Last week I returned to Italy after a whole year spent in Taiwan and Hong Kong. I believe I am not the only person who sees his own country in a different way after living for a long time abroad.
From this point of view, my almost four years in Germany weren’t as groundbreaking an experience as my two years in Asia. Germany and Italy are technically two separate countries with different culture and history. And yet, for hundreds of years they have been neighbours, they share a common set of values and historical developments. Greco-Roman civilisation, Christianity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Age of Discoveries, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Age of Nationalism, the two World Wars, and economic boom and many other historical processes are shared by most European countries. One can hardly explain the history of a single European country without talking about what happened in the others.
East Asia, on the contrary, was for centuries isolated from the West, despite more or less sporadic contacts. Before the 19th century, East Asian history was virtually independent from the events in other parts of the globe. Therefore, the cultural difference between Italy and Taiwan is much wider than that between Italy and other Western countries.
I have seldom missed Italy, but I did miss Europe. When I came back, I felt somewhat relieved, I felt at home. Here I need no visa, I am familiar with the way of life and people’s attitude. It was as if a burden had fallen off my shoulders.
In this post I would like to talk about my impressions after returning to Italy from East Asia.
One of the first things one notices in Italy is inefficiency. The little problems one encounters everywhere are striking, unpleasant. Italy is indeed extremely disorganised. After I arrived at Milan airport I went to the ticket counter to buy a train ticket to Milan Main Station. It was 7.43 am. The staff told me the next train would depart one hour later… This is disheartening. However, there is a shuttle bus service that takes one to the station in less than an hour and departs every 20 minutes.
In Hong Kong, the express train from the airport to the city centre comes very often and it takes only 25 minutes to get to Central MTR station. Taipei is much worse than Hong Kong and is currently comparable to Italy, but a new underground connection to the airport will soon improve the situation. I guess that among developed countries Italy has one of the worst public transport systems.
2 – Weather
The weather in Italy is really different from Taiwan, and from my own perspective it is much pleasanter. Generally speaking, the Italian weather is quite stable. It is always relatively cold in the winter, and although it may rain and the temperature may rise or drop, the variations are not huge. In Taiwan, on the contrary, it is as if every day could bring a new season. One day there are 12 degrees with rain and wind, and the next day there are 20 degrees or more. Changes in temperature and humidity are striking and always make me feel uncomfortable. It’s really hard for me to get used to that. In Italy, the weather seems ‘quieter’, and more ‘reliable’. The four seasons are clear-cut.
3 – Way of Life
What I noticed immediately when I arrived in Italy is the more relaxed and slower pace of life. In Taiwan, I feel as if I were on a boat carried away by the ocean currents; people are constantly pushed to do something, and ‘busy’ is one of the words one hears most often. This way of life is deeply rooted in people’s upbringing, family life, and in Taiwan’s social order. It is a mental, psychological status rather than a mere necessity arising from job and study.
Italy (and Europe as a whole) is slower and more relaxing. Some East Asians, used to another rhythm of life, may find it annoying, while those who long for calm and rest enjoy that. As far as I am concerned, I have come to appreciate the simple joy of having the time and tranquillity to stop and think, to reflect, to observe, and to enjoy the moment. It is not just a question of laziness vs laboriousness, but, as I said, a real mental status.
4 – Architecture and Cleanliness
Architecture is seldom homogeneous. Different cities, and even districts within the same city, are not the same. Generally speaking, though, after living in Taiwan for so long I think Italy isn’t as messy as I used to believe. Usually, the structure of Italian cities is relatively neat, and most buildings are colourful and built according to coherent standards.
In Taiwan, there seems to be hardly any rules for how to construct buildings. In Taipei, for example, apart from the ‘showcase-areas’ in the eastern part of the city and the Japanese colonial districts, the buildings are grey, moulded, and mismatched. The height and style of every house is decided upon by the owner himself. There are no particular criteria imposed by the state. Many buildings also have illegal ‘rooftop extensions’, usually constructed by the person or family who lives on the top floor.
Although Italy is much dirtier and messier than many other European countries, in my opinion it doesn’t look that bad compared to Taiwanese cities. However, when I arrived in Sicily’s capital Palermo two days ago, I was dismayed, because that is indeed one of the dirtiest cities I have ever seen, and a shame for Sicily and Italy.
Although many areas in Taipei look quite shabby, people do not throw garbage on the floor. Despite there being no rubbish bins on the streets, people just keep the garbage until they go home or find a place in convenience stores or underground stations where they can dispose of it.
