by Lars (Larsino) Leicht
If you are Italian-American, have grown up with Italian-Americans, or feel that you’ve watched enough television shows about Italian-Americans to qualify as an expert… brace yourself. Italian-American culture has very little to do with contemporary Italian culture.
The wave of Italian immigration to the US occurred roughly 100 years ago, when both Italy and America were very different places. Those who left Italy for good did so out of desperation and poverty, leaving behind challenging conditions brought on by a range of causes. Typical Italian immigrants of the early 20th century were predominantly from the south of Italy – mainly, and in order, Campania (the area around Naples), Calabria (the tip of the ‘boot’) and Sicily. These areas were among the most disadvantaged because of political and social reasons:
- When Italy was united in the middle of the 19th century, the royal family (Italy was a monarchy up until WWII) and new rulers were from Piedmont in the far north, and the first capital was located in Florence.
- The unification of Italy brought together many previously independent fiefdoms ruled by indigenous families, such as the Duchy of Tuscany, but in the south unification meant expelling foreign rulers – Spain and France essentially controlled the lower half of Italy. So transition was less smooth, to say the least. The victors essentially looted the coffers of these conquered lands, without providing any public relief or work projects. A half century later, the impact was demonstrated by the human exodus from those regions.
- The government of Italy was a victor in WWI, but its people were losers – Italy lost the flower of its youth in “The Great War.” Every little town has a monument to the sad proportion of its citizens lost in that bloody war. Families lost their bread winners, and there was very little ‘bread’ to be won. So people left.
So Italian immigrants to the US came from the poorest areas of Italy, and that poverty was reflected in their language, food and mannerisms.
- Language: The Italian language is a relatively young one, formalized for the most part in the 20th Prior to that, physical isolation, lack of formal schooling and limited communications meant that every hilltop town spoke a slightly different version of its regional dialect. Immigrants took that language with them, and with nostalgia for their homeland tended to exaggerate its idiosyncrasies. Add to that an ‘informal’ passing down of words from one generation to the other without formal schooling, and you start to understand why even in those same towns where the immigrants were raised, in the 20th century they don’t know what 2nd generation Italo-Americans are talking about when they share dialectical terms from their childhood.
- Food: Poverty meant little meat, and little quality meat at that, so a reliance on spices and herbs to cover flawed product. It is rare to find a dish heavily laced with garlic in Italy today, but it is the hallmark of retro-style Italian-American restaurants. And then there was adaptation. In Italy you have a leisurely meal starting with a pasta course and then meat, but in America there was little leisure time – hence the combination of spaghetti and meatballs. Good luck finding that in authentic Italy.
- Mannerisms – Italians are culturally expressive and straightforward, especially as you go further south. Combine that with poverty and the fear of being a foreigner in a strange land, and you get typical “Italian-Americanisms” that are often laced with arrogance and foul language. Not all Italians are saints, but in general they are much more genteel than the typical Italian-American.
So, with that as background, let’s look at ten common traits of modern Italy that might surprise you, but if you learn to embrace them, they will be your friend.
- It’s all about the food. Italians love to eat, and prize quality over quantity. With the exception of big cities and over-achieving youth, mealtime is sacred in Italy, and meant to be savored. Meals are social experiences, a time to connect, and never to be rushed. Waiters will never bring the bill unless asked to do so, and more often than not the host will go to the front desk to settle things up rather than asking for the bill to be brought to the table. The same applies in coffee bars – if you stop for a cup of java, a drink, a snack, whatever, you don’t settle up with the order. Enjoy your drink, and pay the bill on your way out. You might decide to have something else after you order, or buy a friend a drink, or be treated yourself. Wait for it!
- It’s not an argument, just a passionate discussion. The conversation between Italians may seem to get heated, but don’t panic. They like to talk things out, emphasize their points, and be a little melodramatic. It never comes to fisticuffs or bloodshed, well almost never.
- Kilometer Zero is a real thing. See point 1 about quality vs. quantity. Italians take great pride in their regional differences; you should always opt for the traditional dish and the local ingredients, because that is what they do best.
- Piano Piano si va Lontano. That’s Italian for ‘slowly slowly, you go very far.’ Meaning take your time, there’s no rush. Unless you’re driving on the Autostrada, then get the hell out of the way… but otherwise don’t stress over appointment times and other precise details. It all comes out in the wash. In a long line? Chill. Service taking a while? It’s a chance to chat more. Take it easy. We invented Hakuna Matata long before The Lion King was even dreamed up.
- They Dress for Success. Italy is known for its fashion industry… for a reason. And dressing up doesn’t always mean Dolce & Gabbana. Italians like to say “nothing is by chance,” especially when it comes to getting dressed. They put a lot of effort into how they look on a day-to-day basis, but even more so during market days and when out on the town. It’s a great show, sit back and enjoy it.
- L’Amore. Italians love romance, and don’t shy from public exhibition of it. Heck, their most famous cities and landmarks are built around the lore of romance. Embrace it… and be embraced!
- Squeeze In. Italy represents .5% of the surface of the earth, but in that space holds .8% of the world’s population. We don’t mind getting close with our neighbors. And when you live that close, people are bound to bump into each other and jostle up. Don’t expect an apology, just enjoy the moment of togetherness.
- There’s a right time for everything. Never order a cappuccino after 11 am, always stop for an aperitivo around 7 pm, Don’t eat dinner before 8 pm, don’t expect a big breakfast, have your bigger meal of the day at lunch and a lighter dinner so you sleep better. Period.
- Be chill but don’t catch one… Every Italian knows someone who knows someone who knew someone who on a hot day drank a cold glass of water and DIED. They also have the same degree of separation with somebody who went out without drying their hair. Ice? We make that for Americans only. Air conditioning? Don’t expect the arctic temperatures we are accustomed to in the US, especially in a car. Your beer will be chilled but not cold, your white wine will be cool but not frozen into a stupor as many American restaurants do, and your red wine will be cellar temperature. Stay cool about it all.
Frankly Speaking… Italians will rarely sugar coat anything (unless it’s a Jordan Almond). If you look like you’ve gained weight since the last time they saw you, they will tell you so. If they are suffering emotional distress over something, they will cry on your shoulder. If they don’t think you had enough to eat, they will tell you so… but you can’t say “I’m full,” because that’s not enough. You should say “sono sazio” for a male or “sono sazia” for a female to say that you are sated. The person cooking did their job and brought you happiness, much better than the vulgar idea of being stuffed.