“The thing you need to understand about Cremona is that it is having a little war with Piacenza, that’s where we are from. You find the same thing everywhere in Italy: rivalries. Maybe it starts with football, but it’s not really that. It’s about a style, a lifestyle, a way of doing things, how to live the life. It goes back forever.” Donatella is an architect, she works with her father in a practice in Piacenza. Her great friend is Milena, a teacher in a secondary school. “History, art, Palladio, Michelangelo…the greats…” she laughs. “Italy has the longest history, it goes back a very long time – it’s important to us, to me…the tradition we have.”
“Piacenza is a beautiful city too, but the Duomo here [we are sitting in a side street looking at the floodlit façade of Cremona’s huge cathedral] is magnificent, no?” Milena says.
It’s like every town and city is in competition with each other? “Yes, that’s what I mean it’s not just football,” Donatella says. “Travel 20 kilometres from here and the dialect really changes; travel eighty and we can’t understand what’s being said. Go the south, past Naples and it’s impossible…”
“We are a very closed country,” Milena says. “We keep to our traditions, especially the idea of ‘family’.
Family is really the subject of the evening.
These are young working women from northern Italy. One has a Spanish boyfriend from Gallicia, the other lives with a local Italian. “I work in a catholic school, they don’t approve of this,” Milena says, pointing at a ring on the “incorrect” finger. “It should be on the third, we should be married.”
“Everything revolves around Il Papa,” Donatella says. “Even now. The big Papa in Rome and the small Papas everywhere. They still have the power.
“Our generation is different, is changing, but emotionally and culturally we still don’t get away from family. It is such a part of our history, and our daily lives.” Milena says. What about technology, in Lodi I see families talking by videophone. “It’s not the same; maybe we are a claustrophobic race, but it’s about touching.” Donatella says.
“We can do what we want, of course,” Milena says. “But we do worry: what will my family think? What will their friends think? And what will that mean for my family? I don’t want to go on about family but it is the foundation of my life, my “stone”” she says pointing at the cobblestones. “I have to be near my family – I am a provincial, I suppose you would say.”
The pair, and boyfriends, go to “avant garde” theatre in Parma, to cinema, concerts in Piacenza. “And we come for the night to Cremona, just for a change,” Donatella says.
Both women studied in Milan, but didn’t greatly enjoy the experience. “There everything is work, work, work. Too much work. There is a big disparity between the rich and the poor in Milan, you see it. When I was in London I didn’t see poverty. But then, I know, I was being a tourist, just seeing the obvious things.”
“In Milan family life is harder,” Milena says. “It is a question of time and of rhythm. In Piacenza my boyfriend and I can have a life.”
But people marry so young; how can they know it is right at 19 or 20? “Wait until you are 24, “Donatella says. “It’s true,” Milena says. “Divorce now follows five out of every ten weddings, things are changing fast. And this is very bad for the children.”
“The old idea that we marry the first person we sleep with, that’s gone away, is an old idea. I had many boyfriends before this one,” Donatella says. She thinks she will move to Gallicia, “It is a good life there, a good way of living.” But it isn’t easy. “For everything I say about ways of life I too am also for the family – ”
“ – you’re lucky, you have a sister, you are two, I am the only child,” Milena says.
“Family is just part of being Italian. I think in the end it’s a good thing. My sister, she works in Milan for a big international firm, has a child now, the family is happy. If I move away, I move from family, my profession, ‘home’. It is hard.”
“The Catholic church shows us a vindictive God, it’s true,” Donatella says; both women “believe”. “There is a lot of punishment in the vision of the catholic church, and of the family. I know you see crowded churches, but they are the old people. Church, Sunday, social times. Really it is very hypocritical.”
“Italian men behave as if they own ‘all’ Italian women,” Donatella says. “It’s true, they are very protective. Look at someone’s wife the wrong way in many places and there is trouble. But in a way I like it, knowing your man is a ‘man’. It’s old fashioned, sure. An Italian thing; a Latin thing.”
“But there is a God,” Milena says. “There is a God because it is too frightening to think that for all our troubles and problems on earth there is nothing afterwards.”
But that’s not a reason for god; that’s a fear of death. “Look, in my school we teach religion and we teach astrophysics. And the children ask me: ‘how can the two go together?’ I say: ‘the astrophysicists have many answers, but they don’t have them all. Not everything…”
“Your family and your friends – who you grew up with – this is the foundation,” Milena says. “In America or Britain there are many, many single people, they are working all the time, they move for a better job, they lose themselves, their identity. Then they are just working all the time, the pace is wrong. There’s a separation between people who should be connected. It’s not good, is it?”
But families have problems, don’t they? Marry the wrong person and then what; you say divorce is high in Italy now. “I don’t think that this pressure is as bad as being single in Milan or London or New York. Why do they drink so much in Britain? Even the women – and in Ireland it was insane. Why drink if you are happy? If you are happy you want to be with the people you love,” Milena says, “not to drink all night and have a fight.”
“My sister,” says Donatella, “says that it was much easier being single at her profession in Milan. Work is so hard it’s easier to be fluid, have less responsibilities at home. But that just means you work all the hours.”
“Single women: work; married women: no work, just babies. That’s the Italian way,” Milena says. “It’s one of our kinds of racism. Really, it is racist.”
Sexist? “That’s another thing,” Donatella says. “We don’t bother with languages. English is obligatory at school, and college, but it isn’t taught so well. We – Italians – just think we don’t need it.”
It is two thirty; we are the last in the café. “That’s your English influence,” says Donatella. “But we are having an unusual conversation: architecture, god, existence, family; the way to live your life. We’ve had three drinks; that’s a lot for us.”
They leave for their hotel; we see empty squares. I thought this was a party town, everyone comes from Lodi and Crema for the big nights. “No, they are all in the disco now: work, work, work, if you want that family,” Milena says.
Thus much of family today.