Italy celebrates it’s 150th birthday today. Buon compleanno Italia!
I know that might sound weird, especially because Italy is considered to be an “old” country with ancient Roman ruins that have been around for a lot longer than a “younger” country like the USA has. Well, all this is true, but this celebration of 150 years doesn’t represent the existence of Italy, but rather it’s unification. I’m not really that “into” history (nor do I know enough to really write a blog post about it) so I’ll be quick on the historic details so we can get to the heart of this blog post: different parts of Italy were conquered and ruled by different countries, different regimes, and different governments untill 150 years ago when the Resurgence took place to unify all of these territories into one state.
Given the shape of Italy on the map, perhaps its best to think in terms of a boot. Italy was a boot that had pieces manufactured by many different companies. The laces were from the Austrian Empire, the heel was from Napoleon, the sole was from the Kingdom of Sicily, the leather was from the Catholic Church, and the inner lining was from Garibaldi. Then, 150 years ago, the boot was re-manufactured according to new production laws and now it has a tag on the inside reading “100% Made in Italy“. Any of my blog readers who know their Italian history are probably shuddering in horror at this metaphor right now, but I think it’s a cute way to sum it all up! 🙂
All these different ruling entities, each with their own language and culture, helps to explain how Italy is so vastly different from region to region.
Take the USA, for example. It’s true that in Boston we don’t pronounce the “r” and that the southern states have an accent all their own. It’s true that the northeast has Wendy’s and the east coast has Jack-in-the-Box. But in the end, even though we’re a really spacious country, we Americans are all speaking the same language and all eating the same type of cheeseburger.
On the other hand, in Italy, which just go give you and idea is smaller than the state of California (and we got 49 more freakin’ states!), the language, culture, and food changes dramatically from one region to another.
As far as language goes, Italy has two of ’em: standard Italian and dialects. Standard Italian was created so that all Italians coming from the various unified regions could communicate with each other. Before the creation of Italian, everybody just spoke dialect (a local regional language influenced by whatever party was ruling over that particular chunk of Italy). These dialects are not merely “accents” but languages all unto their own. Somebody from Bergamo and somebody from Naples, somebody from Sardegna and somebody from Florence, wouldn’t be able to really understand each other if they were all speaking in their own regional dialects. Dialects have their own vocabulary, own grammar, own spelling, and own pronunciation. Just take a look at the different words for the Carneval snacks in different dialects from my previous blog post. If somebody is speaking dialect in a movie or on the news, they even put subtitles in Italian so that people from other parts of Italy can understand! Isn’t that crazy??? I mean, Americans may have some regional words (sub vs. hero vs. hoagie vs. grinder) but if I spoke with somebody from Chicago or Atlanta I’d still know what they were saying!
Another part of Italian culture that has been strongly influenced by all the former non-unified regions is the food. Certian types of food, like pizza and lasagna, can be found all over Italy, but there are lots of types that are region-specefic that are hard or even impossible to find outside of the region, like Bologna’s gramigna pasta (a squiggly egg pasta), Venice’s sarde in saor (fried sardines and onions), Milan’s ossobuco (braised veal shank), or Sicily’s capunata (eggplant and celery salad).
I mean, this isn’t like going to the grocery store in California and not finding the same brand of hot sauce or ice tea mix that I can get back in Boston… it’s like not finding these things at all! Plus, being that a lot of these local foods have names that come from dialect, people in other parts of Italy won’t even know what the hell food you’re talkin’ about!
It just really blows my mind that I can take a seven hour flight from Boston to San Diego, step off of the plane and be able to speak with people and know what food there is to be had, but if I take a 2 hour train ride in Italy, I risk entering a world where I don’t know what people of saying nor what that delicious looking cheese in the deli window is!