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Face the Music

The current crisis is driving a wedge between Germans and Italians. Newspapers are filled with reciprocal accusations and criticism, and the gap between the two countries is getting wider and wider. Time to focus on a powerful commonality: Music.

In the “Festival Hall” of Verona – the gracious city in northern Italy in which Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” is set – a multimedia exhibition recently opened to honor the bicentenary of the births of Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi – probably the most influential opera composers in modern times. The title of the exhibition is plain genius: “Werdi-Vagner.” It is more than a tongue twister: the neologism takes different turns when pronounced by an Italian (“OUerdi-Wagner”) or by a German (“Werdi-Phagner”).

It is a peculiar mix of the names of two personalities that have long been regarded as complete opposites. Both musicians favored triumphal compositions, but the Italian has long been considered “lighter” than his German colleague. Verdi was “popular” at his time, whereas Wagner was more “sophisticated." Verdi was a symbol of the early stages of Italy’s unification, as the “Viva Verdi” claim painted on walls stood for “Long live Vittorio Emanuele Re d’Italia” (Vittorio Emanuele King of Italy). Wagner’s image – his unforgivable anti-Semitism left aside – was seized by Hitler and exploited as a symbol of German political mysticism. Cleared of the Nazi connotation, Wagner became a champion of German romanticism after WWII – although performances of his compositions in Israel are still faced with criticism and resentment.

Notwithstanding the tragedy of WWII, do Verdi and Wagner still represent the opposite souls of German and Italy – often considered the two poles of the European cultural spectrum? After decades of rapprochement through European treaties, it seems that the euro crisis is again tearing the two countries apart. An Italian proverb claims that “Italians esteem Germans, but do not love them; Germans love Italians, but do not esteem them.” As papers grow fuller and fuller of reciprocal criticism between the two countries, it is hard to deny the substance of this popular saying.

Great Expectations

Germans do seem to love Italy – but mostly as a nationwide vacation resort. A 2012 survey by the Italian Chamber of Commerce network claimed that one third of the 7,700 Germans surveyed was planning a holiday-trip to Italy before 2015. Right after Turkey (favored by the mass-presence of Turkish citizens residing in Germany) and Spain (that has Benidorm), Italy is the third most-loved holiday destination for Germans. Italian products are still bestsellers in German supermarket shelves. Quite embarrassingly, while eating at one of the many Italian restaurants in Berlin, I often overhear Germans shouting things like “Ciao Bella,” just to pretend living in a commercial for Italian liquor.

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On the other hand, it is hard to hear Italians shouting German words in a German restaurant in Rome – mainly because of the lack of such businesses in the Eternal City. Most of the Italian thoughts towards Germans are nowadays directed at something slightly different from food: political resentment is the hot topic. 82% of Italians believe that “the German influence is too strong,” as evidenced by a Financial Times poll this year. The popular “business gossip” website “Dagospia,” owned by cult-journalist Roberto D’Agostino, often hosts syndicated columns about the “German plan to overtake Europe.” D’Agostino knows his business, and those kinds of pieces are fitted to the mindset of the website’s followers.

Yet, masses of Italians are moving to Germany. We might safely exclude that this is due to a passion for the German lifestyle, as most of the movers lack even the basics of the German language, and all they know about the country is something about soccer. Booming unemployment in Italy is the reason. Stories of the Cockaigne-like Berlin ignite popular expectation about a fair, wealthy, welcoming, and optimistic country. Some 25,000 Italians reside in Berlin, although the figures include only those who are officially registered at the embassy.

Together Alone

But lately there’s another tendency: Italians moving back. They moved to Germany full of expectations – possibly of illusions – and had to face a reality that is much harder than they thought. University degrees and working experience have little value. What matters, is to understand the local business culture and the language (not to mention the need to grow an ability to withstand the grumpiness of most Berliners), which takes a long time to get accustomed to. The alternative of “scaling back” socially, waiting for a better opportunity, is also no longer a valid option as all the waiters’ shifts at Italian restaurants are getting filled with PhD degree holders. A post from a popular blog about Italians in Berlin claimed: “we start to look like those people from Chile spending Saturday nights among themselves in Milan’s piazza Duomo.” Psychologists have evidenced a rising number of Italians asking for therapy. In the end, rents were not as cheap as promised and working opportunities – if any – are only of the “temp-job” kind.

At the end of the Werdi-Vagner exhibition, visitors are asked to “take a side” between the two, by choosing a specific exit. The idea is fun as long as it is only intended in that specific context – it is less entertaining in real life. Contrary to any other crisis in the last eight decades, this one is taking a decisive cultural turn. Some Germans claim it is due to the Italian passion for complaining and not delivering, and Italians believe it is due to a German desire for supremacy. Italians coming home carry with them stories of what they perceive to be a “German closed society.” Think about what could happen in Germany if the country joins the recession bunch, and jobless Germans would have to face the competition of millions of foreigners that have entered the country in the previous years.

Interestingly, in the last years Verdi and Wagner started to be praised for their commonalities, rather than their differences: “it may even be that Verdi and Wagner begin increasingly to seem an inseparable part of the same broad period in European history. Both, for example, were enmeshed in and profoundly affected by the 1848 revolutions,” wrote Harvard music professor Carolyn Abbate. Sometimes, one can only wish that music inspires real life – not the other way around.