I remember being confused the first time I heard an Italian talk about his ‘paese’, having assumed that he was talking about Italy but gradually realising he was only really referring to his home village. What does this word actually mean?
Let’s think for a moment about the English word ‘country’. The most common meaning that comes to mind is that of a populated geographic area under the control of a government, i.e. a state. However, you could say that you “spent the summer in the country”, meaning that you spent it in a rural area (or ‘countryside’), outside of a town or city. The word is also sometimes used to refer to a large, well-defined area of land. For example, “It’s such beautiful country,” in reference to a particular landscape. In essence, it’s all about the land.
The Italian word ‘paese’ also has similar meanings. The main definition, like its English counterpart, refers to states and nations. So the UK is a ‘paese’, as is Spain, France, or Germany. Now, Italy wasn’t in that list for good reason–normally, when the word is used in reference to Italy, it is spelled with a capital letter. This is often the case in newspaper articles. For instance, “l’economia del Paese,” (the Italian economy) or “il Paese ha bisogno delle riforme” (Italy needs reforms). Sometimes, ‘Paese’ with a capital letter is used to clarify that it is referring to a sovereign state (not just Italy) and not a town/village. For example, “i Paesi europei” (European countries). However, this rule is not universally applied.
The second meaning can refer to any piece of land. For example, “Che bel paese!” to mean “What beautiful country/region/landscape!”
Finally, it can also be used to talk about a town or village. Italians often use the expression “il mio paese” (or ‘paesino’, meaning little country, or village/hamlet) when talking about where they are from. It’s interesting that the word for a village is the same as the word for a country. Again, it shows the importance and appreciation placed in Italy on your origins and the community of which you are a part. In some sense, the region or village you are from is as important to the individual as the nation as a whole. You cannot simply be Italian–you are also a toscano and a fiorentino, a piemontese and a torinese, a siciliano and a palermitano. A foreigner may insult Italy, but woe to him if he should say a bad word about your home town. After all, the good name of your ‘paese’ is at stake.