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Piedmontese small steps


Once she got married to the boyfriend she had been linked to since high school and University, Alessia and her brand new husband Daniele settled into her parents’ wedding present: a two-bedroom flat, newly renovated, located within two blocks of Mom and Dad’s cosy apartment.

It is a very cute nest, floored with shining mosaic tiles in the entrance and chestnut parquet flooring in the bedroom and living room.  Here an impressive oak library bookshelf displays a nineteenth century Encyclopaedia behind its glass doors, a legacy of Alessia’s great grand father, several leather-bound thick books of Latin literature and crystal bibelots. On the walls hang lithographs of Turin in its glory years and on the cherry wood desk stands an antique religious sculpture. Daniele showed me with pride the dark oak chest in the middle of the room; obviously a piece of antiquity, which can contain the “aperitivi” bottles of Martini, Cinzano, whisky, or vodka, when the lid is down. “Alessia bought it for me! Every time we passed by the store, I used to sigh – “How beautiful but so expensive!” – and then, surprise, it was under the tree last Christmas, with my name on it.” They exchanged a kiss.

I expressed my admiration for the prettiness of their home, a compact one bedroom flat, but arranged with taste and interspersed with intriguing objects, both useful and aesthetic. In the kitchen, a narrow space, the dishwasher faces a stylish copper clock, painted in green and engraved with the initials of the newlyweds.  They appreciated my compliments and excitedly added a detail contributing to their happiness:  “Daniele has been transferred to the branch of this company which is within 5 minutes walk.  Isn’t that fabulous?”

Movement is the enemy of the bugianen. His first instinct is to rebuke anything, which could compromise all the routines of his life he has worked hard to set up. A serious dilemma arises if a young man has to make a choice between a wonderful job opportunity and his family, including mamma and papa, when their locations are different; this topic is regularly addressed in a popular magazine entitled “Oggi” (Today).  

Alessia, for instance, would not dislike spending one year in the States but Daniele rejects the idea. He asserts his attachment to a certain number of European values and has anyway already organized his career for the long-term and it will take place in a determined geographical area: Turin, yesterday, today and tomorrow. His plan includes a variety of hobbies, an Internet-connected computer at home, where a pair of wool slippers lays in the entrance waiting to be put on around 5.30 pm, but also the regular get-togethers every week-end with the same friends to share some tales of their younger years, now gone. Does it sound like I am describing people past middle age?

They are 30 years old, the latest generation of the “bugianen”.

It is a dialectal word of the Piedmont area which refers to its natives’ resistance to any change, any new event likely to disturb their enduring way of life. They build habits up quickly into tradition, which in its turn becomes their shroud; and they are attached to it as strongly as they are to the Shroud of Turin stored in the “Duomo”, the City cathedral.

In defence of Daniele, I must say that he actually did venture on a holiday in the United States to comply with his wife’s wishes.

From that experience, the young woman acquired some unconventional gestures she employs every now and then. For instance, after a victory at a board game, she pulled back her arm vigorously, with the closed fist to enhance the “yes” she shouted, defying the horrified face of her husband.  She talked with American gusto about how Daniele insisted on eating what Americans eat, unlike their fellow Italian tourists who have been known to “demand pasta in a desert”.  Unfortunately, after two days of that courageous effort, Daniele got sick and they had to retreat to the comfort of the pizzerias. Even, of course, if the American pizzas have nothing in common with the Italian dish.

At least they got the American experience – which seems to be a mandatory part of the agenda if you belong to the alpha group – and the rebellious attitudes deployed by Alessia don’t fool her entourage. It is part of the social game and she just sprinkled the right amount of stirring items to keep the atmosphere lively, as an accomplished hostess is expected to do routinely.

For the bugianen, received ideas are not in any danger of being erased, but perversely, they get more deeply grounded through the years.
Chiara, a young Piemontese student, 26 years old, once admitted her internal conflicts.

“I would like to live alone, well, I mean, not in the same house as my parents. But I am torn between a feeling of guilt as if it would mean abandoning them and my desire for independence. Of course, that would also mean that I would have to earn my living or at least, part of it.”

