Nowadays, Americans want their products, shinier, faster, more efficient, and consequently, as there are exorbitant numbers of us, mass-manufactured. We live in a world of over-sized sports utility vehicles and miniature telephones. In our strife to rapidly acquire such icons of success, we've overlooked the fact that receiving a service or product faster doesn't necessarily mean that it's better. Of those nations that comprise the Western world, Italy, in particular, promotes the notion of quality over quantity in both business and pleasure.
Italy relishes its ability to produce its goods, celebrate its significant events, and essentially, live free of a highly commercial attitude. In its larger cities, Italy's tourist industry may foster capitalist ventures such as the occasional Vatican key chain or Carnevale di Venezia website. However, this country does not aim to be more "Western" (i.e. "American") because it was, in fact, their own history that imparted the foundations of modern culture, and their ardent nationalist pride dissuades any visitor from believing otherwise. Italy's lack of fervent emulation, displaced by its flair for savoring the finer things in life, makes it a most refreshing vacation destination.
To the best of most tourists' knowledge, a vacation in Italy is about the food, wine, fashion, art, and architecture, and I am in total agreement. However, as I mentioned above, the vacation is, to an even greater degree, about the attitude. The greatest examples of the Italian inclination to escalate common existence to a level of opulence are first the country's piazze, or central squares, and second, the lavish festivals that take place within them.
I suggest that upon visiting any town in Italy, you first seek out the main piazza. (Don't eat major meals in the restaurants or shop in the stores located on the piazzas, as they are most likely tourist traps.) The piazza is a meeting place, an area where residents and visitors congregate to share ideas, a bottle of wine, and in spring, what promises to be a beautiful evening.
Unfortunately, the closest American counterpart is the food court at your local shopping mall which, as a result of American culture, does not usually envelope you in breathtaking Renaissance architecture or romantic-minded people. However, similar to the primal jungle dance of high school football player and cheerleader, Italian men definitely use the piazza as both scoping-out and picking-up joint. So ladies, either beware or enjoy the opportunity, depending on your attitude.
Also, as the night progresses, the very young and the very old slowly disappear from the piazza. You'll then find that those in between get a little louder, wine gets replaced by shots of grappa, and the aroma of those smoking may get a little sweeter as a dense European hash is rolled in with their tobacco. Whatever your pleasure, the piazza is a good place to meet locals and start your Italian evenings.
Italy's festivals are a further extension of the country's indulgent spirit, most notably, its Carnevale, a Catholic period of revelry that precedes Lent. This is like our Mardi Gras. Though there's a shortage of scantily-clad, plastic bead-seeking drunkards screaming "Show your tits!" in the streets of Venice during Carnival, those within the city's limits carouse in an equally frenetic, sensuous, Dionysian manner. This tradition, upheld in Catholic countries throughout the world, is a magical time in Venice that once broke the rules of social class and identity to allow the average man to engage in luxurious jubilation. The result: a week of debauchery that occurs annually in February or March.
Author Italo Calvino captured this revelry when he wrote: "From its square to its palaces, from the historical places celebrating Venetian greatness to the inaccessible places that guard that memory of a civilization made of a culture and glamour: there is a journey to relive the spirit and times of great Carnivals past…it is a city which shows its soul during Carnival."
Though there are magnificently posh balls that occur within the walls of Venice's architecture feats, one must be fairly well off to attend. As far as I'm concerned, the true Carnival goes on in the streets and piazzas. During the days throughout these two celebratory weeks, musicians, street performers, storytellers, fire-eaters, and dancers gather in the squares to both entertain and rejoice in this time of letting it all go. Wine flows freely and emotions stir as the nighttime activities begin. Though costumes become more extravagant as years pass, veteran Carnival players are still seen in traditional "Bauta"—black cloak, black tricorn, and white plaster painted masks. These disguises allowed Venetians to break laws and remain anonymous during the weeks leading up to Lent. Today, they are the symbols of the occult Venetian fantasy. Celebrations and masquerade "balls" occure nightly in the piazza, so don your most luxurious gear and don't be afraid to delve into the underworld; there are no rules during Carnival.
The advantages of vacationing in Italy exist because of various experiences, and these do not begin and end with the food and the art. Basically, there's an overwhelming sense of indulging in life that one feels as they step off the plane. Also, the five-dollar bottle of Chianti that you may purchase at any Tuscan grocery will probably surpass the $30 imports you're forced to buy at your local supermarket. Trains are cheap and fun, so long as you watch your belongings. Buses are alternatives that allow you an even closer look at the Italian countryside. Any diversion from your itinerary will not disappoint, and if you go to Italy, take an understanding of emphatic nationalist pride and a healthy appetite for decadence.