It’s summer in Rome – and in this city, when the temperatures rise, the clothes come off. Which reminds me, time to play one of my favorite seasonal games: Count the Putans.
Here’s a quick taste of the atmosphere on a breezy Saturday evening: https://vimeo.com/102507721
Although it’s easy to occasionally dwell on the numerous, painfully evident things that are wrong with this country – as referenced in my recent post, 10 Things I Hate About Italy – my love for this eclectic, eccentric land is immeasurable. It’s important to be objective, because when you really love someone or something, you learn to appreciate (and accept) both the good and the bad, pregi e difetti. Thankfully, in my case, for every negative aspect of life in Italy, there are at least two positives – otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to personally justify staying here.
So, what exactly is so great about this country? Where do I begin…
1. No one does atmosphere like Italy. Everyone knows life is best lived in the company of fantastic people, surroundings, and food/wine. So it’s safe to say Italy is essentially a triple threat in life. Although residents may occasionally be disheartened and disillusioned by all the political and economic problems, all it takes is a relaxing passeggiata through the centro storico (historic center) to make it all better. The sound of church bells ringing in the distance, impromptu concerts from street musicians, the amazing scent of fresh food – heck, even the smell of cigarette smoke swirling through the piazza – it all contributes to a one of a kind atmosphere that is entirely Italian, and so incredibly lovely. After a while, you become entrenched in it, absorbed by it – and you realize you are no longer part of the atmosphere, it is part of you.
2. Quality of life is an uncompromisable priority. It’s not that Italians aren’t capable of being as ambitious as Americans – they just don’t want to be. It has nothing to do with ability, but rather a true desire to make room for and savor pleasurable experiences at all costs. That may explain why this country tends to suffer and struggle to keep up with a globalized world that always demands more and more free time. The Italian infrastructure is designed to guarantee the simplest, most enjoyable things (like vacations) are built right into the calendar. Even on a daily basis, the day is broken down into time for coffee, time for a leisurely lunch, time for a stroll and a snack, then time for another coffee. It may be cliché, but the idea really is to work to live, not live to work. One could argue that’s also because job availability is scarce and opportunity for higher pay and job advancement not as great – but there’s a more deeply-rooted cultural belief that many Mediterranean countries share which, in my opinion, stems from the overwhelming amount of surrounding beauty urging everyone to get out and enjoy it as much as possible.
3. In Italian, Disney characters Huey, Dewey, and Louie are called, “Qui, ” “Quo,” and “Qua”:
4. Italians are refreshingly (and sometimes, brutally) honest. They will say what they feel and give sincere feedback, and expect the same in return. Something I’ve found hilarious for years now: on one game show, when the host introduces the contestants, he always asks the relative or friend in the audience to share the person’s best and worst attributes. I always get a kick out of it because the relative will respond with something to the effect of, “He’s really generous, and a great tennis player – but he’s terrible with directions and doesn’t know when to shut up.” The contestant’s reaction is usually just a little shrug, as if to be in humble agreement. People here generally seem more aware of their faults, and less likely to be offended by a truthful statement. Case in point: some Italians (especially Southerners) are so quick to mention when you’ve gained weight, it’ll be the first thing out of their mouths when they see you. I never knew how permolosa (touchy) I was until it happened to me. This kind of candor can be especially jarring to an American, who is used to keeping her lips tightly sealed for fear of offending someone by the mere mention of an overtly obvious fact. But apparently to them it’s just an innocent conversation starter, as if to say it looks as if you’ve been living the good life. Plus, what are you, blind? You own a mirror, so you’re clearly already aware of what I’m saying to you. So, you’ve gained a few pounds, big deal. This took a while to get used to, but once you do, you start to resent anyone who tries to prenderti per il culo or venderti fumo (take you for a fool/blow smoke).
