We had not been to Italy in almost 30 years and to our delight we found the neighborhood quality of life to be strong and vibrant: people walking everywhere with whole families, children crying in the street unashamed and unrestrained by their always-doting parents. Our neighbors freely introduce themselves to us and tell us their life histories in the hood. The world moves on bikes and Vespas. Whole families on rusty old bikes. Stores remain specialized: Panificio (baked goods), Ortolano (Greens etc.) Macelleria (Meats) etc. Life in our neighborhood of San Frediano remains sane and engaging.
But change is there too. My wife and I arrived in Florence on the train on Sunday evening and emerged from the station in the Piazza across from the church of Santa Maria Novella. While the lettering was discreet and there were no billboards, a whole block was taken up by a Burger King and a McDonald’s. 29 years ago on our last visit Burger King and a McDonald’s were not in Florence. In fact this is the 30th anniversary of the arrival of the first McDonald’s in Rome, Italy. That opening in Piazza di Spagna was met with a citywide mobilization. A protest in May of 1986 featured Italian politicians and intellectuals carrying signs with giant blowups of Clint Eastwood with the inscription, “You should be Our Mayor”. This was a reference to the fact that Eastwood as Mayor of sleepy and upscale Carmel in Monterey County, California, had moved to outlaw fast food joints as a rude incursion on the quality of life in the quaint resort town. Today there are 530 McDonalds’s restaurants in Italy and 270 McCafes serving 700,000 patrons per day. That is a significant number, but France has over 1300 outlets.
The new and perhaps deeper cultural challenge to the Italian way is the prospect that this year a Starbucks will open in Italy. Rome and Milan are slated to have the first outlets of the Seattle based coffee giant this year. What may seem amazing is that while Starbucks is ubiquitous in much of the rest of the world and is certainly everywhere in France, 39 in Paris alone, to date there has been no Italian market penetration.
Howard Schultz’s original inspiration for his cafes was the Italian cafe, which is more than a dispensary of coffee and pastries, but a neighborhood center and community-meeting place for small talk, big ideas and catching up. Schultz’s first outlets were called “Il Giornale” (the Daily) a reference to the Italian word for daily newspapers. In many corners of the United States and the world, Starbucks have become the centers of neighborhood life that their Italian counterparts are.
The cafe society is alive and well in Italy. Furthermore the bars also are licensed by the state to sell tobacco and vapor products, bus tickets and postage stamps. Will Italian youth flock to Starbucks and plug in their laptops and iPads for work and play? If they don’t and Italians reject Starbucks, is the model and brand severely damaged with consequences worldwide?
We have a whole month here to figure out the complexities of Italian politics and cultural interactions in dispatches to come. For now though life is good in Italia. Ciao a tutti!