Monday, April 21, 2014

Life on the edge: Border culture in Italy's Trentino-Alto Adige Region

Since the entire country is on Easter holiday (all schools are closed for a week!), I am taking advantage of the time off to relax in Caldaro (AKA Kaltern), a small town in the beautiful, mountainous, Trentino-Alto Adige Region of Italy, bordering Austria via the Dolomites (for Austrians, this area is "Südtirol"). Due to its border location and touristy status, this "Italian" place doesn't feel much like Italy as I have come to know it, but more like a hybrid, border space where languages and cultural practices mix.

The beautiful town of Caldaro/Kaltern
Just a couple days ago, I was a second-language speaker of Italian surrounded by Italian speakers; here I am a non-German speaker. Italian works for the most part with locals, who are bilingual German-Italian, but not so much with fellow tourists, who are predominantly from Germany and Austria. Not Italian, but rather English, comes in handy here.

It is interesting to experience border culture on a different border. Due to both research and personal interests, I have spent a good deal of time exploring hybrid language and identity on the US-Mexico border. I use the term, 'border', both geographically and metaphorically, as I work with Latino youth who often self-identify as "Mexican" despite being born and raised in the US. The fact is, Latinos in the US have grown up, like the kids in Alto Adige, in between two cultures. As one student summarized, "I can be American but I will always have Mexico inside of me".

Of course, US-Mexico and Italy-Austria are two, very different borders, and the political, historical, sociolinguistic context of each is much too complex to address here. However, keeping in mind my prior experience with cultural-linguistic, border identity, I wanted to make a few observations about border culture where I am at the moment, in Caldaro/Kaltern, Alto Adige.

1. Border language. The first and most obvious indication that you are on the border is the coexistence of two languages in contact. Here in Alto Adige/Südtirol, towns, streets, and landmarks have two official names: one in Italian, and one in German. Thus, for example, we are in the town of Caldaro/Kaltern, on La Strada del Vino/WeinstraBe, heading to Lago di Caldaro/Kalterer See. Locals switch between German and Italian with ease. Printed materials are available generally in both languages (e.g., two-column menus), although it seems easer to find things in German due to the prevalence of tourists from the north. For example, at breakfast this morning, we were greeted with "Frohe Ostern" (Happy Easter) cards with information on things to do today in Kaltern. When I asked, in Italian, if the information was also available in Italian, I was told that at the moment, all the guests in the hotel are speakers of German, so they did not print Italian ones (then there is me -ha ha).    

Bilingual "Happy Easter" sign in the center of town
2. Border food. Bratwurst, pretzels, and rye bread do not exist in the Italy I know, but they do here, and people even put rye in salad (as well as green beans). Pizza and pasta are everywhere, and strudel is served with gelato. Breakfast here is not the rushed, "cappuccino and brioche" of Italy, but a smorgasbord of dark breads, musli and yogurt, cheeses, meats, fruit, etc. Unlike in Padua, where good tea is hard to come by but you can get a decent macchiato out of a machine, tea is the preferred morning beverage here, and they have the good stuff! On the other hand, even though Caldaro is literally infused with vineyards and wineries, people still sit out on the piazza (AKA platz) every afternoon to have the bright orange or red cocktail I know from Padua as "spritz", an aperitif made with Aperol or Campari.  

Vineyards everywhere in Caldaro nella Strada del Vino (literally, "on the Wine Street")
3. Border fashion. Comfort sandals with socks? So a Northern European thing. No Italian would be caught dead sporting that look. Ha ha. Basically, we are in a mountain town. Everyone is dressed for the weather, ready to take off on a hike or bike ride at any moment. I even saw a guy walk out of church with "nordic trekking" poles.

Of course, one good way to learn about a culture is to participate in a cultural event. Sunday morning, I attended Easter mass at the local church on the main piazza/platz. It was advertised as occurring in "Italiano/Tedesco" (Italian/German), and it certainly was. One presiding priest seemed to be dominant in German, but also spoke some parts in Italian. The other priest spoke only in Italian. They alternated sections, even splitting up the presentation of the eucharist between the two languages ("body of Christ" in German, "blood of Christ" in Italian). Music was divided among German, Italian, and a bit of Latin. Of interest, there was an Italian-speaking family behind me with a couple of kids; they seemed to be visitors. The kids commented that the printed items (e.g., hymnal) were in German. An older, local woman showed up and instinctively knew to ask in Italian if the seat next to them was free. She then proceeded to participate fully, in both languages, during mass. When it came time to "exchange the peace", we shook hands with the people around, saying, "pace" (Italian) and, I'm sure, the German equivalent for "peace". At that moment, everyone smiled and understood each other.    


  1. Sounds like you had a real nice time. I love exploring the borders and the mix of cultures. Like you said, you sometimes didn't even feel like you were in Italy. Any wines of interest or did you visit any wineries?

    1. Hi Jennifer! We enjoyed the local gewürztraminer and lagrein wines, visited some great little wineries: Castel Sallegg,; Peter Söleg,; and Pichler,