“Are you saying that your parents want to keep you…forever?”

She fidgets a bit. “Well, er, at least until I get married, I guess. But, you know, there are so many people who stay with their parents, even if they have a job. Sometimes, they keep living with them even if they are 30 years old or even more…!”

I push a bit. “But, for you specifically, how difficult would it be to fly out of the nest?…”

“I know that my mother is worried every time I just go out of the door and I can’t help not carrying along that concern. Although I went by myself to the States when I was 15 years old, I stayed with a family. Last year also, I holidayed for 2 months with friends in France. My parents called me often and told me things that they never said before…I thought that on my return things would be different but it did not work out that way…”

“Is it a one way situation or…?”

“No, that’s true. I probably need someone to push me out of the family comfort zone.”

Chiara seems a victim of some melodrama or a true tragedy, I am not quite sure, but she betrays in other areas a strict compliance with the tenets of survival in Turin. When we talked about slang, she turned into a fierce defendant of the pure distinction between parts of the society. “Oh sure, slang exists in the Italian language. I happened to listen to some young people in the bus and I couldn’t make any sense of it.” She asserts, a bit aloof. “Especially, if they come from the suburbs…” she added as an explanation.

Indeed, I recommend that you never define Piemontese as a dialect. Some shops in Turin are proud of their name, written in this language very similar to the “langue d’Oc” from old southern France. In via Pietro Micca, a clothing store sells traditional Piemontese style attire under the sign “Il viej Turin” (Old Turin—in Piemontese). If you overhear some sharp guttural sounds that don’t quite match your assumed idea of the harmonious language that Italian truly is, don’t be misled; probably, you are surrounded by authentic Piemontese! After all, some wear a veil, others insert a flag on their car plate and identity is flaunted every now and then in a dramatic fashion. If, while you wander in a market, you’re called out “Madamine” by a merchant, or if you are asked after your purchase “Basta pareil”, you could think you have been mistaken for a full-blooded Piemontese lady. But honestly, it is unlikely to happen. They are quick to spot foreigners and to recognize the accents.

You may put down that passion for the language to the possible lack of education as those who use it are often women of an advanced age; but that reason was only valid until today. It stands actually for the will to spell out what is primary in this area. They cannot stamp the winged bull, symbol of Turin, on their shoulder, can they? Tattoo it? In Turin, that is not done.
The need to protect and display their identity protrudes also through the hammering of the divide between North and South of the country.

When the elections before the Berlusconi era brought a leftist to head the town hall, one of my acquaintances, very perbene, (perbene means something like a little too stylish and correct) commented on the results with a typical high brow tone: “I am happy. It has been such a long time since they gained power. There is still a part of the country that keeps voting for the right wing, though. I am sorry, but I have to say it, the South is persistently following that way, just out of lack of knowledge. In that respect, I can agree with some arguments of the Lega – a popular party riding on regional claims -, although they are poorly demonstrated. Our taxes are too high, which, when shipped to the South, only encourages their unwillingness to make any effort to earn their living. It is such a waste, and to the detriment of the North!”

Ironically, the other Torinese – from southern origin, still seen sometimes as immigrants, whatever class they belong to – are not apparently aware of the extent to which the bugianen spirit has trickled down into their own grey matter.

Monica, a brilliant Sicilian software programmer, has to travel frequently between Silicon Valley and Turin for professional purposes. She lives with the man who has been her fidanzato (anything from boyfriend to live-in lover—the latter in this case) for 11 years, in a flat located (again) 5minutes walk away from her parents’ house. Their only daughter is in fact often taken care of by grandparents from each side of the family who compete insidiously to cocoon the child when required, and to cook the couple’s dinner.

When Monica’s partner suggested that they transfer for a couple of years to the States to reduce her shuttling and maybe also, by the way, to boost their economic resources, Monica cried out: “Me, leave my roots, never! Planning to move from one house to another is enough to make me sick!”
There are about 900,000 inhabitants of the city as, since the 90s’ Turin has been losing people to the suburbs, or even the regions where they came from before Fiat called them up from the south. The aggravated resurgence of Torinese identity, leading to almost palpable hostility to outsiders – Southern Italians, new arrivals from North Africa, Central Europe – may stem from this depopulation. Consequently, the ageing of those who remain reinforces the fixation on traditional values. The families, already knit together by material interdependence, (it is often more pragmatic than sentimental) tighten the links. Out of apathy, fear of change and an acute sense of survival, the following generations soak up the convictions distilled by the tight grouping.