5. Verbal communication is an art, and Italians are its masters. Oral examinations are part of their regular curriculum from elementary school on, partially to eliminate the risk of cheating on exams, but also to reinforce confidence and teach kids to be effective orators. Get into a discussion with any Italian, even a conventionally uneducated one, and you’ll be surprised at how effortlessly (and verbosely) they will lay it all out for you. Body language is also an essential part of this communication. This marvelously unique Italian method of gesturing is passionate, colorful, expressive, in your face – and most of all, it makes speaking the language so much fun. Also, it doesn’t leave much room for misinterpretation, as any successful communication should do. And many (like those pictured below) prove everyday that it’s entirely possible to drive a motorino while gesticulating wildly with your hands.
6. Old school courtesy and respect are still alive and well. Although I consider myself a well-mannered person, when I first moved here I almost felt like I was getting a refresher course in Manners 101. It made me realize how much our culture in the US has forgotten some simple gestures of courtesy, like greeting everyone who’s already present whenever you enter or exit a place, looking people in the eye with sincerity when you speak to them, etc. If you don’t behave this way in Italy, you’re easily labeled un caffone (rude/slob), and rightfully so. Fortunately, here you’re often reminded that basic social decorum is a beautiful thing, and thankfully, can still a priority in society today. Speaking of which…
7. This country doesn’t have a habit of breeding natural born killers. This is a critical point I discussed in a post after the Sandy Hook tragedy, and shouldn’t be underestimated. On a personal level, this means once my son starts school I’ll have one less major thing to worry about – also definitely not to be underestimated. Naturally, kids around the world will always go through their stages of being smart-mouthed, annoying, and rebellious – but the kind of horror stories you’ll hear from any American teacher about the complete disregard for basic human decency happening daily in some schools today is simply not tolerated here, and on a cultural level, seems to never be attempted in the first place.
8. Free healthcare, folks. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it may not be perfect, but at least it exists as an alternative to insurance. Complain all you want about the public sector and its bureaucracy, crumbling infrastructure, dizzyingly long waits, and surly staff – but regardless, the option is available to everyone, and many times, it’s more than decent (especially the quality of physicians). Also, prescription drugs are sold at literally a fraction of the cost of those in the US. By the way, as I also previously wrote about while pregnant, the maternity benefits are pretty stellar, too.
9. Exposure to the occasional PG-rated, passive-aggressive, mafia-style intimidation tactic: Case in point, photo below – a gesture regularly used to let you know someone didn’t like the way you parked.
10. All rules have exceptions, and everything is up for discussion. Italian society and people are very flexible, meaning that everything is up for discussion, all the time. The final answer may be no, but it’s never really no. From an American point of view, this could be seen as a negative, since in the US strict rule following isn’t only encouraged, it’s mandated. But making friendly banter, asking for and reciprocating favors, schmoozing, negotiating – it’s all part of the Italian’s DNA. They thrive on that interaction and confrontation; it’s when they’re at their best. And from perks to preferential treatment, charisma and having a way with people is strongly rewarded here, even when it’s undeserved (how do you think Berlusconi has managed to stick around this long?).
11. Holidays are about food, not gifts. It goes without saying that Italians are obsessed with food, but what’s great is there’s a specific food to accompany every minor and major holiday in the calendar year. Not only that, each region has its own version of said delicacy. Celebrations are centered around the traditional food, and less about decorations or bombarding children with countless gifts they won’t care about ten minutes later. All that extra stuff is cute and nice, but… dov’è il cibo (where’s the food)?
12. The language allows for some of the most colorful cursing on the planet. Aside from being insulting, curse words and ways to tell someone off in Italy are not only endless, they’re quite complex and fancifully creative. In true Italian style, some of the best involve lengthy constructions (almost always blasphemous ones), where you can pick and choose to damn the animal, saint, etc. of choice. There’s the classic “Porca miseria” (miserable pig), or the damning of inanimate objects, such as, “Mannaggia ai sandali di Cristo” (Damn Jesus’ sandals). Then, there are others built around an entire imaginary scenario, with a surprisingly concise delivery: for example in Rome, with just two words, you can hope someone’s dead ancestors rot in hell (“Mortacci Tua!”), and countrywide, with one simple gesture, you can really piss someone off by insinuating they’re a cornuto (a jackass who doesn’t know he’s being cheated on by his significant other). And then, there’s the most widely used of all – the equivalent of our “F-off”: when you’re absolutely disgusted with someone, only in Italy can you send them off to quel paese, or literally “that country” – the more tame version of the magical destination better known as “Fanculo.”
