Italy Roundtable: The Dark Side of Community


My goal with articles on Italy Explained is almost always going to be to help you plan your ideal Italy trip. This month’s Italy Roundtable topic of COMMUNITY, however, has me thinking back on an experience I had in Milan years ago.

It’s something I’ve never written about, because it was a difficult cross-cultural moment, and all these years later, I’m still not sure I’ve got my head around it.

I hope you’ll pardon me this bit of introspection, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on what you might have done in my place.

creative commons photo by Jeff Kubina

creative commons photo by Jeff Kubina

“Non mi piacciono i musulmani,” said the Italian woman across the table. And I froze.

I don’t like Muslims.

At the time, my language skills were barely enough to get me through small talk over dinner, and only when topics consisted of travel or food or what I do for a living. But by the time we were done sipping the barbajada my hostess had made, she had somehow swerved us into the arenas of politics and religion. And I was pretty powerless to contribute. Particularly since, just a few hours before, I had arrived at her loft apartment as a complete stranger.

Many months before that Italy trip, I had read about the Home Food organization and knew instantly that I wanted to sign up for a dinner. My now-ex and I had planned a trip to Milan, and as soon as we booked our flights and apartment we checked our schedule against the list of Home Food dinners. There was only one on the calendar, so we reserved two places.

The listing said the maximum number of diners the couple could host was six, but this was November – a decidedly slow time for tourism in Milan – so we climbed into the loft to find that we were the only guests that evening.

Luckily, we found we had plenty to talk about with our hosts, a sophisticated and worldly couple who spoke excellent English. One wall of their living room was bookshelves, from floor to ceiling, and several rows were taken up by travel guides for countries all over the world. We talked about our own travels, they told us about a recent trip to Hawaii.

When they found out we spoke some Italian, they decided it would be good practice for us and stopped speaking English. For most of the evening, this didn’t pose much of a problem, aside from my growing translation headache. But somewhere between the osso buco and the panettone, my ex struck up a car-related conversation with the host, leaving the hostess and I to roll our eyes a bit and talk about other things.

I have no recollection of what twists brought the conversation from innocuous topics like travel and food to politics and religion. The only piece of the entire evening I can recall verbatim to this day, nearly eight years later, is when my hostess looked me directly in the eye and said, “Non mi piacciono i musulmani,” as if she were simply – though firmly – telling me she wasn’t fond of brussels sprouts.

The idea of “community” is one I think about a lot. I have, at various points in my life, worked in community management (both online and off). We all want to find our people, the group with whom we feel at ease, by whom we feel understood. We gravitate toward different groups for different reasons, but as long as there’s one thing that draws us together that can produce a powerful sense of community, which – in turn – can give individuals the freedom to do or say or think things they wouldn’t feel comfortable doing or saying or thinking on their own. There is strength in a community’s numbers.

In Italy, community is visible in ways it no longer is through much of the United States – neighbors sitting on the front steps to have long chats, shopkeepers who know their regular customers. I was elated when, after living in an apartment in Milan during an extended stay, I got a nod and an “il solito?” from the guy working at the corner bar where I went for coffee every morning. It was putting words to community, his remembering what I ordered each day – and, therefore, remembering me – and asking if I wanted “the usual.” I still get a thrill thinking about that moment, and I have gone out of my way to visit that bar on return trips to Milan, so strong is my sense of loyalty to it (nevermind that the proprietor no longer knows who I am).

The power of community has a dark side, however. The idea that a group is bound by one thing upon which they all agree means, by extension, that anyone who doesn’t agree with the group is excluded – and, in some cases, reviled. The existence of “us” requires a “them.” This can be trivial – get travelers debating “window seat” vs. “aisle seat” and you’ll understand what I mean – and it can also be dangerous.

Long before that night in Milan, I knew that Italians were often fiercely patriotic – not necessarily about Italy, but about the town or region where they were born. I still find it sweet, and sometimes silly (my town’s recipe for this dish is so much better than that town’s, three miles away, even though they’re more or less the same!). What I learned that night is that vehement loyalty to one’s home – to one’s community – can give rise to xenophobia.

Our hosts did most of the talking that evening, especially as the night wore on and the wine kicked my translation headache into high gear, and I had been doing a lot of nodding. When I heard, “Non mi piacciono i musulmani,” I hoped it was a translation error. I did not nod. I stared at her. But it wasn’t an error. Without batting an eyelash, she went into details about why she didn’t like Muslims, and my brain reeled. At some point, the two conversations at the dinner table merged again, we finished the meal, we thanked our hosts, and walked out into the night.

I didn’t have the vocabulary to respond to my hostess that night over dinner, but I wonder – even if I had been more fluent – if I would been brave enough to challenge her on her beliefs in her home, in her country. I want to think I would have had the guts, but I honestly don’t know.

In the years since, I have read countless stories of minorities being beaten in Italian cities, bananas thrown at black soccer players, and a not-insignificant political party in Italy that basically has mistrust of all non-Italians (some would even say outright racism) as part of its platform. There’s an entire Wikipedia entry on “racism in Italy.” Of course, it would be foolish of me to throw stones at Italy on this subject when (for example) black people are being killed by police with alarming regularity in my own country. And Italy is far from the only country that has problems with racism or religious intolerance.

