What’s the true strength of Italians? Sure, we can cook pasta like nobody else on earth, and we know the right amount of water to use in order to brew perfect espresso. But those aren’t the only things that make us unique. Behind the classical artworks and the frenetic hand gestures that make foreigners smile lies something more. “An undeniable love of life,” some say; or perhaps a blend of “creativity, irony and likability” that makes us irresistible to others, even with all our shortcomings.
As Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote, embodying this idea of “wisdom”: “Everything that happens in your life is good material for promoting your growth and the growth of those who are around you – this, in a single word, is an art – and this art called ‘life’ is a practice well suited to men and the gods. Every single thing has its own specific purpose, and conceals its own benediction.” Even the land we live in, therefore, can conceal marvelous things, things that are merely lying there, waiting to be rediscovered.
Here are some of the habits, traditions, merits and defects that characterize Italians -- from coffee rituals to tragedies and the lessons we’ve learned from our past.
For inspiration, look beyond the bestseller list
For Italians, The Divine Comedy is a timeless and instructive work of art. Written by Dante Alighieri in 1300, it remains an allegory and key to understanding vices and virtues. The poem opens: “When I’d journeyed halfway through this life of ours, I found myself within a shadowy forest, for I had lost the proper path.” The initial verses, which every young Italian learns by heart at school, are indelible in the minds of most of our countrymen and women.
The Sanremo Music Festival
“Because Sanremo is Sanremo!” That’s the slogan created by the organizers of Italy’s annual televised pop music contest. This showcase for young Italian talent, which helped launch the career of Andrea Bocelli, among others, is a beloved tradition for Italians –- despite occasional claims that nobody watches it, or that success doesn’t translate into sales. It’s an opportunity for Italians to come together, crowd around the television, and sing love songs.
Sacred moments are possible -- even in huge crowds
On Sunday mornings in Rome, Piazza San Pietro fills up with the faithful, pilgrims and tourists who have come to hear the Pope’s Angelus prayer. It’s a sacred moment, one in which visitors can feel the “sanctity” inherent to this particular time and place. Even though the piazza is usually extremely crowded, every person manages to find a way to connect intimately with his or herself, with others, and with a sense of something greater.
“Aiutati che Dio t’aiuta”
This popular Italian saying, which roughly translates to “Help yourself, and God will help you,” embodies the spirit of Italy. It means that as long as we give ourselves a helping hand, as long as we work hard at whatever we’re doing and believe in ourselves, God (or better yet: luck) will handle the rest.
Everyone -- even non-smokers -– takes a cigarette break
In Italy, taking a cigarette break doesn’t necessarily mean smoking a cigarette: even non-smokers accompany their friends and colleagues heading outside to smoke. Often this is merely a quick break from work, though it can just as easily happen during an afternoon spent studying at the library or between one university course and the next. At a certain point someone will say, “cigarette break?” and everyone else will head outside along with him to smoke, or talk, or both.
The espresso: a special, entirely Italian moment
We just can’t live without it. Whether we’re at work, in school, with friends or with family, the coffee break is more than a break. It’s a special little corner in our daily life where we get to withdraw, think, and connect, inebriated by the aroma of fresh espresso. It also becomes a perfect opportunity to meet up with others: often we make dates, appointments and meetings around coffee. What Italian has never said to a friend: “Sure, I’ll stop by for a coffee,” or “Let’s get together for a coffee”? The important thing is to spend some time together, and a little cup of espresso is the perfect excuse.
Talking with your hands is a sign of passion
Yes, Italians gesticulate. We can’t seem to do anything without moving our hands. We gesticulate while we’re talking on the phone, while we’re giving instructions, even while taking a university exam. Some people claim that if an Italian were to be tied up, he wouldn’t be able to talk. And every hand gesture has a different meaning: a slight upward movement of a closed hand means “take a hike”; touching your forehead repeatedly near the temple means “he or she is crazy”; putting your hand near your mouth serves to emphasize what you’re saying. Every hand gesture has its own vocabulary. And you’d need a dozen lifetimes to learn them all.
This post is part of a Third Metric collaboration among The Huffington Post’s international editions, showcasing wisdom from around the world. It has been translated from Italian.