The first time I was made aware of my Piedmontese identity was when a girl I had just met at university asked me where I was from, because, she added, I was too kind to be from around there. (Politically correctness imposes not to disclose my whereabouts at the time. But well, yes, you’ve guessed: I was living in Rome back then).
Her comment made the well-known saying “Piemontesi falsi e cortesi” [Piedmontese are false and polite] to immediately pop in my head. While I took some pride in being recognized for my good manners, was I also perceived as phony?
Being from Piedmont, I couldn’t make a personal question to someone I barely knew. So I had to wait for some time, during which I befriended that girl, before eventually asking her. “I don’t think you’re fake” she reassured me, “… but, blimey, you’re cold!”
Now, the proverbial coldness of my people has been misunderstood for too long.
As descendants of courtiers to the Italian Royal Family, Piedmontese have developed a taste for learning and abiding by rules and regulation. Like answering some ancestral call, we follow etiquette like our lives depended on it. In making introductions, we prefer calibrated handshakes instead of double kisses on the cheeks of complete strangers, like the rest of the country, inexplicably, likes to do.
Enclosed by the reassuring presence of the Alps, we are puzzled by any Mediterranean display of affection, which we modestly judge as over the top and, frankly, unnecessary. After all, it must mean something if the monument symbol of our region, Saint Michael’s Abbey, is an inaccessible hermitage built in heavy, grey stones.
Social interactions of any kind, it goes without saying, result in unnerving and awkward attempts. The thing is, we can’t bear the thought of disturbing anyone.
From Verbania to Cuneo, the most common saying, or, better, state of being, is “Non mi oso” (which, disregarding the rules for Italian pronominal verbs, could be translated in “I don’t dare”), to express the feeling of uneasiness we constantly face in potentially intrusive situations, like asking a stranger for directions.
Because the life of the fellow Piedmontese is ruled by precise rituals and habits, solely dedicated to work – following Calvinist pockets of resistance impossible to convert to a more Catholic idleness – we know there is simply no room for the unplanned. Anything “surprise” (parties, visits at home, gifts) is pretty much discouraged and frowned upon.
Piedmontese kids are still raised following order, cleanliness and discipline, the same principles that were employed in training the Savoy army to fight the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The combination of seriousness, frankness, punctuality, and correctness that is instilled in us before we are capable of digesting truffles and raw meat (of which we are greedy) played a crucial role in the unification of the country.
After the fall of the Papal States in 1870, Italy was finally reunited under the House of Savoy. The newly established government started a process of Piedmontization of the whole Kingdom of Italy, which was meant to ensure steady administration and cultural amalgamation.
Beside some positive outcomes, like Quintino Sella, the most celebrated Piedmontese ministry of finance who was able to reach a balanced budget for the first time in the history of the country; the rest of the endeavour must have been the chronicle of a disaster foretold. One can only imagine the scene: spruced up herds of dignitaries, bureaucratic and military officials descend upon Rome, the new capital, in the attempt of extending their life-style on the local population.
I really can’t see how the Piedmontese understatement, which we only share with the British – it must be the rainy weather – could have been enforced on the lively anarchy of our compatriots. Indeed, moderation and sobriety aren’t exactly perceived as Italian qualities. Back then, as now.
The philosopher Norberto Bobbio would rightly claim that the motto to be written on the Piedmont flag should be: “Let us not exaggerate!”.
It’s in this middle ground that we find our true selves.
“We are clumsy in face of happiness, and dignified in adversity” wrote Alessandro Baricco.
We like comfort, but not too much; we appreciate fun, sure, but we constantly remind ourselves that tomorrow we’ll have to go to work. And we do so with a subtle pleasure.
So, it only makes sense if we are often misunderstood.
With this awareness, we are contempt with living away from the spotlight, minding our own business, conscious of our singularity and our soft power. After all, we managed to drive Nietzsche crazy in less than 4 months!