I am fascinated by the way Italians live. For that matter, most Europeans — but the Italians are in a class all of their own. After spending nearly a month in Rome on the Carleton Architectural Studies in Europe Off Campus Study (OCS) this winter, I felt like I had gained insight into all avenues of Italian life. They drive at insane speeds on motorcycles through cobblestoned streets built for Roman chariots, all their meals are some form of carb, the air pollution is sky-blackening and there is a massive trash collection problem; bags of wrappers, bottles, molding food line the streets — A result of what happens when you let the mob run your waste management. And then there’s the cigarettes. Clouds of smoke follow Italians wherever they go, down major thoroughfares and through back alleys—I witnessed a crowd of children that couldn’t have been more than twelve years old get out of school and immediately light their cigarettes from packs that I’m sure their parents bought for them. It is the national pastime, the country’s great unifier—the Camorra mob boss and the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs may have exceedingly different jobs and moral inclinations yet they are gloriously united in the fact that they would both step out of a meeting to have a smoke. Used butts line the streets like a fact of life, as natural as rain. It’s incredible. There’s no shame like in the U.S., where the soccer mother might eye the bearded microbrewer suctioning a cigarette with an evil side eye and cup the mouth and nose of her closest offspring. In Italy, the mother would be smoking and so would the child. Adesso, per favore.
I naturally assumed that the combination of these factors, primarily the smoking one, would place the Italians somewhere in the low side of life expectancy. And yet, I was shocked to find that the life expectancy of Italians in 2020 was 77 years for men and 84 years for women. The number of Italians who live past 100 has tripled in the past 15 years. How is this possible? What secret to life have the Italians unlocked that we have not?
This was the question with which I tasked myself . Being a scientist and student of Carleton I decided to approach this study with the utmost rigor and attention to scientific truth. I stopped attending classes. Instead, I took to roaming through the streets day in and day out, stopping old people whom I encountered with cigarettes hanging from their mouths.“How old are you?” “How are you feeling today?” “What do you do to keep yourself healthy?” Most did not speak English, and I did not speak Italian. This was a problem mediated through gestural work, a look of deep meaning in my eyes. This provided mixed results and I decided to go back to the drawing board. Naturally, the next phase of my project was to try this lifestyle. As I had no monkey to pass the weight of cancer onto I decided to shoulder the burden myself. I took to smoking like an Italian — an amount I calculated to exactly eighteen cigarettes a day. This, evenly spaced out, almost completely ensured that there was never a moment in the day when I did not have a cigarette in my mouth or hand, apart from showering. My index and middle fingers began to calcify into a constantly outstretched position, a medical miracle I began to refer to as “The Dart Claw.” I started having recurring dreams of wrestling a big greasy cigarette in a box, surrounded by hordes of screaming, coughing, elderly Italians; every time the cigarette wiggled out of my grasp and slammed me to the ground before breaking a chair over my back, the crowd going wild behind him.
This was only one element of my experimentation. I also sipped espressos (at least four a day, spaced out) exclusively ate fish, pasta and pizza and bought a little bike I nicknamed Vennucia that I rode wildly and carelessly through the streets, taking care to try to hit every pedestrian I could see. Yet I still felt like something was missing—I felt like I was a little child in a costume, wearing dad’s clothes, pretending like I was going off to work. I was beginning to feel that the whole experiment had been for naught.
On my final day in Rome, I wandered out of my hotel and down a side street, eventually finding myself facing the Trevi Fountain. It was late at night and the street was almost empty. In the distance I spotted a single glowing ember. Walking closer I saw that it was an old woman, bent over the edge of the fountain, smoking. She smiled at me and nodded after I asked if she spoke English.
“Signora,” I asked. “How do you do it? Don’t you know those things kill you?”
She looked at me with a look I could only place as exceeding pity. “Oh bambino,” she tutted, her words almost obscured in the thickness of her accent. “I do not think about what may come tomorrow. I simply live the way I want today.”
And with that, she was off.
Maybe this is the secret to the Italians’ longevity. Not a question of lifestyle or diet, but something far more subconscious: an embrace of life. A decision that things are hard enough to subscribe to a list of rules, of stern expectations from the Surgeon General, that life already provides us so few pleasures that any one of them should be embraced wholeheartedly. Maybe the secret, as trite as it may sound, is to be happy. Dart away my friends, dart away.