Over the past year that I’ve been living in Sicily and the years of travelling Italy, I’ve experienced it as a rich country, full of beautiful architecture, delectable dishes, passionate and fiery nationals in a very incongruous nation of conformity and non-conformist where the regulations are secondary. At first taste, this whirlwind of a dichotomy can seem overwhelming, so whether you’re passing through, staying a while or a bit longer, here are my personal good, bad and ugly that I think you should be prepared for!
In Italy you will definitely learn the importance of eating well. I don’t just say this coming from my scanty life before as a heavily indebted university student- when I’m back at my family home in London, I do eat nutritious and delicious home cooked meals, but what I mean is eating well, and actually sitting to enjoy food rather than just eating to keep fuelled. Cooking and eating in Italy is a sensual experience which cannot be rushed. I feel like in the UK especially, the eating culture is very ‘on the go’ and sometimes we forget the simple pleasure of sitting down to enjoy food for food’s sake, and not just to satiate our needs. In Italy food is celebrated in all its glory and for no other reason that the fact that it is worthy of each and every second spent on it’s dégustation.
In Italy the pace of life is much slower, which acts as a gentle reminder that life is meant to be leisurely and that we weren’t born to simply work ourselves to the point of exhaustion. Even in Milan, the economic capital, life seems to be kissed ever so slightly with the Italian laissez-faire attitude, making it distinctively unhurried compared to London, Paris and other European capitals that I’ve visited.
Language barriers do not exist in Italy. Even if you don’t speak a word of Italian, you can still have a full on conversation! Italian is just as much about your body language and gestures as it is about the vernacular language. You have to think that before Italy was united as the Italy that we know today, there were hundreds of different dialects (some of which still exist today but are slowly dying) and so gesticulating was the universal mode of communicating. In my experience, I’ve found that Italians are much more willing to want to understand you than in the UK for example. If you don’t speak English in the UK, you might have a harder time than if you don’t speak Italian in Italy.
The rules can often be bent in Italy. Now, of course this has its advantages as well as disadvantages, but you know what they say, if you’re going to tell any lies, white lies are the best- I feel like the same unspoken rule of thumb applies here in Italy. ‘Smaller’, less ‘important’ rules seem to be more flexible. When I was visiting my ex-boyfriend and travelling from Palermo to Paris with hand luggage only, I bought along with me a 180g, half eaten jar of pistacchio cream (in my defence, I didn’t realise then that ‘creams’ counted as a liquids). Desperate to bring the cream for him to try, I proposed to the security lady that I scoop the cream into my empty plastic bottle, however, either moved by my determination and desperation to get this pistacchio cream through, or perhaps just not very bothered at all, she allowed it to pass through, just giving me a pat on the wrist and telling me not to do it again. So it just goes to show that sometimes bending the rules does work in your favour! (only sometimes though… I’ll get onto driving in Italy in a bit.)
The downside to breaking rules is that when they’re not broken in your favour, it often leads to inefficiency, which I think is a really big issue in Italy- especially when it comes to getting paid on time. When I started working in Sicily as an English Language Assistant for the British council and MIUR (the government’s ministry of education and research), I wasn’t paid during the first four months that I was working due to a lot of miscommunication and unnecessarily convoluted bureaucracy. It will come as no surprise that I still haven’t been paid up to date for the last 3 months of my contract…
Supermarkets will shamelessly shortchange you, for the sake of their ‘conveniency’. Now call me cheap (which I am), but in a lot of chain supermarkets the cashiers (and perhaps even the management too) think that it is acceptable to round up your bill because they don’t like dealing with small change. 5 cents might not seem like a lot but when you think of how many customers those supermarkets serve everyday, nationwide, those pennies really do add up!
Italians are a nation of gossipers. Family rivalries, relationship problems, work drama– you name it, it’s bound to be going round in a large number. People love gossiping, wherever you go. We can all agree on that. The only difference is that in the UK people generally don’t do right in front of your face. One thing that I really didn’t understand at first when I arrived was that whenever I met someone new, instead of asking me questions directly about where I am from or who I am, they would ask anyone else but me, even though I was within hearing range. The awkwardness doesn’t just stop there I’m afraid. There have been many times that I’ve been in situations in which I have literally been a metre away from the subject of gossip and couldn’t help but feel swamped with guilt and embarrassment. How am I suppose to respond to the fact that you’re telling me, within hearing range, that Mr barman over here is cheating on his wife?
As a life-long asthma sufferer, smoking in public is one of my biggest qualms. Unlike in the UK and other European cities, where there are more regulations implemented and reinforced in regards to smoking in public spaces (in 2007 in the UK, smoking was banned in enclosed public places), in Italy the etiquette is a lot different. There aren’t any clear cut ‘rules’ (used lightly) about smoking, and as a whole, people don’t seem to take much notice of others and their surrounding.
Italians drive like crazy. Italians may have gifted the world with the Ferrari, but their driving is far from smooth cruising through country lanes. Italians are some of the most reckless drivers that I have personally seen in my short 20 years of existence. Their lack of regards for the highway code would make you think that one doesn’t exist. But this non-conformist and rebellious attitude takes a sour and quite sinister tone when it is no longer a case of jumping a red light or accelerating a bit over the speed limit, and is actually life-threatening behaviour, such as not wearing a seat-belts, controlling the steering wheel with your knees, or overtaking at the most inopportune and dangerous moments. If you want to drive in Italy, I would highly recommend you to think twice.
Femminicidio, systematical violence against women, is not of course specific to Italy, but I was surprised to see how highly prevalent it is there. There is no denying that Italy is still traditional in many ways, and many remnants of the patriarchal society has settled in it cobble paths, especially in the south. ‘Freggio’ scars, an odious part of Neapolitan culture, in which men purposely disfigure their lover’s face as a sign of ‘possession’ or as a warning to any potential rivals, act as a symbol of what femminicidio has come to mean in Italy. This sense of male domination and possession is still very present in Italy, with everything from catcalling, to more physical acts of violence being carried out.