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La Bella Figura, a Field Guide to the Italian Mind

October 31, 2006

Washington D.C. – As you prepare for your next trip to Italy remember to put in your suitcase, along with roadmaps and book guides, Beppe Severgnini’s latest book – La Bella Figura, a Field Guide to the Italian Mind. Maps can help you find your way through the Italian winding roads and survive the country’s geography but they will not get you through the national psychology. This book will.

Beppe Severgnini is a columnist for Italy’s best known daily newspaper – Il Corriere della Sera. Since 1998, he has authored a labellafigurabkdaily column titled “Italians”. The column has since then grown into a forum and is among the most popular Italian websites, regularly featuring emails from Italians scattered all around the world. Severgnini is also a big soccer fan and a sportswriter for La Gazzetta dello Sport, Italy’s daily sports publication. In 1998 Beppe Severgnini spent one year in Washington DC, at the end of which he wrote a very successful book on his experience as an Italian in America. The book was translated into English with the title of Ciao America five years later and was welcomed by critics and public here as warmly as it had been in Italy, making the journalist well-known across the United States.

Ciao America was thought for Italians who wanted to have a taste, and possibly a good laugh, of what is like to be a foreigner in America. This newest work instead is all for the Americans, a look inside the hearts and minds of the Italians. It is a field guide for the lost tourist that does not understand why a red light in Italy is always so disputable or remains astounded by the looks he receives when ordering a cappuccino mid-afternoon. “After ten o’clock in the morning, it is unethical, and possibly even unlawful, to order one” Severgnini explains.

La Bella Figura has been an immediate success in the United States, judging by how it came to be ranked number 8 on the non-fiction bestseller list on the New York Times or by the number of cheerful people who attended the event that the Italian Institute of Culture organized at the Italian Embassy in Washington DC, in occasion of the writer’s American tour.

“Italy is not a nation”, Severgnini told an amused audience; “It is a collection”. Italians are 58 millions special cases, or so they feel. They all want to be treated as such, convinced that they have a hotline to the boss and the right to individually assess whether or not a law applies to them on a case by case basis. This explains why it is so difficult to be a politician in Italy. “Our leaders are like shepherds”, the author joked with the exhilarated crowd, “but they do not have sheep to take care of, they have cats instead”.  It also explains the disorganization that characterizes every aspect of Italian life, one that often scares foreigners on their first visit. But it is a controlled chaos that Italians seem to enjoy: “Controllers and controlled have an unspoken agreement,” Severgnini writes in his book; “You don’t change, we don’t change, and Italy doesn’t change, but we all complain that we can’t go on like this.”

Despite the confusion, Severgnini’s advice on Italy is a simple one; do not let yourself be frightened by the apparent state of anarchy.  In the midst of the chaos, Italians possess qualities that you would not expect and that you will certainly come to appreciate. They are the six Gs; Gusto (which means taste), Guts, Generosity, Gentleness, joy (which in Italian is spelt Gioia, with a G), and Genius. The Italian genius for enjoyment and pleasant living especially will certainly help make your visit to Italy unforgettable.

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism

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