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