Did you see Call Me By Your Name earlier this year? Despite some buzzy, preemptive buildup, it managed to give me butterflies, draw my tears, and lull me into a warm dream state—a rarity for me with films. It also helped settle something from my subconscious that I’ve been unpacking for years: the feeling that Italy is the answer.
To what, though?
Call Me By Your Name
The film sweeps you up in its indulgent visuals and tender story—of a homosexual relationship between a teenager and an adult grad student, set in 1980s Northern Italy. Director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love) is known for the beauty of his films, an aspect made easier by his choice of shooting locations, like Milan’s Villa Necchi and the idyllic town of Crema, where he also lives.
Beyond the just right live-action depiction of André Aciman’s novel, which is its own separate form of brilliant artistry (/casting/screenplay/cinematography), the film is a glimpse into the reality of semi-rural Italy 35 years ago.
Outside of cities, Italy was agricultural and provincial through the 1980s. It still is in many ways, as I learned living there.
Pre-internet and before widespread TV use, pastimes were outdoor exploration or analog pleasures like reading, writing, cooking, and social gathering. People rode bikes for transportation, even over moderate distances, and weren’t so concerned with “FOMO” as much as being present and engaged with their surroundings.
It was simple.
Not plain, but distilled. A purer form of living.
While these circumstances could be true of many places even today, Italy has a certain quality that is both civilized and earthy. Perhaps it has perfected this balance over its many centuries of settlements and societies.
Watching the film (and processing it after) was one of the few periods in my life that I wanted so badly to time travel and return to a different era—a less complicated one.
Here in 2018, especially in younger civilizations like the U.S., we surge forward on technological innovation every year, driven by capital markets and the race for market share. We embrace newness at rapid clip, forever adding distractions and diversions from what is ultimately important for our happiness and health.
With iPhones and Teslas and Twitter, we encounter far more information and stimuli than we can reasonably absorb and keep up with, which can feel like the hamster wheel of life. Americans relish growth and change, sometimes to a fault.
In contrast, Italy beckons as a place where the few things we actually need to be happy and healthy are also its most renown exports and huge parts of daily life, which have remained remarkably consistent over time.
Made in Italy
Italy’s national brand contributes an outsize share to many global markets, including food, fashion, and art. Its cultural cachet is immense, and over the years its business and government leaders have realized the immense value of these assets, and managed to monetize them into lucrative industries.
Tourism, driven by the appeal of these things and the incredible natural beauty of the Italian landscape, is a huge driver of the economy, which is both sustaining and detrimental (see: Venice).
Some parts of the country have been fundamentally altered by a perennial stream of visitors. Rome and Florence are still charming and elegant, but no longer represent authentic Italian life as it once was in those places.
Lesser-visited spots like Milan, Naples, and Genoa remain novel and undisturbed, and as I experienced, far more of an immersion into the country’s national and regional identities.
Aside from tourism and the prototypical “Tuscany trip”, for example, Italy is also the default choice for many everyday products. Olive oil and Chianti come to mind.
Any new artisanal coffee bar, across the world, hoping to charge $5 for a cappuccino, buys its espresso machine from Italy (most likely La Marzocco). Proper pizza kitchens have ovens from Naples. And most of the fashion world’s best garments are made in Italy.
Once an Italian brand globalizes however, scale is a tricky balancing act, so as it becomes less about artistry and more about “creating a lifestyle” under its brand umbrella, new, artisanal makers take their place in the tradition of cobbling shoes, dyeing and stitching leathergoods, or hammering jewelry, and so on.
And while these traditions may be dispersing, to share with other locales known for quality, Italy is still an important center of production. Many tech-driven fashion startups from other countries source their goods from Italy, because the “made in Italy” label still holds such weight. Everlane, M.Gemi, ARNO Cooperative, and MILANER all come to mind.
Many of these disciplines and capabilities, the inherent capability to create, are culturally-ingrained and difficult to replicate.
I always marveled at the very basic appreciation most Italians have for quality, be it cuisine or cashmere, and the extent to which the country’s people can build nearly anything, to exacting aesthetic standards. Never mind that it might go wildly over budget, past its due date, or not be the most reliable.
Form over function 110%.
The Italy Experience
When I’m asked why I chose the country as my escape, in an attempt to pivot my life, part of my answer is always that Italy is in my blood. My dad’s side is partly from Avellino, outside Naples, and he looks Italian, which is why I can pass for Italian too.
