How To Be An Authentic Italian (in 9 simple steps)

 

Jersey Shore? Not exactly.

 

American culture is filled with misconceptions about what it really means to be Italian, and has essentially created its own subculture of false italianità (Italianism) – consisting mostly of excessive amounts of muscles, gold jewelry, and bad manners.  The truth is, those things couldn’t be further from what true Italian culture is all about.  

I have (obviously) been Italian all my life, but after traveling and living in Italy for more than a decade, I’ve realized that these days, being Italian seems to be more a state of mind than an actual heritage.  Each time I merely mention having lived there I get the same reaction: “Oh my God, I just loooooove Italy so much.”  Just about everyone has either been to Italy and adores it, or dreams of vacationing or living here.  And I get that reaction from all walks of life – it’s one of those rare topics that seems to transcend age, ethnicity, and financial status.  Being Italian is often associated with belonging to the “coolest” (and best-looking) of all ethnicities – although with each passing generation, its authenticity in America is so greatly diminished and misconstrued.  

Over the years, upon consistent reflection of this intriguing phenomenon, I’ve learned to separate various groups of Italophiles in my own mind: 

The first is made up of those people who have that one great-grandparent who immigrated from Italy in 1905, and – although equally of Polish, Irish, and German decent – (ex)claim themselves as Italian to everyone they meet, despite their measley 25% bloodline connection.  

Disclaimer: Don’t get me wrong, 1/4 Italians, we’re happy to have you, and honored you choose us as your go-to nationality.  Go ahead, keep making your “dago red” in the garage all winter long (while wearing your “I have roots in the boot” t-shirt), but please have the decency to accept that those of us who grew up in real Italian households – or who now have their own real Italian households – cannot be fooled by those stronzate.  While you were out during high school getting hammered (sporting your “Italians do it better” t-shirt) I was home around the dinner table with my nonni (grandparents), cracking walnuts and polishing off my homemade red mixed with gassosa (Sprite).  

The second level is reserved for those fortunate enough to have traveled or studied in Italy, who upon return from a magical Mediterranean getaway or limited time abroad, desperately try to reproduce a bit of that dolce vita by way of a fancy local perfume, a handmade ceramic, or a bottle of specialty olive oil.  While a genuine appreciation for Italy’s fine cuisine and design aesthetic is a great start, all the overpriced wines and restaurants on Earth (or even Clooney’s fancy espresso machines) can’t afford you the education of either growing up with or living amongst true Italians, which brings me to the third group…  

Even if you’ve never once set foot in Italy, you automatically earn an honorary place in this group if you: a. had an immediate family member who spoke broken Italian at home; b. regularly assisted in the preparation of fresh pasta in a basement; or c. ever took a nap on a plastic-covered couch.  

Finally, the fourth group is made up of freaks like me, who have really taken their fascination to the extreme, and actually decided to make a life in this crazy, amazing country.  This choice affords a knowledge by default that none of the other groups can have: a thorough understanding of the modern Italy of today – which has its own unique wealth of information to share.  So, if you want to do as the real Italians do, start with these suggestions: 

1. Live and breathe (and eat, duh) food.  If you don’t appreciate food, you can’t be Italian – and if you’re Italian, it’s impossible to not appreciate food.  The obsession is so profoundly woven into society’s fabric that it’s impossible to ignore.  Italians don’t even realize how fixated they are with food in its purest form; they analyze it, dissect it, savor it, interpret it.  It’s the only thing they actually care to be anal retentive about.  In Italy, you find yourself inadvertently talking about it before a meal (Cosa ci mangiamo oggi? What should we eat today?), during a meal (Mamma mia, quant’è buona questa ricotta! Wow, this ricotta is so good!), and after a meal (Abbiamo mangiato così bene, ci dobbiamo tornare. We had such a great meal, we have to go back.).  Per l’amor del cielo, spaghetti and meatballs and fettuccine alfredo do not exist in Italy;  there is a digestive strategy to the creation of proper pizza dough, people; and no, you do not put parmiggiano cheese on seafood of any kind.  If you don’t know these things, well then, just go back to the Olive Garden. 

2. Get used to everything miniature-sized.  Apartments, cars, desserts: it all looks like it’s been shrunken down by Wayne Szalinski’s laser beam.  Not that I’m protesting, since I’ve always been a fan of small things – but it can get a little ridiculous after you’re forced to reorganize your home after any significant purchase or shopping spree.  It’s like playing a never-ending game of Tetris (and I freaking hate Tetris).  

