I’ve always been proud of my family heritage. Since I was young, I delighted in being asked whether or not my family once had ties to the Mafia (they did) or how many times we ate spaghetti and meatballs in a given week (a lot). I’d throw around my grandfather’s old slang (like ‘Bacowzoo [sp?]’ which meant bathroom) like a badge of honor and claim the achievements (and embarrassments) of the Roman Empire in my historical comparison discussions on who was more badass. As far as I was concerned, I was Italian and presumably more authentic than Olive Garden.
I was so very very wrong.
You’re Not Italian; You’re AMERICAN!
Surprisingly, no one was really impressed with the story of how my great grandfather came to America with a potato in each shoe and a grape stem in his sock–not when there are literally native Italians everywhere. What makes you feel special in America because you’re one of maybe 15 million is inconsequential in Italy. Fact is, your family LEFT and even if you still have some that stayed behind like me, you’re more different than you are similar. As an Italian-American in Italy, don’t be surprised when no one understands your Italian or when locals can smell the tatertot hotdish on you and immediately try speaking to you in English. They’ll ask you about George Clooney as if he’s your next door neighbor and offer you a spoon (which is uncustomary to an actual Italian) to eat with your pasta because you seemed to be suffering with your fork twirl. They’ll hastily explain away that you’re an American when you embarrassingly order the same flavor scoop for your double gelato and they’ll giggle at you when you knock back your first Italian Digestive like a fool assuming it’ll go down as smooth as Pepto. And you know what? That’s okay. Going to Italy as an Italian-American is your chance to learn about the culture your family left behind and realize that, in its absence, you’ve created and reclaimed your own back home–one built on meatballs and tommy guns, Rocky Balboa and wooden spoon beatings, “gabagool” and Cesar salads. Own it.
“It’s Not Dinner Unless There is Pork on the Table!”
I thought the worship of bacon was an exclusively American concept but I’d be willing to wager that Italians love their pig more than we do. If you don’t believe me, let’s take a second to run down the list…prosciutto, capicola, cacciatore, soppressata, guanciale, spalla, bologna, panchetta, speck, culatello, salt pork, etc. You’d be hard pressed to find a menu or a table that didn’t have pork included–in fact, I’d say it was the meat of choice for most dishes and pasta (and even fruit!). It’s hanging everywhere in the market, it’s in nearly every sandwich, and most rural areas you can smell it wafting among the streets as if there was a little piggie walking right next to you.
Do You Speak Inglese?
Don’t go to Italy assuming everyone speaks English–they don’t. We were lucky to run across a number of helpful folks who could speak a little, but it was mostly trying to figure out which words we knew in each other’s respective language in order to construct a sentence the other could understand. Most waiters and waitresses in high tourist cities can speak enough to provide you with excellent service but please don’t try to order an American alcoholic beverage like my travel companions did and try to explain to them, in English, how to make it. Things descend into confusion fairly quickly. Your best bet is to learn as much conversational Italian as you can before going, this way, you can gesture along and try to explain what you need using words both of you understand or just rely heavily on Google Translate like we did when we needed some extra help to explain ourselves. It’s true that most Italians have taken English in school, but do you remember much of your world language of choice in high school if you didn’t go on to study it in college? Exactly. Try to learn and use Italian, it’s their country after all.
Driving is for Lunatics
It shouldn’t come as too much of a shock that the Land of the Ferrari likes to squeal its wheels and ignore most roadway etiquette. For every Nutella croissant I ate, I feared for my life in equal measure on the road. The Autostrade or major highway is merely a place of suggested speed, there aren’t many stop lights so don’t expect an easy navigation through an intersection, double parking is the norm, and incessantly honking at backed up traffic that has no place to go is just common practice. Save yourself the heart attack and take the train.
Ain’t Nobody Got Room for Breakfast
Italians don’t really eat breakfast–not like we do in America. You eat a croissant and enjoy a cappucino, that’s all you should give yourself room in the tum tum for. We’re, of course, used to far more protein than that in the form of eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, and lard but in Italy, you should save the real feast for later. When we ate with our relatives, we learned that it was common to start eating for real around 12pm and work your way through the courses for the next 3 hours over family time and conversation with that being the main meal of the day. Ultimately, you eat big once, saving room throughout the day with eating and drinking only what was necessary to survive. And if you’re having trouble keeping away from delicious food until dinner? Don’t worry, everything with food closes in the afternoon and doesn’t re-open until 7:30pm. Get ready to be hungry and lose some of the American fat around the waist you brought with. Also, don’t forget the Italian Digestive!
Coffee is the Real Deal
Knowing my extensive professional background in coffee, I was completely prepared for the kind I’d experience in Italy. My travel companions, on the other hand, weren’t. Assuming you’re the type to drown your coffee in creamer or are prone to taking your dose of caffeine blended in ice with syrups and sugars–the coffee offerings in Europe are going to be quite a culture shock. I spent most of my time assisting my companions in ordering what I thought they’d be able to drink or creating a mutant concoction at the self serve that would be sweet enough for them to enjoy. It’s all about espresso, espresso, espresso and it is DELICIOUS! Unfortunately, the espresso that comes out of the machine at your local coffee shop is a bit more bitter and unrefined than the variety they serve in Italy–for example, it’s completely possible to drink it straight up and not gag. Espresso in Italy is slightly bitter but not overpowering, sweet but not overly so, a bit heavier in body, and savory in the aftertaste. You can order with milk if you wish, but there is no need for syrups and sauces like back home–in fact, good luck finding the option!
This Place has Really Gone to the Dogs
Italy has an interesting relationship with dogs. It’s normal and encouraged to bring your pooch with you everywhere–from shopping malls to restaurants and as long as they don’t poop anywhere (which I was unfortunate enough to waltz into at a shoe store) they are more than welcome. You’d think then that a place which clearly treats dogs as a part of the family would be prone to sticking together–but for every family dog you witnessed happily accompanying their owners on errands, there was also a stray dog prowling around for food and the kindness of strangers. It’s ordinary enough for passerbys to toss food their way as if they were homeless beggars and smart strays who know which patio is attached to a tasty restaurant will visit in routine–waiters merely side-stepping the four legged guests. No one shoos them but everyone gives a little from their table to the dog in need. It was really hard for me to not just adopt every single dog I saw–they were always polite and sweet and responded to commands like sit, stay, and lay down. Clearly, these dogs have gotten used to their life on the road but I couldn’t help but ache for them to find a good home.
Nutty About Nutella
And last but not least, let me just confirm that Italians really are obsessed with Nutella. No joke. It’s in EVERYTHING.