Blog Post

Riviera Life

There have been two songs constantly on the radio at the beach in Italy this summer. The first, Bruno Mars’ “The Lazy Song” (“Today I don’t feel like doing anything”), is so annoying that it makes you want to do something, anything, as long as it is violent. But the second, a remix of Caro Emerald’s “Riviera Life” with an Italian verse and support by Giuliano Palma, is brilliant. The song is an escape fantasy for crazy nights and afternoon martinis and valet parking, and the Italian remix is maybe even better than the original simply because this dream of a life simpler and more relaxing, and yet also more glamorous and exciting, is exactly what so many people have been looking for in Italy for at least three hundred years. What saves the song from becoming a pop version of Under the Tuscan Sun is the tiny self-reflections in the lyrics (the song is notably in the future tense; the break stresses the point of imagining the Riviera Life is for “when times make me teary”; it never forgets, in other words, that it is a song). But it would still be a pretty generic song without the delicacy of Caro’s voice. She has incredible intonation and sings with the precision of someone who spent a lifetime making demos for other, better looking people to sing less well (if you don’t know her story, well, it is irresistible). Caro maintains a hint of hurt, charm, and happiness to be singing that avoids the tired cliché of longing for a better life away from work: she obviously likes her work a lot, and that allows her to imagine the Riviera Life so precisely. For there is absolutely, without a doubt, something very real about the Riviera Life.

When I tell people I am spending two months on the Italian Rivieria, they tend to imagine that I will spend two months inside the dreams of Caro Emerald’s song: drinks with Sofia Loren, dinner with Fellini, freshly-pressed linen shirts and a slinky model on each arm—that sort of thing. Instead, I have indulged in the more mundane escapism of the academic: I wrote the chapters I had been putting off forever. A friend here recently told me that Liguria now has the oldest population in Europe. It has become Europe’s retirement destination, a combination of Palm Springs and Florida. I fit right in.

“Rivieria Life” is in many respects travel writing, and like all travel writing is about the authentic in its many forms: escape from the real life of the city; but also acquiring the authentic native view. Every guidebook advises you on tips to see a city the way the locals do. So it is a little strange listening to a song about a dream get-away destination when you are actually there in the Riviera Life, listening to it with the locals at the bar on the beach. True, Caro sings that she is going to start up her “beat-up motor” and go to Monaco, but surely the Italian Riviera di Levante counts, even if it is less glamorous, more family friendly, and more overrun with Americans toting their Rick Steves’ guide (oh how I hate Rick Steves, not least because he is so often right about practical matters).

Before there was Rick Steves telling you what to look at in Italy, there was Henry James. I have been staying in Italy for a few months every year for five years now, and I have come to the conclusion that there really is no better description of the oddity of the Riviera Life than James’ Italian Hours, because it turns out the Riviera Life is just like literature—and James knew a thing or two about literature. Let us skip his more well-known love affair with Venice and head straight to his account of the coastline. There is a lovely description of Lerici, some devastingly true things about La Spezia (Mr. James, paying close attention to Shelley’s lyrical house and boys in sailor suits, does not seem to have noticed that the food is really great too). When he describes Genoa as “the crookedest and most incoherent of cities,” that assessment has become only more true courtesy of a massive allied bombing campaign (again, food failure: there is no evidence of any pesto on Henry’s chin. Peccato).

James’ accounts of Italy are amazing, though, because he is always doing two things: trying to describe as accurately as he can what things are like and thinking about how he thinks about his description. In Genoa “the people are for ever moving to and fro or standing in their cavernous doorways and their dusky, crowded shops, calling, chattering, laughing, lamenting, living their lives in the conversational Italian fashion.” The more succinct Italian word for the conversational Italian fashion is chiacchierare, and it’s still true: one Italian friend refuses to buy the automatic highway toll-pass for his car because he just likes to talk to the toll agent—even when the toll agent is a computerized voice. But James is very aware (in a way that Rick Steves is not) of how much he is projecting. He notices the thing about tourism that travelers always notice but travel writers almost never do: “A traveler is often moved to ask himself whether it has been worth while to leave his home—whatever his home may have been—only to encounter new forms of human suffering, only to be reminded that toil and privation, hunger and sorrow and sordid effort, are the portion of the mass of mankind.” The Riviera Life requires a lot of waiters and pasta makers and fishermen; it requires someone to do the brutal labor of picking all those olives and all that basil. How miserable was life back home that men and women from Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia decided that walking along a beach in the middle of the day offering massages or selling towels and sun glasses was a good option? A 60-something year old Italian friend, who always sports a perfect linen shirt, finally admitted to me that his 85 year-old mother still presses them for him and that he doesn’t know how to use the washing machine. There is clearly what Marx called an economic base in sight if you want to look at it. It turns out Italy is, depressingly, a lot like wherever you are from.