3. Invest in clothing.  This is not the country of 80% off red tag blowouts, or buying as many TJ Maxx fashionista finds as your paycheck will allow.  This means making less, more significant purchases and having a smaller wardrobe.  Almost everyone really cares about how they look, and knows basic styling rules.  And when in doubt, wear black: by no means is this color reserved for old Sicilian women in mourning, anzi, it’s the preferred go-to hue of anyone who wants to look elegant, stylish, or just snello (slim).  Bonus tip for women: never underestimate the power of black eyeliner.  I’m not talking about exaggerated, Snooki-style eyeliner – I’m talking tasteful, but ever-present, like a tattoo you’re never seen without.  A face-full of colorful makeup is uncommon, and mainly reserved for puttane (the real ones, that is).  Not a look you want to go for.  

4. Be a clean freak.  Obsessive compulsive much?  Not in Italy.  It’s common practice for everyone’s house to be practically spotless – and very rare to come in contact with a zozzone who doesn’t keep a tidy home.  I’ve always said, for the first few years of my life I was convinced my Nonna’s mappina (slang for dishrag) was an extension of her hand.  

5. Learn the art of lingering.  You know what Italians find hilarious?  The fact that when Americans invite people to a party or gathering, they set an end time to the event: “Join us for Billy’s birthday party, this Saturday from 2-4pm!”  That is unheard of in Italy – not only because they find it incredibly rude to actually tell guests when to get the hell out, but really, what’s the hurry?  Isn’t this supposed to be your free time?  For a long while, I had to fight the feeling of “imposing,” and often ducked out of many an Italian festa way early; I just couldn’t relax after that second or third hour.  But whether it’s a lengthy lunch, a cornetto stop after an already long night out, or yet another cigarette after that last dose of grappa – Italians are really good at wasting time and letting the good times roll on and on (and on).  After all, this is the country that made the dolce far niente famous.  Take a lesson, and learn to chill out.  

6. Be cautious.  Italians aren’t exactly the world’s biggest risk takers – actually, you could say they’re a little bit cagaroni (someone who literally craps their pants out of fear).  Sorry, ragazzi, but history itself confirms this (when in doubt, the Italians aren’t usually on the front lines, and side with the winning team).  They don’t appreciate deliberately causing themselves harm, whether it’s by binge drinking, skydiving, or leaving the house without a scarf from November to March.  

7. Pay in cash.  I think my grandfather, Papa Guy, was most likely the only man in town who bought his cars entirely in cash.  And even nowadays, Italians aren’t big on debt.  What many Americans see as easy access to things they can’t afford, the Italians see as a terrible burden to be avoided as much as possible.  In general, accumulating cash is still a preference to riskier investments, with a general public not very interested in the stock market.  Italians are all about putting their money in real estate, often purchasing apartments for their children to help give them a head start in life.  In fact, some of the most anziani (oldest) generation still don’t even trust the banks – that’s why, in some apartments, it’s not uncommon to find hidden stockpiles of cash saved over a lifetime in wall-mounted safes.  

8. Accept the unacceptable.  Because of their ever-changing politicians and lax regulatory system, Italians are forced to accept a series of impositions that go beyond any logic or reasoning.  Consequently, that rassegnamento (giving up) tends to spill over into other aspects of their lives.  I think they just feel hopeless about their government and economy, like they’ve seen it all at this point.  There’s a new tax on baby formula?  Um, ok.  People have decided it’s ok to push their grocery store shopping cart through the rest of the mall?  Sure, why not.   That guy missed his exit and is backing up on the highway?  Alrighty then, go right ahead.  

9. Know how to ask for (and receive) favors.  Italians are experts at tit-for-tat, and they have certain unspoken expectations when it comes to lending a hand.  Whereas we Americans accept a special favor or even a job lead with nothing more than a simple, “thank you,” there’s a little more to it in Italy.  Proper appreciation for significant help from someone can take many forms, depending on the level of assistance obtained (from a bottle of wine to a more costly item, or gesture of equal weight).  No one will admit it, of course – but the important thing is that you give more than just a “grazie.”  One could call it bribery; they simply call it gratitude.  

