“No matter how well you think you know someone,” my mother used to say, “You don’t really know them till you’ve lived with them for 24 hours.”
So we’ve had the opportunity to get to know this country of charming people, great food and wine, and artistic creativity in many, many ways, some of them not so charming.
Espresso. I am not a chronic coffee drinker. My routine for most of my adult life has been a half-cup of my homemade brew (black) for breakfast, another half-cup mid-morning, and a full cup with lunch. I didn’t discriminate, and when my young coworkers went out every morning for a Starbucks, I was happy to drink the coffee in our office kitchen. After dinner: a little decaf, also black. Here I have found myself growing increasingly fond of the Italian habit: a normali (one shot of espresso) or caffe doppia (two shots) with a packet of brown sugar (canna). We are fortunate to have 20 steps from our front entrance a gelateria that has been featured in the papers for its Sicilian cannoli. They are good, but resistible. Dropping down there for a coffee around 11 after we pick up a newspaper, however, is not.
Similarly, I have never been a sweets eater, but I have never seen as many attractive and delicious dolci as I have in Italy. Perhaps it is because Italian sweets are not so sweet. Every holiday has its unique pastries (e.g. panettone for Christmas, deep-fried or baked chiacchieri for Carnival); every city has its specialty (Bergamo’s polenta e osei); and each pasticceria tries to outdo its neighbor.
Public transportation. Except for last week’s strike of Milan transport workers, public transportation is remarkably easy to use and accessible. For three days we rented a car with friends to show them the area around Lake Como; otherwise, for six months, we have depended on trains, buses, and our feet. No complaints.
Small specialized shops. We quickly learned that you have to know where to go to get what you want. A panificio has bread and fresh pasta but not many dolci: cakes, biscotti, and other dessert items. A pasticceria (see above) has everything sweet you could possibly dream of plus, usually, a place to eat it with a cup of espresso . . . but not much bread. A farmacia has prescription medicine, toothpaste, some over-the-counter medications like aspirin, skin creams, gluten-free foods, and petroleum jelly; a supermercato has toothpaste has toothpaste and cosmetics, and so on. It can drive you crazy. Or you begin to appreciate the fact that people really know their merchandise.
Flower stands on almost every corner. They cheer you as you walk by and mark the changing seasons even if you don’t buy anything.
Produce. I’ve written before about the joys of going to the produce markets. The proliferation of varieties of fruits and vegetables always available is truly overwhelming. Good things to eat come from all over Italy, all over Europe, and all around the Mediterranean. It is fresh and inexpensive. While it’s common for Americans traveling in Europe to complain about high prices, the fact is that we can buy produce for a fraction of what it costs in a farmers market at home.
Primi piatti. Consequently, pasta and risotto dishes are also inexpensive. Risotto with porcini mushrooms, a first course in thousands of neighborhood ristoranti, costs 6-7 €, or about $8. In Washington, such risotto might appear on the menu of an upscale restaurant and cost $15-20.
That’s the good news.
In the wake of more disgusting disclosures about the not-so-private life of Italy’s premier, Silvio Berlusconi, I ask myself yet again how and why the general population supports and even adores him. One expatriate suggests that the Italian view is: “You are born. You die. You might as well have the best time in between that you can.” Berlusconi embodies that attitude and is admired for really knowing how to have a good time.
Rachel Donadio, writing in last Sunday’s New York Times, gives what I think is the most accurate analysis I’ve seen yet: “Italy is a survival culture, steeped in that most time-honored survival mechanism: fatalistic resignation.” That explains a lot of what we’ve observed.
* why we rarely see a young person offering an older person a seat on a bus or tram.
* the short hours that businesses are open, the long mid-morning coffee and prosecco breaks, the two-hour lunches, and the famous happy hours (“aperitivi”).
* why people park their cars in every inch of space: on sidewalks, in crosswalks, in the middle of the street, and in other people’s driveways.
* dog poop, everywhere, and almost exclusively on the sidewalk. While it is a law in Milan and elsewhere, only in Bergamo have we seen a sign that you are required to clean up after your dog.
This is not a third-world country. Milan justifiably calls itself the “design capital of the world.” Yet Italy is in 80th place in the World Bank’s “Ease of doing business” survey, down four places from 2010. A friend told us it took five weeks from the day he bought a new car to the day he could drive it home: that’s how long it took to switch his insurance from his old car.
In today’s Washington Post, Nina Burleigh notes, “[Berlusconi’s] attitude toward women is the official version of the national norm in Italy, which ranked 74th out of 134 countries . . . in the World Economic Forum's 2010 global index of gender equality."
The “national norm” includes an obsession with one’s looks and clothes. I have never seen so many parrucchieri (places to get your hair done) for women and men, plus barber shops for men. Street markets and commercial areas, always packed with buyers loaded down with shopping bags, respond within hours to the latest fashion trend. Fur coats abound. The newspapers and television commercials focus almost exclusively on “the beautiful people,” and never mention anyone – in any context – without noting their age.
We have had a wonderful time, we’ve made new friends and, yes, eaten a lot of delicious food. We’ve appreciated anew the pleasures of small personalized shops, neighborhood bakeries, and walking. We look forward to returning home and, eventually, to returning to Italy. As we pack our bags, we stand with one foot in each culture, and each enhances our appreciation of the other.