The highlight of James’ account comes when he is thinking about his own descriptions. He tells a little story about visiting a hill town (probably outside Genoa, but he doesn’t name it). The passage is a little long, but it is really, really good:

The other day I visited a very picturesque old city upon a mountain-top, where, in the course of my wanderings, I arrived at an old disused gate in the ancient town-wall. The gate hadn’t been absolutely forfeited; but the recent completion of a modern road down the mountain led most vehicles away to another egress. The grass-grown pavement, which wound into the plain by a hundred graceful twists and plunges, was now given up to ragged contadini and their donkeys, and to such wayfarers as were not alarmed at the disrepair into which it had fallen. I stood in the shadow of the tall old gateway admiring the scene, looking to right and left at the wonderful walls of the little town, perched on the edge of a shaggy precipice; at the circling mountains over against them; at the road dipping downward among the chestnuts and olives. There was no one within sight but a young man who slowly trudged upward with his coat slung over his shoulder and his hat upon his ear in the manner of a cavalier in an opera. Like an operatic performer too he sang as he came; the spectacle, generally, was operatic, and as his vocal flourishes reached my ear I said to myself that in Italy accident was always romantic and that such a figure had been exactly what was wanted to set of the landscape. It suggested in a high degree that knowledge of life for which I just now commended the Italians. I was turning back under the old gateway when the young man overtook me and, suspending his song, asked me if I could favour him with a match to light the hoarded remnant of a cigar. This request led, as I took my way again to the inn, to my falling into talk with him. He was a native of the ancient city, and answered freely all my inquiries as to its manners and customs and its note of public opinion. But the point of my anecdote is that he presently acknowledged himself a brooding young radical and communist, filled with hatred of the present Italian government, raging with discontent and crude political passion, professing a ridiculous hope that Italy would soon have, as France had had, her ’89,’ and declaring that he for his part would willingly lend a hand to chop off the heads of the king and the royal family. He was an unhappy, underfed, unemployed young man, who took a hard, grim view of everything and was operatic only quite in spite of himself. This made it very absurd of me to have looked at him simply as a graceful ornament to the prospect, an harmonious little figure in the middle distance. ‘Damn the prospect, damn the middle distance!’ would have been all his philosophy. Yet but for the accident of my having gossiped with him I should have made him do service, in memory, as an example of sensuous optimism! (Italian Hours)

This sort of thing happens more often than you’d think. Sensuous optimism runs deep. Maybe it is an inevitable side-effect of a place that is just so beautiful that it makes you momentarily stupid. In the next town over, one of the few remaining locals (the same age as me, I was surprised to discover) told me they’ve closed the school he went to as a kid: there aren’t enough students, because the town is now practically only inhabited by tourists. In a very cool caffe just off a beach I spoke with a barista (hip long hair, flip flops, perfect tan) who explained to me, half in Italian and half in Australian-accented English, that Italy is doomed because the bureaucracy is so horrible. A very nice guy working the front desk in a Turin hotel told me 1) that Nebraska was his favorite place in the world; 2) you should always fly the Arab airlines because their service is so much better; and 3) he expected that his 8 year-old son would have to leave Italy because there is absolutely no work. The scenario can work in reverse too, in a number of ways. I looked sadly at two American tourists who were having a lot of trouble finding the entrance to the pay beach (the one with the nice umbrellas and chairs that you always see in pictures). “Doesn’t anyone work in this country?” the wife snarled, setting in motion the flip side of la dolce vita—general laziness. This couple seemed to walk out of a Henry James novel, but they were definitely not Henry James: it did not seem to occur to them that it was lunch time, that most of the staff were 20 year-olds more interested in getting laid by foreign youth than in attending to the needs of middle-aged Americans, that much of the problem was their inability to read the sign that said, in Italian, “entrance.” I didn’t say anything to them and walked on, doing my best to look like what I imagine someone who doesn’t speak English looks like. I unfortunately did understand English when one Australian tourist said to another “the peasants built all these buildings.” Another time, walking through town, I heard a group of tourists say to each other “this is one of those old-fashioned little towns where everybody knows everybody!” Except they said it in Italian, because they were Italian tourists.

