10 Things I Hate About Italy

Anyone who knows me, knows how much I love Italy. But admiration alone doesn’t guarantee life as an expat will be an endless smorgasbord of pleasure and delight (well, literally it might, but not figuratively).  Oh no, you’ve gotta earn every drop of that mouth-watering gastronomic goodness; you pay for it with your blood, sweat, and tears, amico mio.  No matter how well I’ve assimilated to life here , there are certainly still times I view this country from a foreigner’s perspective – and if I concentrate on it too long, I realize there are a whole lot of things that can really girarmi i coglioni.

I’m typically someone who refrains from making conclusive statements before evaluating all sides of a situation (unlike those ignoramuses I detest who come back from a brief vacation abroad and are suddenly cultural experts on a place, making sweeping observations and statements like, “In Italy, everyone…”).  Generalizations are exactly that – but I’ll allow myself to indulge for a moment.  After five years here I think I’ve earned the right to make a few generic, open-ended, (dare I say) judgmental statements.

Hate is a strong word – but hey, life can’t always be a love fest, no matter where you are.  So, here they are, 10 things I hate about Italy:

1. Daily driving, which is absolute anarchy (in Rome, at least).  Imagine the chaos that would ensue if  traffic laws were virtually non-existent, and those which did exist were barely enforced.  Wait a sec, you don’t have to imagine it – just come to Rome.  The concept of getting pulled over essentially doesn’t exist here because of a lack of police presence on the streets, which makes the roadways a complete free-for-all.  You are literally at the mercy of your fellow motorists, which is not at all a good thing, since most of them are either in a hurry, in a tizzy, or just straight up stronzi (jerks, to put it lightly).

2. The post office. I’m pretty sure it was the tenth circle of hell in Dante ‘s “Inferno” – and if he didn’t include it, he should have.  I detest the place so much in fact that I haven’t physically mailed anything in at least four years.  People take a half-day off from work to accomplish something at the Italian post office.  In true useless bureaucratic style, a simple task is made difficult.  It’s probable you’ll leave with an acute hypertension problem.  Thank God I happen to live here in the age of online purchases and gifts sent directly through Amazon, otherwise I’d be a wreck.

3. Those stupid, tiny napkins at every bar that don’t absorb anything.  They seem to be coated in plastic, which makes no sense.  It’s like they’re having an existential crisis: if a napkin doesn’t properly absorb liquid, then what purpose does it exactly have?

4. The privately-owned shops and boutiques.  Ever suffered an anxiety attack while shoe shopping?  You will if you dare to enter one of these stress centers.  From the moment you open the door, the sales woman pounces and tension grows.  She immediately either: a.) wants to know exactly what you’re looking for; b.) insists on showing you things you’re entirely uninterested in; or c.) stalks you around the store in silence, just close enough to freak you out.  If you do show slight interest in something by merely grazing it with your hand, she feels the immediate need to inform you the item also comes in blah-blah colors and blah-blah sizes, and follows up with a brisk, “Can I wrap it up for you?”  Ten minutes in, and you’re ready to throw money at her and beg for mercy as you run for the door.

5. General obsession with health issues.  Everyone is always ready to self-diagnose or diagnose your symptoms (and most Italians are annoyingly proficient in anatomy).  Only in this country could you hear someone say in normal conversation, “Mi fa male il fegato” (my liver hurts).  In the States, most people couldn’t even begin to tell you where their liver is, let alone whether it hurts; we tend to lump our entire torso and its contents into the all-encompassing “stomachache.”  Then, there are the all-too-frequent discussions about digestion.  TMI, italiani! (not that TMI exists here).  Even young people habitually say things normally reserved for 80-year-old women, like: ”Mi piacciono i pepperoni, ma non li posso proprio mangiare – non li digerisco” (I like peppers, but I just can’t eat them – I can’t digest them).  I always thought it was just my immigrant grandmother who was freakishly in tune with her body (she would complain of  joint pain when it was about to rain), then I found out the whole damn country is one big pseudo-clinic of hypochondriacs.