This post is brought to you by the COSI’ blogging troupe, who has joined forces this month with another powerhouse expat group, “Italy Roundtable.”  To read their takes on the theme of “authenticity,” kick back with a nice glass of wine and browse the links below:

COSI’ members:

Italy Roundtable members:

Have something to share on authenticity in Italy?  Use the hashtag #COSItaly to join the conversation!

Best Living in Italy Post 2014!

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Amici, SL&N won for “Best Living in Italy Single Post” (and came in third in the overall category) in the 2014 Italy Magazine Blogger Awards  – che bellissima sorpresa!  So grateful for all the Nutella love and support, and blessed to share my story. Grazie di cuore to everyone who voted!

See the full list of winners here.  Congrats to all the great blogs out there!

Last day to vote: 2014 Italy Magazine Blogger Awards

Visit our Facebook Page to Enter (3)

Show your love for SL&N with votes for:

Best Living in Italy Blog: http://www.italymagazine.com/blog-awards/2014?field_blog_category_tid=44500

Best Living in Italy Single Post: http://www.italymagazine.com/blog-awards/2014?field_blog_category_tid=44501

Whatever happens, Nutella makes us all winners.

Grazie mille, ragazzi!

Be My Italian Valentine: “Viva l’amore – abbasso i sedili”

This month, in honor of Valentine’s Day, our COSI‘ blogging troupe couldn’t wait to share their experiences with amore all’italiana (love Italian style).  That means that – FINALMENTE – my blog is living up to its name with an article about some SEX!  Proceed with caution (and mom, go ahead and close this page now).

So, today, I pay homage to the most quintessential form of modern Italian romance: bumpin’ and grindin’ in a tiny-ass vehicle.  Ah, l’amore.  Nothing more romantic than that!

 

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“Long live love. I’ll put the seats down.” (Actual Fiat ad!)

 

In all my days in Italy, I experienced and saw many a strange thing.  But the timeless escapade of boy chases girl (or vice versa) takes on a special meaning as a young American expat in Italy.  You get gawked at, whistled at, flirted at, mocked at, stalked at and adored – and all on the same street block.  It’s almost overwhelming, at first.

My most favorite, overtly inappropriate pickup line of all time:  I once stepped onto a public bus and took a seat within view of the driver’s rear view mirror.  Without missing a beat, in front of everyone turned around and said: Complementi alla mamma – ha fatto una meraviglia” (My compliments to the mother – she produced a wonder).  Volevo morire (I wanted to die).

As a wise, informed American trying to fit in you realize Italian men make sweeping generalizations about American girls that are often unfair and untrue.  But then you remember the drunken scenes in the middle of Campo dei Fiori after midnight and realize maybe they have a point.  Sometimes you’re flattered, other times you’re disgusted.  And you find yourself thinking, “How do the Italian girls get so much respect from their men?” (10 years later, I can say the answer is amanti [multiple lovers] – but that’s for another post!)

At twenty-three years old, it’s easy for anyone to give the wrong impression – but in Italy, it’s a given.  In the minds of Italian men that age, American girls are absolutely certain to give it up immediately, like giving candy to a bambino.  In their defense, someone must be proving them right for them to keep up their shenanigans, right?  It’s as if they feel they can behave and say anything that they never would to the Italian girls they grew up with.

As a young woman actually attempting to date and have a relationship, it takes a long time to break through that stereotype and create a barrier of respect.  Their directness is a jolt to the system, especially compared to their American counterparts.  It really is a part of the Italian DNA to romance, flatter, and floor you into seduction.

However, one aspect of Italian culture I’ll never understand is the fixation with doing it in cars.  And I’m not just talking about horny teenagers – I’m talking about grown thirty year olds.  One of my funniest memories of those early days was being on a double date and deciding to pile four people into a Smart car to ride to the other side of the historical center and “park.”  When we finally got there, no one knew what to do since one couple inevitably had to vacate the vehicle.  Don’t remember who won that one…

But anyway, why the fetish with getting freaky in a Fiat?  Someone, dimmi perche’ (tell me why)!  

Ah ha!  Here we go again.  The answer to this is the same the explains so much about Italian issues: no jobs and/or bad salaries.  What does that have to do with anything, you say?  Everything.  If you can’t work or earn decent money in your twenties, you can’t afford to rent your own shag pad.  And, of course, you can’t get busy at mom and dad’s house – so where else can you go for some private time?  Buckle up – beep, beep!

