Beautiful Figure and 'The Italian Mind'

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A Beautiful Figure and 'The Italian Mind'

A Beautiful Figure and 'The Italian Mind'

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MELISSA BLOCK, host

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Journalist Beppe Severgnini has been helping fellow Italians make sense of the U.S. with his newspaper columns and with the best selling book, Ciao America. Now he's switching channels trying to help Americans understand Italy's culture and its quirks.

Mr. PEPPE SEVERGNINI (Author): Italy's far from hellish. It's got too much style. Neither is it heaven of course, because it's too unruly. Let's just say that Italy is enough bit purgatory full of proud tormented souls each of whom is convinced he or she has a hot line to the boss. It's a kind of place that can have you fuming and then purring in the space of a hundred meters, or the course of 10 minutes. Italy is the only workshop in the world that can turn out both Botticellis and Berlusconis. People who live in Italy say they want to get out, but those who do escape all want to come back.

NORRIS: Severgnini's latest book is called La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind, and it does read like a travel guide, making stops in Naples, Milan, Tuscany and Sardinia. Along the way Severgnini describes and dissects his country's beautiful complexities. He says Italians relish those contradictions. He points to what he calls the red light mentality. When a mundane encounter with a traffic signal becomes a existential exercise.

Mr. SEVERGNINI: A red light in most countries is a red light, okay. You go, red light, you stop. You stay there and you wait for the green light. In Italy, the red light is the beginning of a kind of philosophical investigation. What kind of red light is that? And people start thinking maybe it's a red light yes, I can see that but there is no one coming. I can see very well. I can go through and it's not dangerous.

And then therefore it's become a relative red light. An orange kind of red light because this red light has been put here because there is a school but now it's late at night, children are not at school. This is extraordinary. You know in every country I know people see a red light and they bloody stop.

In Italy, no. We think the rule is basically boring. Obedience is boring. It is like an insult to our intelligence. Italians have a problem with the pattern, with the rule, with the repetition. We never have a problem with exception. You may have read the first chapter about the airplane. I begin explaining, for instance, the big difference an American stewardess and an Italian stewardess.

NORRIS: Yes, yes.

Mr. SEVERGNINI: It's exactly the same thing.

NORRIS: I was going to ask you about that because you say Italians have an eye for beauty and a pension for drama and you say that that is quite evident if you travel to Italy particularly on an Italian airline, and you have this wonder anecdote in the book where you talk about the difference between Italian flight attendants and flight attendants from other countries.

Mr. SEVERGNINI: Okay. An Italian stewardess is normally pretty. She's very elegant, but she's a little kind of detached, aloof. She doesn't really - she doesn't come to you in smiles all the time. While the British or American stewardess, she's really cheerful. She comes to you, she smiles, she says is everything all right or whatever.

But then when something happens, we have a little emergency, you spill coffee on your lap or something. Something minor. The American stewardess, you can see you've broken her pattern. She really doesn't like what has happened and she just changes her expression. She looks at you with a kind of like stern way and she doesn't say anything. But basically she means shame on you, you're 50 and you're spilling coffee on your lap.

The Italian stewardess all of a sudden, she loves the fact that now her fantasy, intuition, intelligence and ability to tackle a little emergency, it's put to test. She really is the best, so the mother, the sister, the lover, the friend, whatever comes out in her, and she's terrific.

NORRIS: Throughout this book you have noted the paradoxes of Italian life. A country that celebrates and in fact cherishes the old, but also has this fascination that seems to border on fanaticism for all things new, especially new technology. Gadgets and small electronics and especially cell phones.

Mr. SEVERGNINI: Absolutely. We are, I think only Finland has got, has more cell phones per capita than we have. But the point is the Fins are not very talkative so they actually keep their cell phones in their pockets. We actually talk all the time. All the companies want to come to Italy, all the telecommunications company, they love to come because there is a huge market. Anytime you always know who to call.

You know, a mother, father and whatever, and when you think that the majority of the males in their 30's live at home with their parents, that creates an enormous web, because their parents have to keep control - which is extraordinary. He's 30 years old, he has to inform his parents, then what about the girlfriend. Yes, Italy is a cell phone country. We started much before you did.

NORRIS: It's interesting because so much of Italian conversation is about the body language and the theatrics, the gestures and the facial expressions. Seems like you'd lose all that if you're talking on a cell phone.

Mr. SEVERGNINI: Who said that? I have seen people who actually keep their cell phone with their neck in order to be able to wave, because without waving we cannot properly express ourselves. We have a fantastic richness and wealth of gestures. They were born, I think, because there was kind of secret code to talk to ourself without having the parental foreign power running in to understand what we were saying. So we would talk their way very quickly.

But it's still, I'm waving now. You can't see me but I'm waving like every two sentences because I'm speaking English. If you should hear me speaking Italian, I just go. You know what they say in Brazil? They say if two Italians talk in the water they swim.

NORRIS: So with all these people walking around with their neck sort of cricked to the side, holding a cell phone while they're gesturing wildly, it seems like there is going to be a lot of chiropractors that are going to see a lot of business pretty soon.

Mr. SEVERGNINI: Yes.

NORRIS: Beppe it's been a pleasure to talk to you.

Mr. SEVERGNINI: Thank you.

NORRIS: Beppe Severgnini. His latest book is called La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind.

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