Since living in Italy I am quickly picking up on cultural differences between American and Italian culture and what IS or IS NOT important or expected on a daily basis. Of course these are all generalizations and cannot be true for every Italian person or place and will depend heavily on where you are located in Italy, how you were raised, what your influences were, etc. Same goes for anything I mention about American culture. Many of these observations are unspoken “rules” so to speak but when I don’t follow them, I learn immediately that how I am going about something is not the “way” here. It is interesting being immersed in a completely different place with norms that I’m not accustomed to. Many I am still warming up to the idea (with some resistance) while others I want to keep close and believe most cultures would benefit in adopting.
The most obvious differences between American and Italian culture is the concept of time. It is true that Americans are always in a hurry, rushing from one thing to the next, getting things to go, skipping lunch during a workday, etc. Our culture is built around this idea of success and completing as many tasks as possible in one day. Though we save time for social engagements, family and home-cooked meals, I wouldn’t say it is a priority, in general.
On the other hand, Italy values family and friends. It is important to spend an evening with loved ones in conversation without the distraction of cell phones or rushing off to another commitment that night. They are great at spending quality time and really enjoying life. Time moves slower here. This is a beautiful trait, but can also be frustrating when I am surrounded by the idea that “late” is okay. Even with public transport…as you so clearly read in my previous article.
First, let me start with a list of the Italian habits that aren’t, let me say, the best qualities of Italian culture. Italy is challenging me to do an expectation shift and see that what I find crazy or ridiculous could be completely normal and acceptable for them.
Habits That Take Some Adjustments
1. Everybody smokes. Okay, not everyone, but close.
2. Water isn’t free at restaurants. You have to buy in bottles in sparkling or still.
3. No coffee with milk after noon. Apparently the milk is too heavy and there isn’t any cream/half or half for coffee at all. Only milk…ummm…this I am sad about ( I have however discovered “panna” which is only supposed to be used for cooking…or my coffee)
4. If you don’t finish your meal, servers might assume you didn’t like it. Even if I scarfed down at least 3/4ths of my plate. This causes me to eat more than I can handle. No more left over pasta or pizza for breakfast.
5. When walking into a Bar (a bar to them is like a cafe or coffee shop in the U.S.) if you are just wanting a quick pick me up coffee and a simple snack, you select your own pastry, order a coffee and hangout at the bar. This is about a 5 minute or less experience. Most order a shot of espresso (un cafe) and un brioche con crema or nutella. Once you are finished they give you your receipt and then you pay (this was backwards for me at first).
6. It is common for men or women to live at home until they are late 20s and eat their mother’s home cooked dinners each night, drive their parent’s car and not pay many bills. This is due to the fact that they are finished with University and most Masters programs by age 25 or 26 and then get a “real” job and move out. It is rare to hear about an Italian who chooses to live on their own. It seems they move out because they have a significant other to move in with. In general, the logic is why move out alone when I can stay with my family and save money…?
7. Fashion is highly valued. Most dress nice everyday when in larger cities and I mean very well meaning high quality brands, done up hair and makeup and looking top notch. Most men are very stylish and clean shaven and put ALOT of effort into looking good and I do mean alot. Good fashion sense is common whether you are going to the grocery store or a party. Always look your best. I’d say it is an improvement from America’s lower standards in dress, and a positive to encourage people out of their sweat or yoga pants. However, if I am having a lazy day and don’t want to put the effort in, I cannot go outside in pajamas unless I am okay with getting judged.
8. Easy access to anything at a nearby store when I need it. In America, cities are modernized and built for convenience and efficiency. On the other hand, in Italy it is harder to reach things because sometimes they are not sold in Italy or even something they do not use on a regular basis. For example, I can’t buy coconut oil, cottage cheese, fresh cilantro, sweet potatoes, half and half, Oregon Chai (I know why they don’t but they should) and many toiletries brands I use back home. This reality has sometimes made me feel like I have gone back in time a decade or two.
9. The fact that when I walk into a bathroom or “toilette” it is not always a given that I will have a seat. I will admit that I always thank God when I do!
A few weeks ago I was saying goodbye to Abby and her husband Lorenzo to catch my late night bus to Paris and as I was leaving Lorenzo asked me, “Aren’t you going to change your pants?” I said back to him, “No, I want to be comfy on the bus and sleep so I am wearing my pajamas”. He looked back at me shocked saying, “But you can’t go out like that.” My American roots began to show as I replied, “Why not? I don’t care how I look right now.” Later I began to regret my decision when I was bolting for my bus across a busy intersection with all my bags, wearing pajama pants, no makeup and drawing unwanted attention from all sides. I was not making eye contact with anyone I was so embarrassed.
Positive Habits I Want to Adopt
1. Family is important and most eat meals at the table.
2. Italians don’t buy pre-made or frozen meals. They like to cook everything and eat fresh foods. Getting a TO GO box and eating left overs isn’t common. This is strange to me because I love leftovers and it’s actually rare for me to finish my food at the restaurant, so in an attempt to not be wasteful, I’ll eat it the next day. Not anymore.
3. All food here is delicious! No explanation needed.
4. They have many food courses. Bread always, pasta as the first course, then meat, salad, fruit, dessert and espresso. So much food!
5. Dessert seems like a MUST after dinner.
6. Italians overall seem positive, friendly, generous and happy to assist. At least in my experience.
7. Birthdays are a highly celebrated event. Anyone can be invited to a party even if they don’t know the host. The more the merrier!
8. Most cities are full of history and a story! I can’t get over how many hundreds of year old buildings there are and how detailed the architecture is!
9. Most grow up with a home away from home. A house at the sea and/or in the mountains for holidays or weekends away.
10. Hygiene and overall cleanliness – I notice most make their bed each day, no shoes around the house, wearing slippers, use the bidet (let’s call it what it is…a butt washer), iron their clothes, hire cleaners, highly aware of germs, and overall care about image. This is a fantastic quality to have but sometimes for me can be a bit too “particular” about the way things are done.
Italy is a lovely country and I’m so glad to have gained perspective and an insider’s view into daily habits. Though I can stand out like a sore thumb with my expressiveness, loud voice, talkative personality and obvious differences in “normal” I think I’m starting to catch on.
Con Tanto Amore,