Seeing as a trip to Europe will not be possible this summer, I’ve been thinking more about the time I was lucky enough to spend in Italy and the differences between our cultures.
I’ve yet to think of a way to describe it, but Italy has a particular smell. On my second trip there it hit me as soon as I stepped off the plane. The scent is neither good nor bad but it’s entirely Italian. My friend Josie once told me that I "smell like the Czech Republic" so maybe someday I’ll meet someone who smells like Italy.
In America we repeatedly tear down and rebuild. In Italy, you are surrounded by history - a frequent reminder of how small you and your worries are in the grand scheme of things. Walking on ancient streets is good for the soul. It is also not possible for many people. While stone streets give a city character, they are a constant obstacle for anyone with mobility problems. The United States has a long way to go when it comes to accessibility, but we do have a head-start on Italy.
Most of the time, no matter how productively I’ve spent my day, I always feel like I’m running out of time to accomplish things. The Italians seem unconcerned with the passing of time. I unfortunately never managed to take on that mindset during my time there, but people I make appointments with are likely fine with that.
The Ubiquity of American Culture
While talking with an Italian girl one day, I mentioned that I was from North Carolina and was surprised when she got excited, saying she knew of it. As it turns out, Nicholas Sparks is a popular author in Italy and The Notebook, his best-known novel, is set in North Carolina though the 2004 film adaptation is set in South Carolina. During my time in Italy I spent some time browsing book stores and I saw Nicholas Sparks books on display almost as often as I saw the Harry Potter series. Outside of bookstores I saw merchandise of Homer Simpson and heard "The Sound of Silence" played by a Roman busker. I also had the experience of being pointed at by a group of Italian men shouting "Daisy Ridley! Daisy Ridley!" because I apparently looked like the Star Wars actress.
You can get just about anywhere you need to go by foot, rail, or bus. Not once did I have to take a taxi. It was wonderful and the kind of public transportation we so desperately need in more American cities. The best thing about it though? It didn’t feel gross. When I exit the subway in New York I feel contaminated, but in Italy things are well maintained.
There are a number of rule-breaking or rude behaviors in America that are actually necessary in Italy. For one - jaywalking. On the roads, no one really follows rules. Not the drivers and certainly not the pedestrians. If you want to cross the street, you can’t wait for someone to stop and let you cross. You step out into traffic with forcefulness and a prayer. The same attitude goes for a number of social mores but the jaywalking is the most obvious (and the most dangerous). Even the people on the street asking you for money are more assertive. There is no one with a sign saying, "homeless veteran, please help, God bless". They get in your face. If you tell them no, they walk away and harass another tourist, their confidence unshaken.
Finally: The Food
The first thing I ate in Italy was a piece of pizza from a corner shop in Rome. It was, honest to God, the worst pizza I’ve ever eaten. Thankfully, things did improve from there. Also in Rome, I had a sandwich so good that I still think about it sometimes. It was simple - just tomato, mozzarella, and some pesto on white bread - but it tasted incredibly fresh. There was also a cookie which I believe was an amaretto macaron that I have tried again and again to replicate to no avail.
The best thing I ate on my study abroad trip was actually some sushi from a Japanese restaurant in Perugia, Umbria. My perception may have been warped by the fact that I’d only eaten Italian food for three weeks straight, so anything new would taste wonderful by default. On my second trip, the best dish was gnocchi with a creamy lobster sauce. Like the cookie, I have yet to uncover the secrets of that meal.
Back in Raleigh, I once overheard a conversation between two other students who had studied abroad in Europe and had decided to spend a weekend together in Italy. They both fully agreed that European coffee is far, far superior to American coffee. I’ll be honest with you - I couldn’t tell a difference (and I was a barista for a year and a half!). Maybe my palate is less sophisticated than theirs, but either way espresso is espresso to me.
One difference my tastebuds could detect was an absence of sugar. Here, we put sugar in just about everything. Italian foods are less processed and sugar stays in the dessert category. They do, however, frequently have croissants and other pastries as breakfast, so they aren’t perfect either. Italy has the highest childhood obesity rate of any European country (though we still far outweigh them). Their gas stations have real, quality food. Not restaurant quality but far more edible and far less processed than what ours offer.
The options are limiting, however. My second trip to Italy was with my lactose-intolerant, vegetarian mother who somehow managed to find things she could eat. They aren’t keen on modifying their dishes for your specific wants.
So far as I could tell, there are three big hints the restaurant you’re in is for tourists rather than Italians:
1. There’s a kids menu. Italian kids eat what the adults eat.
2. The restaurant serves alfredo sauce. Unfortunately for this alfredo-loving girl, it is not authentic Italian food.
3. The portions are large enough that you may need a to-go box. A lot of restaurants don’t even have to-go boxes available. You eat it there or not at all.
One thing that holds true of every food establishment: the gelato is divine. You can trust me on this. I had it every single day, sometimes twice a day, on both trips.