Let’s talk a little bit about the north-south divide.
Most countries have it. The food, culture, languages and economies of the north have nothing to do with those of the south in India, Argentina, Mexico, Italy.
In some of these countries, both areas are accepted and prized. More often, however, an undercurrent of competition and entitlement runs underneath the surface. Again and again Italians make it known to me:
There is no united Italy.
Italy was formally united in 1861. A forced endeavor, it could have been celebrated anyway, but Italy’s 2,000 year history of citadels and city-states seem to have made that nearly impossible. Neighborhood pride runs strong here, and it’s not going to go away just because a man on a horse declares it so. Italy has had to deal with many a man on a horse.
This neighborhood pride even has a name in Italian: campanilismo. Coming from the word for bell tower (campana), it means that each person supports their own church’s bell tower. Of course in Italy, every city, town and village has its own bell tower. In fact, once someone has declared themselves firmly from the north or the south, they then split even further, identifying themselves as from a specific area in that region, then a specific town. I live right on the border between two ridiculously small towns, and yet the locals here religiously shop only on their side, support only their church. As an American, I feel the towns should simply be united, but I’ve learned not to say that out loud!
This local campanilismo is child’s play, however, to the greater north-south divide in Italy.
The Southerners don’t work. They’re cheaters. They’re dirty. They’re mafiosi. The Northerners are obsessed with work. They’re cheap. They’re cold. They’re stuck-up. Northerners are glum. Southerners are gaudy. Insults abound.
Before you get in to how prejudiced this is, consider that it’s like this in most countries. The United States coasts sneer at the Midwest, the Midwest complains about the coasts attitude problem and everyone makes fun of the South. Though not every stereotype is true, it is true that different geographic locations usually are different from each other, even within the same nation.
This can come from geographical, cultural, or economic reasons. Usually, it’s a mix of all three and more.
Italy’s particular divide comes from thousands of years of different rulers. The south was ruled by the Greek, Arabs and Spanish, while the North was ruled by the Gauls, French and Germanic tribes. Each was profoundly influenced by its rulers. Even today, Southern Italy is more similar to Greece than it is to Northern Italy. Northerners call the South Africa. Southerners call the North Germany.
Cultural factors aside, the economic crises hasn’t helped.
Italy’s industrial North accounts for the vast majority of its wealth, with Lombardy alone earning about a fifth of the entire country’s GDP. All of these taxes go to Rome where they are “efficiently” redistributed among the regions. The economic chasm is so great between the North and the South that the North has repeatedly called for succession from the rest of the country, with the Lega Nord political party (Northern League) leading the call. They want to end the flow of money from Northern taxpayers to poor Southern governments.
Northerners claim the South is corrupt. Southerners claim their economically depressed because of decisions made by the North. Whatever the cause, at worst it’s created a deep distrust between the north and south, at best it’s created cultural differences.
What does this mean for travelers to Italy?
- It means that seeing one city in one region of Italy isn’t “seeing Italy.”
- It means that you might love the Amalfi Coast but hate the Dolomites (or vice versa).
- It means that Italian mentalities differ therefore so does the service, attitudes and expectations.
- It means that you can find and enjoy different languages, people and food along with landscapes.
I’ve listened to four Sicilians, each from a different area of the island discuss what each area calls the same recipe, the changes in ingredients between each area among Sicilian desserts and particularities of the dialect that, though all one dialect, still changes among the major cities of the island. Now zoom out to compare Sicilians and Piemontese, or any other two regions!
The Milanese make fun of themselves on the popular Milanese Imbruttito Facebook page with jokes about not even having the time to take off their motorcycle helmets, about those who know nothing of fashion acting like top models during fashion week. Other online content teases southerners from their own point of view, pitting Nord vs Sud on Youtube with videos that touch on food, couples, families and diets. There’s even a super popular Italian comedy called “Welcome to the South” about Northerners traveling in southern Italy and the sequel “Welcome to the North” about Southerners traveling to northern Italy.
Despite the firm stereotypes, it’s not all hatred and insults.
In the end, the differences are a part of what makes Italy beautiful.
The country is a mosaic of languages, cuisines and even histories united into one stimulating country.