Let me tell you: you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a street lined with tiny cars, bumper to bumper, with newspapers plastered against all the windows, bouncing around like no tomorrow.  I seriously could not believe my eyes.  And I can now attest that the scene is common weekend practice throughout most of Italy (especially in the South).

And you’d think perhaps they’re all a bit embarrassed to be out in the open, all near each other, with no shame.  There’s a reason for that, too: they actually all band together for safety, since apparently distracted lone lovers have been targets of thefts in the past.

So, some parting words of wisdom from one hopeless Italian romantic to the next: If the Peugeot’s a rockin’, don’t come a knockin’!

Buon San Valentino a tutti!

Baci,

SL&N

Check out the other COSI‘ romantics have to say about amore in Italia (links to be added as their posts are published).  And if you’d like to join the conversation, use our hashtag #COSItaly to publicize it!

Italy Magazine 2014 Blogger Awards – SL&N needs your votes!

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Ciao amici!  Bella notizia (great news) to share: Sex, Lies, & Nutella has been selected as a finalist in Italy Magazine’s 2014 Blogger Awards in two categories.  What an honor.  Evviva!

So, it looks like my little hobby has just turned competitive!  If you love you some SL&N (as I know you do), I ask you to per favore spread the Nutella love and help bring those awards home.  All you have to do is click on each of the two links below, find my blog, and vote.  Basta, that’s all!

Best Living in Italy Blog: http://www.italymagazine.com/blog-awards/2014?field_blog_category_tid=44500

Best Living in Italy Single Post: http://www.italymagazine.com/blog-awards/2014?field_blog_category_tid=44501

If you haven’t checked out Italy Magazine, you should.  They have a staggering amount of interesting information, pictures, and everything any Italophile could ask for on their website.

Lastly, congratulations to my fellow C.O.S.I. bloggers who are also finalists in various categories.  Forza, C.O.S.I.!

  • Rick of Rick’s Rome has been nominated for Best Overall Blog for Lovers of Italy
  • Misty of Surviving in Italy with her post: Dog Boarding, Adoption, And Dog Parks In Florence, Italy
  • Rick again with his post: The Definitive Guide for the Permesso di Soggiorno
  • Maria from Married To Italy for Best Living in Italy Blog

9 New Year’s Resolutions for Expats in Rome

1. Never trick yourself into thinking that purchasing a Smart car will somehow increase your odds of finding parking – it will actually only encourage you to park even more illegally and absurdly than before.

2. Make life interesting and try to order something other than a Spritz at your next aperitivo. Martini Royale, anyone?

3. Realize that you will never fully make sense of the Italian political system, or the university one, for that matter (wait, you’re 28 and have how many exams to pass before you graduate?).

4. Embrace the insanity. Rome is a chaotic, frenzied place that sometimes seems out of control. Keep your cool and go with the flow when things don’t go the way you’d expect (or the way any reasonable human being would expect).

5. If you don’t already have one, find a friend with a Vespa who’ll regularly take you on a “tour di Roma” on late summer nights. There is nothing better.

6. Never ignore the call of the occasional street food schifezza (junk food). Screw calorie counting – eat that massive piece of fried baccala’ in Piazza Santa Barbara. Like, right now.

7. In fact, eat whatever you see in front of you right now. Don’t worry, you’ll walk it off.

8. Keep your amici Romani close, but the gelato closer.

9. When all else is lost and you’re feeling desperate, just remember you’re on a journey that so many yearn to experience, and one that may not last forever. Enjoy it, and don’t let the setbacks frustrate and derail you. Sorridi (smile), you live in Italia!

Check out what my COSI friends are up to for New Year’s as well:

http://marriedtoitaly.com/2015/01/01/capo-danno/
http://theflorencediaries.wordpress.com/2014/12/30/new-years-eve-in-florence-or-as-i-like-to-call-it-the-italian-hunger-games/
http://rickzullo.com/new-year-in-italy/
http://unwillingexpat.wordpress.com/2014/12/26/an-expats-resolution/

Plus more posts to come from the rest of the COSI group; check out their home pages for updates:

Surviving in Italy
Girl in Florence
Englishman in Italy

Buon 2015 a tutti!
Baci,
SL&N

Operation: Italian Thanksgiving – “La Festa della Gallina”

Ciao amici!  This is my first collaborative post with the C.O.S.I. (Crazy Observations by Stranieri (Foreigners) in Italy) blogger roundtable team.  A fun, talented group of expats taking on Italy one day at a time. We all post once a month on a common theme with different points of view. You can connect to the other members’ fantastic blogs here.  Also, if you would like to share your own experience in Italy about our monthly subject (this time it’s regional foods with a Thanksgiving spin), just use the hashtag #COSI when posting.

