Generalizations about countries are always questionable—there are too many exceptions to any rule—yet as I reflect on my recent tour of parts of these two countries, the contrast between them, subtle yet important, seems to boil down to these qualities:
And this has nothing to do with alcohol.
The contrast began when we crossed the border from Switzerland to Italy, my first experience of passing two national boundaries with no check point, no police presence, no questions. It was just a space on the highway, with an empty building on one side—surely one of the great benefits of belonging to the European Union. Having been through months of disputing about our southern border in the U.S., now heavily militarized, this openness was almost hard to believe. I would later observe the same lack of surveillance in the Milan and Munich airport: no police, and great ease at going through security without the ridiculous requirement to take off shoes, and, sometimes it seems, everything else.
Italy of course was warmer, and also more moist, although not uncomfortably so. But its wetness, compared to the all-white (no emigrants allowed), strictly organized big Swiss cities was more than climate. Italy is a little disorganized! There are also dark-skinned people there. The hotels, of course, pride themselves on a high level of organization in both countries, since that is what WE expect, but in the hotel at Lake Como, the turndown service (which we also seem to require) happened a little later, sometimes as late as nine p.m, which caused my exhausted thirteen-year-old grandson to collapse in the corridor when he saw he couldn’t get to his bed.
The Italians stay up later, and may expect us to stay up later, too, rather than going to be, as tired tourists do, as soon as the sun sets.
At Lake Como, probably the largest inland body of water I’ve ever seen (I don’t know our Great Lakes), a sort of benign state of relaxation seems to reign. A few boats ply the distances between the small towns that dot the shores, but no speed boats or water-skiers; the absence of these disruptors reminded me again that I didn’t see Italians glued to their cell phones. Nor do the Swiss seem to share our peculiar addiction. (Probably the lack of cell phone coverage is why the twenty or so people on our tour actually got to know each other.)
Lake Como laps contentedly on its well-peopled shores. Here and there a monstrously big villa built by an oil oligarch crops up, but mostly the villas that adorn the lake shores are middle-sized, pretty examples of decorative pastel stucco with contrasting window frames and balconies: a peach-colored facade often features lavender woodwork.
These villas seem not to be built so much to impress as to house people who want to look out the windows at the lake, or drift along, fishing, in rowboats. The lake is uncontaminated—I don’t know where the waste goes—so that fishing is a worthwhile pursuit, both for the hobbyist and as a commercial enterprise.
Perhaps there is a mandate of some kind preventing speed boats and all that kind of thing, or perhaps it is just an aspect of the laid-back Italian character—at least on holiday.
Things were a little different in Milan, which seemed more like medium-sized cities everywhere: the same boutiques, the same brand merchandise in their windows. But because it was the time of Ferragosto, the August holiday, the inhabitants were gone; we could walk in the streets because there were almost no cars around, and since Milan is apparently not featured on tourist itineraries, we were also free of travelers. A curious quiet prevailed, except around the Duomo, the big cathedral, where tour guides were proclaiming, and the Galleria, the nineteenth century glassed-in mall that once was the site of expensive shops and cafes, but now has gone the way of all tourist areas.
With one exception: a small cafe called BIIF. Many years ago, in another life when I was married, I heard that my father-in-law, who belonged to one of the American families of that time who lived mainly abroad, spent a lot of time as a young man in Milan and hung out at a cafe in the Galleria. He was such a familiar presence there that the cafe was renamed with his nickname: BIIF. And so after many decades it remains.
Americans abroad: one of Henry James’ favorite themes. We are not so conspicuous now, because there are so many of us, but in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries we left our mark: Rome is always connected, for me, with the James’ novel Daisy Miller, and Milan will retain, for me, the faint impression of that young American who spent so many hours at a cafe in the Galleria.