red prawn pasta

This year is my ten-year anniversary of moving to Italy. I thought I’d celebrate it ?by sharing some of the things I’ve learned about Italians during that time. Ready? Uno, due, tre!

Bad cibo is for barbarians
This may seem like a cliché, but you don’t begin to understand the importance of good sustenance to Italians until you’ve seen a grown, educated man trashing the perfectly delicious pound of pecorino cheese he had spent the last hour grating, because he suddenly realized it lacks the exact flavor profile required for the sort of cacio a pepe pasta he had in mind. After ten years of living in Italy, I find it hard to remember the countless restaurants or homes where I ate what I thought was the best meal of my life, but, instead, remember exactly the one or two mediocre or slightly below average experiences. Even the worst tourist traps still maintain some dignity when it comes to food, and serve very decent fare by, say, German standards. Of course Italy has an unfair advantage that whatever grows here, or whatever is produced out of whatever is raised here just happens to taste better than anywhere else. Tomatoes being the finest example of that.

Sempre seeking salvation
Italians, especially Romans, are by default discontented with some aspect of their lives. There is always some external force which they are unable to control that casts a tragic shadow on their lives, preventing them from getting what they feel they rightly deserve. A better job, a promotion, a newer car, a bigger house, a more lucrative business, the ability to travel and have fun more often, or even a life partner or children. When Italians befriend foreigners, especially ones with a more positive outlook to life, the friendship always comes with an expectation of salvation, or even a hope that your own success or happiness could somehow rub off on them. The world outside Italy, according to Italians, is where the party is happening. Which would explain the country’s over representation in the flow of outward migration. Yet, counter-intuitively, Italians have an exceptional sense of dignity, and when you do want to make true on their dream of salvation by extending a helping hand, they rarely take you up on the offer, but appreciate the gesture for an eternity.

Love and hate of all that’s straniero
You would think that with a mindset that salvation will come from an external power, and with the historic outpour of immigrants, that Italians are easy to embrace foreign cultures, but, their relationship with the rest of the word is a little complex, to put it mildly. Italians may dream of an external panacea that will heal all their problems, but in their heart of hearts, no one does it better than Italians. Even immigrants to young countries like Australia, Canada and the USA wear their Italianism prominently and idolize the motherland, often to the extent of absurdity. Italians are terrible with learning foreign languages, and they have their dubbing industry to blame for that, at least partially. Most Italians, even those who are exposed to the outside world genuinely believe their education system is the best in the world. I mean, seriously? I’ve worked on film sets where even junior Italian crew members refused to eat the same outstanding, albeit non-Italian food that A list celebrities like George Clooney and Matt Damon were served along with the rest of us, and had to have special catering arrangements. There is not one decent French restaurant in the entire metropolis of Rome. Let alone Mexican. Still, despite their fear of foreign food, languages, cultures, and with the exception of those who are openly racist, the vast majority of Italians espouse a uniquely humane outlook to immigration and the plight of the less fortunate. Italians wear their hearts on their sleeves, and yes, it’s true, they do love kids, despite their plummeting growth rates.

La rivoluzione is on the horizon, but will never actually happen
Despite all that’s amazing about living in Italy, there is a lot that is highly dysfunctional. For an outsider like me, so long as it doesn’t touch my life, the dysfunction adds color to the quirky charm of this unique land. But for most Italians, there is a genuine sense of disillusionment that their politicians and leaders have shafted them in a royal way for their own self betterment. Of course that sense is not any way misguided. Italy is chronically mismanaged. Which means a revolution is always on the horizon. Some massive country-wide uprising against the endemic corruption, inefficiency, and apathy of the state and its apparatuses. I’ve been hearing murmurs of this revolution from the day I arrived, but I am yet to see any signs of it.

Living just beneath la superficie of potential
For most visitors to Italy, life here couldn’t get any better. But when you actually live here you slowly begin to realize that despite all that’s working for Italy in terms of natural beauty, history, culture and a vibrant, passionate population, that this is a country that is living just beneath the surface of its true potential. I would say on a good day, most Italians operate at about 50-60 percent in terms of net productivity and efficiency. If this rating was amped up by say an additional 15 percent, my guess is that Italy would boom. Then again, you wonder how by only operating at half of its potential, it’s managed so well. Maybe this is the universe making it fair for the rest of us.

Iperbole is for babies
Italians exaggerate for a living. Everything is always far more dramatic, far graver, far more tumultuous than it really is. The only other demographic I know that is guilty of chronic hyperbole is children. Which leads me to believe that there is a very prominent child-like quality about Italians in general that is important to understand when trying to fit in or live here. Italian men are like little boys, they love their toys, their games, hanging out in loud groups, and they always want you to look at and praise their achievements. Italian women may at first seem more mature than their male counterparts, yet their desire to always look young is not based in vanity as much as it reflects that same desire to never grow up. Why? I have a theory. Italians love children and nurture and love them insanely. For many Italians, childhood remains the fondest part of life before the rude reality of growing up kicks in. Maybe that would explain why many Italians end up extending their dependence on their parents for as long as possible, even unnaturally by refusing to leave home until their middle age or accepting financial assistance from their parents, even when they become parents themselves. This child-life quality of Italians can of course be frustrating for the rest of us adults who don’t quite get it. On the other hand, it also comes with a wonderful naivety and innocence that gives Italians all those qualities we simpley love about them.

Proudly pessimisti
Stemming from their proclivity to exaggerate, Italians are also innately pessimistic. I realize that this pessimism is most likely rooted in reality and reflects the sclerosis of public life here that is dominated by crusty old men. But for an outsider, this constant bleakness can be a little deflating. By default, Italians expect the worst, and when the opposite happens, they brag about it like they were touched by the hand of God. Even for the pettiest things like a good parking spot. Just Google che culo che hai to understand what I mean. While being a naturally optimistic person, I’ve also learned from Italians that a healthy dose of pessimism can at times temper your expectations and shelter you from disappointment.

Delegazione is for dummies
I just came back from a weekend getaway in one of the most breathtaking towns in Italy, having stayed at a Bed and Breakfast that was once a monastery and now run by a wonderful couple. Both the husband and wife alternate check in and check-out duties. The wife is also the chef and the house keeper. The husband is the concierge, the gardener, and the maître d’, each of them putting on the requisite uniform for each role. And they pull it off effortlessly. Delegation here means an extra cost that cuts into the bottom line. But I suspect Italians are innately micro-managers and control freaks. Then again, so much of what Italy gives to the world is so uniquely special, I sometimes wonder if Italians know something we don’t. Maybe delegation is a factor of hyper expansionism which is not a feature of Italian culture. Maybe too much delegation ‘aint such a good thing, inasmuch that it ultimately waters down your heritage and all that you hold proud until in the end you become only a caricature of the people you once were.

As an outsider living here, I’ve grown to love Italy and Italians exactly as they are. Sure, better traffic, cleaner streets, respect for queues and a more efficient work ethic are all great things to have, but they pale as trivial compared to everything else Italia has to offer. Especially the three hour lunch break.

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