Ugo, a stocky figure with a square face (that looks as if it had been carved in bas relief from a slab of granite) and a mass of grey Harpo Marx curls, was declaiming dialect poetry at an osteria in Verona. His voice caressed each round, rich syllable, a performance I found strangely hypnotic once I got over my Anglo-Saxon embarrassment at such public displays of raging emotion. Though I have since learned that Ugo is often given to spontaneous outbursts of poetic meandering, this particular performance was meant to accompany a tasting of the fine Soave wines of Stefano Inama. Combining vino and culture (poetry, art exhibits, fashion shows) is a common Italian phenomenon.
That first sighting was over a decade ago. Now Ugo is one of our closest friends and he, his (incredibly patient) wife and their singular twins are the mainstay of our social life in Verona.
Ugo in many ways epitomizes the Italian character. He is mercurial, charismatic, generous and given to tired and emotional moments of eye-popping sentimentality. He is capable of peaks of temper, skeins of shrewdness and flights of child-like enthusiasm. He throws events together with an abandon that sets my Anglo-Saxon nerves on edge yet the results can always be looked back upon with pleasure. He once proudly proclaimed that he had written a play during the car journey to the theatre where rehearsals were due to start. The fact that the play probably ended up sounding like it was written during a two hour car trip is really beside the point. The object is To Do and thus To Be!
Every 28th December, he throws a party to celebrate the birth of cinema at which a classic silent film (Buster, Charlie, Lillian) is shown accompanied by music improvised by a guitarist, accordion player or jazz ensemble, depending on who is available on the night. He hosts the Veronese dialect poetry club. He created the local San Gi˜ Video Festival (entries from 31 countries!). He resuscitated Verona’s Cine Club. He writes a film column for a Swiss magazine and goes to all the major and minor film festivals in Europe. Ugo is a City Council member and President of the ecology committee. And, oh yes, though it is seldom mentioned, he teaches at an elementary school. When asked what he does he declares that he is an Artist of Life, a remark that would make most Englishmen squirm. I believe that their derision masks envy.
In British and American cultures adults are defined by their jobs: that is, the things they do to make money. At cocktail parties the first question after an introduction is: What do you do? The response is expected to be teacher, doctor, receptionist, mechanic, etc. To respond in any other way would be taken as be decidedly odd and result in the new acquaintance quickly moving as far away from you as politely possible.
Foreigners living in Italy have the opportunity to redefine the question: What do you do? Imagine how liberating it would be to answer “I’m a mystery novel reader.” “I am a dog lover.” “In the privacy of my own home I am a tuba player.” Once you become accustomed to making these simple replies, you can easily move to the next phase by saying: “I enjoy cooking.” “I enjoy drinking wine.” “I enjoy going to the theatre.” These responses will lead you inevitably to the simple declaration: “I am an Artist of Life”. You will soon be pitying your poor countrymen who never have the opportunity or the will to make that mildly preposterous but nonetheless exhilarating statement.