6. Total wimpiness when it comes to the weather.  As soon as the temperature drops below 60 degrees in the fall, everyone begins to fret about the cambio di stagione they have to do at home (switching of summer/winter clothes), and they start dressing as if they lived in the Arctic Circle.  Please, people, I grew up in Ohio – your light rain and chilly temps are our Spring Break.  Then there’s the simultaneous widespread fear of the menacing colpo d’aria (cold blast of air), which, if caught without a scarf, can send you al letto (to bed) for days.  And the worst part?  I have also succumbed to this fainthearted fate, and never ever forget my scarf.  Disastro!

7. Complete lack of political correctness.  I once saw a job announcement posted in a store window advertising a position for girls with a “bella presenza, età massima di 28,” (good-looking, maximum age of 28). Seriously, they can actually get away with that?  Yes, for some reason they can – and it’s ridiculous and infuriating.

8. You always have to worry about having change on you everywhere you go.  Whenever you buy anything, every cashier, merchant, and place of business asks if you have exact change.  For example, if your bill comes to €15.62, they ask if you have thirty-eight cents.  Seriously, who has thirty-eight cents on them, all the time?  I don’t, and I certainly don’t want to have to worry about having it.  But yet I have to; it’s another thought I’m forced to squeeze into my limited brain space before going anywhere.  Otherwise, I will undoubtedly be haunted by the panicked, “Do I have any coins?” thought whenever I’m lucky enough to actually find a parking spot, or need a tip for the nice Indian guy who pumps my gas after hours.

9. The fact that the employment situation is so dire that people actually have to invent jobs that don’t exist.  No job to be found?  No problem!  Just park yourself at the nearest traffic light, parking lot, or gas station and become an honorary employee.  No, I don’t need a lighter that doubles as a laser pointer, or yet another pack of cheap tissues, grazie.  It’s a sad reflection on the state of the Italian economy when you feel obligated to pay someone for a service you really didn’t need or ask for in the first place.

10. Overly predictable people, and an awkwardly regimented society in general.  In Italy, there aren’t many people with complex identities: you are what you eat, wear, and do. Usually, what you see is what you get, without many surprises or exceptions to the rule.  From the perspective of an American used to a diverse society, that’s a strange concept.  It’s almost too easy to pinpoint a person’s social status, political beliefs, or even profession by appearance alone.  Also, much of the overall structure of society is based on the Italian eating schedule (which incidentally I’ve fully adopted, since I think it’s one of the few structural things they get right).  But I must admit it’s strange that in a country of more than 60 million people, you can actually plan your day around this schedule to avoid traffic.  For example, grocery shopping on a Sunday is a nightmare just around noon, but you can bet it’ll be a breeze from 1-3pm when everyone (and I mean everyone) is at home eating lunch. Honestly, it’s almost creepy.

That makes ten, but I think I feel a series coming on…

Check out the opposing viewpoint written on a happier day: 15 Reasons to Love Italy

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Came across “Austin Powers Goldmember” on TV, dubbed in Italian…

It’s all quite hilarious, but the best part is Fat Bastard, or ‘Ciccio Bastardo’: instead of a Scottish accent, he speaks in Neopolitan dialect – which always seems to be the go-to choice for the most colorful/eccentric/lovably ignorant characters.

Reflecting on Five Years in Rome

“Every time I try to get out, they pull me back in…”  

Mamma mia, I’ve been living in Italy for five years now.  That’s a spicy meat-a-ball!

Along with the start of a new year, I suppose it’s as good an opportunity as any to pause and reflect on where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m going.

A lot has happened in five years: I moved across the world, changed jobs/apartments/cars more than once, gained friends, got married, bought a home, lost friends, perfected my Italian, became a dual citizen, totally assimilated into another culture, made at least a dozen trips over the ocean, and – oh, yeah – had a baby.  Phew!  It’s almost dizzying when I break it down into a list like that.  It’s pretty amazing what you can do in five years.

