If we were to compare ourselves to an animal, I guess Australians would be kangaroos. We hop all over the world, exploring, discovering… but we essentially love to return home to that favourite, shady tree. Southern Italians (well, my stereotypical view of them anyway) would be dogs – friendly, energetic and ready for an adventure. While northern Italians would be cats – suspicious, closed and territorial. This was my first impression of northern Italians, or more specifically, the Friulani.
Friuli Venezia Guilia is a northeastern region of Italy. My husband’s parents, Egidio and Francesca, were born and raised in a traditionally isolated mountainous area in the far eastern corner of Friuli, the Valli Del Natisone, and they migrated to Australia following World War II. Friuli also happens to be home to Italy’s official Citta’ del Mosaico (City of Mosaics), a small little-known town called Spilimbergo that rests along the mighty Tagliamento River – a plentiful source of colourful stones for mosaics and terrazzo. Therefore, when we decided to pack up and leave Melbourne to pursue Fabian’s dream of becoming a Maestro of mosaics, we naturally gravitated towards Friuli rather than heading to Ravenna, the formal capital city of the Western Roman Empire, and which is plastered in mosaics and home to many artisans.
Our first home was located in the heart of centro Udine, the second largest city in Friuli. We moved to Udine instead of Spilimbergo because we assumed that living in a larger city would offer me plenty to do while Fabian studied at the Scuola di Mosaico, a 30 minute drive away. I would make friends, enjoy long walks down winding cobbled paths, visit museums, drink coffee (oh, the Illy espressi!) and learn Italian while being a full-time mother to our five-month-old son, Leon. Only, it didn’t quite work out that way…
Now, I don’t want to say that all the Udinese I encountered were cold and, well… a-hmm, rude – many were friendly and hospitable and would talk to me despite my limited conversational skills. But friendly exchanges were as far as it went. There were no invites for coffee, no exchanging of telephone numbers or even a “let’s catch up”. And friendly exchanges in a café – buongiorno, salve, ciao – were as fleeting as the espressi I drank religiously every morning. Overcoming loneliness requires feeling part of local life, doesn’t it? And even though I did make friends (with other expats), I never quite shook that feeling of being an outsider.
Initially, I blamed my poor language skills, but as time went on I realized that this reserved politeness was a typical trait of the Udinese. When you’re feeling lonely it’s hard to rationalize that it isn’t YOU but, in fact, part of the cultural ethos. Please stay with me while I explain…
Let me just say, I can’t take credit for this theory as I’ve heard it many times! Anyway, by way of explanation, here’s today’s history lesson: Friuli has been the epicentre of dozens of wars throughout history. None other than a certain Julius Caesar ruled from Friuli during the Roman invasions. Hannibal crossed the Alps to invade northern Italy and Attila the Hun devastated the Northern provinces. All pretty serious!
People from the Valli Del Natisone say that Attila the Hun once occupied a rotting and ruined castle located on a roadside hilltop. Along the way, there were some Slav, Goth and Lombard invasions. Later still, Napoleonic France seized control of the region from the Venetian Republic, and was then supplanted by the Austrian Empire.
And let’s not forget the scars of World Wars I and II. During World War I, Friuli was a fierce battleground wherein the Battle of Caporetto was particularly brutal. I was told that the river running through Gorizia flowed red during the war. Numerous war cemeteries and memorials across Friuli serve as a constant reminder of the devastation wrought by World War I. Redipuglia, located near Trieste (Friuli’s capital), is Italy’s largest war cemetery where over 100,000 known and unknown soldiers lie. A further 60,000 soldiers lie in a war cemetery close to Gorizia and an additional 25,000 are located close to Udine. Although World War II did not see the same level of fatalities, Friuli was nevertheless hit hard by the war. Nazis militarized the area and set up Italy’s only concentration camp with a crematorium near Trieste. After World War II, the area we now know as Friuli was re-annexed back to Italy and was eventually declared an autonomous region.
So who could blame the Friulani if they’re a little wary of strangers? Being the northern gateway to Italy has meant that Friuli has seen countless marches, invasions and wars, and the brutal history has, without doubt, culturally shaped this tiny region. The Friulani have probably been passing on their fears and beliefs, either knowingly or unknowingly, way back from the days of raping and pillaging. Over time, the people became emotionally and physically hardened, somehow mirroring the rocky and formidable mountains that surround them. And when a trait becomes part of the cultural norm, I’m guessing that it would be rather difficult to shake. Ask most Italians, even the Friulani themselves, and they’ll say that they’re known for being chuisi (closed). So maybe this theory has merit after all.
All this was quite a cultural shock given that I’d left Melbourne with ideas of warmth, laughter and being greeted with open arms – all part of the diving in at the deep end! During moments of homesickness and loneliness, my expat friends would comfort me by saying that while the Friulani are difficult to get to know, once they are your friend, they will stand by you forever.
I did eventually find this, but it was a while before I heard any cats purr.