The southern Italian society is organized, as are most, according to guidelines that are the result of economics. In most families money is tight, and a newly adult child moving away to live alone in an apartment is unthinkable. Of course remaining with the folks until age forty can lead to all kinds of unfortunate situations and negative behavioral consequences, but that is for another post…a long one.
So most families will raise the children to the age of eighteen, and then keep them around until they marry, with time out for college or military service. In many families the grown children stay even longer, and three or more generations will live together in one apartment. Imagine getting married with loads of expense and fanfare, and the next day moving back in with Mamma and Papa’. (I sometimes think that the concept of “enabling” was born here.) These spaces are low on square footage, so that means plenty of closeness and familiarity. It isn’t surprising that much social interaction takes place outside, on the streets of the town. Its a party every night out on the Corso, you just have to show up and meet your friends. But what about those private moments, the focal point of the evening for many a young couple? Where can they find a bit of privacy?
“Tramonto, Bernalda” pastel on paper
It is interesting to note that the English word “privacy” is used in Italy, because there is no synonym in the Italian language! There is also a verb for the act of taking oneself away from others to obtain privacy, which is “appartare.” To draw apart, to separate onself from others. Enter the automobile. The most important changes of the last century may be attributed to the mobility provided by the automobile, but there is another reason these tiny mobile rooms have changed society around here: they provide a place to be alone…together. When your house is small enough that it requires siblings to share a room, and mom, dad, and grandma are always there, there simply is no better place to go!
The slow crawl of couples in their automobiles on their way out of town begins at dusk, and ends later when they return to pass the evening in restaurants or among friends in sidewalk gatherings. Condensation on the windows is a universally recognizable sign that a couple is “fidanzati.” The word is similar to our appropriation of the French “fiance,” but the interpretation is more open-ended, and it refers only to the current significant other, and is quite changeable. Fidanzati come and go, and they will only be considered serious if they are taken to important meals with the parents. One assumes their arrival to dinner is in a car with clear windows. I often embarrass myself when, after my vigorous evening walk in town, the windows immediately fog up as soon as I get into my car. I wonder if people think ill of me, a married woman with kids, as I drive by?
At the end of gravel roads in the periphery of any city, there will be small accumulations of white facial tissues and, well, other items which have been tossed out of the fogged windows of parked cars. It would not be an exaggeration to say that every country road has its “Kleenex” area, and one would be wise to look the other way when hiking or biking. Alas, it is a tradition that small paper items never ever make it into a trashbin if they are used in an automobile. The idea of keeping the countryside clean and attractive has not caught on everywhere yet.
There is a small Fiat called a Panda, which is still in production today after thirty years, although it has been souped-up and modernized. In the days before the invention of the minivan, it was unique in that it had a back seat which was pure genius, and obviously designed with the couple in mind! It was a kind of futon, actually, a thin mattress hung on two horizontal bars, which could be unhooked at will. With the front seats folded forward, the back seat of the car could effectively become a cramped but accomodating bed. It was a very popular car both because it was economical and it had this added feature. My husband and I both had Pandas back when we were courting, as did many of our friends. It was a bestseller…no doubt due to its excellent mileage.
I can only imagine the comfort indulged in by couples nowadays, with their fancy French minivans and Fiat Multiplas which are five times as large as the Panda ever was. Things might change in the future, but it will take tremendous economic growth before young couples can afford a place to go to be together other than an automobile. I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Models may evolve, and the number of doors may change, but as long as there are dark country roads, the phrase to be used here in place of “Get a room!” might as well be, “Take a drive!”