Passing Fancy

In Italy, the passeggiata is more than an evening stroll--it's a way of life

| January/February 2001 Issue

The dance starts at dusk. Every evening, the natives—men, women, and children—leave their houses and assemble in the square to enact an age-old ritual, an intricate pattern of footsteps that binds together their community, advertises the power of their clans, and perpetuates ancient mating rituals.

These particular natives aren’t wearing grass skirts or brandishing tribal totems. These particular natives are very much a part of the modern world. They may, in fact, be wearing Armani suits and carrying cell phones. The daily ritual is called the passeggiata, and it’s a custom nearly as embedded in southern Italian culture as eating pasta. Rarely discussed by natives or described by anthropologists, it is––like many honest, not-for-the-tourist-trade rituals––so deeply rooted as to be almost involuntary, almost unconscious.

The passeggiata is not a dance in the literal sense. But to call it a "stroll," as the word is usually translated into English, is to ignore everything but the walking. I first discovered the passeggiata in Sciacca, a fishing town on the southwestern Sicilian coast. In a stately baroque piazza, with the Mediterranean on one side and the city hall on the other, the townspeople would turn out, dressed to the nines, and walk up and down, up and down.

The town square couldn’t have been much more than a hundred yards long. And the townspeople, most of them, had been pacing these same worn stones every day of their lives since they were old enough to put one foot in front of the other. Still, they seemed to take undiminished enjoyment in the act—or not enjoyment, perhaps, but rather an emotion somewhere between pleasure and duty. When they reached the end of the piazza, they would turn smartly on their heels and walk straight back to the other side—turn and repeat, dozens of times in an evening. The nightly dance has continued into the age of e-mail and cell phones. And not just in the small towns, either. Perhaps the loveliest passeggiata I found was in the ancient center of Naples. Here, the tangled maze of alleys and tunnel-like byways is split right down the middle by a thoroughfare: long, narrow, and perfectly straight. It is as if an upswelling of Vesuvian geology had struck a lateral crack straight through the city.

That street, called Spaccanapoli—literally, "split Naples"—has been one of the city’s main avenues since Roman times. Walk down it on a winter evening, as I did: The shops are closed, but the street is crowded; human figures loom suddenly in the near-Calcuttan blackness beneath the palazzos that tower on either side. Often, you hear people before you see them: friends greeting each other, parents calling to their children, the banter of teenagers. It isn’t supposed to be this way. In his book Bowling Alone, Harvard social scientist Robert D. Putnam examines the decline in group activities and social rituals. Blaming television––and what he vaguely terms "generational change"—Putnam concludes that "social capital has eroded steadily and sometimes dramatically over the past two generations." He even delivers an offhand blow to southern Italy, which he singles out as an even more "uncivic" place than America. "The very concept of citizenship is stunted there," he proclaims.

What, then, about the passeggiata? Ask a group of strolling Italians, and they will probably just shrug––or even blush a little, as though you’d caught them doing something shameful, something that smacks of laziness and backwardness, the things that separate a place like Naples from such bustling paradises as Milan or Seattle. They even have derogatory nicknames for the passeggiata: "sweeping the floor," they’ll call it, or "swimming laps." "The only reason we do this," snorted one young man I spoke to in a small town, "is that there’s nothing else to do here. If I lived in America, I’d never have to bother." And yet, grudgingly, they also confess a certain appreciation.

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