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What It Means To Be Italian

“Eat well, laugh often, love much.”

There’s a well-known Roman saying: mangia bene, ridi spesso, ama molto. I’m not sure there’s another expression that surmises the Italian way of life so succinctly, so accurately, as it. 

Eat well, laugh often, love much. 

Good advice for living. And if there’s one thing Italians excel at, it’s living. 

Italians are masters of embracing joy in the everyday. Of living simply, but living right. Of looking after themselves. Of eating well. Of loving. Of savouring moments. Of finding the sensuality in places where it doesn’t normally exist – picking a ripe red ciliegia straight off a branch. A juicy pomodoro dripping down their fingers. Sliding a new pair of scarpe out of a cardboard box. 

To be Italian means to cherish family – first, and always. It’s to be passionate – seemingly about everything, all of the time. It’s to be fierce in character. Loving of heart. Dedicated to living a life of beauty – from food, to music, to art, to fashion, to home décor, to gardening, to every element that makes up a life. 

Italians take up space in the world – they are loud and gesticulate wildly and don’t shy from expressing opinions and emotions. Perhaps that’s my favourite quality of all. The way Italians exist, unashamedly. 

I’m convinced my mother’s neighbours must think there’s fighting that goes on every Sunday night at her house. Of course, there isn’t, it’s just family dinner, but the sheer volume is alarming for those who didn’t grow up being encouraged to embrace and express who they are.

One of the highest compliments, and a personal favourite, an Italian can bestow upon you is: essere in gamba. Literally translated it means “to be in leg”, which isn’t so helpful for those who don’t understand the essence of what essere in gamba means, but it’s this: to be with it. To be sharp, intelligent, on it. To be in leg is a very good thing. 

To be Italian is to dress up to go out for coffee. To drink espressos like water. To understand that everything good in life happens around the table with family and friends. To be Italian is to have a strong work ethic and an innate sense of self-reliance. To be able to make something out of nothing. To value creativity. To honour people. And that stems a long way back, right to Roman civilisation. 

The Romans of the 1st century BC defined being civilised as having good habits, fine taste and to be able to govern one’s life rationally. To be human meant two things: being educated in the liberal arts, and to have sympathy for others regardless of their social station. The Roman Empire gave rise to the culture, laws, technologies and institutions that continue to define our way of life. Ancient Romans believed one was not born human, one had to become human.

Maybe becoming human is in fact the most Italian way of all. Growing up, my mother would constantly school me in the right way of doing things. This is how you dress, this is how you eat, this is how you make your bed, this is how we do it, this is why we do it. There was a constant comparison between who we are and what we do and how that sets us apart from il maiale

And she is right. And it is true. Because without the framework and the habits and the focus on fine taste and the faith and the civility, we are all just animals. Becoming human is a fine art in itself. For Italians, it’s not enough to simply be a human. That’s what everybody does. Existing is easy. Becoming a human though? That takes work and strength and beauty and tenacity and class and courage. And that is what it means to be Italian.