People in Palermo, on the contrary, seem to have a different concept: they regard their own city as an open air garbage bin. You see used handkerchiefs, tins, food remains, bags, and other rubbish all over the place, especially in front of coffee shops and restaurants. For some reason, small cities like the town I live in are much cleaner; but Palermo is truly a shame. Why do the residents of Palermo have no patience? Why can’t they look for a garbage bin or wait until they are back home to throw away garbage? This is a real mystery to me.
5 – Safety
Taiwan is a safe place. Either because of the good economic condition, or because of people’s upbringing, or perhaps because of the efficient police forces, one hardly feels endangered there. I have never been molested or bothered by anyone, and I never felt the necessity to be overcautious.
In Italy, it’s a completely different story. High unemployment – both among Italian citizens and recent immigrants – sinking living standards, and the lack of organisation and resources in the police forces allow crime to flourish.
When I arrived at Milan Main Station I went to the vending machine to buy a ticket. A man approached me and asked me where I wanted to go. I am not a racist, but I have to say that because of his skin colour and his poor Italian he was probably a migrant from Africa. I wasn’t sure why he was asking me that question, and I sensed there was something wrong. He was wearing a black suit, and I thought that perhaps he worked for the Italian Railways (Trenitalia), since the suit looked similar to that of the staff. I scanned him, but he was wearing no official badge that could identify him. Nevertheless, I didn’t want to be rude, so I told him I had to go to Rome. He began to search on the touch screen of the vending machine. “Here it is,” he said, “the next train departs at 9.45. Now you can buy it.”
The whole thing stank. I realised he wasn’t working for Trenitalia. I met this kind of people before, in Rome underground. First, they help you buy a ticket, then they ask you for money because they helped you. I said to him coldly, “Let me check my schedule first,” and I walked away. At that moment, I saw a policeman who was moving towards that man. “What are you doing there?” the policeman shouted. “I told you to leave the passengers alone!” The man immediately took off, sighing, as if someone had done him an injustice.
Such things happen over and over again in Italy. On the one hand, in big cities there are so many petty criminals as well as jobless immigrants and citizens who try to make a living through begging, cheating, asking for money in exchange for help etc, that perhaps it is humanely impossible to control all of them. On the other hand, Italian prisons are overcrowded and the legal system is slow and inefficient. Therefore, the police seldom arrest and detain offenders, and if they do, they release them after a few days. Overall, many Italian cities simply feel unsafe.
6 – Christmas Atmosphere
One thing that is definitely better in Italy than in Taiwan is the Christmas atmosphere. In Taiwan, Christmas is a relatively recent import from the West. It’s not an official holiday, and I think people don’t really any special feeling about it. It is but an empty Western trapping with little or no meaning, an occasion for people to exchange wishes, go out, display colourful Christmas trees in restaurants and shopping malls, but not more than that.
In Italy, Christmas has a thousand-year-old tradition and it is deeply rooted in the religious beliefs and popular culture.
The religious history of the 25th December is even older than Christianity itself, for it originated in the pagan traditions of Roman civilisation. In fact, December 25 (under the Julian calender December 24), was the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, i.e. the birthday of the unconquered Sun-God. On the 24th, the date of the winter solstice, the day was shortest and the night longest. On the 25th the days started to become longer again, proving that the Sun was indeed unconquerable.
The Son-God gained in importance during the late Roman Empire, and in 274 AD Emperor Aurelian officially authorised the cult of the unconquered Sun. Later on, Emperor Constantine declared the birthday of the Sun-God an official day of the rest for the whole Empire (see Lowe 2011, p. 166). The Christians adopted the birthday of the Sun-God as the day in which to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. In fact, the exact date of Jesus’ birth is unknown. In 336 the Christians, probably in an attempt to counter the pagan festival and replace it with their own, and also because they regarded Jesus as their own ‘Sun’, the source of their spiritual light, began to celebrate the birth of Christ on the 25th of December (ibid., and Oxford Dictionary of Christian Art and Architecture 2013, p. 116).
For more than one and a half millennia, therefore, Christmas has been one of the most important festivals of the Western world, and as such it has a special meaning for most people. When I was a child, I loved this festival. I didn’t have to go to school, I could decorate the Christmas tree, and I received gifts from relatives. The whole family gathered, and I could play with my cousins, and we ate a lot of tasty food, pastries and desserts. Moreover, the cold weather outside makes the home feel cozy and warm. In many homes this is a period of joy and peacefulness.
I wish to everyone (although belatedly) a merry Christmas time and a happy New Year : )