Common Myths and Misconceptions Regarding Italian Culture Fostered by Guidebooks
Now, I’m the last person to criticize guidebooks – any author deserves some credit for taking a stab at a task so momentous – but certainly they all have their strengths and weaknesses. Some seem to be museum-opening-time-challenged, others couldn’t recognize a decent hotel if they stubbed their toe on its doorstep.
But I think the Achilles heel of the vast majority of guidebooks is to be found in that small chapter somewhere near the front entitled, “Insights into Italian Culture”. This section, usually stuck in between “How to Purchase Train Tickets” and “Where to Change Money”, dedicated to the admirable task of helping the English speaking traveler navigate the rocky stream of acceptable behavior in Italy, is usually peppered with grave pronouncements I imagine made in that booming, self-important male voice which narrated every social studies and biology film I viewed between the third and ninth grade. Sometimes these are quite accurate and helpful, but I have certainly read some over the years which have made me sputter my cappuccino all over myself and exclaim “WHAT?!?” to no one in particular.
The problem is that most of these authors (with a few notable exceptions, of course, including anything Mary Jane has had her finger in) have never lived in Italy and barely have a working grasp of the language. They dedicate most of their time here to inaccurately recording museum opening hours and overlooking decent hotels, and their cultural knowledge is incidental at best. I would like to share a couple of my favorite doozies, and, I hope, set the record straight for those Slow Travelers out there who may be about to make their first trip to the Bel Paese.
1. Small Town Italians are Very Friendly. They commonly greet Everyone They Pass, and it is considered Rude not to do so.
This is my favorite example of what happens when an outside observer interprets a situation completely out of context, with comic results. (Another example: Many comment on how endearing our two dogs are – how they so obviously care deeply for one another, always out walking together and napping side by side on the lawn and whatnot. Our two dogs hate each other with a jealous passion and live for the day the other is sucked into the combine harvester and gone forever. They are mortally fearful that the other will somehow manage to get more than his share of chow, and for that reason only stick to each other like white on rice.) This is how I imagine the scene: Our fearless guidebook author sips his espresso at an outdoor café in a small town in Italy, all the while observing an Italian gentleman meandering down the Corso, greeting with regularity those he passes. “Aha!” says our author to himself (in a booming, self-important voice), taking feverish notes, “Why, Small Town Italians are Very Friendly. They greet Everyone They Pass. It must be Rude not to do so.” What is really happening is this: The Italian in question is not greeting Everyone he Passes, he is greeting Everyone he Knows, which, in most small towns in Italy, is about 99% of folks in town.
Now, I am not saying that Small Town Italians are not Very Friendly – they generally are. But you are certainly not expected to greet every single one of them as you pass them on the street, though you can if you feel up to the task. Their reaction will probably be:
1) in faux small town Italy (i.e. places like Assisi with a small population but huge tourist influx) a friendly, polite greeting in return. These folks have met thousands like you who have read that same guidebook chapter and taken it to heart;
2) in real small town Italy, a infinitesimal pause, during which the Italian quickly tries to place you, followed by a friendly, polite greeting in return. Small Town Italians are, after all, Very Friendly;
3) a shocked silence, followed by a loud, indignant “Who are you and why are you greeting me?!?” I can’t actually imagine this happening but feel I must make allowances for those few Small Town Italians who are, in fact, not Very Friendly.
In fact, as measured by greeting perfect strangers and superficial small talk, most English speakers I know are far more “friendly” than Italians who, as a whole, combine gregariousness and reserve with great skill. I have known Italians for years before finding out what they do for a living, what their university degree was in, how much they are paying in child support, and when they had their last surgery, which are all subjects generally covered within the first five minutes of sitting next to any average American on an overseas flight.
2. You are expected to order an antipasto, a primo, and a secondo at an Italian restaurant, and will be in ill favor with your server if you do not do so.
I suspect that some Italian restaurant consortium actually paid the author to put that in the guide, because I have never read such complete bunk in my entire life. I can honestly say that in 15 years of traveling to, and living in Italy I have never ordered three courses in a restaurant (mostly because I’m vegetarian) and have never been treated any differently because of it. If you are, you should immediately get up and leave. Your server is either being inexcusably rude or is part of the consortium which paid the guidebook, and either way doesn’t deserve your business.
