Culture, Life in Italy

Things I didn’t know about Italy 2

This post has taken some time to come about. It’s not easy to sum up a race by saying things you didn’t know about them in a supportive way. After four years of careful, cultural observation of these people and their ways I have come to a little list of the things I didn’t know about Italians. I will start with the most humorous observation:

They are very scared of spicy food. 

It’s unbelievable how much Italians get worried and say things like “it might be spicy, don’t eat it” or “no, I don’t like Mexican, it’s spicy” or “Asian food is too hot.” I have laughed myself to sleep several times thinking how strange it is that they consider these things spicy. The first time I encountered this phobia was when I made fajitas for my Italian family. Anyone who knows fajitas knows that it is one of the most mild Mexican foods you can eat. The family all started with their questions and said “is this spicy?” and I would say no. They would then try it and go “ahhh…it’s spicy!” I just looked at them with great confusion.

I’ll never forget when I went to Thailand for my honeymoon and I was traveling in an Italian group. We decided to have lunch buffet style so we all got a little bit of everything on our plates. I was eating some noodles and one of the Italian girls asked me if it was spicy and of course I said no because it really wasn’t. She tried it and freaked the heck out like she had just eaten a scorpion or something. I had never seen anything like it. I just looked at my husband and raised my shoulders. She then gobbled down a few glasses of water. I didn’t know what to say except girl you need to get out more!

Note to self: Italians don’t cook with spices ever. The average Italian has maybe 4 spices in their spice rack (which are all Italian herbs really) that they never use. They don’t adorn their recipes with anything but salt, oil, and vinegar-no wonder!

-A superstitious bunch

At first I thought this was a character trait from random people that I met. I slowly started to realize after encountering people from the North and the South and observing in general that everyone is superstitious in this country. My husband, my co-workers, the students I teach, people on TV, Facebook acquaintances-they all have warned me of things I should never do. Don’t tell someone happy birthday before their actual birthday (it’s bad luck) of course you wouldn’t dare celebrate someone’s birthday a day early either. No black cats, throw the salt over your shoulder, and men don’t ever put your hat on your bed!

-Baby friendly

One thing that my expat friends love about Italy is that it’s a baby/kid friendly place. My British friend who is a mother of two young kids told me that when she goes out to restaurants no one glares when her children are loud or messy, they just look at her like it’s natural. That was great to hear after being a waitress in the States for 4 years and hearing the outrageous requests my customers had for being seated near children. They would ask me (the waitress) to tell the mother to control her children. Many wanted to be reseated far away from the “distractions” or better yet “the bothersome family. ” Ya well, that never happened.

I walked into a store once in my little town and said “buongiorno” to the lady who was obviously the owner. I immediately double looked and saw that she was carrying a baby and had a baby play pin smack in the middle of the store. I was shocked and thought it was pretty unprofessional. After I thought about it twice I changed my mind and thought to myself that if I was a new mother I’d probably like to keep my job too and raise my baby myself in the process. That’s the way you gotta do it sometimes, with baby in arms; so go her and go the people of Italy who accept unprofessionalism so that moms can keep their jobs.

Another baby friendly thing that I noticed right away in Italy was all the public breast feeding. Women would breast feed their babies at a cafe, during dinner, at the beach, whenever…wherever (uncovered might I add.) They never went inside restrooms and hid like they were ashamed or afraid of offending the public. The Italians look at it as the most beautiful and natural thing a person can do-so they proudly display that which profoundly expresses their deep culture in art and beauty. One person explained to me in Italian “how could someone think public breast feeding’s offensive when other women walk around slutty with no clothes on? That’s offensive.” He had a good point. Italians have definitely converted me on the breast feeding epidemic-I am now 100% pro-public breast feeding (but covered.) It’s public affection right? Why can’t I breast feed my baby proudly in front of everyone if I can kiss my husband out in public?

Last point I want to add about Italy being baby friendly is the little warning dots they put on TV. At the bottom of the screen before you see a show or a movie you’ll notice a little green dot which means good for all audiences. If the dot is red it’s no good for kids! Cool idea.

-Other random things

They think Americans are weird because we mix pasta and meat on the same plate, well have you ever heard of mixing beer and coke together or even stranger, celery and wine? They do, coo coo.

If you use the restroom you may find half of the toilet on the wall close to the ceiling! Of course you won’t notice this until you flush the toilet and feel splashes of water on your arms. You’ll look up with a scared face and freeze in shock that half the toilet is on the ceiling! Whatev, to each his own.

If you start a business in Italy the priest will come and bless it, and everyone will bring you plants to congratulate you. How adorable is that. After the priest blesses the new place, he hammers a little cross on the wall. So, If you go to a mom-and-pop store in Italy then look for the little cross…you’ll know you’re in a sincere and homey place!

Italians have their own version of fruit cake. It’s called Panettone.

They drink espresso right? For all those who are unfamiliar, espresso is an ounce of coffee that loses its heat within a minute and takes all of two seconds to drink. Regardless of these facts Italians use to-go cups for their espresso…non c’e senso secondo me (doesn’t make sense in my opinion). I’ve been noticing this a lot lately and just find it so ironic.

