Category Archives: Inside story

Italian Proberbs

Whenever I go back to Italy and speak to the elders of my small village, they all seem to understand the meaning life better than city-folks. A conversation with a town elder is always followed by a good Italian proverb. The one I liked most and lived-up to it is: “Impara l’arte e mettila d’aparte”. (Learn a trade and set it aside).

This morning, I read a blurb on our good friend Jay Leno, whose paternal ancestor’s came from Flumeri, a small town in the Province of Avellino, who said that he did not spend a penny of his salary from “The Tonight Show”, instead he made a good living from the money he earned from his stand-up routines. He explained that throughout his life he always had at least two jobs. He said that as a young man he worked at a Ford dealership and made extra money by holding on to another job at McDonald’s. He would spend the money from one job while saving the money from the other. He kept this philosophy throughout out his life, and now enjoys the fruits of his hard work and smart thinking. Now all the money he saved went to the work he enjoys most by collecting vintage cars. “Jay Leno’s Garage” is a success!

I’m certain that if Jay Leno were to return to Flumeri for a visit, an elder from the town would listen to him and say: “a un Buon Cavallo non manca Sella”. (There is always a saddle waiting for a good horse).

Italian proverbs are short but have enduring meanings!

Population Growth

China has ended the “One-Child” policy put in place in 1970s to ensure that the fruits of economic growth were not going to be devoured by the out of control population explosion. Nevertheless, the population continued to grow and it’s now about to slow down dramatically. The Chinese officials, by decree, have changed their policy to accommodate their economic and demographic policy.

The Europeans, the Italians in particular, have been facing low birth rates for quite a while now and Italy, along with Germany, is facing the lowest birth rate in Europe. What‘s worse is an aging population that is living longer and receiving generous social security benefits, further straining Italy’s economic resources. In this economic downturn the up-and-coming generation will have difficulty finding work and, when they do at a much later age, their contributions will not be sufficient to sustain the costs for the pensions for the older folks. The “20 something” Italians are very educated these days and they are taking matters into their own hands. Many are moving to wealthier countries to make a living and some will never repatriate. Indeed this brain-drain will be a big loss to Italy in the future. Italy needs workers for their manufacturing companies and, therefore, their open-door immigration policy is a stop-gap to combat the low chronic birth rate. This approach, if managed correctly and efficiently, will help but it may take one or two generations before making any noticeable improvements.

Should we encourage Italian couples to have more children? Don’t forget, Italy has lost over 26 million of its citizens to immigration in the past century. Maybe the government should learn from the Chinese and offer tax incentives for young couples to have numerous children and making it affordable to raise larger families.

The last time Italy gave incentives to push for a population growth was during the fascist regime, when it needed to grow the numbers so that it could populate its African colonies. Families with 5 or more children were quite common during the 1930’s. My grandparents and siblings came to America instead of Africa, so that I could have the privilege to live the American Dream!

The Ghetto

To many, the “ghetto” is part of the city in which members of a minority group live. The term, however, was originally coined in Venice to describe the section of the city to which the Jews were restricted and segregated.

Venice Ghetto 2

It all started towards the end of the 15th century when many Jews in Spain were given a choice to either convert to Christianity or be expelled from the Iberian peninsula. Many went to Rome, since they were welcomed by Pope Alexander VI, while those who went onto Venice, the authorities decided to confine them and the other Jews to a particular area known as “il borghetto” – better known to us today as the “ghetto.”

During this same time period, the Spanish monarchy confiscated all the wealth of the Jews being expelled and used these funds to finance Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the New World.  Nevertheless, the ghetto, ultimately, made its way to the New World as well.

With the wave of immigrants to North America in the 19th and 20th centuries, the new ethnic ghetto areas included the lower east side of Manhattan, New York, which later became notably Jewish. The Little Italys, across the US, became the Italian ghettos. The Polish moved to the Pilsen section in Chicago and Polish Hill of Pittsburgh.

The Russians and the Ukrainians moved to Brighton Beach and renamed it the Little Odessa. New ghettos are springing up all over as new immigrant groups enter the USA. Most often, the old groups move out and up, and make room for the new folks coming from many developing countries all over the world.

Venice Ghetto 1Today, the original Ghetto in Venice is the center of Jewish life in the city. The community counts for about 500 persons and there is also a yeshiva, a synagogue, a museum and several Judaica shops.  Many Italian Jews return to the ghetto for religious services and tourists are taken there on daily excursions.

In New York, the Italian ghettos have shrunk to just a block or two, with stores selling Arthur AveItalian goodies not normally found in other parts of the city.  On my recent visit to Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, the owner of a confectionary store confided that 80% of her sales are to persons like myself, from suburbia, who come down to the Bronx in search of the past. This too will disappear as more sales are being done on the web sites.

Che peccato!

Il Panettone

As an Italian or Italian American, you can’t celebrate Christmas without sharing a Panettone with your family and friends. Whether you choose to eat it at the end of  “il Cenone di Natale”, with espresso or cappuccino in the morning, or simply having a slice with your favorite liqueur,  it puts you in the holiday spirit.  It is uniquely Italian and a tradition that is spreading throughout the whole world.

