A while ago I came across a great topic in a wonderful Facebook group of Anglophones living in Italy that I am very fond of. The question was: “What has positively surprised you about the Italian lifestyle?” The administrator of the group and the teacher who launched the topic were happy for me to share the impressions of our foreign friends about our Bel Paese.
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Not surprisingly, almost all respondents said they were impressed with the kindness and welcoming attitude of Italians. Words such as “welcoming”, “kind”, “friendly”, “warm and affectionate”, “caring”, “generous”, and “joyful” ran throughout the comments, even when referring to priests!
There were examples of Italian generosity concerning neighbours and shopkeepers, especially once a relationship had been established.
Of course generosity mainly expresses itself around food: many newcomers are surprised by the gifts of baskets of fruits and vegetables from neighbours, by how lavish the fruttivendolo and pescivendolo are with their portions, and by how attentive restaurant employees are to people eating in a restaurant alone.
Although the participants knew about the importance of food in Italian culture before moving, the surprise on arrival was big. Italians eat A LOT, especially when they gather for family lunches and dinners. What surprised some newcomers, though, was how little alcohol Italians consume compared with other countries. There are many teetotallers, which was unexpected, given the amount of food Italians manage to consume, and the long hours they spend around eating.
Italian weddings are reported to be the longest on the planet, of course with lots of food and family celebration.
Italians also like to talk about food, and the spontaneous contact this creates with people in shops, bars and markets is astounding: everyone contributes with their own version of how to cook something, what type of vegetable/fish/meat/cheese is best for a specific dish, and they’re so happy when they see you appreciate their advice.
Surprisingly enough, though, especially for people coming from the United States where this custom seems to be widespread, is the fact that Italians do not eat on public transport.
Could this be connected to the concept of the Bella Figura, which is so important to Italians? Newcomers were surprised by the care Italians, especially women, put into their appearance. Even very early in the morning, women dress up smartly, put on make up (not in public, however!) and have their hair neatly styled. When they go to the beach, though, women do not seem to care about whether they are young or old, skinny of fat. One participant wrote: “I was surprised at how comfortable all the women are with their bodies. The first August I was here we went to the beach, and I could not believe that all the women were in bikinis, regardless of age or weight. It is beautiful!”
Someone was surprised by how particular Italians are with respect to personal hygiene and the cleanliness of their homes. The attention to details in various areas of social living impressed many people.
In general, people were surprised by Italians’ effusiveness. Foreigners were amazed by how “every greeting is filled with genuine joy; every gathering turns into a party; every animated discussion about politics ends with a hug”. Everybody talks to everybody and Italians are quick to take you under their wing. This sense of community is mainly seen in neighbourhoods, which are still like small villages or self-contained communities. People are friendly, trusting and all say hello to each other and stop for a chat.
To end on a more practical note, I was surprised at the positive comments on the Italian health system, and even its public transportation! Many foreigners who have settled in Italy say that despite the run-down look of most medical buildings and offices, medical care is surprisingly efficient and medication very affordable.
Some made some negative remarks about, for example, Italians’ non-existent sense of personal space, filth, graffiti and garbage in the cities, and of course laws being open to interpretation – but overall the positive comments were very encouraging and painted an image of a country where human relationships are still a high priority.
Claudia Landini (Claudiaexpat)