Getting to Know Italians Better- the Good and the Bad

Rome 2019

Pleasant, nice, welcoming, talkative, sometimes too much; that’s what Italians are, or rather, how people describe us. We live in a wonderful place, an open-air museum full of history, wonderful coasts, and charming mountains. What’s life like here? What makes us genuinely Italian? Actually, both positive and negative traits are worthy of some analysis. Happiness, cheerfulness, having fun, and a lot of noise make up what we call Italian.

  • Italian mamas are both loving and authoritative at the same time

All over the world, Italian mamas are considered to be loving, caring, and very close to their sons. Papas are usually deeply in love with their daughters, but they are less obsessive. Let’s just say they are used to suffering silently. Italian mamas play a very active role in their children’s lives: “Where are you going? Who are you going with? What are you going to do? When are you coming back?” The same questions exist for all the children aged 4 to the elderly. 

For mama, nothing stops when her “puppy” finds a partner. This is not the time for her to take a step back. Rather, it is the right time to look after her vulnerable creature even more carefully: “Are you eating enough? You look a bit strained,” says the caring mama to her big manchild when she realizes that he has lost a kilo or two. Mamas never miss anything, even the tiniest of details. 

Of course, not all the mamas are like that. But the motto here is: “Mama is always the mama!” Unfortunately, mamas usually hinder their children’s independence. They teach wonderful things, yet independence is not the main subject. They are happy living with their children even when the children are independent and have good jobs. Italian mamas can’t separate from their sons; indeed, there is always room for one more plate on the table. The most common family motto is: “It is nice to be together.”

My husband is one of those “puppies” who was looked after until he was 35. He has quite a close relationship with his parents as we live nearby. He is used to seeing his parents daily after dinner; it’s a ritual. No problem as we have mutual respect. I take advantage of this alone time; for example, I like to listen to loud music and sing like a cracked bell in the shower.  

rome market veggie

  • Modern teachers—grandmas and aprons

Grandmas play a very important role in Italian life. They are much more loving than our moms. Generally they, except for a few very strict ones, always take the sides of their grandkids. They transmit tradition with their aprons on. 

Whoever has been as lucky as I to have grown up close to their grandma is a privileged person. Wisdom, good behavior, life experiences, and some clips around the ear are their trademarks. 

Southern grandmas are even better because they are wonderful cooks. Their main job is stuffing you with food. You can’t leave their house if you haven’t eaten all of what they have cooked.  These grandmothers, who experienced the war, have strong memories about those terrible moments and make up for it with their food. A grandma’s love is huge and unlimited. 

My Grandma Lea was a tiny but very nice woman. I grew up with her mortadella and tortellini with cream (my poor but happy arteries) because I didn’t like eating very much, so she tried to please me and cooked what I loved most. Despite my finicky tastes, I grew up healthy and eventually learned to eat almost everything. She taught me the essential values of life, and along with my grandpa, she was one of the most important people in my life. 

Rome 2019

  • Italian languages: There are 34 of them

Every Italian region has its own language along with some dialects. There are approximately 34 native living spoken languages and related dialects in Italy. As an Italian, I can’t understand the languages spoken in Sardinia, Sicily, Puglia, or Campania, just to mention a few. Italian is usually spoken in the cities and at work; other languages are spoken at home with families or close friends.  

As a result, when the Italians travel abroad, they have quite unusual, but clearly distinctive accents. 

These accents—Roman, Neapolitan, and southern Italian—have gone down in history in a lot of movies. Northern Italy’s accents are less common; they are softer and sound similar to French or German accents. They may be considered less amusing or likable than southern ones, but they belong to the Italian tradition as well. When I go abroad, people uwually can’t identify where I am from. 

Unfortunately, due to the typical stereotyped accent, people recognize Italians by their speech all over the world. They are often stereotyped as jokesters who speak loudly, who make a lot of noise, and who are often a bit rude.

I get embarrassed when I see some of my fellow Italians, paisanos, who behave rudely, or who look for conflict and cause trouble for other people. Luckily they are the minority; Italian people usually behave politely. 

There is something else I can’t understand about Italian people. They are always complaining; it has become a sort of national sport. Although I am Italian, I don’t ascribe to these bad habits.

On the positive side, we are friendly, hardworking, and are always helpful and collaborative. Moreover, we are happy most of the time even after we have just woken up. Mostly, we are extroverted, very cheerful, and open to making friends wherever we are. We are definitely emotional; we cry, get angry (everybody can see and hear that), make up again, and we laugh.

  • Moving our hands—gesticulating is written in our DNA

When we want to make our ideas known, we not only speak more loudly, but we also emphasize them by moving our hands. This is as natural as breathing. If we can express our ideas by using our hands, we don’t even speak; we just move our hands. 

Sasha, a close friend of mine from Atlanta, has pointed this out. When she speaks, her hands rest quietly alongside her body, or she only moves them deliberately. In contrast, my hands fly about as if I am trying to catch insects flying around my head. 

  • Mealtime is a ritual—we must have our meals in quiet 

Mealtimes are somewhat holy. Shops close at noon; therefore, having to stay open at noon is regarded as a sort of torture, something which deserves plenty of mercy and compassion. 

So breakfast, lunch, and dinner make the Italian world stop. A well-laid table consists of a clean tablecloth, napkins, forks, knives, plates of different sizes, and glasses. Everything must have its place.

In Italy, if you don’t sit at the table and have a full meal of pasta, meat with a side dish, dessert, and coffee, you are not worthy of any consideration. We hardly ever have just one main course; food is served in separate courses and have smaller quantities as a result. And we definitely don’t eat spaghetti with meatballs. We have spaghetti first, and after that, we have meatballs as a separate course. 

