Living la dolce vita in Italy

Justin Runquist

Life in Italy is sweet.

Italians like to debate, but if there’s one thing they can agree on, it’s that fact. From their bustling cities to their quiet hill towns, from the north to the south, from Venice to Sicily, Italians still enjoy “la dolce vita,” the sweet life, wherever they are. There are Italians who still work simply and live simply in vineyards. Soccer is still a top priority and their stadiums are still shrines for sports worship and Italian patriotism. They still take pride in their homemade pasta and a well-shined pair of leather shoes. In Tuscany, Italian life can be slow paced like a Frances Mayes novel. Or, in a big metropolis, life can speed up in a Milanese minute.

But, in many ways, Italy is still that mythical place we read about in coffee shops. It’s not perfect there, but it really is a place where – our choice or not – college students’ lofty professional ambitions often go to die and, instead, resurface in simpler forms: hobbies, art, music, family dinners. Witnessing life in Rome, in Portofino and in Positano, Italians placed that calming spell on me, just as they do to many.

Weathered fishing boats bobbing along a harbor. Businessmen loosening their ties and taking two hour café stops. Beautiful Italian maids welcoming you into their stores, filled with clothes and trinkets made with their own hands. These are the images of life across Italy. As John Steinbeck certainly would agree, the images’ sweetness lies in their simplicity. “Positano bites deep,” Steinbeck said. “It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.” 

In many ways, Italians still live in ways we often dream of living. It just depends in what type of dream we’d like to live. My dream in January just happened to be some sophisticated New York-meets-colorful Italy concoction of a lifestyle. Mix those two worlds and you’ll find yourself in Milan too. That was my home for six months: a modern Italy, a faster-paced Italy, a concrete jungle of Italian-style excitement. But life was still sweet. Sweet as Dolce & Gabbana. Sweet as that coffee in between business meetings. But that’s Milan. Italy has as wide a range of culture as their gelaterias have ice cream flavors. Tour Italy and you’ll find it as broadly diverse as the Americas. Just like a typical Bostonian might feel foreign in the Wild West, an Italian from Milan might feel lost in Florence. The difference is that between Boston and Cheyenne rests 2,000 miles of open road. And Milan and Florence: they’re just three hours apart.

Italy is one intense “boot:” a country the size of California, yet just a small parcel of land considering all it offers. Many of my Milanese friends admitted they’ve felt somewhat foreign in Florence. Several of them – my age – never even traveled there. Or Rome. Or Naples in the far south.

Living in Milan, I began to understand the magnitude of traveling near, yet so far culturally at the same time. With Milan as my home base, I would travel to French and German-speaking areas in just two hours. I’d be on subway one moment, and an hour later, on a boat floating on a calm lake between the Alps. And, the so-called “Today’s Italy” – Milan – was just an easy night train from “Yesterday’s Italy” – Rome.

I found the intensity and diversity of Italy to be absolutely fascinating. And, understandably, it was sometimes overwhelming to digest too. One constant observation, for me, really was “la dolce vita.” I found it everywhere. Life was just sweet in different ways.

Milan culture, for example, could fit into an Armani suit. The city radiates personality and attracts it just the same. Milan is arguably the fashion capital of the world, the business capital of Italy, and even more, it’s as international as New York. My friends at the University of Bocconi were a terrific example of this. Greece, Russia, Israel and India were nations they all left to study at this top-notch business school in Italy’s most cutting-edge city.

“La dolce vita” in Florence could take the form of a Botticelli: a renaissance painting come to life, in the form of a city in Tuscany. Florence was my favorite city in Italy. If art or the Italian language were my main academic priorities, I would have studied there in a heartbeat. Many of my Villanova friends did just that: touring the Uffizi art galleries, learning Italian in the hometown of Dante Alighieri (the Father of the Italian language), and walking by some of Italy’s most beautiful churches, bridges and sculptures on the way to class each day.

While I made my own pilgrimage to Rome, several Villanova students chose to make the “Eternal City” their classroom. A stop in Rome must allow anyone to check off much on their lifelong traveling to-do lists. The Coliseum, the old Roman forum, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the vast St. Peter’s Basilica: check, check, check and check.

I wonder what is challenging me more nowadays: the Excel spreadsheets back at Villanova, or the vivid images of these wonderful places. I find myself dropping my technical mish-mush of homework and focusing on photos, on another world, on a reality in Italy.

The gondoliers guiding my family through the canals of Venice. Young kids taking breaks from football games on the beach, recharging with a snack of football-sized lemons. Horses racing through the main square in Siena. And the happy American couple growing olives in the rolling hills of Umbria.

“La dolce vita?” Absolutely.

But Italians can also refer to it as something else. “La mia vita,” they say. “My life.”