I made my move to Rome in late fall of 2008, fresh from three and a half years of a blissful, care-free existence of beach volleyball, industry parties, and lychee martinis in Los Angeles.  For in the great battle of long distance relationships, I ultimately “lost” and accepted the role of the person who would make the move to allow the relationship to continue to exist and ultimately flourish.

Carrie Bradshaw had New York City; I have Rome.  Although I’ll never underestimate the power of Los Angeles, Rome has been my life-changing city.  As trite as it may sound, I do believe in the concept of falling in love with a place.  That head over heels, knock you on your ass feeling is the only thing that could actually push a person beyond a pipe dream and into a move as bold as mine.  I had made the decision to move for purely personal reasons, but in truth had fallen in love with Rome long before falling in love with my husband.  So the change intrigued and excited me, regardless of my relationship.

However, unlike my first experience with Rome as an inexperienced undergrad, this time there was a lot more already on the table after those amazing years in LA: a great start to an exciting career; a circle of bright, dynamic friends I adored; and a life I had built on my own that I was very proud of.  My standards and expectations for a new beginning in Rome were about, oh, the size of the Hollywood sign.

That first year is a bit of a blur of a lot of work, gelato, and an endless amount of calls to the Italian consulate.  I had spent my last year in LA networking with anyone and everyone who had any business in Rome, and I had some great job leads – but they all said the same thing: “We can’t hire you until you have a work permit and/or citizenship.”  ”My dual citizenship will be coming through any day now,” I’d say confidently, since I already knew I was eligible through my blood line.

It was all just a matter of paperwork being processed, which I had already gathered and delivered almost a year before moving (I’ll save the details of what a rottura di palle that was).  I was sure the bureaucratic bull was over, but I was wrong.  In reality, my dual citizenship wouldn’t be official until almost two long years later, just a couple months before I was to be married and receive it by legal right anyway.  Talk about a calcio in culo (kick in the ass).

Anyway, because of all the effort I put into networking, I did manage to hook myself up with a pretty fantastic freelance gig, and walked into a job a week after I arrived in Rome.  I became Associate Producer of two international film festivals, one on the island of Capri and the other back in Los Angeles.  It was a dream job: I dined with Heather Grahm, had drinks with Baz Luhrman, and hung out with Samuel L. Jackson and his family [sidenote: when he unexpectedly called my cell phone the first time asking who would pick him up at the port in Capri I almost peed my pants, seriously.  The last thing you ever expect to hear when you answer your phone is:  ”Andrea?  Hi, this is Samuel L. Jackson…”].

Too bad the whole shebang was headed by a coked-up crazy man who slowly stressed me into oblivion.  I lasted for two festivals, then had to get out.  By the end of it all, the stress of the job and the move had aggravated an underlying thyroid problem which developed into a full-fledged disease, sending my TSH levels through the roof.  It took many sleepless nights and a dizzy spell before I finally took a blood test and realized what the problem was.  Thankfully, I then found a much more relaxed freelance opportunity with a private luxury events company before the stars aligned and I joined the multi-national media company I now call home.  Once I finally got my career back on track, Rome and I began to get along much better.

On a trip to the States a family friend once told me: “You can live in the most beautiful place in the world, but it’s not worth much if you can’t share it with your loved ones.”  As I nodded my head and said, “You’re right,” I realized that as much as that statement may have been true, part of me disagreed wholeheartedly.

I’ve been blessed to have directly shared this experience numerous times with my parents and visiting family members and friends.  We’ve had repeated vacations and adventures in countless beautiful places many only get to see once in their lives, if lucky.  And I’ve treasured each and every one of those times, since I know all too well they don’t last forever.  People pack their bags and leave, and I stay.  Or I pack my bags and leave, and they stay.  It never gets any easier when we have to say goodbye.

