I would say Benevento is a quintessential Italian town, except travel writers are banned from using the word ‘quintessential’ (along with ‘nestled’ and many other over-used phrases) and even after such a short amount of time in Italy I’ve yet to come across a town, village, piazza or street corner that wasn’t quintessentially Italian. Italy is Italy is Italy. It doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s the French, the Lombards, the Pope, the city states, the fascists, the communists or the democrats in charge, somehow the people manage to be Italian while being fiercely loyal to their local region. So the shops still close for an extended period over lunch, everyone drives around in a fiat or on a scooter over cobblestones without purchase, and the weather is predictably fine in summer months and absolutely terrible in the winter. This is Italy.
The reason travel writers aren’t allowed to use the word ‘quintessential’ is that in and of itself, it means nothing, adding nothing to a person’s understanding of a place. What is quintessentially English, or American: fat, thin, white, black, northern, southern, Democrat, Republican? Quintessential Mongolian anyone?
So when an Italian blogger asked me, quite out of the blue, my thoughts on southern Italy I had no idea what to say. I could sum up Benin or Sri Lanka but I really struggled with defining Italy until I ended up in the best restaurant in Capua. It ranked first out of 34 listed on TripAdvisor – I think, I had already drank quite a lot of the label-free house red by then – though most of the rest were pizzerias of the takeaway variety. And it cost me a fortune; for my parents it would have been excitingly inexpensive. Who can argue with a bottle of house red for €7 except me?
Here is my conclusion then – to live as an Italian is to live life at its simplest. Take my antipasti: the humblest, freshest most-local ingredients of bread, tomatoes, mozzarella, aubergine and olive oil treated as little as possible to provide a meal that meant I never wanted to get on to the pasta that followed. Bruschetta, mozzarella and chargrilled aubergine. So simple, so very tasty.
In the same way the British like rules, or at least are respectful enough of them, knowing they serve a purpose, to follow them through, Italians seem to abhor any rule that isn’t strictly necessary. Why use a sottopassaggio (underpass) when there is no reason not to walk across the tracks at a railway station; why stop at a red light if there’s no oncoming traffic to trouble you? Why indeed, if you have a Vespa would you ever bother upgrade to anything else? Simplicity first is the key.
There is the odd exception, such as grooming, however. The Italian male, despite all the trouble brought to the country by Hitler, still has a thing for the moustache, shaped and styled beyond what can be considered reasonable. This I cannot explain. And quintessential Mongolian? That will have to wait for another time, and another adventure.