The Panettone was created in Milan at the time of Lodovico il Moro, 1452 -1508, and it is still produced in the city by bakers and confectioners according to the traditional recipe.  One of the most popular legends of its origin is that a cook at the court had to prepare a sumptuous Christmas dinner to which many aristocrats were invited, but the cake, forgotten in the oven, burned.
On seeing the desperation of the cook, Toni, a young kitchen boy, proposed a solution: “With the leftovers in the pantry – a little flour, butter, egg, lime zest and some raisins – made this cake.  The cook told him, after seeing the cake, if we have nothing else you can bring it to the table.
The guests were all excited by the dessert and the Duke, who wanted to know the name of that delicacy, asked the chef, who revealed the secret:  This is “Pan di Toni”  (Tony’s bread) = Panettone.
Since then, many variations of the recipe were created but the original bread pastry with candied fruits and raisin is the only version that counts.

Christmas Trees in Italy

The world’s largest Christmas tree display rises up the slopes of Monte Ingino outside of Gubbio TreeGubbio, in Italy ‘s Umbria region. Composed of about 500 lights connected by 40,000 feet of wire, the ‘tree’ is a modern marvel for an ancient city.




Venice’s Murano Island, renowned throughout the world for its quality glass-work, is home to the tallest glass tree in the world. Sculpted by master glass blower Simone Cenedese, the artistic Christmas tree is a modern reflection of the holiday season.

The Vatican ‘s heavenly evergreen, St. Peter’s Square in Rome hosts a larger-than-life nativity scene in front of the obelisk.

Italian Proverbs

Italian parents and grandparents were always there to guide us. Inevitably they always summed up their philosophy of life with a good Italian proverb.  Here are the top Italian proverbs to guide your through 2016 and start your new year off right:

“A ogni uccello il suo nido è bello”  – There’s no place like home.
“La filosofia è quella con la quale or senza la quale la vita segue tale è quale”. – No matter what     others believe in, live your life your way.
“Acqua passata non macina più.” – It’s water under the bridge.
“O sta minestra, o sta finestra.” – Take it or leave it.
“La gatta frettolosa fa i gattini ciechi.” – Haste makes waste.
“Far d’una mosca un elefante.” – Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.
“A chi dai il ditto si prende anche il braccio” – Give them a finger and they’ll take an arm.
“L’abito non fa il monaco” – The habit doesn’t make the monk.
“Al bisogno si conosce l’amico.” – A friend in need is a friend indeed.
“Batti il ferro quando è caldo.” – Strike while the iron is hot.
“Cane che abbaia non morde.” – Barking dogs seldom bite.
“Chi cerca trova” – Seek and ye shall find.
“Chi fa da se fa per tre.” – If you want to do it right, do it yourself.
“Chi trova un amico, trova un tesoro.” – Finding a friend is like finding a treasure.
“Padrone sono io, ma chi comanda è mia moglie.” – I’m the boss but my wife is in charge.


A moment in history….

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the Italian economy was booming with a growth rate of around 6.2% per year.  Today, many look back and wish they could enjoy such a strong economy again. This rapid growth was sustained by ambitious Italian businessmen opening up new industries in hydrocarbons, manufacturing, reconstruction and the modernization of many Italian cities such as Milan, Turin and Rome. The Marshall Plan was also very effective in jump-starting this amazing post-war economic growth for Italy.
Big Italian cities attracted many workers from villages throughout Italy and by the mid 60’s the small towns became even smaller. Despite the loss of inhabitants, small towns also benefited from the economic boom as well.
The mayor touched by the story kept a donkey’s trail intact for a few years until the donkey passed away and a short time after the old man passed-on too. It was an end of an era.
In 1957, FIAT launched “La Nuova 500” and later the 500 Giardiniera and the Vespa Company introduced the APE along with new motorized farming machines.  Now the contadini, were mobilized and could reach their campagne on the outskirts of the villages much faster.  They became more productive and enjoyed a new prosperity.
Many villages were able to secure funds from the government to rebuild their infrastructures which brought new life to small and remote areas.  Unfortunately, some older folks did not accept all the changes and modernity and wanted to hold on to their traditions by using their mules and donkeys to aid them with their farming chores. By 70’s only a few donkeys remained.


A die-hard old man decided to complain to city hall that the modernization of the town made it difficult for him to lead his donkey through the town, especially that the old, hilly passages were laid with smooth and slippery pavers. He wanted the town mayor to preserve certain trails to accommodate the needs of the folks who still kept to their old ways. The mayor replied sarcastically by saying that he was probably the last individual defending a dumb animal like a donkey and it was time to change.
The offended farmer replied. “How dare you refer to my donkey as a dumb animal! You should be aware that when I served in the Italian army during the 1935 Ethiopian Campaign, our military engineers had to build roads in the colonies but had no time to do any surveys needed to build proper structures.  Consequently, the engineers relied on the donkey’s trails to build the roads in a timely fashion.  You see, donkeys always take the road of least resistance when climbing up hills. By relying on the donkey’s natural instincts the engineers built great roads in Africa from the donkeys trails and gained valuable time.”