These preconceived beliefs are disseminated even further, although in much the same way as it is done in so many cities. The Torinese can identify you according to the neighbourhood you live in. Over and above the military partitioning, then the administrative mapping of the city, some boroughs have plastered their refreshed design of the Piemontese culture. There every time you meet someone, you say Bon dì and you leave with lots of Buona giornata , or Tante buone cose, or  Mi stia bene,and Auguri. You chat with the neighbour about some new arrival in the area.
On Sunday mornings, men in jacket, corduroy trousers and loafers can be spotted on the benches of the local square, reading the newspaper. Some women are walking the dogs or watching the kids who play around in case they get dirty, hurt or who knows what can happen. You go to the mass, leaving the church in small groups, dressed in overstated elegance. You survey (and yes, if they could use surveying tools they would) the other groups, and you speak loudly in Piemontese. Back home, you could pot your red geraniums on the balcony and carefully pull the white cotton lace curtains, just as in bygone times and just as all your neighbours are doing.
Dramatically different is the backdrop in the area bordering the city, populated by a majority of Southern immigrants. Children play soccer in the street, no matter if three large gardens are easily accessible. Garage exits are used as goals and passing cars have to slow down to avoid smashing one of the would-be football stars. Indeed here everybody is passionate about the game and when there is a match on TV, all balconies are bursting with shouting, overjoyed, definitely extroverted comments at any time of the day. The children therefore dedicate consistent attention to this pastime and when their mothers yell at them, say, from the fourth floor of a purpose built block, they answer back swiftly, not all disturbed.

Laundry hangs on the balcony. And at the windowsill, some times idle young women are leaning, apparently unaware of the loud volume of their cassette player broadcasting Elvis Presley’s voice. Men stand at the corner of the streets, just there, smoking. In summer evenings, families gather outside the home, grandmother included, and will sit on chairs settled on the sidewalk for a chat. Teenagers will ride their roaring scooters or motorbikes, dreaming maybe of some international race. When they take to the ground, however, they will stroll in groups, almost gangs, cool attitudes and dressed exactly appropriately and the girls will be supremely focused on drawing their attention. On weekdays, everybody is back to basic concerns, some trying to overcome unemployment while housewives do the shopping, simple jumper and skirt around their chubby waist, shoulder lowered by the plastic bags.

Well, I lived in an area full of the descendants of Venetians, then in another one defined as Southern and finally in the centre of …perbenismo. Who am I?

Between these opposite, nearly cartoonish areas, invisible links are, however, woven.

Bakeries in the ‘right’ areas offer plenty of grissini, the typical thin bread sticks, almost bland in colour or in taste, but you can also find them covered with sesame seeds, or cooked with olive oil, and with a wider size as if treated with some Mezzogiorno sun.

Both neighbourhoods support the expulsion of the extracommunitari (anyone coming from outside the European community), the North Africans who wander across the city, selling cigarette lighters and packets of Kleenex or willing to wash the windshields at intersections.

Southern people, half joking, but half not, sometimes call anyone with a dark complexion Marocchino, (Moroccan) forgetting that, in summer on the beach their own skin colour turns into cafe espresso. They can’t help probably remembering the past, when the Piemontese accused them of being rude or degrading the tidiness of their Little Paris.

On the other hand, the long-standing Piemontese just looked at the new invaders and put down to them the increase in crime, in unemployment and… in general dirt.

But sometimes also, the former antagonists just join.

I know a young woman, 27 years old, whose relatives and ancestors come from Lecce. She is married to a man, rooted in Asti (a Piedmont city) and often teases the Piemontese – playfully emphasizing her Pugliese accent, with irresistible gusto. The couple has just bought a loft in the well-heeled part of Turin.

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