Italy: now with more lederhosen!

I feel like North Americans have a very monolithic idea of Italian culture. We tend to forget that Italy is a fairly new country. It was only established in 1861. Just to put that into perspective, consider the fact that the United States predates Italy by nearly a century.

Moreover, the borders of the US have been fairly static since the 1850s (Alaska is the major exception; it was purchased from Russia in 1867). Italy’s borders have undergone major changes as recently as 1954, when the Free Territory of Trieste was divided between Italy and Yugoslavia.

Before unification, The Italian peninsula was home to an ever-shifting collection of kingdoms, duchies, principalities, papal territories, and the like. Even after a century and a half of unification and assimilation, different regions maintain distinct linguistic and cultural identities.

I was vaguely aware of all this, having learned about it in high school social studies class. We’d also noticed it in our travels. We’d hear stories about native Italians who can’t understand each other because of regional variations in language. Still, we weren’t quite prepared for what we would experience in the Alps.

For full story behind our Alpine detour, you should start with Cristina’s last post [link], but just to recap: we took a train up the Adige valley to Bolzano. From there, we cycled up some viciously steep hills into the Gardena Valley.

I knew we’d encounter some German in the Alps. The area is quite close to Austria, and Google maps lists place names in both Italian and German. Still, the area was much more German-speaking than I’d expected. I was intrigued, so I looked up the back story.

The Italians call the region Alto-Adige, a reference to its location in the upper part of the Adige valley. In German it’s known as Südtirol (South Tyrol). Until the First World War, it was part of the Austrian principality of Tyrol. But the Italians wanted a reward for their war efforts, so in 1918, the occupied South Tyrol, which they formally annexed the following year.

When Mussolini’s fascists came to power, they attempted to forcefully Italianize the area. German teaching was banned, along with most German-language publications. Italian-speaking citizens were encouraged to settle in the area.

From 1943 to 1945, South Tyrol was occupied by Nazi Germany. In post-war negotiations, the Allies agreed to return it to Italy on the condition that the area’s German-speaking population be granted substantial autonomy. Italy agreed, but not all of the area’s German speakers were content with the degree of self-rule they were granted. This led to a series of terrorist attacks by German-speaking secessionists.

Italy and Austria returned to the negotiating table and a new deal was struck, giving the area an even greater degree of independence. As a result, the regional government keeps much of the area’s tax revenue, but since the area is one of Italy’s wealthiest, so it still returns more to the central government than it receives in services.

That was all a bit of digression, but my point is this: Italy is not all pasta sauce, protection rackets, and talking with one’s hands. In some places it’s local yogurt, lederhosen, and the language of Goethe. For my own part, I’m going to treat this as a lesson in humility. My preconceptions about Italy contained grains of truth, but the reality was always richer and more nuanced. My goal now is to bring that humility to each new destination.


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