Close Neighbors: Living Cheek-by-Jowl in Italy

The vast majority of Italians live in villages, towns, and cities – very few have ever experienced the American “norm” of living in a single-family dwelling surrounded by its own plot of land. The ancient Romans invented the apartment building, an urban space-saving solution which has remained popular throughout Italian history and across the country.

This means that almost everybody in Italy lives very close to somebody else. In these circumstances, you had better learn to love thy neighbor as thyself – or at the very least to get along with him – because you’ve got him practically in your lap.

The impact of this proximity is somewhat reduced by the fact that Italian apartment buildings are far more solidly built (of steel, concrete, and brick) than American ones (wood frames and plywood). I have experienced apartment living in both countries, and can tell you that sound doesn’t travel nearly as easily through Italian walls as American ones.

On the other hand, Italian homes are not sealed up and air-conditioned/heated all year as many American ones are. Whenever it’s warm enough (and sometimes even when it’s not), windows are wide open, and the only thing protecting you from your neighbors is distance – not nearly enough distance.

The first thing you notice is that Italians are LOUD. Which can be fun. During our early years in Milan, we – and everyone else in Italy – were watching a World Cup football game on a hot summer night, with our windows flung wide. Our living/dining room opened onto the courtyard of our building complex, along with dozens of our neighbors’. When Italy scored, the entire city erupted in cheers, echoing so loudly around the walls that it felt as if we were in a stadium. This gave us a pleasurable sense of being part of a community while sitting home on our own sofa.

You can hear the neighbors’ family arguments (and they can hear yours). You can smell what they’re having for dinner. Many Italians’ chief objection to having immigrants next door is that “their food smells funny”. Personally, I was very happy when a bunch of Sri Lankans moved in below us – their cooking smelled heavenly to me, and I wished they would invite us over. Except once a week or so when they had some exceptionally fishy fish.

There are laws of buon vicinato (good neighborship), including the times at which you must be quiet so people can sleep (including an afternoon nap period), and where you can hang your laundry (facing the interior courtyard – it can’t be visible from the street: we don’t want the place to look trashy).

Italians are accustomed to all this, and by and large it works well. Neighbors greet each other in the halls, chat in the elevators, and generally manage to get along.

But sometimes they don’t. For weeks now, the Italian media has been obsessed with a crime that took place in Erba, a mid-sized town between Como and Lecco. A young woman, her mother, and her two-year-old son were murdered in their apartment, along with a neighbor whose husband was also left for dead with his throat slashed, but survived after being pulled from the apartment, which had been set afire in an attempt to destroy the evidence.

Suspicion first fell on the young woman’s Tunisian husband, who had just been released from a minor jail sentence (drug-related), but it quickly became clear that he had a cast-iron alibi: he was in Tunisia.

Last week the survivor was finally in condition to speak and provide information leading to the arrest of the downstairs neighbors, who eventually collapsed under interrogation and admitted to the premeditated massacre. The two families had been quarrelling for years over the noisiness of the murdered family: loud quarrels between the Tunisian husband and his Italian wife, the child crying, etc.

The young woman’s parents also lived in the building, so it wasn’t strange that her mother was present when the neighbors came up armed with knives and a crowbar, ready to kill – they were happy to dispatch the mother as well, whom they considered an impicciona (interfering busybody).

That the other neighbors got involved was almost accidental: they had heard the screaming, thought it was the usual family feud below, and decided to wait til it blew over to take their dog for a walk. When the wife finally went out with the dog, she found the apartment in flames, saw the horror inside, and ran screaming for her husband. The murderers then tried, only half successfully, to remove them as witnesses.

This kind of large-scale slaughter would scarcely raise an eyebrow in the US, but in Italy it’s big news. And I’m glad of that – I don’t want to live in a country that takes such violence for granted. The Italian public is really upset, apparently because it’s the neighbors. Had it been the Tunisian husband, they would have shrugged it off: What can you expect from these Muslim immigrants? But – my god! – the (Italian) neighbors! What is this world coming to?

It’s nice that Italians in general trust their neighbors enough to be so shocked at this betrayal. In many parts of the US, being murdered by one’s neighbors would be no particular surprise.

A newspaper headline January 13th read: “Massacre in Erba: The Couple Had Already Tried to Kill Them”. (I did not bother to read the details.)


  1. Nothing like, to be sure.
    What amused me, if that’s the word for anything in this terrible affair, is that people were quietly disturbed and mournful I thought, until it came out that the murderers went to get a pizza so they would have a receipt showing they were not at home that evening. And they ate it. Then there seemed to be some really heartfelt disgust, “Who could do that and go eat a pizza!”
    Today, as you know, it was revealed that they had planned this for some time. Nobody snapped. They were just evil people.

  2. They went to MacDoo showing they are stupid, beside evil. FI they went to a pizzeria, ate a fast as possible, got a receipt they could have claimed they arrived early and ate leisurely. But at fast food places you pay first, ate later. Thus the scontrino showed the hour they arrived, not when the left. In any case, they had the cell phones on and connected to the apartment’s cell while committing the murder.

  3. You said:

    In many parts of the US, being murdered by one’s neighbors would be no particular surprise.

    I am pretty sure that being murdered by anyone in any country would be a surprise. I think that the reputation of the US is a manifestation of many of the things that we think are wrong with our culture: It is glib, lacking in substance or detail, one dimensional or artificial. The simple point, and I think your discussion proves it, is that atrocities happen everywhere. The US has it’s share of violence. Then again, right around the corner from Italy was a state that was involved in “ethnic cleansing” (murder by neighbors). All countries and nationalities suffer from human failings.

    Thought provoking as always.

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