I’ll accept that no one is perfect, that no place is utopia. I’ll argue that “community” isn’t by definition a good thing – see the Ku Klux Klan as evidence. And, after that night in Milan, I’ll also admit that these two facets of community in Italy – the blinders-on disbelief that a neighboring town might also have a good recipe for one’s favorite dish and the Italian Senate declaring that it’s not racist to liken black people to orangutans – are possibly two sides of the same coin.

Other Voices at the Italy Roundtable

What are my fellow Italy Roundtable community members talking about this month? Click along with me through to the following links to read each of their posts – and please leave comments, share them with your friends, and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

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8 responses to “Italy Roundtable: The Dark Side of Community”

  1. georgette says:

    Wow, what an interesting post! In a way I am not surprised, I have heard people say things like this not only in Italy but also in Texas where I am from and in various areas of the United States. There is a culture of fear because of what we hear on a daily basis on the news but what astounds me is just how blatant she was about this to a perfect stranger. At the end of the day you too could have been Muslim and it just seems so strangely harsh to make a blanket statement when we all know there are plenty of exceptions. I probably would have done the same as you because being in her home, and her being a stranger, you have no idea how the evening could have evolved if you challenged her opinion right then and there, especially with a language barrier. I really liked this topic for the Italy round-table and wish I could have joined in. Very smart ti point out that ‘community’ isn’t always a positive term.

    • Jessica says:

      Thanks for the input, Georgette. I’ve thought about that evening so many times over the years, knowing I would have liked to say something but never knowing quite what to say or how to say it. And hey, if ever an Italy Roundtable topic strikes your fancy, you can join in after the fact. 🙂 Glad to know we’re coming up with interesting topics!

  2. Sadly, I’ve run into a fair bit of this kind of racism over my six years here. And it still hits me for six, even now when I probably do have enough vocabulary to counter it. I think, given the fact that you were in her home and had eaten her food, it would have been hard to challenge too vehemently even if it weren’t for the language barrier – but then again, given that she was being so objectionable in a societal sense, maybe it wasn’t the time for being polite! It’s impossible to know what to do in any situation until you’re in it, though. Hopefully she’s since had someone less constrained by etiquette and politeness tell her what’s what. Speriamo …

    • Jessica says:

      Part of why I was so surprised, I think, was that – right or wrong – I expect that kind of comment from older generations much more so than younger ones. (And by “younger,” I mean my age, which she definitely was.) They were also so well-traveled, not at all the stay-at-home mentality I see with some Italians. So it really seemed to come out of nowhere.

  3. Will Douglas says:

    I’ve lived in the South – Salento, Puglia – for more than eight years and I’ve seen many different examples of what one young intellectual here calls ‘particularism’. As a word, it probably works better in Italian, but I think even for us it gets across the notion of xenophobia, ‘racism’ (Italian is not a ‘race’), in-group orientation, or whatever else we might think of, just not applied to national boundaries, and instead to one’s home town, region, peninsula, mountain range, commune, or whatever. And Smart Italians often will acknowledge the limitations of ‘campanilismo’ – allegiance to one’s village, the area ‘served’ by the local church belltower.

    I don’t see how you could have done otherwise than how you behaved at that dinner, even with full fluency and no wine – though doubtless those two things factor in. It’s called Diplomacy 101. The key is, as you very rightly said: you’d just met them, and they were your hosts. If you’d continued meeting, hosted them in return, built up rapport, etc., one day it might have been possible to decisively confront their idea which repels you. Why only then, after some time? Because – hopefully – with rapport would have come some trust, some faith that you could weather a possible disagreement. That kind of discussion rarely goes well at a first encounter.

    It seems quite reasonable that if during the time you build that rapport these folks either prove themselves to be good people in other ways that would have bonded you more to them, or else you would have discovered that their attitudes link to other ideas you find pernicious, and then you wouldn’t have continued to meet. Obviously, sometimes a meeting does not lead to a bond of any kind. Nature runs its course in different ways.

    And let’s acknowledge the great positives: that you reflect on it, that you question yourself – still, now, years later – and that you are intrepid enough to want to explore your thoughts on this and hear others’.

    One more thing (sorry for the length 🙁 )

    It can, and does happen that very well travelled, highly intelligent, even exquisitely sensitive minds can still firmly, malignantly hold ideas that seem repugnant and otherwise unthinkable in the same individuals.

    • Jessica says:

      Thank you so much for the insightful comment – I nodded as I read it. You’re right, it’s not even the kind of thing I’d be likely to bring up with fellow Americans upon first meeting them, and if continued meetings proved similar there may be far fewer of them in the future. It’s a very, very good point. Thank you for reading!

  4. Lara Dunston says:

    Jessica, I’ve found your blog via Kate’s and love this monthly thing you have going. What a thrill to have found a handful of wonderful blogs and not just one. Great story, skilfully crafted. I’ve lived abroad since 1998 and sadly I’ve found racism in every race all around the world, from the US to UK, Thailand to Turkey. Some people will be upfront about their ugly views, as your host was. Others will demonstrate it in more subtle ways. However, I’ve also met some of the most hospitable, open-minded and tolerant people on my travels too that have given me hope for humankind.

    • Jessica says:

      Thank you for such a kind note, Lara! And I agree, for every person whose opinions distress me, there are many more who give me hope for the future. 🙂

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