11 Italian Curiosities

We’ve discovered lots of interesting things about Italian culture throughout our week-long stay. Here are some of the more striking things we’ve experienced in Europe’s celebrated boot.


Italy is unfortunately a member of the pan-European boycott on public water fountains (unless we’re expected to drink the trickling excretions from the mouth of a stone lion). How about instead of investing in a bronze cupid tinkling into a pool, you get a place where people can hydrate themselves in 100 degree heat? I find free public water availability to be a basic necessity and for all the things that Europe regulates, they should add this to the list.

The same goes for restaurants. When I ask for water I don’t want 3 Euro Acqua Panna from the finest springs of Italy. Yes, I’m sure it’s been purified according to ancient family methods like filtering with baby eagle feathers and fairy dust. Great. I’d really just like a basic cup of tap water (free).

2. They stay up late talking, frequently, in the street:

In Radda, we had difficulty falling asleep by people yakking in the streets. Oddly enough, they were grandmas. Ancient women who apparently had a lot to say to each other. It’s much easier to tell a bunch of kids to quiet down. Further outside the town men can be found smoking and drinking together until about midnight. The kids stay out even later. This is a weekday, mind you.

Perhaps living in such close vicinity to each other makes this possible and normal. I suppose in America people walk over to their next door neighbors and chat for a while. Generally those chats last at most thirty minutes, but never until midnight. Especially not people old enough to be my great grandmother.

3. Their driving is kinda crazy, but not what everyone makes them out to be (except Florence):

I got the hang of driving in Italy pretty quickly. Just get out of the fast lane when that BMW going 160km/h comes up on you fast and flashes it’s lights. I did get one physical hand gesture encouraging me in no uncertain terms to get in the other lane, but that was only once.

It’s also clear that country driving is largely navigated by signs pointing towards the nearest town or city, not the name or number of the street. Sydney and I were racking our brains trying to figure out the name of such and such road, when it was only on occasion to be found (and generally on some extra small sign in extra small font at the corner of the highway). Once we discovered this cardinal rule of country driving, it was no problem. Just navigate by the different towns that connect you to your ultimate destination like some sort of connect the dots exercise. The frequency of traffic circles is also nice because it allows you to ponder your next turn by making another lap around the circle. It’s also helpful when trying to recognize which way that arrow on the sign is actually pointing (they keep you guessing and I love surprises).

Driving in downtown Florence does seem to live up to Italian driving stereotypes. And I have to admit, it was a bit of fun. First off, the roads are extremely narrow and of course cobblestone. People walking on the sidewalk are about a foot away from oncoming traffic. And no one seems terribly concerned as some oversized vehicle comes zooming by, even when the narrow and uneven cobblestone “sidewalk” causes someone to stumble back into the street.

Secondly, the city is overrun by swarming packs of motorcycles and vespas, who clearly believe they’re at the highest rung of the traffic food chain. I got used to being passed on both sides by two or three or four vespas that zip around you and aren’t afraid to pass into the oncoming lane of traffic. They clearly do not understand they have a lot more to lose in the event of an accident.

Also, the roads make zero sense. Zero. Roads abruptly end into a one way street headed the opposite direction, demand a left turn suddenly, or put you out onto a pedestrian only area with no clear way of heading back onto a vehicle road. You never know this going to happen until you experience it.

Traffic circles are also challenging because they can be four lanes and each exit from the circle has two or three tributary roads immediately jutting out from them at all angles. Traffic circles also have this lovely feature of cramming twenty different signs onto one pole that you will travel past at 40 km/h and have all of four seconds to read. Hope you’re a speed reader or you’ll be making another two or three laps while buses and cars and vespas veer in and out of the circle abruptly and only a few understand the brilliance of a turn signal. Oh, and I got cut off by a bus that thought it was a vespa. All part of the Italian experience.

To make things even more interesting, road signs NOT in a traffic circle are chiseled into stone tablets on the sides of buildings in small font and are only available at intersections and visible only for the drivers not presently on that road. Made a random turn onto a road and you’re not sure which one it is? Good luck figuring it out.

4. The Streets: Italy’s Other Trashcan

Watch an Italian man open a pack of cigarettes. Watch him unwrap the cellophane and throw it on the ground. Watch him likewise toss the receipt on the ground. Watch him finish his first cigarette and extinguish it delicately at a designated cigarette bin… No, I’m kidding, it goes on the ground too.

The streets seem to double as trash receptacles for the locals. Especially when it comes to cigarettes. I found this somewhat disappointing and ironic for a culture that seems very proud of themselves. Germany kept their cities quite clean in the daytime and people generally made use of trashcans. Doesn’t quite seem to be the case here.

Also, there’s a smudge line about three feet high on most buildings. By that I mean there is a layer of filth on the outside of every other building from continual bumpings, brushings, and what have you. It’s fits nicely with all the graffiti.