For as long as I can remember, in my house Thanksgiving had another name: “La Festa della Gallina” (The Feast of the Chicken).  This term was coined by my immigrant grandfather, Papa Guy.  Every year we would joke about it and ask him to explain the significance of Thanksgiving; he would just shrug his shoulders and ask to pass the stuffing.  It was a holiday all about food – an exorbitant amount of food – and that was good enough for him.

The Italians don’t have much of a clue about how or why this unique holiday is celebrated (then again, neither do some Americans) – but they are quite intrigued by it (Ma quanto pesa ‘sta tacchino?! How much does this turkey weigh?!).  The only saving grace is the fact it’s essentially all about food, as most of their holidays are, which they can certainly relate to and appreciate.

Celebrating Thanksgiving as an expat, as with many other things, has been an adventure and an evolution.  I like to think I’ve mastered it over the course of passing six of them in a country where it doesn’t exist.  But it hasn’t been easy.

My first year here, I’m pretty sure I had either inadvertently forgotten about it, or ignored it all together for the sake of assimilation.  The second year, my husband (then-boyfriend at the time) knew I really missed being at home that day.  I called him from work, glued to my computer screen watching the live streaming Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade ridden with nostalgia, tears rolling down my cheeks.  So he very sweetly surprised me with an evening out at the Hard Rock Café Rome, where they have a special menu every year.

The third year, I was motivated to see if I could remotely pull off a mini-Thanksgiving for two.  I quickly realized though, since Italians don’t eat a lot of turkey in general, at a last-minute glance the bird was no where to be found.  So, I asked myself: what looks like a turkey and tastes like a turkey, enough to pass off as a turkey?  The biggest chicken I could find, that’s what!  And it was then, during that first attempt at a Thanksgiving re-creation abroad, that I finally understood and celebrated the true meaning of Papa Guy’s “Festa della Gallina.”  I whipped up some mashed potatoes and peas and called it a day.  Gimmi was mildly impressed.

By the fourth year, I finally got my act together and was ready to attempt a true reproduction.  I successfully formed a troupe of brave Italians to share my table with whom, incidentally, were way more excited about it all than they should have been.  Hey, it’s not every day un’americana invites you to Thanksgiving dinner.  But little did I know the search for proper ingredients would be una vera rogna (a royal pain in the…), and they would cost a small fortune when I finally tracked them down.

One of my most enthusiastic friends directed me to her favorite macellaio in Parioli (a wealthy area of Rome).  Never had I seen a more glamorous meat market; it looked like a film set of handsome actors making jokes and suave glances between their choice cuts.  They could get us a turkey, but it would take a month and cost €75.  “Were they going to have to go on a group hunting trip to the Tuscan countryside and shoot it themselves?”  I wondered.  The famous specialty foods chain in Rome, Castroni,  turned out to be the best resource for all the rest of the accompanying delicacies – but at what cost?  A can of Ocean Spray cranberry jelly was €8?!  Porca troia!  I’d have to sacrifice next month’s rent to put this meal on.  But I was committed; there was no turning back on Operation: Italian Thanksgiving.  And it was a grand success.

Last year,our group reunited again and had a fantastic time cooking and enjoying together.  I had created a new tradition in my new home, and it felt great.  Oh, but I did wise up and ordered the turkey from my local butcher.  He only wanted €30.  Had a great laugh when I went to pick it up though.  The conversation went something like this:

Macellaio: That’ll be 60 euro.
Me: Seems like a lot – the guy I ordered from said it would be around 30…
Macellaio: 30 euro, for a 35-pound turkey?
Me: 35 pounds?? I asked for a 10 to 12-pound turkey!
Macellaio: Ooooh, wait a second – you ordered the female turkey… You must be the other American (good to know there were only two of us in town, and she had the bigger oven).

Pulling off a stellar Thanksgiving in Italy means adapting to what’s available and unifying it with as much tradition as possible.  Trust me, your average peas are much better with a little pancetta added in for good measure anyway.  Italy makes everything taste better, so of course, Thanksgiving does, too.

Happy Feast of the Chicken to all!