The truth is this: very few Italians eat a traditional three to four course meal anymore. Modern sedentary life just can’t justify the calories. My husband and I eat out quite often, usually with groups of two or three other couples, and it is a rare occasion when one of us orders more than a main dish and salad. The only time I have seen our waiter get hot under the collar is while trying to coordinate the order of the dishes to be served, as in a group of eight there are inevitably two who want an antipasto and primo, two who want an antipasto and secondo served with the others’ primi, one who wants a pizza served with the antipasti, one who wants a primo and contorno but the contorno as an antipasto, one who wants a secondo and contorno, but the contorno as a primo, and the poor guy at the end of the table who caught a bit of a chill on the back of his neck two evenings ago and hasn’t digested since and can he just have a bit of riso in bianco with perhaps a little lemon? It would drive a saint to drink.
I have given a lot of thought as to how this misconception of what you must order in an Italian restaurant came about, and I think I may have an explanation. Whereas in the States, your server comes to your table, introduces himself by name, pulls up a chair and launches into a 20 minute discourse on his family history, latest car purchase, and the fact that this is just a day job, what he really would like to do is direct, followed by a deep, heartfelt look into your eyes and a beseeching, “Now, is there any chance that I could possibly interest you in one of our appetizers today?”, the Italian server marches up to your table and with great economy of words barks, “Per Antipasto? Per Primo? Per Secondo? Vino?” Now, neither server really cares all that much about what you end up ordering (in fact, the stakes are probably higher for the American server, as it is not common in Italy to tip as a percentage of the total bill), but to those not used to the Italian way of taking an order, it may seem that you are expected to choose one thing in every offered category. Regardless, feel free to order exactly what you feel like eating without pressure. Doggie bags are, however, taboo.
3. Italians will bargain for anything.
This is, in fact, true. I have seen my own husband offer up a conspiratorial grin and wink to the teenage girl at the Osco Drug check out counter in Northwest Suburban Chicago, plunk down a toothbrush, and say (in his English which sounds like a mix between Ricky Riccardo and Tarzan), “You give me good prize for dis, no?” to which the girl flatly responded, without pausing either in paging through Vogue or snapping her gum, “Prices are as marked, sir”, which might explain why her photo was conspicuously missing from the Employees of the Month plaque on the wall behind her.
My word of warning here is that this sort of unqualified statement skims over the subtleties of Italian bargaining. Italy is not a Moroccan bazaar; Italians generally do not haggle. Bargaining in Italy calls for finesse and good humor and, above all, time. It is, in short, an art.
I offer here an example of how not to go about it: A few years ago I was conversing with a friend of mine inside her upscale ceramic shop in Assisi. Suddenly, an English speaking man barged in, (I won’t reveal his country of origin, but will go so far as to say he was wearing Rockports and a Tilley hat. Just kidding.) and interrupted us by abruptly demanding of my friend, “How much for the clock in the window?”. My friend, taken aback, smiled politely and replied in her perfect English that the price was 150,000 Lire, as marked. The man, apparently mistaking my friend for a patient of Oliver Sacks, repeated his question veerrryyy slllowwwlllyy, “N—o, h—-o—-w m—-u——-c—-h i—–s t—h—e c—l—o—c—-k i—-n t—-h—e w—-i—n—d—o—w???” My friend matched his speed, “I—-t’s 1—5—0,–0—0—0 l——i—-r–e, a—–s m—–a—r—k—e—d.” The man had had enough of his precious time wasted, and, raising his voice, barked, “No! I mean, how much do you really want for the clock in the window!?!” My friend looked at him, slowly and sweetly smiled, and answered, “200,000 Lire.” The man huffed out to join a very harried and dogged looking wife, and they stomped away together (surely prepared to regale their bus-mates with stories of the rude shopkeepers in Assisi all the way back to Rome).
Now, I can’t image a Slow Traveler ever behaving thus, but I thought this would be a good example to juxtapose with my fantasy version of how it could have gone: Man enters shop, compliments woman on beautiful wares. Woman thanks, asks if there is something he likes in particular. Man indicates clock. Both wax poetic about clock’s beauty for several minutes. Man asks price, woman answers. Man sadly shakes head, comments that he is now poverty stricken after wife’s shoe shopping spree yesterday (indicates relaxed, happy looking woman waiting outside). Woman makes slightly flirtatious comment regarding what trouble women can be. Man laughs and settles himself against counter. Half hour conversation ensues (He just spent two weeks in Tuscany and Venice. Yes, Venice is beautiful. He and wife hail from Philadelphia. What a coincidence, her grandfather’s second cousin emigrated to Philadelphia in 1903, have they met?). Talk returns to the clock. Some good natured figures are bounced back and forth, interspersed with observations about the weather and recommendations for where to dine. A deal is struck, she packs up the clock and throws in a small ashtray for good measure. His wife comes back the next day for the lamp she spied the afternoon before. All is done with a light touch and friendly tone. Finesse.