We quietly enjoy our food and slowly taste and appreciate the food we are eating: that’s what’s different between us and other people all around the world. A meal takes about 20 minutes; we have our food, watch TV news, and talk about our day with our family. Of course, some workers have lunch in their office cafeteria or alone at their desks. We always take a break and focus on what we are eating. 

Dinner is usually consumed at home; it is quieter and more abundant than lunch (sometimes too abundant). Food is always homemade; we hardly ever have ready-to-go meals or get takeout. Phones must be off; nobody can ring the doorbell, not even an Amazon driver. If so, we are not happy at all.

  • What makes an Italian angry while eating?

A few simple but meaningful things must never happen when Italian people are having their meals. It is a sort of A religion, not a vice. 

  • Overcooked pasta: “Mamma mia!” Absolutely, not! Hell may be raised. People in northern Italy may pretend nothing happened; whereas in southern Italy, a riot might break out. Pasta must be al dente or chewy and firm so it can hold the sauce.
  • If there is no bread on the table, we feel as naked as if we were walking down the street without pants. A meal without bread is only allowed if you are on a low-carb diet. At the very least, a small loaf must be on the table. For that reason, we always keep a piece of bread (even stale) in the freezer or in the pantry. 
  • Bread must never be placed upside down. It is both a sacrilege and a sign of bad luck.
  • Saltless bread is only allowed in Tuscany as it is often paired with very salty ham. In all other parts of Italy, unsalted bread is confined to sad hospital diets; 
  • Frozen pizza: We’d rather opt for no pizza at all! Frozen pizza is regarded as a heresy. Commercials on TV have been trying to convince us that frozen pizza is as tasty as fresh, but nobody believes it.
  • Watery pasta sauce: We can’t enjoy a sauce without a thick consistency. We’d prefer a burnt sauce than water on the bottom of the pasta bowl.
  • On Sunday, lunch is never before 1:30 pm, and the dessert must come at the end of the meal.      It is not Sunday without something sweet.
  • The aperitif before dinner: Italians out socializing

After a long challenging day before going home, we often meet friends for a drink to talk about the day and to relax. It takes place from 6:00 to 6:30 pm in a few nice bars, often outdoors. A glass of white wine, or some delicious soft drinks are paired with some salty snacks we call stuzzichini: olives, small pieces of pizza, miniature sandwiches, potato chips, and so on. 

It is also a gathering time among friends before a Saturday night out on the town. It is a happy cheerful time; the squares of our main cities get crowded with people waiting for the sunset. I am not used to this as I work from home, but it is a very enjoyable habit for a lot of people.

  • About the traffic, the confusion, and plenty of other things 

I have been to a lot of cities around the world. Driving through their main cities, for instance in the US or in Ireland, is a “piece of cake,” compared to driving in Italy, which is very complicated. A rather famous quote says: “Traffic lights in Milan are indications; in Rome, suggestions; in Naples, Christmas lights.” Just think of what a mess this creates.

Multiple overtakings and cars that are never distanced enough are the norm. Tourists easily think they have been thrown into a maze of metal. In addition, driving usually fosters the use of swear words. The car is a place where even the shiest and most well-mannered person, like my dad, spews very strong expletives. Even I do it!   

In northern Italy, where the streets are better and larger, we are more respectful and careful drivers, but driving in central or southern Italy, including the islands, requires special skills. In Naples, a city I am deeply in love with, only chaos prevails. Some of my Neapolitan friends acknowledge and even joke about it. It is a kind of ordered chaos; although no common driving rules are respected, everyone has their own rules, which work together so that one’s safety is safeguarded. People in Naples usually come home safe and sound after driving through chaos all day long. Generally speaking, they are addicted to their horns, which go off every single second. The minute the traffic light turns green unless you accelerate immediately, a thousand horns will honk in unison. Don’t worry; you are not guilty. Honking your horn is the rule and the norm. Before renting a car in Italy, think about it carefully and make sure to get extra insurance.

A shop in Rome

  • Guests are holy; you will always be very welcomed

In Italy this is a rule: if you come around, you are welcomed in grand style. Plenty of kisses, hugs, and smiles await you. Then there’s coffee: short, strong, and very hot, with a little sugar or honey. Just say caffe and it will suddenly appear in a nice small cup just right in front of you. If you don’t like coffee, keep quiet, and you may be offered some black or herbal tea (in northern Italy), but you may risk getting sent to the hospital if you refuse coffee in southern Italy. 

If you come around for lunch or dinner, get ready because you will have to eat plenty of food. Most of all, if you are in the south of Italy, you can’t say, “No, thanks.” You have to taste everything, and you should even have a second serving. You may think that in Italy, people are just focused on eating and eating too much. This is true on weekends, holidays, or when we want to celebrate something special. Guests, who come from afar, are considered very special, so we want to make a good impression. Whatever you do, don’t say, “No!” As a result, you’ll have the best meals and best friends who will make sure to show you love and friendship with their food and their hospitality. 

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3 thoughts on “Getting to Know Italians Better- the Good and the Bad

  1. Reading this publication is so informative and provides great onsite and lessons.
    My great Grandfather was from Florence, Tuscany. I would love to have traveled there and throughout Italy, throughout my life.
    I am from Virginia, he came here just prior to the US Civil War, is buried in the Atlanta, Ga area.
    I continue to be fascinated and so impressed with the wonderful culture and history that I am so fortunate to find.
    Thank you for your vast and thoughtful information presented!

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