‘It has to be food.’ This was my very first thought when I saw the theme of this week’s photo challenge:  Fresh. And indeed, fresco is an attribute to food us Italians are kind of obsessed with.

Ma e’ fresco?‘ is a sentence I find myself often using in restaurants and if a waiter wants to reassure me that whatever I order is good, fresco or even freschissmo is the word he’d be looking for. To the risk of sounding like an Italian textbook, this is an actual exchange I had in a restaurant in Sicily:

Io: ‘I cannoli sono buoni, si’? (never trust a menu, always ask for advice!)

Cameriere: ‘ Si si, la ricotta e’ freschissima’

And indeed, the ricotta was freschissima and i cannoli delicious!

But then, after trying to take  pictures of tomatoes, mozzarella, piante di basilico and of anything that could portray the idea of Italy and the idea of fresh, I realised that if I interpreted  the word fresh in a less  literal way, I could use this week’s challenge to tell you about an initiative that I find very interesting and I believe will make you look at Italy with a fresh perspective. 

a fresh look at italy through a tour

The initiative that got me so excited is a visit to Palermo, Sicily, organised by La piccola accademia di italiano, a lovely school of Italian here in Dublin. La piccola accademia offers Italian classes in Ireland, but for the first time this year they have teamed up with Antonio from Senza meta/Out and about (another very interesting Italian in Dublin) to offer the chance of a school tour to Palermo. The tour is arranged in connection with the organisation Palma Nana, an Italian co-op committed to promote responsible tourism and environmental education. This is how La piccola accedmia describes the tour:

We will visit Palermo: the beautiful capital of Sicily considered to be the centre of Mediterranean culture. Among other activities, we will walk through the streets of Palermo discovering its legends and secrets; we will go to the food and flea markets to haggle with the local “mercanti” and to taste the best street food in true Sicilian style. We will enjoy a traditional Sicilian dinner at one of the restaurants participating to the Addio Pizzo association (movement established to build a community of businesses and consumers who refuse to pay “pizzo” – mafia extortion money).

During the “Gita”, your teacher will encourage you to practise what learned in class completing typical Italian daily routine tasks such as buying bus tickets, reading the newspaper while having breakfast, asking for information, interacting with real Italians!

The tour is currently open to La piccola’s students and alumni, but it will probably be open to the general public next year: I’ll write about it when it is!

So, what is so special about this tour that makes me talk about it as a fresh way to look at Italy?  

what i talk about when i talk about italy

Bear with me while I tell you my thoughts.  In the last while I have been thinking a lot about the theme of ‘authentic Italy’, last but not least thanks to an interesting initiative by two groups of writers I follow –  Cosi and Italy blogging roundtable – that have chosen ‘authenticity’ as their topic for the month.

I am not part of these groups, but I  find their contributions interesting and am an avid reader of their posts, so I hope they don’t mind if I take inspiration from them and write about this! You probably know them already but if not, I highly recommend to take the time to check them out: the links should bring you straight to their websites and facebook page.

Authentic is a real buzz word when it comes to tourism and Italy: pretty much any magazine or tour operator talking about Italy claims that you can see ‘authentic Italy’ joining their tours.  I myself often fall in the trap of using this word: sometimes it’s about a recipe, sometimes about a place, a behaviors or any way something that strikes me as ‘really’ Italian.

But I think that there is often a risk, when talking about ‘authentic’ Italy: the risk of considering authentic only behaviours or traditions that are linked with the past, the risk of looking at Italy through a lens that is, well, stale and outdated.

Italy is often described as ‘authentic’ in villages with a slow pace of life, in pictures depicting elderly locals watching life go by, in culinary traditions that repeat themselves generation after generation. And all of this is right and correct: Italy still really IS like that in many places and some of these behaviours DO actually embody something that is truly, authentically Italian.

But Italy is also much more than this. Italy has traditions, of course, but it is also a place of a vibrant, engaging and questioning present. Italy, despite what we might read in the press and the constant complaining of us Italians about its shortcomings, is not a country of people who sit back and passively accept what goes on, blindly attached to the past.

Italy is a country that also reacts to things, questions governments (I know this is somehow invisible from abroad) and where people take daily actions to make their life better and to adapt to the ever-changing circumstances around them. The same elderly who now sit and chat in their traditional clothes are often bearers of incredible stories of courage and strength, sometimes dating back to the war, sometimes even closer than that in time.

I know many people who work towards a better Italy, whether this is via political engagement (NGO workers or volunteers) or through small or not so small daily actions that have nothing to do with political statements or ideologies but do have an impact.

Italy is a place of huge engagement from civil society: from initiatives to safeguard the environment, to responsible tourism organisations, to ‘associazioni culturali’ for the promotion of multiculturalism, education, inclusion. I am here talking about the tour of Palermo, but there are many local operator who follow this approach, if we just know where or rather how to look for them.

These people are often invisible when we look for the so called ‘authentic’ Italy, but THESE are the people I actually know, the people I grew up with and the people I think of when I think of Italy.

I didn’t grow up making pasta from scratch, or celebrating the generation of my grandparents:  I grew up in a big city, a  city that embraces its incredible past but is also well rooted in its present, made of old Italian traditions but also very new traditions, brought over by all the foreigners and migrant that now call Italy home.

And this is Italy too, and it’s amazing, and interesting, and enjoyable to get to know: in the real Italy you meet in a traditional osteria and eat amazing food and local wine, but the conversation around the table is about the present and surely also about the future. 

So this is what I love about la gita with the piccola accademia and about a lot of the initiatives of local operators:  the idea that thanks to locally aware guides you can also discover this other Italy, and notice and enjoy the many contradictions of Italy, the many layers it is made of, in a way that is enjoyable, safe, interesting and truly authentic.

Italy is la dolce vita, the traditional markets, the rolling hills, the history, but it’s also the people who live there and deal with Italy for what it really is. And actually love Italy for what it really is and are not afraid of working towards a better future for it.

 I’d love to hear your thoughts and experience about Italy and how to ‘really’ see it: please feel free to comment!

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