musings about Milano

I was at a home décor trade show in Milan last month, and I’m still digesting the experience weeks later.

Like most Americans, I have a soft spot in my heart for Italy. The ancient roads, the ubiquitous little scooters, the classical architecture peppered with graffiti, the fabulous boots and shoes, and of course the delicious food and wine. The simple expressiveness of the Italian language is enough to make me melt, with all its mellifluous vowels and sweeping hand gestures.

Because of my enchantment with Italy, I felt a twinge of disappointment when I realized that Italians are really trailing the pack when it comes to earth-friendly design. Mostly, I think it’s fair to say, they are just copying the United States and northern Europe. I did not come across a single new idea in the realm of ecological product design, materials design or packaging design at the trade show. Aesthetically, of course, Italy continues to inspire, drawing on centuries of artistic tradition while still remaining at the forefront of fashion. But when it comes to infusing design process with a deeper sense of caring and stewardship, I would have to say they are behind the times.

In a way, this is a symptom of a larger problem facing Italy. In the last 25 years, the West has undergone a mystical flowering, characterized by a desire to transcend duality, embrace wholeness and honor the interconnectedness of all things. Anodea Judith calls this transformation the waking of the global heart. It’s a shift that represents a sea change for America, and a somewhat more subtle yet nonetheless significant awakening for northern and western Europe.

For some reason, Italy does not seem to be participating in a truly meaningful way. Certainly they are not taking a leadership role. Why is that, I wonder? Isn’t Italy the country of L’AMORE?

Weeeell… yes and no. The dominant flavor of “amore” in Italy is Eros not Agape and frankly it’s often Eros at its worst. Billboards plastered all over Milan are currently promoting a movie entitled, “Femmine Contro Maschi” (females against males), a comedy film masking a simmering gender war. I personally felt like a prey animal the entire time I was in Milan. Several times daily, men I had only just met attempted to kiss me, court me or touch me inappropriately – despite my wedding ring, and usually theirs. I’d be hard pressed to call this type of salaciousness “amore” – what it aroused in me was anger and fear. And I’m not alone: hundreds of thousands of Italian women took to the streets in angry protest last weekend, the Sunday before Valentine’s Day, and a feminist video denouncing the portrayals of women in the Italian media has spread like wildfire throughout Italy. You can see a subtitled version here.

Stripping away the romantic veneer of Italy reveals a naked truth: This is a country far more invested in the “love of power” than in the “power of love.” Entrenched power structures like the Catholic Church, the Mafia and a highly corrupt and secretive government leave most Italians feeling profoundly disenfranchised and powerless. The most popular Italian response to this problem is to complain, loudly and to anyone who will listen. Italians complain about their fellow countrymen, about immigrants; about modernization and the lack of it; about Berlusconi, his cronies, and the lack of a respectable alternative. Italians complain so vigorously about virtually everything that I’m convinced “having a bad attitude” might be as quintessentially Italian as pizza and pasta.

Of course every country is an onion, though… and just as the romantic veneer of Italy can be stripped away to reveal profound unrest and discontent, so can this layer be stripped away to reveal everyday Italians living the bella vita in just the way you might imagine. It would be unfair to ignore the fact that so many Italians are able to gracefully embrace the best of old-world tradition and infuse it with modern style and elegance. It would be unfair to ignore the small but extremely passionate segment of the Italian population that is committed to resisting the “mind-control trio” of church, media and government to think independently, read, write and travel.

Still, I find myself wanting more for Italy. Every country has a soul – and if ours is Liberty, Italy’s is Love. The myriad peoples of the Italian peninsula and her sensuous islands have been fascinated by love, temptation, redemption and transcendence since before they even cobbled together a real country. One of the most famous passages from Dante, considered by many to be the father of the Italian language, concludes with a quiet awareness of a love so powerful that it transcends the personal, connecting everything and everyone in all the universe, l’amor che move il sole e le altre stelle (the love that moves the sun and the other stars). There’s simply no denying that the longing for love is part of Italy’s national heritage and collective psychology, a truth that is vaguely uncomfortable for modern Italians, because it sheds light on the fact that the very soul of their country is a little sick at the moment. Italian culture has strayed so far from love at its purest and best. The products and imagery being consumed by most Italians today are profoundly empty, lacking any broader sense of depth and connection and meaning. Most Italians know this. They know it and they find it both disconcerting and humiliating.

One reason my heart breaks for Italy is because our beloved America is a little soul-sick as well right now. Over on this side of the pond, we are grappling deeply and often ferociously with the true nature of Liberty. As unemployment drags on, the gap between rich and poor continues to widen, and the proper role of government undergoes furious debate, America is experiencing a raw soul crisis on public display for the world to see. It’s embarrassing to be seen scrambling frantically after the principles of freedom we supposedly hold most dear, arguing angrily and often disrespectfully with each other about how to claim this freedom fully. On some level my heart breaks for Italy out of pure empathy. Being in a soul crisis as a country is tough.

But it’s more than that. My heart breaks for Italy because Love Itself is incredibly precious to me. Love matters just as much as freedom, it’s just as worthy of being protected and cherished. At least I think so – and I want Italy to think so too.

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