There are many cute, albeit strange (to me) aspects of life in Italy. One such cute, strange thing is how birthdays are handled. When it is YOUR birthday in Italy, YOU bring treats to share with everyone. I don't really know why this still strikes me as so odd, but it is something I've really come to appreciate and, if I'm being honest, even expect - to an extent. For example, when I know it is a staff member's birthday, I eagerly anticipate treats in the staff room, and, fortunately, am rarely disappointed. However, when I moved here, I really couldn't figure out the rationale for these mystery treats appearing every-so-often, and would find myself getting frustrated when I discovered no observable pattern to their appearance!
Another good thing to know about life in Italy is that Italians are very different at restaurants and bars than at home. At home, or at a friend's house, so long as they don't have to drive, Italians are fun, festive night owls who will eat all your food, drink all your wine, and when you're totally pooped out, they will leave. I say all this with the best intentions, mind you..I love my Italian night owl friends. I love that I make food and they like it enough to eat it all, and I’m also glad that they can enjoy wine with me. I am only highlighting this for comparison… if you go out to a bar or restaurant with an Italian, there is a very good chance they will only have one drink. I always thought my Italian friends were a bit prudish until I realized that they would rather have a sit-down dinner at home and use the many hours with company to chat, enjoy, and imbibe rather than do so out in public. This, it has been explained to me, is for two reasons:
Italians are super frugal and very conscious of how they spend their money. Spending 7-10 euros on a cocktail is a lot, let alone buying a second one! But, contrarily, bringing a 7 euro bottle of wine to a party where it can be enjoyed by all seems like money well-spent.
And, most Italians find public drunkenness embarrassing. They would rather such a display be reserved just for those in their close inner circle, which I can totally appreciate.
Now, other than all the bureaucratic nightmares I've dealt with, many of which I could classify as "weird," another aspect of life here that boggles my mind is driving school. Due to a lack of reciprocity between Italy and the United States, my US driver's license was valid only for my first year here and then no longer. So, I had to start studying this massive 300-page confusing-as-ever textbook to memorize the road signs and rules in order to pass at least 36 of 40 true and false questions. It was a ridiculously long ordeal, (don’t ask me how long it took start-to-finish...it would make you cry), and I failed the test on my first try with 34 out of 40. Due to the pandemic, I had to wait an additional 5 months before I could take it again. Luckily, I passed the test the 2nd try and then I could drive….with my permit….with someone else in the car...like an American 15 year-old. Ugh. On the plus side, it is always delightful to feel like a teenager again, right? Er… maybe not always, but...let’s carry on... After I got my “foglia rosa” (permit), I began my behind-the-wheel lessons with my teacher, Mirko...who is half a year younger than me. That really isn’t relevant for the topic of conversation, but hopefully it helps to paint the overall picture of my experience. In fact, most of our "lessons" were spent talking about just about everything except driving, making them much more bearable.
(Mechanics making sure my car is in tip-top shape now that I can finally drive it again).
Anyway, I had to do no less than 6 hours of behind-the-wheel practice with Mirko, costing 45 euros each time, of which (Mirko explained to me) he receives less than 25 euros due to government taxes. (Ridiculous!) Now, though, I have finished all of these lessons but, again due to Covid-19, I am awaiting my test date for the behind-the-wheel exam as they are allowing no more than 3 students per driving school per week. Sigh.
About the test...
I have been told, repeatedly, that I will likely fail this exam, by most people I have spoken to, because, apparently, the examiners are exceedingly picky and even more so with foreigners. (Pray for me!) And yet, they may have a point, because after having driven for 21 years, I find that some of my typical driving habits are “incorrect” from a safety and legal standpoint, such as steering. When I turn, I use the necessary hand-over-hand maneuver, but when I right the wheels and straighten out, like many (I assume), I simply let the wheel slip between my fingers to get back to the straight position. This is wrong, and if I do this during the test, I will fail. So...I have plenty of un-learning to do!
The final “weird” thing I want to mention about life in Italy, or specifically Florence, is the general obsession with Americans. Now, I guess this isn’t super weird, but more flattering and wonderful, but I will say I initially found it surprising. I think when I travel and I hear a bunch of noisy, rowdy university students who are American, I have a tendency to roll my eyes and think about the message they must be sending to others. And yet, I have had innumerable Italians tell me how much they love Americans for the following reasons:
Americans are willing to spend money, and tend to not complain much when they are shopping. If they don’t like something, they keep this opinion to themselves. But, if they do like something, they tend to buy two of the item instead of just one, as well as compliment the shopkeeper. I have been told that compared to other cultures, this is incredibly unique to Americans.
Americans get excited about discounts and special offers, and never think we deserve more than we are given. A leather maker told me one day “If I offer an American a 10% discount, they are thrilled and appreciative. If I make the same deal to a French or Chinese person, they ask me why it is only a 10% discount and not 20.” To be honest, I can totally see this as true for me, at least, because I love discounts and I always feel so special when someone tries to make me a deal! I cannot even imagine asking them for more. (However, when bartering...well, that’s another story…)
Americans smile all the time. Americans are happy, joyous people on vacation, full of love and life, and treat everyone like their friends. (I can personally think of many American travelers this does not apply to, but I suppose in comparison to other cultures, it could be a stereotype with a kernel of truth).
Finally, Americans are very complimentary. They are not afraid to tell someone they have nice shoes, or ask where they bought that handbag. Americans give compliments liberally, and this, especially in Italy, is highly unusual. Italians tend to not give strangers compliments, which is one reason why Italians really love this American behavior: it makes everyone feel good!
Enjoying a night out with some American friends
So, I suppose that’s it for now. If I have some more “weird” things to add, I will make another post to share more of the joys, trials, and weirdness of life in Italy. I am sure I will have plenty more to share in the coming months!
Whether Italian, American, or other: I love the people in my life and my incredible experiences thus far in Italy!