5. The Italian Food Norm is an American Luxury:

What a normal Italian experiences with food, even at a normal grocery store, is way outside the norm for America. It is something to behold. The cheese, meats, vegetables: all so fresh. Why does America have to pay such a premium on good food? It’s deeply disappointing.

A run of the mill meal for two at a restaurant in Tuscany (with wine) will set you back less than 20 Euro and will be a ninth symphony on your tongue. The feeling is a lot like getting a massage. You bite into some panzanella or some tender prosciutto and I get this, “awwww yeahhh” kind of moment. I get this goofy grin and slide down into my chair practically catatonic. Throw some chianti in the mix and I’m purring like a kitten.

6. Italians are Not good at English:

You’d think that a country that seems to run on tourism would have a decent understanding of what is considered the international language of tourism, right? Not in Italy. In Norway it was extremely common to find people that spoke idiomatic English. When I asked someone in Norwegian if they spoke English, they’d give me a, “yeah, duh!” In Germany, people spoke pretty good English (but thankfully I speak German). In Italy, it’s pretty bad. Not a criticism at all, of course, it’s their country. It’s just a curious comparison when Italy depends on tourism way more than the previous two countries we’ve visited.

Perhaps one reason is television. In Norway, about half the television stations are English with Norwegian subtitles. In Germany there are a few English stations. There may be one station in Italy that is in English, but it’s almost entirely Italian.

Perhaps the lack of English availability on television in Italy is just a symptom of a broader cultural characteristic. Italians are very proud of their country and their heritage. They do not appear interested in learning other languages and are perfectly happy (and justified) to let tourists struggle to speak theirs. For a language nut like myself, I am enjoying it. I’ve been adding vocab words to my language databank day by day and with great enthusiasm despite a lack of practicality for future use of this newfound knowledge. In Norway I was occasionally frustrated that everyone insisted on speaking English (I was also frustrated by my inability to correctly pronounce their language and the curious and confused looks I received after my every attempt, no matter how hard I tried).

7. They don’t seem to work very much:

The whole riposo thing is lost on me. In America we call it a lunch break, and we stagger them among the employees of a company or shop so that the stores continue to run. I know I’m showing my cultural stripes here. America truly is a convenience culture and one that is work-oriented. I think both of those things are pretty great aspects of our culture.

In Italy, things are different. Someone working at a shop may step out for a twenty minutes and lock up the store regardless of how much business he/she may lose in that time. They may or may not leave a note to inform customers of when they’ll be back. I can’t imagine many people doing that at all in America. Also, store owners stand outside their stores and chat with other store owners and lazily walk inside a few moments after a customer has walked into their store.

One exception to this rule seems to be waiters. The waiters we’ve met are extremely hard working, friendly, and quick. It’s hard not to find a waiter rushing back and forth between wiping tables, taking orders, serving food, or explaining a meal in broken English.

8. They have their own siren: We noticed that Norway uses the American siren for emergency vehicles, which is clearly superior to any other siren available and we salute them for recognizing it. Germany, the Netherlands, and France (I think), have a kind of whiny two-tone siren. Italy, however, has the same whiny two-tone siren, but a different beat and tempo. If Germany’s is a “Weee-waaahhh-weee-waaahh,” Italy is “Weeee-wee-oh-wee-waaahh.”

9. Few Public Parks and Benches

There is a serious shortage of parks and benches in the cities of Italy. You can literally walk for thirty minutes and not come across one. You could, however, throw a stone and nine times out of ten hit the well-groomed head of a waiter at the local café. It seems that cafes are the park benches of Italy. They’re strategically located at every vista imaginable. So if you want to sit down, better buy a cappuccino.

10. Bidets are the Norm

One of the more fun comparisons country by country that we’ve been making is the room arrangements. For example, in Norway and Germany, blankets are made for individuals. Thus, a two person bed has two one-person blankets.

Bathrooms, however, have been even more fun. Italy has two interesting furnishings that we’ve found in every bathroom. One is an emergency cord in the shower that you pull, apparently, if you’ve fallen and can’t get up. It’s curiously located higher than appropriate to reach if you were actually on the ground and needed to pull it. The other, is a bidet. I’ve seen them before, but they weird me out a little bit. It’s kind of a second sink. Sink #1 is for washing your hands, sink #2 for your nether regions.

11. There are hardly any muslims:

Middle Easterners have set up camp across most of the European countries I’ve visited. They’re extremely prevalent in Oslo, Germany has a widely distributed Turkish population, and certain parts of London could be justifiably annexed by any of several Middle Eastern countries. Italy, however, is different. After two days walking through Florence I saw two hijabs in a city of several hundred thousand. I don’t recall seeing any in Rome. Very interesting and I can’t really understand why that is so. Perhaps Northern Europe is more hospitable?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s