The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Ciao Readers!

Today I delve a bit into cultural differences (though hopefully in a humorous and entertaining way).  While the title is meant to grab your attention, I’ll try and be a little less judgmental as I explore the things I appreciate about living in Italy as well as the “things I have yet learned to appreciate.”   As one commenter has pointed out, people in other cultures have been doing just fine for millennia – it’s our own perspective from a different culture that creates our discomfort.  So, when you hear my surprise/dismay (usually indicated by “seriously!?!!?!?”), please understand, as I do, that this is just one person’s attempt to understand a culture not her own.  (However, it is my blog, so enough with the disclaimers already!)   Onward.

THINGS I APPRECIATE ABOUT LIVING IN ITALY

  • Of course, the food (the Italian food) and the art (which are both fabulous and really big deals here).
  • The fact that I can walk the streets by myself at night and feel safe.  This is pretty darn cool.
  • My health card.  This is truly amazing – I’m an immigrant without a job and yet I have this nifty little card that entitles me to free/cheap health care.  I haven’t used it yet, so I can’t speak to the quality/wait times, but I can say that compared to the 450$+/month we were paying for employer-subsidized health insurance back in the States (not to mention the very high co-pays) it’s pretty darn civilized.
  • The fact that prices are what prices are.  For example, when I signed up for the basic 19 euro cable package I just naturally assumed that (like in the States) with the added inexplicable fees and taxes we would be paying about 31 – 33 euros/month.  Nope, every month I am equally surprised to see exactly 19 euros on the bill.  Not sure if it’s just Italy, or perhaps part of the Euro Zone strict financial laws, but I like it!
  • Not having to tip.  Almost everywhere we eat here we’re served by the mom & pop owners themselves, or, if there are employees, waiting is their real job for which they are paid a minimum wage.  Now I know your guide books may encourage you to at least round-up and leave the change, and maybe that’s expected in touristy places, but I promise you, I have never seen an Italian leave a tip and if you try to leave one they will yell at you (a habit I have adopted when dining with visiting Americans).  The only tips I have ever seen here are left by American tourists.  Which brings me back to my previous point – as long as you pay attention to whether there is a “coperto” (cover charge) listed on the menu (usually 1.50 – 2.50 euros per person), then you will know exactly how much your meal will cost as there is no adding tax and tip (exception being super touristy places like Venice where there may also be a “service charge,” though always listed in the menu).
  • Not waking up to news about another local or national shooting.  Since we’ve been living in Florence I haven’t heard of a single murder occurring here (In Albuquerque it is statistically a weekly occurrence).  There was apparently a murder of two African immigrants in 2011, but overall violent crime here is rare.  It’s hard to get exact numbers, but Italy has at most 1/7th the violent crime of the States.
  • The festivities.  It really is a treat to be able to walk out your front door and happen upon a street market, festival, musical performance and more just about any weekend year-round (and some weekdays as well).  I do believe the festivities (and the food and art) are what keep people (mostly) non-violent amidst the things in my next list….

THINGS I HAVE YET LEARNED TO APPRECIATE

  • To quote the Grinch – “All the NOISE NOISE NOISE NOISE.”  Seriously – people here are loud.  They yell.  And they honk.  And not the little quick tap of the horn to get someone’s attention, I mean the loud, incessant, you’d-be-too-embarrassed-to-honk-that-way-back-in-the-States (or too scared of starting a road rage incident) honk.  My latest theory is that all the honking and yelling is folks’ way of releasing pressure (as everyone seems friendly and happy a minute later), and when combined with the festivities, explains why the violent crime rate is so low.
  • The inefficiency of offices (post, government, bank, etc.).  You usually have to wait between 30 – 90 minutes to accomplish most things (much more for big tasks like immigration – I have heard stories from folks who waited 7 hours at that office), due to the fact that everything is run like a mom-and-pop operation without any thought for efficiency and other folks’ time.  For example – if it’s someone’s turn at the post office and they are trying to send mail in some special way, there will be 3 forms to fill out, but instead of having them stand off to the side while they do this, the worker will have them remain there at the window the entire time (I once clocked one person at a post office window for 25 minutes).  I suppose it would be too complicated to let the next person come up because then the “take a number” system will get out of whack – but seriously?!?!?!  Of course, when it is finally your turn, you will get to spend as much time as you need accomplishing your task, which may help deescalate all the “ARG” you’ve been building up watching those before you.
  • The fact that I have to be careful not to get run-over on the sidewalk!  I have seriously almost been hit by a car several times as I walked down the sidewalk, never mind the number of times by motorini.  This goes back to my “Sure, Park There” blog post where I shared that just about anywhere is fair game for parking here.  I can’t tell you how many mornings there’s been a car literally parked in the middle of the running trail (which is several feet off the street).   Trying not to get run-over crossing the street is a whole other level of challenge (think “Frogger”), though we’ve learned the secret – people here are very gracious to folks with baby strollers – if you cross the street with one you’ll likely make it to the other side unscathed.
  • And speaking of the sidewalk – the fact that there is dog poop all over it!  It really cuts down on my ability to appreciate the beautiful architecture as, should you take your eyes off the ground for a minute, you will surely step in it.  Between the dog poop, the traffic, and the fact that folks just stop suddenly and chat on the sidewalk, a leisurely “stroll” feels more like an obstacle course test for some very demanding military assignment.
  • Smoking.  I honestly don’t know why everyone here doesn’t just keel over from lung cancer.  Smoking here is so prevalent (though not quite as much as in Japan).  You can’t walk down the street without inhaling second-hand smoke (add that to your obstacle course), and even your own home will eventually succumb due to all your neighbors who smoke, including in the hallways.  Maybe pasta and wine counteract nicotine and tar….

