I wrote this in the last days of our time living in Italy. The whole experience was a bit too raw to share until now. Please understand that these are merely my reflections on my unique experiences, and in no way do I claim to be an authority on Italy’s culture or people.
There are countless definitions and sayings about what “home” means. We all probably know someone who has a pillow on their couch with a needlepoint design that says “Home is where the heart is” or something like that. Spend 5 minutes on Pinterest (or three hours, whatever…) searching for “home definition” and you’ll see what I mean. We all have our own definition and perception of what home looks like, feels like, smells like. There are the tangible things, like fixtures and decorations, but there are also the little things that seem negligible until you see how differently it is done in other parts of the world. The following are a few differences that I have noticed in my time living in Italy, and what I heave learned from them. This list is by no means comprehensive. If I were to try and share with you all of our adventures, experience, and lessons learned, I would end up having written a book that might be a less-than-riveting read.
1. Italians like to do things the Italian way. In general, everyone here does things the same way. Why? Because that’s how it’s done. Tiny coffee, and it must be consumed while standing at a counter. Pasta every day, just because. Spritz with potato chips before dinner. No eating dinner before 8:30 pm. No going to bed before midnight…you’ll get too much sleep. Tiled floors in every room of the house even if you live nowhere near water. Tiny ovens. No dryers. None of these things are bad, they’re just so different from how we do the in the U.S., and nobody seems to know why they do them. Everyone that I have asked about way they do something, or why they have such a strong opinion about how I choose to do something seems to be without a reason. I have definitely learned the importance of knowing why I choose to do things the way I do, and why I believe what I believe. It has been fun attempting to do things the Italian way for a while though! Although I will definitely not miss being told that I am wearing the wrong thing or doing some other thing to make me a bad Italian. I’m not trying to become an Italian…I just want to learn as much as possible about Italy and its people without offending anyone.
2. Americans like to do things the unique way. In America, everyone has their own special recipe for how they like to drink their coffee. It is a ritual that is savored. While working at Starbucks, I knew most of our customers by their drink more so than by their name. Everyone is allowed to like what they like for whatever reason they want. We have an enormous amount of variety in our restaurants and ingredients available in the grocery store. It’s not all burgers and fries, although Europe seems to think that’s all we eat. :) By the way, be careful if you order a “Pizza Americana” if you’re in Italy: You’ll get a pizza topped with hot dogs, fries, and ketchup and mustard. It’s horrifying. (I did not order one. However, I have been known to enjoy a BLT or a Hawaiian pizza back home.)
3. Gelato is a way of life. Most businesses here keep very strange and unpredictable hours. Closed certain days, but not the days listed on the sign. Closed for 3-4 hours every afternoon, etc. The gelaterias however, keep very reliable hours. The one nearest to our apartment is open every day from 10:30 am to 12:30 am. You can have gelato for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a midnight snack. Or all of the above. Just don’t think of ordering two scoops of the same flavor. They’ll look at you in disbelief and they literally don’t understand why you would want to do such a thing. If you want to order gelato the Italian way, order it in a cone, and no two scoops the same flavor.
4. Pizza. I’m not sure how to explain my pizza experience here. It has been very unpredictable, to say the least. Overall, I have been generally disappointed in the pizza here, and here is why: It is available everywhere, but the quality of most of it is quite poor. Not freshly baked, just sitting out waiting to be reheated on a griddle when someone finally orders it. Other places that do bake it to order, it is very floppy and not cooked through in the center. You’ve got to master the folding technique to be able to pick it up and eat it. Also, when you order pizza at a restaurant, it comes to the table unsliced on a big plate. Most Italians don’t slice it and pick it up to eat. They eat it bite-by-bite with a knife and fork. All in all, if you want to have really good pizza in Italy, look for a wood-fired oven in the kitchen. That’s the key to good pizza here. There is great pizza to be had, you just have to search for it a bit sometimes.
5. Italian restaurants are not created equal. As with any restaurant, there is a lot that goes in to making the dining experience pleasant. The trick about going out to eat in Italy, especially in a touristy area, is that there are a lot of restaurants that are pretending to be Italian, but really aren’t doing a very good job. Frozen food that is reheated, canned ingredients when local fresh ingredients are plentiful, etc. How to choose a good restaurant? If you ask me: Wander. Wander from the main streets where all the restaurants have outdoor tables with big menu boards listed in multiple languages with pictures of the food. Those are no good. And there also not usually run by Italian people. Most of those are run by foreigners who are trying to appeal to the masses, which is find sometimes, but if you want good quality food that is made with local ingredients, you need to stray from the crowded areas and find yourself a little trattoria somewhere that is filled with locals. The less English that is spoken, the more authentic the food will be. Bring a translator or a smartphone that has Google Translate with Italian downloaded for offline use, and you’ll get by just fine. Even better: ask a local where is their favorite place to eat.
6. Life is lived at a slower pace. I love the idea of slowing down and not being in such an over-scheduled hurry all the time. It is rather impossible to pull this off back home, but I do hope to hang on to some of that mentality. To savor, cherish, and protect our time and not spread ourselves too thin.
At the end of the day, or 99 days to be exact, one thing is certain. I miss home. Italy has been an absolutely enlightening experience, and I have learned more here than I could have ever learned in any amount of books or classes. The history and tradition here is rich, the architecture is absolutely breathtaking, and the people here seem to understand that what they have is valuable. On the other hand, one thing that Italy seems not to value as much as Michigan is a welcoming spirit of hospitality and an open mind about the world beyond our borders. I have definitely learned how important it is to try and go above and beyond to visitors to be helpful and encouraging, and embracing the differences between people and the places they come from.
For me, home means everything to me now. It is not only our little house that has comfy carpeting, a coffee table for casually sipping your beverage of choice in comfort, and an oven that will roast a 15+ pound turkey with no problem. It is a place where we can relax and be and do things the way we like to. We have worked hard to build the life that we have,and I am SO glad that we didn’t move here and want to throw all of that away to stay here forever. We fell in love with our home and the wonderful country we live in all over again, and that is a blessing beyond compare. Home is not complicated. It’s peaceful. Home means having people around you who genuinely care for you and wish the best for you. Home means speaking the same language, and driving a car to the grocery store. Home is more than 4 walls, but on the other hand, I don’t think you could pry my little house from my cold dead fingers for any amount of money in the world right now. Home is having our church to go to, where we share our beliefs in the living God who sent His son to die for us, and rose again to conquer death so we can have eternal life through Him.
I will never forget this time in Italy. In some ways it has been amazing, and in other ways it has been very very difficult and stressful, and terribly depressing at times. I am confident that the stresses will fade with time, and the memories will get even sweeter. Ciao, Italia. It’s been an adventure.