Even when my family hasn’t been physically present, I feel I’ve shared this experience in my heart and mind with them all the time.  All the beauty reminds me of them.  They are a part of me, and have therefore also been present for every amazing sight, sound, and taste.

But most importantly, I’ve shared this experience with myself, which may be the most important thing a person can do.  Nothing will teach you more about the world and about yourself than travel.  Years ago I listened to the little voice in my head telling me to go beyond my comfort zone, and it has made all the difference.  I’ve found that once you listen to that voice, it gets louder, and eventually it’s all you hear.

Of course, a decision of this magnitude has had its drawbacks.  Living abroad can be lonely, polarizing, even depressing, at times.  It’s about living two parallel lives, and juggling them can be exhausting.  Striving to simultaneously enjoy your own reality while being present in another can sometimes feel like an endless whirlwind of translations, time zones, and choppy video calls.  Plus, Italy is really, really freaking far from home.  And the older I get and the more children and stuff I eventually accumulate, the harder the trip becomes.  Rather than a jet-setting adventure, it’s now a process.  And there’s nothing sexy about a process.

All the while in this adventure though, there has been one constant: the joy in finally being together with the man I love, which has managed to balance out all the hardships and has gotten me through it all.

Although it already feels like a lifetime ago, that chance meeting on a train in 2004 began to take on its own life once I made my move to Rome.  I love a good story, and ours has all the makings of a great one: drama, adventure, irrational romantic escapades – the stuff Hollywood writers sweat to dream up.

It may sound like some kind of scripted fairytale, but the reality of that particular day was just a random encounter with a kind (and very handsome) stranger on a train.  Fairytale?  Pssh.  Who needed it?  What I was searching for at the time was clarity, and I had left for Europe with what seemed to be my last chance to find it.  The last thing I needed was some Italian fling that would leave me even more confused.  I was twenty-three years old and wanted to feel certain about something – and I got exactly what I wished for.

Since we met, indecision and indifference have been inexistent.  I knew within the first couple of months: it was him, it is him, it will always be him.  It was the kind of love I had always hoped for, and miraculously, it came when I was convinced I may never find it – a perfect combination of luck, destiny, and an open heart.  That random encounter wasn’t about a romanticized, exotic love story; it was merely an appointment with destiny.  It was one day that would set the wheels of a lengthy process of change in motion, and be the catalyst for a new future that awaited long in the distance.

Do I wish my husband would have been the one to move to Los Angeles back in 2008? Sometimes, yes.  But it makes no sense to look back, especially since this is the city that brought me my life’s greatest gifts: my husband, my son, and a chance to grow and mature as a person in a way I never imagined.  Rome is as much a part of me as I am of it.  The challenge of the whole experience has changed me.  It’s molded me.  It has made me who I am, and I embrace that.

It all reminds me of a recent article about marriage circulating the internet lately, essentially communicating the notion that people don’t actually get married for themselves, but rather for the person they love; the idea that marriage is a selfless act, since you do it more for your spouse than for yourself.

What if the key to true happiness is occasionally sacrificing our own desires for the will of those we love – in both large and small ways – whether life-changing, or habitually insignificant?

In many ways, I feel my decision to move here was a major sacrifice I made for the person I loved.  But, in five years, it has evolved into much more: a new life and a new existence, both literally and figuratively.

Brings to mind one of my favorite old Jimmy Durante songs:

It’s so important to make someone happy.

Make just one someone happy.

Make just one heart to heart you, you sing to.

One smile that cheers you,

One face that lights when it nears you,

One girl you’re – you’re everything to.

Fame, if you win it,

Comes and goes in a minute.

Where’s the real stuff in life, to cling to?

Love is the answer.

Someone to love is the answer.

Once you’ve found her,

Build your world around her.

Make someone happy.

Make just one someone happy.

And you will be happy too.

Indeed, I am.