Monday, April 12, 2010

Where was I?

It's been so long since I've blogged here that it's pointless picking up from where I left off. It's been more than eight months since our move to Cagliari, so I'm going to jump straight in and try to give you a feel for the place over the next few posts.

There's something that I've come to understand after years of moving around: it's easy to like a place enough to want to live in it; it's quite another matter liking it enough to want to die there. There's a cemetery not far from where we live, and absurd as it may sound to some, it's a beautiful place to take a walk. They don't bury folks there any more - it's more of a monument than a functional graveyard - but it contains enough generations of cagliaritani to be considered a museum of personal histories.

The trees and tombs form orderly ranks and files stretching away from the main gate, and upwards along the slopes to the right. In the lower terraces, simple plaques set into uniform walls mark the final resting place of most of Bonaria Cemetary's residents. Further up the south-facing slopes, above the tree line and warmed by the year-round sun, mausoleums and miniature chapels hoist important surnames high above the hoi-polloi.

Italy is considered by many to be a nation of individualists, and I think this is more or less correct. The general disdain in which Italians (as a group) hold other Italians (as a group) is evident in everything from the polemic nature of public discourse to the no-prisoners-taken attitude on the roads here. But Italy is also a place where deference to one's social 'superiors' is evident. Titles and positions are not only prominently on display on letterboxes, business cards - and gravestones - but almost piously observed in communications. It's practically an insult to refer to somebody simply as signore (sir) when you know damn well he's a lawyer and should be addressed as avvocato. The titles can get humourously out-of-hand. Onorevole, meaning honourable, is used to refer to members of the lower house of parliament and is used regularly on TV and in public without any irony whatsoever. My personal favourite, which I discovered only recently, is the title accorded to the dean of a university: rettore magnifico - Magnificent Rector. If you write to the head of your university, it is with this absurdity that you must begin your letter.

Deference and individualism might seem like opposites at first glance, but they can co-exist quite easily when you remember that deference only requires the appearance of respect. Geert Hofstede (hat-tip to Dale Wyttenbach) has compiled country-by-country values of something called a Power Distance Index, which attempts to measure the degree to which people at the bottom of the social heap accept and expect that power is not shared equally. In other words, it is an indication of how willingly those with little power accept their lot.

(In fact if I do a comparison between my own native culture in Ireland, and that of Italy, I find that we are not terribly well suited from the point of view of risk aversion or deference to authority.)

I've had countless animated conversations with Italians in general, and Sardinians in particular, about the many and varied problems facing this region and this county. The dynamics of such conversations follow a consistent pattern. My Italian friends begin by slamming complaints on top of each other, books of evidence piled up against the criminal state of affairs here. Then the pace quickens and the anger deepens into a downward spiral that can sometime end up in absurd or paranoid claims about how this is the worst place in the world to live and how it will never change. And then, in the end and when you least expect it, the diatribe pivots on a single word: però. (But. However. All the same.)

"Però ci si sta bene". (It's a nice place to live all the same.)

I don't know if Bonaria Cemetary (Cimitero di Bonaria) appears on any guide books, but if you find yourself in Cagliari and in need of some respite - and a great view of the city - then you could do worse than to spend some time here. Me, I could happily spend an eternity there.