It seems that every summer I get new inspiration for a comparison between American and European lifestyles. It must be my vacation in Europe that inspires me to state the obvious. But how can you resist visually absorbing the beauty of European small towns? Falling in love with them? Here is an Italian town, population 50,000, that’s so vibrant and livable that makes me consider how an American small town would compare to it.
Let’s start with the basics: this town doesn’t seem to be affected by any kind of economic crisis, much less a housing one. People seem happy and connected, public spaces are lively and, this being Italy, everything is beautiful. But that’s a bonus that comes with decades if not centuries of historical building preservation 🙂 .
Urban social space
One reason it’s such a livable, sociable town is the fact it’s walkable and bikeable. Streets are narrow and parking is scarce, yes, but it’s also built tightly, with mixed-use spaces: street-level stores and offices and apartments above them. Even going to get your coffee and brioche in the morning is a social experience in itself, because you probably know the people at your local coffee shop and the regular customers. Also, you don’t have to clear your schedule for a get-together with a friend to chat. You can be sure to see people you know on your way to the bakery or to the newsstand. You can be social without really trying. This is rather difficult to beat by a sprawling American suburb where people meet only if they’ve already set an appointment because they can’t rely on a chance drive-by encounter.
The local economy
There isn’t a visible economic crisis in this little town, yes, but things are not rosy either. Historically, textile mills have been the traditional industry of the area, which means that local people’s livelihood is now being threatened by cheap Chinese imports. To compound the economic woes, textile factories here are small and mostly family owned, which means they don’t have the cost benefit of large-scale production. But the local economy is holding up well. Instead of competing with cheap Chinese fare, local factories have diversified into other areas (furniture, household appliances, etc.) and focused on high style design that can justify the higher cost. And there’s also the expectation that things you use in your daily life, like clothes, shoes and furniture, should last, which motivates buyers to prefer quality over low price. There are almost no big box chain stores and small independent shops are doing well: there are at least five furniture design studios in town that can customize your home space by subconracting with larger factories. And oftentimes that’s necessary just because your apartment won’t be big enough to accommodate any kind of furniture combination.
The art scene
The arts are doing pretty well in this small town. Exhibits used to be hosted at the first floor of the court house, but now there is a brand new art museum that started off with a Modigliani show. The museum (they call it a public art gallery, but it really correspond to the concept of a museum in the USA) has decided to specialize in contemporary art and besides that, it has an ambitious program of film screenings and performances. Besides that, there are lots of things happening: music performances on multiple town squares, in front of the main church and in public courtyards like above. There are three drama theaters, too, some sponsored partially by the town and one of them working as an affiliate of Giorgio Streller’s Piccolo Teatro in nearby Milan. It’s not just high brow art, though. During the two-day summer festival, sponsored by downtown businesses, the town paid good money to a local creative group of graffitti writers to paint an empty wall between a bank and a club. The whole process was witnessed by everyone attending the music performance at a nearby stage and the next day all passerbies were admiring and critiquing the final result. I am not sure about its artistic meaning, but it seems to be an allegory of day and night and the change of light and darkness, since the dividing color line follows the angle of the shadow falling on that particular wall.
As it can be expected, Italians are very particular about their food and are capable of driving an hour to get to a restaurant they know is good. But restaurant going is not as frequent as in the States and not just because eating out is more expensive. People buy groceries and actually cook, as meals are always a social occasion, even within the family. The town hosts a thriving Saturday market where fruit is seasonal, vegetables are local and one can find some 20 kinds of freshly caught fish, for example. There are supermarkets, too, but I have to say food there is of equally great quality without being expensive. And that ice cream!
They are what you expect Italians to be. Very social, involved and informed about what is going on in the community. On the left, you can see a moment of the annual volunteers’ dance at another town nearby. You see, most ambulance services in Italy are run by volunteer organizations and fundraisers (cum appreciation festivities) like this are common. I was excited to see people dance liscio live 🙂 The local newspaper is alive and thriving with no signs of shutting down.
Would I like to live in a small town in Italy like this one?
I love visiting this town every summer. But with all its beauty and charm and community spirit, there are certain other things that make me very reluctant to actually live there. And I wonder if these are structural problems or just external details that are not part of its core.
For example, an article in the local newspaper’s cultural section caught my eye. It was a series of interviews with local people about where they were going on vacation and what book they were planning to read while away. Very worthwhile, right? Books, reading and getting to know your neighbor, all connected to the moment of here and now. But wait. The people interviewed were not random people walking down the street. They were: the director of the new art museum (she is planning to read a mystery novel). OK. Then it’s a local female athlete of international fame. Then the mayor. And the good-for-nothing son of a national politician who is originally from that county. That son, barely out of high school and already styling himself as a “car racer”, is not just anybody but he is not someone whose opinion would have real weight either. So asking him those questions for the interview was, for the newspaper, just a way to be friendly to his father. And the athlete or the museum director are fine people, but why do you have to look up and interview anyone who is already famous? I wanna know what that old lady thinks or what that random unemployed young man reads.
That article was just a small example, but it shows the Italian tendency to take into consideration movers and shakers and people of authority rather than to foster influence from within the community, coming from people with no social influence. I wouldn’t say that nepotism is a problem in this town; it isn’t. But what about this reverence for important people, no matter if politicians or erudites!
And I wonder if this is structural and if it derives of all the good things about the town I listed above. After all, if local independent stores, newspapers and small companies thrive, this means they have a connection with their community that can be a little too binding.