Yes, you say, but what if there is a language barrier? Never fear, some of the best bargaining I have ever witnessed has been done almost exclusively with hand gestures, pen, and pad of paper. Some good stock gestures in any bargaining repertoire may include on one side:
- clutch object to heart = I cannot live another moment on this earth without possessing this pair of boots/antique vase/plastic gladiator cruet set;
- pull out empty trouser pocket lining = I have been burned in the bear market, so have pity;
- down on hand and knee = international sign of supplication.
On the other side one might see:
- palm hitting forehead = disbelief at the mere thought of parting with such a valuable and rare object as this pair of boots/antique vase/plastic gladiator cruet set for such a paltry figure;
- sympathetic head shaking = yes, I too put my money in Olivetti in the 80’s;
- resigned shrug = international sign of giving in.
A final note: Many guide books point out that a number of stores post signs informing you that their prices are fixed. I have found that it never hurts to ask if there is a possibility of a small discount. The worst that can happen is that you are politely told no, and the best is that you find yourself with extra gelato money at the end of the day.
4. Italian men are predatory.
Consider this scene: you (you’re female in this scene, and not unattractive) are sitting in the main square of your hometown…Des Moines, let’s say….at about 3 p.m. on a Tuesday, enjoying the sunlight and the view of the world-famous Baroque fountain (go with it). A man saunters up and starts making conversation. It soon becomes apparent that you are being hit on. Now, I don’t know about you, but I am pretty pragmatic about these sorts of things, so my first reaction would be to ask myself, “Why doesn’t this loser have a job, or isn’t at very least busy working on his Ph.D. thesis or serving hot meals to the hungry or otherwise productively occupying his time at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday rather than trying to pick up women at the famed Des Moines Baroque fountain?” (The same could be said for you, of course, but we are talking about predatory men, not ne’er-do-well women here.)
The point I’m trying to make is that the vast majority of Italian men, like those all over the planet, are too busy working, studying, volunteering, parenting, and otherwise living full, happy, responsible lives to spend many weekday afternoons hanging around in piazzas, wolf-whistling. The small percentage who instead have nothing better to do than lurk at the Trevi Fountain trying to pick up foreign women are more noticeable, but certainly not indicative of the average Italian male. This is not to say, of course, that Italian men, like many of Mediterranean cultures, are not notably more appreciative of the well-turned-out female than the average stiff-upper-lipped, Puritan Anglo-Saxon (aside, of course, from those certain subgroups which seem to include predatory behavior as part of their professional qualification the world over, i.e. construction workers, truck drivers), and given the amount of time and effort many Italian women dedicate to their appearance, it seems only fair that it should be so. However, I have found that a token, subtle glance at a leg is one thing (quite buoying, in fact, on those days that I can’t quite get the zipper up on my skirt and my hair dried all funny and sticky-outy and I am surrounded by a nation of women just naturally more attractive than myself), asking you if you are traveling alone and shadowing you back to your hotel is quite another.
So, my word of caution is to steer clear of those same people you would be prone to steer clear of in Des Moines, and you should have no problem. You may, however, go back home convinced you have the best legs on earth, and, hey, there’s nothing wrong with that in my book.
To acknowledge that there is, indeed, an exception to every rule, I offer the example of my Italian husband, who, despite centuries of proud history and genetic selection, must be the single most oblivious man to female charm and beauty on the planet. The only time I have ever seen him look twice at a woman in 15 years was when we once passed Naomi Campbell on the street in Portofino, at which point he managed to trip over a flowerpot, fall of the curb, and walk directly into a No Parking sign all in one fluid movement. I must have looked particularly nonplussed, as he immediately threw his arm around my waist and whispered in my ear, “Too thin!”. Good save.
So, as my husband likes to say, “’Un pò fa,’ disse l’uomo mentre che faceva la pipi’ nel mare.” (Every little bit helps, said the man as he peed into the sea). I hope I have added my bit to the sea of knowledge and not to that of myth and misconception. I’m sure I’m not the only one out there who has spotted these hilarious off-mark cultural observations. Let’s hear others!