It was also a practical decision. The MBA program at SDA Bocconi cost half of what it would have in the U.S., even at a public university. For that savings, I dropped myself into a culture shock, a bigger one than you might think. Italy is chaotic and disorganized. Nothing is familiar, and I was forced to reset all of my habits and expectations.
I made friends (at school and beyond), but spent a lot of time alone, at home or out exploring, cursing the crummy (often wet and gray) weather and relying on Netflix to keep me company. I was, after all, also mourning my mom’s death, which was still fresh when I left the states.
I dated, meeting some totally dreamy Italian uomini. I lost my keys, slept outside overnight, shopped my ass off (NOT sorry), rode a BikeMi bike all over town, sweated underneath my winter coat, dragged my luggage on the metro, ate gelato everyday, had bespoke shirts made, was hungover from too many Aperol Spritzes, and developed a subconscious love for this crazy, backward, infinitely charming place.
At the end of my 15 months, I was ready to leave.
I missed the things I saw as lacking in Italy, like a more “out and proud” gay scene, greater access to functional health foods and the appropriate macros (high protein, low carb), and conveniences like fast-casual dining, which goes against much of the Italian approach to eating. I missed the abundant sunshine of Florida.
I also crave efficiency and logic, both of which can evade many Italian processes, from forming a single-file line to scheduling a FedEx pick-up.
What I took for granted—and now recognize as the brilliance of the place—are the very things that made me so happy, amid a time of emotional trauma and personal growth: constant sensory stimulation, and the relative affordability of good food, good wine, and good coffee. For sure, things aren’t as orderly there, but they often feel much richer.
I started the brainstorming for this post by noting all the reasons why Italy is the answer. The country doesn’t do everything well, but it does a few things exceptionally well.
Art, Architecture, & Design
The art available to view, from North to South, in museums or in any number of anonymous chapels, is some of the best in the world. In Milan, modern art is always on display at staples like La Triennale and HangarBicocca, in a multitude of forms, virtual and interactive and immersive.
Traditionalists visiting Milan are sated by Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper.
In Naples, I viewed a dramatic Caravaggio far from the touristic center on a lonely side street. Sette opere della Misericordia didn’t disappoint, and its well-hidden location was equally enchanting.
In Florence and all over the country…the story repeats.
What’s more, simply by nature of being an old place with many previous rulers and influences, there are diverse architectural styles to behold. Grandiosity abounds, some of which can be genuinely breathtaking, like Milan’s gothic Duomo, imposing Cimitero Monumentale, and Rome’s fascist Palazzo Civiltà.
I especially loved the midcentury, post-war modernism of Milan, which is a polarizing aesthetic among Italians but one that makes it feel less ancient, more precise and subtle.
All these established assets—revered art, classical architecture, and grand natural beauty—lend themselves to expressive and progressive design for everyday living.
Salone del Mobile? In fatti, bigger than fashion week.
The furniture and decor scene? Highly influential and subscribed. Firms like Boffi have, little by little, over time and through institutional trial-and-error, perfected the art of cabinetry, functional storage, kitchen and bathroom units, etc. Their products aren’t cheap, but they’re an investment, not a quick fix.
Italians recognize that style isn’t price. Style is effortless elegance, accomplished with quality starting materials, attention to detail, and a dash of frivolity, with or without a logo. The best pants I have ever owned came from Italy, from a brand I’d never heard of and have yet to see anywhere outside Corso Venezia in Milan (Care Label). In fact, I just (today) found a hole in the butt of one of my pair—and subsequently texted my tailor to ask if she could mend them.
Just about everything I lust after is Italian, largely from lesser-known brands, because it isn’t about the logo or the label, but the design. How novel.
Bespoke is super simple there too, since skilled apparel manufacturing is so physically close. Having suits, shirts, trousers, and shoes made to exact measurements requires only a visit to a tailor or seamstress that can place the order. If you’re in Milan, go to Eligo.
While many parts of the world have largely relied on department stores and online shopping to help them dress, Italy has also always done independent retail very well. Every city has high-end locally-owned boutiques (Base Blu, Tiziana Fausti, Luisaviaroma, G&B Negozio, and many many others) which is really the way shopping should be: intimate, personal, and tailored to the individual.
