Italy is a land of contradiction. It's hard to see this when you tour, because normally people touring Italy are so busy trying to get their brains around so much good food, good wine, good art and good vibrations that they leave here saying to themselves, "God. If I could only live like this all the time." That's what Italy does. It rubs its hands together and it works its magic over hardwood tables with fluorescent lights hanging above, resplendent with four or five different kinds of antipasti arriving in a tact that could be kept by a metronome. The smiles arrive from the other tables, Italians proud that you're enjoying their food, their wine, all the while knowing that you are experiencing something sacred and real. It's this Italy that winds you through corridors of staggering art and sculpture until you can walk and see and astound yourself no more. Where the cliff drops you down into a village clinging to the edge of the sea while figs hang overhead waiting to be picked and eaten. This is the Italy that makes you want to move here.
Then there's the other Italy, the one that has thousands of Commune filled with millions of pieces of paper that either get shipped off to the Provincia or the Regione or shipped back to you with a fine for not having filed correctly. The Italy where, if you work independently and try to build something different and special, there is never good news but only more layers of unrelenting bureaucracy coupled by professional services for previously unknown disciplines that levy fees fit for un regno. The Italy where, if someone took a hatchet to ninety five percent of the bureaucracy, people would be able to breathe more, create more, delight more, and prosper more.
That's hard to believe, because despite the asphyxiating system under which they live, Italians breathe, create and delight more than just about people I know. Which leads me to a conclusion.
Italians are pretty wise.
Outside of Italy, in my own country of origin, it seems to me that we place a big premium on being smart. We educate ourselves, go to school, get degrees on top of degrees even if common sense tells us it might just be better to go to hairdressing school because the system just can't absorb all of these highly educated people it's producing. We come out, raring to go, ready to prove just how smart all that school made us and you know what? We are! We know, intellectually of course, that there are some that are smarter than us and some that are dumber than us but in the end, it's about how smart we can make other people think we are and we somehow hope that that will give us an edge, the edge we need to succeed.
We enter verbal pissing contents with aplomb. We try to be more eloquent and work hard at mastering the art of subtle sarcasm that shows that we know just that much more than the other guy. We try hard to read between the lines and to not allow our faces to betray our emotions. We deny our own cynicism and smile when people seem to be impressed, and get easily deflated when they are not. We press ahead.
It doesn't seem to work that way here, as far as I can tell. Italians are much more philosophical at a much younger age. They take their ridiculously complicated system with a grain of salt and try to enjoy what they have, because what they have might be the most they'll ever have and they know, somehow, how to make peace with that. I've found tremendous empathy in Italy. If you have a problem, people will listen and try to help if they can. They don't try to give you advice so you can see how smart they are and how much better they would be than you are at solving your problem. But they'll listen and nod with tight lips and open eyes. Italians, it seems, start pretty young learning to be wise.
Smart is the stuff of the ego. Smart is that thing that gets you in trouble when you hear someone say something that isn't one hundred percent accurate and you decide it's up to you to set the record straight.
Wise is the stuff of the soul. Wise is that thing that allows you to sit back and listen to everything the person is saying and determine if it's remotely worth it to correct the details at all.
Smart you learn in books, in your time, at your pace. Wise you learn when your back is aching, you can't walk any more, and you don't believe that it's possible to take another step - ever. Smart lives smugly with a sense of security. Wise lives in that place that knows there is never security. Smart is that thing that makes you talk until people shut up and finally listen. Wise is that thing that makes you finally shut up and listen. Smart is that thing that tells you that you know more about a specific subject than someone with another perspective. Wise is that thing that makes you question your own perspective enough to allow the possibility of another's ideas in for your own personal growth and development.
And, perhaps the most important difference of all: being smart does not give you insight. But wisdom is the best bullshit barometer that there is.
I've spent most of my life trying to be on the smart side of the equation. After almost eight years in Italy, I see now there is much more value in aspiring to wisdom. But the road to wisdom does not come with a standardized test at the end of which you can pass and move on to a better life. The road to wisdom is the unpaved path through the jungle. The one where you get bitten up and scared out of your wits and are grateful for every morsel that comes your way.
But in the end, if you learn, however challenging it might be, to roll with the punches and keep on going, some wisdom does stick to your tattered clothes. Life becomes somehow more precious and poignant and the myriad of little things that smart people pass up as they rush past you become diamonds that catch your eye. Wise people don't always catch your eye. Instead, they give you pause.
If for life's poignancy alone that I have come to live here and forge my way, it will have been worth every piece of unnecessary paper I have had the pleasure of misfiling.