Ubiquitous evening passeggiata a vivid reflection of Italian lifestyle by Paul Spadoni
‟I think we stepped into the middle of a parade,” Lucy exclaimed. We were taking an evening stroll in Lucca and found the streets and squares packed with locals wandering around but going no place in particular. It was our first experience with a famous Italian event that exists in every decent sized Italian city. La passeggiata is a slow, gentle stroll through the pedestrian parts of the center of any city, usually beginning just before dusk. It signals the end of the work day, offers a breath of fresh air and allows people to chat with friends and neighbors. On weekends whole families walk together, sometimes splitting apart for smaller conversations and then joining again. People greet friends and neighbors, swap gossip, share the latest news.
“This is astounding,” Lucy said. “How did we miss this up to now? It’s like an all-inclusive, multi-generational town party. It reminds me of one of my quilts, but where each thread is a person, woven together into one human fabric.”
And speaking of fabric, these Italians know how to dress up. Even the most fashion-challenged person can’t help but appreciate these daily sidewalk shows. As we walk around in our blue jeans and sweatshirts, I can’t help but appreciate these well-dressed and coiffed italiani.
Clothes are stylish but not garish. Colors are coordinated; styles are modern, classy and form-fitting, never faded or sagging. Sweatpants and sweatshirts are virtually non-existent. Yet these people dress in a way that looks natural, effortless. It is example of sprezzatura, a word invented to describe the Italian ideal of nonchalance, or the studied carelessness that conceals art and presents everything said and done as something brought about without laboriousness and almost without giving it any thought. Sprezzatura has been described by fashion writer Johnny Liu as ‟artful dishevelment—dressing like you don’t care, taking a nonchalant attitude with your appearance—when in fact you do take time and effort to create your look. The trick to pulling it off is subtlety, confidence and an otherwise impeccable outfit.”
“I’ll never be that Italian,” I told Lucy. “Are they just born knowing how to dress and look sharp and beautiful? I’m missing that gene.”
“No, it’s obvious that they’ve learned it while growing up,” she said. “I’m sure they pay plenty of attention to the way they look and dress. But we’re from Washington. We’ve made the grunge look famous.”
But a passeggiata goes far beyond simple fashions. Old people walk slowly, faces lined with character and experience. I can imagine that the old man I see might have been, one hundred years earlier, my own great grandfather, walking along with hands behind his back, or playing checkers with another old timer on a park bench. I instantly sense that something is fundamentally different about these people. Many people walk with their arms linked together. Of course this applies to couples of all ages and is not unique to Italy. But it is also common to see teenage girls with linked arms, a sign of close friendship, and teen girls linked to their mothers. Middle-aged women walk with arms linked to their aging mothers to offer both physical and emotional support.
This closeness is not limited to the women. While it is unusual to see boys walking with linked arms, there still is a physical closeness and comfort with contact not seen in other countries. I see a cluster of boys talking loudly and easily with each other, and one puts his hand on the other’s shoulder and leans closer to share a story he doesn’t want everyone else to hear. It is also possible to see middle-aged men with arms linked to their fathers, and even occasionally a young teen boy linked with parents, something that would be social suicide in America. The closeness of Italian family ties is typically something that people note and admire about Italy, and the passeggiata develops and encourages this trait as well as puts it on display.
While most people walk in groups, those walking by themselves seem perfectly comfortable. At a certain age—maybe the mid-sixties—men walking alone adopt what we call the “old man walk,” leaning forward slightly, with hands clasped behind their backs. Body language specialists suggest this posture demonstrates a self-confident person who has lived a satisfied and fulfilled life. I occasionally practice this myself when walking alone so I’ll be ready when my time comes.
Watching the teenagers interact during the passeggiata is another fascinating experience. Groups meet, mix and split into different groups. Rarely is anyone walking alone, and if they are, they’re probably on a cell phone, planning a rendezvous. Teenagers and young adults perhaps have the most at stake when it comes to making la bella figura, a good impression. This is their chance to strengthen friendships, make new ones and impress the opposite sex. In a way, the passeggiata of young people reminds me of school dances, charged with youthful energy, enthusiasm and passion, a socially sanctioned opportunity for flirting and courtship. Parents approve because the interpersonal skills gained are useful in the workplace and the complex politics of life. Of course this event takes place every night, so the stakes are not so high and the participants more relaxed, experienced and comfortable.
“Look at those men sitting together around that table,” Lucy said. “You should go join them. You look Italian. You’d probably fit right in.”
“Yeah, I wish.” I replied. “Other than the fact that even if I could understand their dialect, I don’t do well in groups even when the men are speaking English. But I do envy them. If I had been raised here, maybe I would have developed better social skills, and then I could be comfortable sitting around chatting, arguing, playing cards with my lifelong friends.”
“Or at least by now you would have mastered the old man walk,” Lucy said.
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