As with any destination, a little background reading can help you to understand more. Many Italy stereotypes are accurate—children are fussed over wherever they go, food and soccer are treated like religion, the north–south divide is alive and well, bureaucracy is a frustrating feature of daily life. Some are wide of the mark—not every Italian you meet will be open and effusive. Occasionally they do taciturn pretty well, too.

The most important thing to remember is that, for a land so steeped in history—3 millennia and counting—Italy has only a short history as a country. In 2011 it celebrated its 150th birthday. Prior to 1861, the map of the peninsula was in constant flux. War, alliance, invasion, and disputed successions caused that map to change color as often as a chameleon crossing a field of wildflowers. Republics, mini-monarchies, client states, papal states, and city-states, as well as Islamic emirates, colonies, dukedoms, and Christian theocracies, roll onto and out of the pages of Italian history with regularity. In some regions, you’ll hear languages and dialects other than Italian. It’s part of an identity that is often more regional than it is national.

This confusing history explains why your Italian experience will differ wildly if you visit, say, Turin rather than Naples. (And why you should visit both, if you can.) The architecture is different; the food is different; the important historical figures are different, as are the local issues of the day. And the people are different: While the north–south schism is most often written about, cities as close together as Florence and Siena can feel very dissimilar. This chapter will help you understand why.

Italy Today


As in most of the Western world, the global financial crisis—known here as the crisi—had a disastrous effect on Italy’s economy, causing the deepest recession since World War II. Public debt had grown to alarming levels—as high as 1,900 billion euros—and for a decade economic growth has been slow. As a result, 2011 and 2012 saw Italy pitched into the center of a European banking crisis, which almost brought about the collapse of the euro currency.


Populism has become a feature of national politics, and a party led by comedian Beppe Grillo—the MoVimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement)—polled around a quarter of the vote in 2013 elections. Center-left politician Enrico Letta was installed as prime minister heading a grand coalition of left and center-right. That shaky alliance soon collapsed, partly amid infighting between Letta and his political kin, Florence mayor Matteo Renzi. In early 2014, Renzi became Italy’s youngest prime minister, at 39 years of age, heading a coalition of the center-left. Among his first significant acts was to name a governing cabinet made up of equal numbers of men and women—a ratio unprecedented in Italy. What happens next, of course, is anyone’s guess.

Italy’s population is aging, and a youth vacuum is being filled by immigrants, especially those from Eastern Europe, notably Romania (whose language is similar to Italian) and Albania, as well as from North Africa. Italy doesn’t have the colonial experience of Britain and France, or the “melting pot” history of the New World; tensions were inevitable, and discrimination is a daily fact of life for many minorities. Change is coming—the Letta government appointed Italy's first black minister, Cécile Kyenge, and black footballer Mario Balotelli is the country's biggest sports star. But it is coming too slowly for some.


A “brain drain” continues to push young Italians to seek opportunities abroad. The problem is especially bad in rural communities and on the islands, where the old maxim, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” applies more strongly than ever in these straitened times. By 2014, however, indications were that the worst of the economic turmoil might be behind the country. From top to toe, highlands to islands, fingers are firmly crossed.


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