Through the SDA Bocconi Luxury & Arts Club, I was able to organize some amazing site visits, including Buccellati and Pisa Orologeria (Rolex, Patek). I had a speaker visit campus from Hermès Cuirs Precieux, the hide buying and selling arm of the French house. I also toured Fendi’s fur workshop in Rome (sorry animal babies!), and popped into Bvlgari to see the jewels Liz Taylor wore.
OH! It’s also hard to get a bad haircut in Italy. Just sayin’.
Everyday Occasion / Time Well Spent
Yes, lunch can take more than an hour. In Milan, things are kept pretty succinct, but the further south you go, meals can yawn and stretch and be the only thing you do in a day. How indulgent and humane.
Hey, what’s the rush? Sit back and enjoy your __________ (streetcar ride / caffè / stroll / aperitivo).
The few times my family visited while I was living there, they came to Milan for a day or two, but mostly arranged quieter spots to nest for a week or more. At Easter, we were in Acquaseria on the shore of Lake Como, and at Christmas, in a top-floor flat with a view over Florence.
Instead of filling our days with intense sightseeing or day trips, we focused on one thing each day, interspersed with glasses of wine, meals, coffees, pastries, and just lounging.
Over the summer, I visited Genoa with friends. We hired a boat for the day, reveling in the visceral pleasure that is the Ligurian Sea and the cliffs of Cinque Terre. Totally, completely blissful, and carefree. Epic.
Food & Beverage
Good wine shouldn’t be reserved for special occasions or the wealthy. Table wine should be delicious and affordable, and in Italy it is.
Coffee (espresso, not drip) doesn’t cost $5 (or $6). It may not be painstakingly roasted by hipsters, but it’s delicious, inexpensive, and available literally everywhere. Plus: coffee bars double as regular bars after midday. “Barista” actually means barkeep, not coffee specialist.
Slow food was a trend that never left Italy, and this is clear both from the overall speed of preparation and eating and from the frequency with which Italians visit the market. Their refrigerators aren’t massive either, meaning…fresh fresh fresh!
Signs point to Italia
Italy keeps popping up in my life…
- Italian male expats in the U.S. that I’ve gone on dates with
- Italian friends I keep up with and/or have met in the U.S. since being back, including fellow alums of SDA Bocconi
- I’ve tried to keep up speaking Italian with Coffee Break Italian, a great podcast I discovered
- People going to Italy asking me for recommendations
- Interviewing with Marco Bicego, an Italian jewelry brand with its U.S. operations in San Francisco
- Seeing my friend Hilary Walker, whom I met in Milan at her store BIVIO, for lunch in San Francisco, where she grew up
- Having coffee in January with my friend Doug Hickey, who is now on the Board of Directors for Illy and Intesa San Paolo
- This post The Pros and Cons of Living in Milano (as an expat?) getting a crap ton of traffic
And, San Francisco is a bit like Italy. It may not seem so topically, but there are parallels in the way people prioritize their lives, aim for a healthy work-life balance, and are collectively enamored with the area’s natural beauty and gifts (like wine, mountains and coastlines, agreeable weather).
The Future of Italy’s Specialness
If Italy isn’t careful, it could lose the specialness that makes it so covetable, from both a business and lifestyle perspective.
The leading economic indicators are rarely positive. Italy’s public debt is significant, and not because it doesn’t levy high enough taxes, but perhaps because tax evasion is commonplace and rarely prosecuted. This could lead to downward pressure on economic growth and a further reliance on outside assistance.
Unemployment among young people is also particularly high. Many of the Italian peers I met in Italy wished they could return to the U.S. as I did, confident their ability for upward mobility would be higher here.
And, though its ultimate potency in affecting any real change is questionable, Italy’s government agenda has long been in flux, changing direction and rhetoric regularly.
Many of the traditions I have covered are many years in the making, and thus are unlikely to change dramatically. But, as the country grapples with immigration concerns and greater globalization of its businesses, stories have emerged about exploitative manufacturing in the apparel industry and the sorts of greedy practices that are more common in the third world than in one of the oldest and most developed countries in Europe.
Italy is the answer. But, its business and civic leaders need to recognize what makes it special and adapt those guiding principles to a modern global stage. Letting the country’s inherent competencies die on the vine would be a tragedy of epic scale. I just hope it happens long after I’m gone.
Now, how do I get back there?