So, that, dear Readers are a few of my (admittedly) ethnocentric thoughts on the good, the bad and the ugly about living in Italy.  I have left out many things from both lists, so will look forward to sharing those in the future!

N.b. – after rereading this post about a week after I wrote it, something struck me as interesting that I hadn’t realized at the time…it seems many of the things I appreciate are huge (healthcare, lack of violence), and the things that drive me nuts are small (noise, smoking)….so you would think that the big good things would “make up” for the small annoying ones, but it doesn’t feel that way….hmmmm…….

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25 Comments

  1. A few years ago, I spent time in Florence, and wrote this wee verse:

    I was really wondering why
    No one looks you in the eye
    While walking the streets of Florence.

    The answer came to me at last
    Why they keep their eyes downcast
    While walking the streets of Florence.

    You would do the same thing too
    To avoid all the doggy poo
    While walking the streets of Florence.

    It seemed to me that Florence had the highest concentration of the stuff in the cities I visited.

    Reply
  2. You’re hilarious. I can’t imagine dog poop here. When dogs pee on a bush, most locals will rinse it with bottled water. (no joke).

    Reply
  3. This post is brilliant! I’ve lived and worked in Florence for several years and had the same impression. But as I grew up in Italy and know the Italians pretty well, I didn’t feel that they are so “loud” until I came back once from Switzerland (Swiss people are very “silent”, too silent…) and noticed that something was different. But it took me a while to realise that it was the “noise” you discribe. But it wasn’t “noise” in my ears, it was just the sound of life! About the honking: I made my driving license in Italy and are used to drive there. They are much less loud than twenty or thirty years ago. If you know some classic italian films of the fifties, sixties, seventies (well, also some of the eighties) you know what I mean ;-)
    To ytaba36: I love your poem! But I would like to specify something about people not looking you in the eyes. They might not, but they notice everything. They found that looking people on the street in the eyes is some kind of rude, unless you know the person or you want something from her/him. That’s the only reason. But if you happen to cross the same people every day and then get to know them, you might be surprised what they already know about you ;-)
    I think that it’s not so much about things you like being small or big, it’s if they are really important for you or not. If something is boring you and affecting the quality of your daily life, it’s more important than you think. – I hope you’ll be able to admire the beauty of this city and that no “poops” will stop you today. Buona giornata! xxx

    Reply
    • Wow, thanks for your thoughtful comments! As you’ll see from my upcoming Friday post, I am beginning to realize much of this is Florence, and not Italy in general.

      Reply
  4. So many similarities between Italy and Spain! I think almost all of them apply to Spain! I was reading and thinking “Yup…here in Spain, too. Oh yeah…and that one also!” And don’t feel bad about “commenting” about the difference between countries. I believe that once you have lived in a foreign country for a certain amount of time, you have a right to “comment” about these differences!

    Reply
  5. Auntie Faith

     /  January 16, 2013

    I can only say stay well and be healthy my sweethearts!

    Reply
  6. Not waking up to news about another local or national shooting.
    I especially loved this comment of yours, coming from an American. For an Italian, and having lived in the UK for over half my life, I don’t really get this gun culture and would really find it difficult to live in the USA. It seems after the last massacre, gun sales went up?… difficult to understand.
    Love all the rest of your observations!