13. Healthy living and weight management is a no-brainer. Keeping yourself in shape isn’t about a trendy, fad diet. When it comes to nutrition, Italians have it all figured out, and they have for centuries. Obesity isn’t a problem in this country because of a few simple rules they consider to be second-nature: eat a balanced diet, cook with fresh ingredients, keep recipes simple, control portions, and avoid your car as much as possible. That’s it.
14. People are generally smart and very furbo (clever). You have to step up your game when you live in Italy; one of the worst things you can do is be fesso (naive fool). When everyone is clever, they all think they’re more clever than everyone else – so everyone is always trying to out-do everyone else’s cleverness. But hey, that’s Italy – and a characteristic that could be considered both the root of all its problems and catalyst of its successes. This dynamic makes for a society full of interesting interactions between citizens who are all pretty quick to the switch, and able to run rings around Americans when it comes to street smarts. That’s why in Naples, stealing a wallet from an unwitting tourist is the equivalent of taking candy from a baby. I bet they almost feel guilty doing it, like it’s not a fair fight.
15. Lastly, some of the people I love most in this world were born and bred here. Even if none of the above were true, that would certainly be enough for me.
Yesterday, the Catholic Church celebrated the sainthood of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II at the Vatican.
Was I in Piazza San Pietro? Absolutely not; I wouldn’t consider dragging my 15-month-old son into a crowd that size – and even without him, I wouldn’t have attempted it. In my opinion, there’s nothing “holy” about being squashed between 800,000 tired, hungry pilgrims. That scenario actually sounds more like a “holy hell,” if I’ve ever heard of one – that is, unless your idea of a religious experience is an exercise in masochism.
I also wasn’t as inclined to participate since, in my mind, it would be hard to top the experience I had in 2005 during Pope John Paul II’s last days. I was living right down the street from the Vatican and was there in the piazza through it all: the days leading to his passing, attending his funeral, seeing the billowing white smoke and running to witness the announcement of Ratzinger as his successor. That was an incredible time of intense beauty and emotion, as true pilgrims began to pour into the city in droves, inspired solely by a need to be close to a person in his last moments whom they held so dear. Everyone – even the most fervent of unbelievers – can identify with that feeling. There was no buildup to a big event, no flags or jumbotrons – just quiet song and prayer by candlelight. No sensationalism, just a simple outpouring of love. Those were sensations I’ll never forget.
Regardless, SL&N did have representatives in the field on Sunday who confirmed all suspicions: apparently people had to arrive at 4am just to be able to have a chance to get a standing position in the piazza, which means they stood for six hours waiting for the mass to begin (or froze their bums on the cold, bumpy San Pietrini). The press is reporting that throughout the duration of the event, emergency services had to intervene something like one-hundred twenty times. And as in any crowd of that size, at a certain point people started pushing, shoving, and arguing, which is a bit disheartening considering the setting. A friend told me she was actually forced to yell at a group of nuns who would not stop pushing from behind, causing her mother to lose her balance and fall. And, of course, when it was all over the entire neighborhood of Prati looked like a bomb had dropped.
Also as expected, the opportunists had quite a field day. Vendors capitalized on the occasion by selling €15 cans of Coke, and when it started to drizzle, €20 umbrellas. Not like you could blame them – after all, they weren’t the ones being declared saints, right?
Undoubtedly, the images of people singing and rejoicing in the streets were touching, and a comforting reminder that there are many people in this world still moved and inspired by the examples of humanity’s most devout leaders. The intentions of so many were certainly good – but as often happens in this world, good intentions are infiltrated and scarred by greed, negligence, anger, weakness… In other words, by human nature.
Everything would just be so much easier if we were all saints. Oh, the irony.
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
Can’t imagine the havoc there. On the agenda: dinner with Renzi, late night stroll in Piazza Navona, meeting with the Pope in the morning, and private tour of the Colosseum tomorrow afternoon… The man certainly knows how to see (and shut down) a city.
I stop to give directions to a stumbling group looking for the nearest pub, and as they leave one says: “by the way, your English is fantastic!”