Italians too perpetually succumb in paradoxical ways to the fantasy of the Riviera Life. There is a show on TV called “Magnificent Italy” which consists largely of helicopter shots of beautiful places in Italy. It is not for foreign consumption. Perhaps the show is one way to explain the fact that Italians keep voting for Berlusconi, who lives his own version of the Riviera Life with paid 17 year-old babes who eat meals with him in which the three colors of the Italian flag are always represented. Despite almost unanimously refusing to eat any food that is not theirs, Italians do regularly imagine things better elsewhere. On the Autostrada (whose construction puts all North American highways to shame), there is an automated radar thing that makes sure you aren’t speeding. It is called “Safety Tutor”; that is, the sign on the highway says “Safety Tutor”—and it says it in English. An Italian friend who was driving asked, a little embarrassed: “what exactly does ‘safety’ mean?” It is a good question. The Italian tourists, for example, mostly would not feel safe if the woman bringing the caffe and cornetto told them Italy should relax its immigration laws and that the Northern League (a powerful political party based in Milan, like most of the Italian tourists) is just a bunch of racists. Politics always stands just to the side of the Riviera Life, which is strictly controlled by Safety Tutor.

“To travel is, as it were, to go to the play, to attend a spectacle” points out James, and there “is something heartless in stepping forth into foreign streets to feast on ‘character’ when character consists simply of the slightly different costume in which labour and want present themselves.” It is at this moment that James loses me a little. True, there is always something heartless, even barbaric, about tourism and plays, but only something—not everything. I’m not entirely sure that “labour and want” are the only dirty truths that are hidden away by tourist idiots and the illusions of plays; maybe James is just being a guilty Protestant American, betraying his suspicion that he really ought to get a real job. I am especially curious, in this light, about one detail in James’ story of his operatic communist. When they speak to each other, what language do they speak? James doesn’t say. I don’t know how well (or if) James spoke Italian, but in the hills around Genoa, it probably wouldn’t have mattered. They didn’t speak Italian there. They spoke (and 150 years later many of them still speak) Zenese, the Genovese dialect that is closer to Catalan (or, a local who’d travelled there told me, Brazilian Portuguese) than it is to the high Italian of opera and literature. I very much doubt James could understand a single syllable of Zenese: no one who isn’t born here can understand it (well, maybe Brazilians can). Since James’ unemployed opera singer was singing what I’m guessing was an Italian opera, maybe he did speak Italian: a communist and a little educated, he might have learned Italian in school. Or, given his interest in 1789, maybe he spoke French—Zenese is also a bit like Provençal. That seems like the likeliest scenario to me: Henry James learning about the authentic Italian radical spirit from a local speaking a foreign language and describing his longing to be like the French. Tourists are everywhere, it turns out.

Tourists go somewhere to find something authentic (sunsets, real food, passionate love, dead aristocrats, labor and want), and that is exactly the same reason you (sometimes) go to plays, or read Henry James’ novels—not to discover that representation is an endless play of tourist desires hiding brutal expropriation. The Italian Rivieria is awesome—Caro’s voice makes that clear, as does paying €1.80 for the local wine and eating trofie in Recco and swimming in water that is (how??) naturally the color of an aquarium or walking up a mountain covered in olive trees. Adorno vacationed here; from San Remo (I think—the book didn’t make it to Italy, so I can’t check; anyway, San Remo is on the Riviera di Ponente—it’s practically France) he wrote critical letters to Benjamin about revising “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” Adorno’s gripe with Benjamin was that the commodification of art, what you might call turning everything into a reproducible tourist shot, does not make the truth of art go away, as Benjamin seemed to imply in his account of the loss of aura (whatever aura means: no one seems able to agree). Sometimes by accident and sometimes on purpose, art, even tourist art, makes you see the yourself as a tourist—makes you aware of the constant construction of things, makes you look very closely at production. Tourism makes you read. Maybe James was right, that labor and want really are the ugly truth that underlies tourist fantasies. But tourism also lets you imagine a better world, a Riviera Life; and that sort of hope is really the same thing as being able to see “labor and want” as labor and want, as the opposite of “relaxation and pigging out.” Speaking of pigging out: that crap you eat called focaccia is most definitely not focaccia, as a trip to via San Vicenzo in Genoa will make rapidly clear. I can only get crappy focaccia where I live the rest of the year (since I am what the Canadian government calls a “permanent resident,” I don’t really call it my paese), but my Riviera Life makes me live in hope. Maybe Eataly will open in Toronto.

“Nel sol’, triste non sarai,” sings Caro, and it really is true: you won’t be sad in the sun, at least not for long.

Christopher Warley teaches Renaissance literature and Critical Theory at the University of Toronto.