    Reply
  7. I like your post! even though I lived here in the U.S. – I can say all my life – I still speak “too loud’ for most Americans.
    When I took my teenage son to Italy the first time, I naturally reversed to speaking “loud” to him across the narrow streets of Venice and other places; he responded in turn out loud and nobody thought we were crazies… One day I “lost” him in Venice and I finally decided to simply go back to San Marco and rest for a bit, and what do I discover? at a large round table there was my son, the only male in a circle of beautiful girl tourists met by chance, all English speaking. He sat back like a prince of the blood holding court.
    Maybe I’ve already told this story, but forgive me it is one of my favorite memories. All I could say then was “there goes the Italian blood in this son of mine”. I was so amused, and even proud!
    About the mind boggling love of weapons in the USA , please read this:
    The Second Amendment was Ratified to Preserve Slavery
    By Thom Hartmann, Truthout | News Analysis
    open this link:
    http://truth-out.org/news/item/13890-the-second-amendment-was-ratified-to-preserve-slavery
    It is a very interesting article. It reminds us just how young the USA is as a country : slavery was a way of life to be maintained privately, by force of arms, until the Civil War, and after that, abolished in name and principle more than in fact. I ought to do a post about this subject. Sometimes historical facts are forgotten.

    Reply
  8. I agree totally about the smoking. I was so surprised to see pretty much everyone smoked no matter where you are!

    Reply
  9. I had many of the same thoughts/experiences! But just FYI, my (Italian) boyfriend and his friends always tip when we go out to eat. Usually it’s because we are a group and obviously requires a certain service. However, it’s in those smaller places that my boyfriend indeed tips….granted, this means 1 or 2 euros (if it’s just us or us an another couple). I had to laugh thinking about when a friend of mine visited Florence on his honeymoon and we all met up for dinner. When we threw down 2 euros, he looked at us, turned to his wife and they asked “really?” When we told them servers earn a normal wage here, they both laughed and said “ahhhhhh last night we were talking trash about this Italian guy who only left 2 euros for his meal and we left 10! Are you SURE we were in the wrong?” Yep, quite sure. lol. Hope I spared them a lot of extra money as their honeymoon continued through Italia. lol

    Reply
    • Thanks for reading/commenting! And thanks for setting the record straight – I’ve been watching the other tables and not seeing a tip, but I’m mostly talking about cheap lunch special places. Do you think it applies more to nicer dinners or do you think a certain percentage of folks here likely always tip? I’m very curious now!

      Reply
  10. Hi,

    Yeah, I wouldn’t bother with cheaper places, especially at lunchtime. Usually we tip a little for dinner, and even in a pizzeria (unless the server is really absent or curt which has happened). In larger groups, like I said, it’s pretty reasonable to leave something extra. It’s happened we were 10-15 people, among other tables of the same, so as a group usually leave around 5-10 euros for the server especially if they were doing their best. But it isn’t required, certainly. I think it’s become more of a new habit here. And like I said, I’m just basing it off my experience with Italians I know. Same for taxis to/from the airport. If a driver is really good at helping me with my bags to the airport curbside or my door, i’ll give them a euro or 2 as well. If they just throw them down on the street out of the trunk, forget it. Or if the driver gives me a receipt (which has happened only twice and I was so shocked the first time because I’ve NEVER in 5 years ever gotten a receipt) I give that person a wee tip too. I like your blog; I’ve discovered places I never knew of and like your point of view. :)

    Reply
    • Wow – thanks so much for your kind words about my blog – makes me feel good! And thanks for setting me straight on tipping. I spent 2 months in Bologna learning Italian before we moved here and whenever I went to lunch with my Italian teachers and I tried to tip they would always stop me. And I guess I only eat at cheap places here, so what do I know! (Well, enough to know that when my American acquaintances tip 2 – 3 euros for cappuccinos and cornettos, that’s out of whack!) Thanks again for reading and commenting.

      Reply
  11. No problem! I should expand on my liking your blog. I used to live in P. Beccaria once upon a time and don’t really get around that way much anymore, so it’s quite nice to relive those days with your posts about the places to eat, see etc! I do still go to Fuori Piazza sometimes with my boyfriend or our friends because we all loooooove it too! Nice people and good food. And at lunch I usually grab a panino or go to an enoteca if i’m really having the luxury of a ‘lunch out’, so I guess I never had an opportunity to tip for high service anyway either. ;-)

    Reply
  12. Thanks again! I’d be curious to hear your “how I got to Italy” story sometime! I’ll be interested in what you think about this coming Tuesday’s post – I review some more places to eat (and some repeat appearances) and one I know for sure that other folks don’t like as much as I do…

    Reply
  13. Brenda

     /  January 14, 2014

    Very interesting post. So do people smoke inside there too?

    Reply

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