E’ Primavera in Abruzzo

The Abruzzo region is so diverse – from its shoreline on the Adriatic coast, to its small quaint towns on the hilltops, to the majestic peaks of the Maiella Mountains, Abruzzo, has it all.

Castello dei Semivicoli – Casacanditella (Chieti)

Castello dei Semivicoli – Casacanditella (Chieti)

Two years ago, my wife and I spent a few days in a Casacanditella, a small hamlet perched on an enchanted hill, to admire the Maiella Mountains and the surrounding landscape.  Gabrielle d’Annunzio referred to this location as “Il terrazzo d’Abruzzo”.

The only place one can overnight is at the  Castello dei Semivicoli, a Baronial house with only 10 rooms, built by il Barone Pernicone between the 17th and 18th century.

In the early 1980’s Mr Gianni Masciarelli took over the property and started producing selected wines from Montepulciano grapes and turned the home into a Castle for guests to enjoy the wonderful surroundings and great wine.

A few words on the Masciarelli family: Gianni became a great wine producer, but part of the Masciarelli family immigrated to the USA from San Martino sulla Marrucina at the turn of the last century.

In the USA, Anthony Masciarelli, an industrial film producer, changed his last name to Marshall after he arrived in the Bronx.  In 1934 and in 1943 Gary Marshall and Penny Marshall were born and went on to conquer Hollywood.

Whether its wine in Abruzzo or great films in America the Masciarelli family became great producers.

“il Coperto”

Many restaurants in Italy charge a small fee called “il coperto” to cover the cost of a table set-up such as the tablecloth, napkins, silver ware, bread etc.  However, the origin of this practice started for a different and humble reason that dates back to the Middle Ages.

During this period, many faithful individuals flocked to Rome, from England and France, on a pilgrimage seeking redemption. The easy way to get to Rome was by taking Via Francigena which crossed many towns and finally ended in Rome.

Once the pilgrims crossed the Alps, the villages and towns folks, along the way, offered a safe area under “il portico” to allow the faithful to rest-up and have some food before continuing on their long journey.  The locals, who were very supportive of the pilgrims, would make a collection of food and clothes and bring it to “il portico” as a charitable and honorable act.

Maybe tomorrow’s restaurateurs could collect “il coperto” to fund organizations that want to feed the poor of the world and not use the money to defray their costs.  A new idea from an old custom is still a great action. Meals-on-Wheels is not a bad idea after all isn’t it?

Why is the Italian language so difficult to preserve?

A recent BBC article claims that almost 8,000 universities, in non-English speaking countries, are offering programs entirely in English. Bachelors and master degrees are chosen by over 5 million and, while students once had to travel abroad, they are now staying in their own country to pursue their higher education in English.

Italy is one of these countries where at the University of Milan, the Sapienza in Rome and few others are offering under-graduate and graduate programs entirely in English.

There are nearly 100 million persons in the world speaking Italian but well over a billion speak English. In the financial, Hi-tech, science and other fields the “lingua franca” is undoubtedly English. If Italian millennials hope to compete in a global economy, they better be competitive and master the tongue of the Anglo Saxons.

However, it appears to me that the Italian government agencies and the media are over-extending themselves by arbitrarily choosing English expressions over Italian to communicate with its population. It seems that in Italy it is fashionable these days to utter English words and phrases.

Recently the Italian government took legislative action to reduce employment by easing hiring labor laws to urge employers to hire more staff. This program was labeled in English as “JOBS ACT”.

The Italian Navy placed ads in English to recruit personnel by using such caption as: “Be cool and join the Navy”.   What made the Italian armed forces act so unpatriotic?


Last week a gay couple wanted to adopt a child fathered by one partner while also allowing the mother of the child to retain her motherhood role. This social life anomaly was coined “Stepchild adoption”. All Italian newspapers, TV and radio shows, reported the story by using this English expression. Some reporters even had difficulty pronouncing it.

Italian companies now have “Business Meetings” instead of “una riunuione” and after the meetings obviously there are “Debriefings”.

Italians who need medical attention in a day-clinic must now look for signs saying “DAY HOSPITAL”. In pharmacies you need a “TICKET” to get your prescribed medicine.

On TV, “Notizie della domenica” is now announced as “SUNDAY NEWS” reported by an “Anchorman” sitting behind the “News Desk”. A day dosen’t go by where a multitude of English words penetrate the national media.

On a lighter note, a travel agency in Italy gave a couple a “HOTEL VOUCHER” for a prepaid vacation in a foreign country. It took the couple hours to realize that the name of their hotel was not “Voucher”. I guess the proper documentation should have been called Buono Alberghiero”.

These are a few examples on how the Italian language is being de-emphasized by individuals who should be proud of Dante’s “Lingua Volgare, a language that inspired so many musicians, artists, poets and many more. Italians accept new words from other cultures but the over-use of English expressions must be kept under check particularly when the public entities who should oversee abuses are the culprits.

Rosario Mariani