There is this barber in Crema, the Po valley town where I was born. He works in a narrow street full of people walking to the market and cars that shouldn't be there. The barber's name is Gigi, a name that reassures any tourists. He knows Italian heads inside and out. Gigi is a professional of the scissors, and of public relations. He talks about politics, sports and women. If a woman were to walk in, he'd be able to talk about men, and the terrible things they do to their gray hair, for example. Gigi keeps up to date. The radio is always on, and he reads the papers. Friends and acquaintances stick their head in to say hello. It could be a pensioner passing the time of day, or a youngster who wants to eye Greta, the good-looking, soccer-loving shampooist.
This 21st century version is not so different to a barber's shop in the 12th century, when Crema, sitting on its marshes and enclosed by its walls, was getting ready to defy the German Emperor. A barber's shop is still a place for conversations and consolations, a shelter and a source of information. Obviously, nine centuries ago, there wouldn't have been a calendar with a naked lady opposite the shampoo chair. But to notice that, you need to be a foreigner.
Gigi Bianchessi, barber and psychologist, knows nothing of writer Italo Calvino. To the best of my knowledge, Calvino never met Gigi, yet he did write that "all towns have corners of happiness, if you know what to look for." In Italy, you have to multiply the corners after recognizing them. Our unsinkable nation is the sum of thousands of places like this that make up hundreds of towns like Crema.
A thousand years of complicated history have produced a mechanism that is perfect in its simplicity. A town like Crema, which has 33,000 residents and lies 44 km from Milan, is our third line of defense, after the home and the piazza. It's a ring that protects and keeps watch. The ring is ancient, and inside it we know what to do, and end up loving it, sometimes too much. Take a look at the bars as we pass. They are social clubs and treasure troves of wasted talent. Small-town Italy, as nice as it is, can have a soporific effect. You risk nodding off at 20 and waking up at 50.
Crema was founded by the Lombards, destroyed by the Germans and loved by the Venetians, whom it loved back. It admires Bergamo, is suspicious of Cremona and attracted to Milan. It's a halfway town, the anything-but-mundane aspiration of the average Italian. A town like this doesn't only look attractive to Italians fed up with traffic and suburbia. Non-Italians like it too. They understand instinctively that it offers the right mix of unpredictability and reassurance. In his 1960s book The Italians, Luigi Barzini explained Italy's attractions for the rest of the world, and its peaceful invasion by tourists, like this: "The art of living, this disreputable art developed by the Italians to defeat regimentation, is now becoming an invaluable guide for survival for many people."
This is still true, even though tourism has found many other destinations. Everyday life in a small Italian town is an ideal to which peoples more organized than we are aspire. We like our halfway Italy not too big, and not too small and commit to it. A friendly store in our street makes up for bad news on the television. That's why Italy comes out ahead of countries like the U.S., France or Germany in those quality-of-life tables. Handcrafted consolations are equal in value to postindustrial organization. Of course, they don't show up in the gross domestic product, but they take pride of place in our personal statements of account.
Everybody in Italy feels important, and quite rightly demands attention. We don't just look at people in my country; we see them. We know the pleasures of conversation, and savor the tang of personal observations. Comments on a new dress are welcome in Italy; elsewhere they would arouse suspicion. Italian families defend mealtimes, and the younger generation is discovering the less crucial ritual of the aperitif. We've even managed to transform into a ceremony that most fleeting of habits: drinking an espresso while standing at a bar.
In a town like Crema, we go farther. We save time on journeys and lines only to waste it in the piazza or a store. We find time to cycle to school with our children as we struggle with the dog's leash. Three times a week the people of Crema flock to the covered market and become country folk again. They look, they handle, they haggle, they ask for explanations.
Do you understand, now, why so many Italians say they are dissatisfied with Italy, but could not live anywhere else, or miss it dreadfully if they do? The world is getting more complicated, so it's nice to have some of your life tools to hand.