Rich in culture, history, art and Italians – lakes, mountains, plains, sea, islands, peninsulas and a splash of intrigue – welcome to Italy. A good understanding of the country, along with some simple suggestions may help you make the most of your trip, and give you an insight into the fascinating Italian approach to life.
Kick off your shoes, throw away your watch. Everything is relative. Whilst much improved over the recent years, trains, buses and people work on an "approximate" timetable. Learn patience and go with the flow.
Unlike northern Europe, English is not as widely taught and used. Many Italians already have to learn two languages: Italian and their local dialect. Until recently, French was promoted above English. Italians suffer from a language inferiority complex. Even those who do speak good English are convinced they do not and only speak out of necessity. Luckily, the Italians are experts at hand signs. The language is so infiltrated by English words that one way or another, everything works out.
As reflected in the dialects, modern Italy was unified only in the mid 1800's. Even today, great divisions exist between north and south. This means that culture, traditions and life styles vary significantly between the various provinces. True allegiance is to their local town or province; less to the state (reflected in football stadiums across Italy). If you want to compliment an Italian, remark kindly on his home town.
Italian politics is unique. Often called "the politics of favours", politicians do not fade away, they just become prime minister for the tenth time. Bringing down the government is a national past time, averaging nearly one government for every year since World War II. Reflecting a national divide, Italy has a strong ex communist and a strong ex fascist block. Most Italians believe the country is successful. Tax avoidance is another national obsession. One of Italy's stronger parties is dedicated to the break up of Italy. Lega Nord (free the north) has a passionate following – in the north! To quote Beppe Grillo, the famous Italian commentator, “One Italian makes a Latin lover, two together can never agree whilst three Italians make up four political parties.”
Italian bars often double up as coffee shops. There is a much more limited drinking culture. A good night out may include a coffee instead of a beer, although the club scene is more traditional in its appeal. In many areas wine is cheaper than bottled water, whilst a staple feature of Italian meals, it is rarely drunk to excess.
Careful of stereotypes. While waning, the family is central to all and everything. Boys especially, often stay at home until their mid 30's, children move away – to the house next door, and shouting between balconies to borrow some sugar is common place. The grandmother plays the role of matriarch. Unexpected family visitors often turn up for a meal and are gladly received.
The religion is Catholic, of course. Strangely though, Italy has the lowest birth rate in Europe. Mafia bosses fastidiously attend church on Sunday; married Catholic men may happily have an amante, lover. Many Catholics are uncertain if they are Christians as well, such is the hold and “brand” strength of the Catholic Church. Church attendance is in decline; the number of new priests is down by 85% in the last 50 years.
One thing all Italians agree on is the National Football Team, often referred to as Italy's "true" religion. When Italy won the World Cup, people took to the streets in their cars, blowing horns, standing on car roofs. The entire nation's transport system halted for two hours as Italians demonstrated their passion for the game. Other sports take a back seat although cycling, volleyball, skiing and Formula One have their occasional place on the front pages. One of the largest selling national newspapers is entirely dedicated to sport, La Gazetta dello sport.
Their view on world affairs is not our affair. In most cases, foreigners are greeted with enthusiasm and delight, although heavy non European Immigration has started to create phobia and resentment of the non European invasion.
Italians are passionate about – Italian food – so much so that even when abroad, many Italians will go out of their way to seek out the nearest Italian restaurant. And why not? Italian food is like an iceberg – what you see and know, like pasta and pizza, are but a fraction of the rich and varied Italian cuisine. Each region has its "local dish"; each dish may be prepared in a different way according to local custom. A wedding or Gala meal can last for over six hours and feature up to 20 courses.
The Italian zest for life is well reflected in the Italian driving style. Cars are viewed as a status symbol; not for nothing does Italy have one of the highest percentages of Mercedes owners. Speed limits, like their train timetables, are considered approximations. Recent clamp downs and a new license points system is beginning to dampen this zest. Best advice for foreign drivers is not to panic if a car cuts in, speeds by or tailgates. Don't worry: Italians have had lots of practise and are very good at driving!
Until recently the concept of queuing was an enigma. The advent of supermarket deli ticket lines and other such devices are being readily adopted. Even when no line exists, Italians appear to have an uncanny sense of when it's their turn.
Even vaguely familiar acquaintances will kiss each other on each cheek, but a handshake will suffice. Buon giorno, formal and Ciao, informal are the classic accompaniments, followed by come stai, how are you (informal). In northern Europe it is normal to reply "fine thank you" even if you feel awful; in Italy they may well tell you how they are! Failure to greet or say goodbye to somebody can be taken as an insult.
Italians will generally conform to the latest fashion trend, colour and style. Indeed foreigners can easily be spotted, even in a crowd, as they often do not conform to this hidden code. Italians take pride in their dress and are much more brand conscious than some other nationalities.
Italians prefer to do business with who they know and trust (hence the relatively low success of Internet companies). Unlike some other industrialized powers, the backbone of the Italian economy is based on people, not multinationals. This is reflected in the proportionally high level of family businesses. Even large Italian businesses are often originated, directed or owned by a family (Benetton, Fiat. etc.). The local family shop concept still prevails even though supermarkets are beginning to change the fabric of shopping.
While many northern Europeans are busy planning their next summer holiday in September the year before, summer holiday catalogues in Italy are not even printed till March! Preparing ahead is considered restrictive; often Italians will decide what to do for the weekend on Saturday morning. Don't try and force Italians to think ahead, or expect next season's bus timetable to be published months before. Perhaps this approach is best summed up in the expression “why plan today what you can change tomorrow”.
Even though the UK has opposed many European directives, it implemented most of those it did approve. Italy is a great believer in “voting European”, agreeing to many issues and then simply not carrying out the directive. Italians see Europe as an escape clause from their own government's perceived incompetence and corruption. When put to the test, though, Italians dislike being told how to live their lives. The majority of Italians were enthusiastic about the Euro, until they found out that most shopkeepers used it to increase prices twofold.
Warning: “Sarcasm is not defined”. Do not try sarcastic or ironic jokes on Italians. They will think you are serious. Humour is much more light hearted and obvious (Benny Hill was a big hit in Italy). Italians are not afraid to make fun of themselves. The famous Oscar winning actor/comic, Roberto Benigni, once remarked, “If the Berlin wall would have been built by Italians, it would have come down on its own". The prime time rated nightly comedy program Striscia la notizia goes out of its way to poke holes and find humour in Italian news and politics. Few Italian comedy films work well when translated, but have an avid following in Italy itself.
Be careful of the stereotypes. You can always draw a thread (or even a rope) of similarity (as above) between the nationals of a country, but the extent and size of the thread can vary.
Alexander Reed is a travel consultant living in Italy. Check out his Monticolo Vacanze.