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.
The passeggiata has always been associated with sex. When you walk down Spaccanapoli, for instance, you see young couples, lips locked, inhaling each other across café tables, stone pilings in the piazzas, or the seats of tiny Vespas that become, miraculously, capacious bowers of love. Then they detach suddenly with seeming unconcern, glance briefly at each other with a look of civilized curiosity, and start to stroll again. Young men walk arm in arm, too, but this isn’t a sexual thing–just an expression of comradeship. The passeggiata is about renewing connections of all kinds.
Every ritual has its geographic variations. The passeggiata in Rome these days is really just a shopping circuit: down the Via Condotti (Armani, Gucci, Bulgari) to the Via Babuino (Missoni, Kenzo), then up the Corso–the same route taken by the emperors on their triumphal processions. In the ruins of old Pompeii, the carefully constructed street crossings–stepping stones to keep feet from getting muddied–attest to to the ancient Roman concern for pedestrians. As for modern Pompei, the town has long since dropped the second i from its name but the passeggiata continues, with preteens tossing firecrackers and their older siblings smoking marijuana as their grandparents, strolling past palm trees, lament the lack of rain. I had heard that one of the most famous strolls in Italy was in Naples on a Sunday evening, down the long avenue that curves alongside the bay. Yet I found the strollers there had taken to their cars and Vespas: The bumper-to-bumper traffic was the passeggiata, moving through the exhaust fumes at a pace slower than a leisurely stroll.
The best passeggiatas are the ones in the small towns, where they are slow and stately. Eboli, in the hills south of Naples, is a town made famous by the writer and painter Carlo Levi, exiled nearby in the 1930s, with his book Christ Stopped at Eboli. The title implies that it was a godforsaken outpost of civilization. Eboli has even less going for it today. The town center, bombed in World War II, is now an ugly agglomeration of concrete buildings. When I arrived in Eboli, the main square had been completely fenced off for “restoration,” which in Italy means that it has been closed anywhere from four months to 40 years, and will remain so indefinitely.
The barista at a little café told me that, yes, of course Eboli has a passeggiata. When the restoration started in the square, the passeggiata shifted to the nearby Corso Umberto, a street lined with pizzerias and clothing shops (no Missoni here, but lots of maternity clothes), whose main adornment was a newly installed bronze statue of Carlo Levi “in appreciation,” its plinth noted sardonically, “of notoriety conferred.” Within a few hours, it was full of strolling people.
I stood near one end of the route (a nondescript stretch of pavement where the flow doubled back on itself) and watched. After a few laps, I realized that I kept seeing the same people, but in different combinations. Here came a blond woman pushing a stroller. Next lap, she was arm in arm with a younger woman, and the stroller was nowhere to be seen. Later, they’d been joined by an old lady who was pushing the stroller. Next, the three women were surrounded by men, jackets draped over their shoulders, smoking cigarettes.
I couldn’t manage the dignified saunter they all affected with such grace. I would speed up involuntarily and crawl up the heels of a pair of lovers or overshoot the end of the passeggiata course. But when I just stood and watched, I appreciated, as I never had before, that the Italian verb passeggiare–to walk–contains the root of the word passage: an oceanic journey, a royal progress, the ebb and flow of time.
From Civilization (Aug./Sept. 2000). Subscriptions: $20/yr.(6 issues) from Box 420352, Palm Coast, FL 32142.