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16 thoughts on “Things I didn’t know about Italy 2”

  1. Nice article. I was not aware that Italians does not cook much with spices, I suppose that the roast I am cooking would be totally unacceptable cause there is hardly a spice omitted. LoL. And on the baby thing, that is a very Catholic thing. Catholics big on children, like it’s the purpose of life and for sure the purpose for marriage. Go forth and procreate. Anyway, keep up the good work. Ciao

  2. Dear Jess,

    Who have you been cooking with? I have to disagree with you about the seasoning. Every Italian housewife has her “kitchen garden” of fresh herbs to use in cooking, even if it’s just a few pots on the windowsill. Fresh basil, parsley, sage and rosemary, bay, oregano, marjory, dill. Game, especially, calls for the use of wine marinades with lots of seasonings, including juniper berries. They make saffron rice, grate nutmeg into cream sauces and I’ve never seen so many pepper mills as here in Italy. There’s garlic in almost everything. People are getting very sophisticated about salt and use pink salt, black salt etc. Same with pepper (“pickled” pink, red and green peppercorns in jars). Capers and anchovies spice up many vegetable dishes. After your comments about hot/spicy food, I was especially surprised to hear that you live in Puglia. When I was a student here, the woman who hosted me also boarded two high school professors from Bari and they staged a “pepperoncino war” to see who could eat the hottest! I admit Italians are suspicious of Asian food and Central/South American food, and if that’s your standard for the use of spices, Italians are a lot more subtle. They like the natural flavors of fresh, quality foods to dominate a dish and use herbs and spices in moderation to enhance without overwhelming.
    Everything else about your blog I can share, although not all employers are as friendly about a playpen in their shop: the shop may actually belong to the family of the woman with the baby. Sounds like the poor woman was without access to a day nursery – or Grandmother – because Italian mothers tend to be moderately paranoid about babies being exposed to germs….

    1. Hi Helen. Well I cook with all my IT fam and all the friends I’ve made down here in the South. We actually do have a garden of fresh herbs, I should have said a spice rack because none of them really have a spice rack like I do in my house, and when people come over they are always shocked at how many spices I use. Most particularly, they don’t use real spice apart from peperoncino, like how Americans use Indian spices or things that are extremely pungent like ginger. Naturally this is all my experience after all, and when it comes to garlic I have never met an Italian who is a garlic supporter. I’ve been to restaurants all over the country and never tasted much garlic either…at least in comparison to how Americans use garlic. As far as dill goes I’ve searched for that everywhere and have never found it, my mother-in-law has never heard of it. I like the simplicity of Italian cooking, but I’m definitely a supporter of spice because its healthy for you and it gives variety to cooking.

  3. I love reading your posts especially because I too will be living permanently in Puglia soon. On superstition: While visiting Tuscany, a friend and I were being introduced to a group of Italians. We both thrust our arms out to engage a handshake. When my friend’s arm and mine crossed in mid-air, all the arms of the Italians immediately retreated. Thankfully another American living in Italy explained that crossing handshakes in that manner is BAD LUCK! It was obvious from the expressions on their faces, that this was serious business! I was amused by this revelation and relieved that I wasn’t perceived as carrying some communicable disease. BTW: I love the town of Marina Franca.

    1. Hi Thomas, glad we can have Puglia in common! Maybe I’ll read your blog in the future. I’ve never heard of the crossing arms thing, but good to know! I’ve heard of Martina Franca but have never been there.

      1. Who knows, I may indeed have a blog too. If you go to Martina Franca, be sure to visit the art gallery called La Lanterna at 13 Garibaldi in the main square. My friend Vincenzo Millazzo is the artist and he is well known in Puglia for his reverse paintings on glass depicting folk scenes of the region. Right next door is a cafe with a delicious pastry filled with crema called bocconotte — yum!. Across the street another shop makes taralli — baked circular strings of dough that are very dry and meant to drink with wine. Martina Franca is a boroque walled town that can become very lively during festivals. There’s a music festival in the summer featuring opera in the large courtyard of the Palazzo Ducale. If you visit the gallery, tell Vicenzo and his wife, Grazia, that Tom from Boston said hello.

      2. Thanks for the info, I definitely will if I ever drop by. This summer I just might as I’ll be a loner wife with my husband deployed the whole summer! I’ll be working here and there but will have so much time I won’t know what to do with myself!

  4. Well…. it’s not pointless about the to-go espresso if you stop a minute and think of it….. maybe it’s not for them but for somebedy else who’s at work and can’t leave the working place so they get it and take the expresso together cause Italians take their expresso with friends!

    1. Still, it’s in a paper cup and cold by the time it hits the office. This is typical for the USA; but I agree with Jess — doesn’t make much sense for a culture that is practically ravenous about coffee. Espresso is for immediate, on-the-spot gratification. Italians did a good job setting the standard. Now they need to protect it.

    2. Ya, but then again most offices have an espresso machine, or a vending machine with different types of drinks that it can make. It wouldn’t be worth it to me to wait in my office and have the secretary bring me coffee from a bar because it would lose the heat so much and wouldn’t taste the same. Italians are soooo particular about just the cups that their liquid gold comes in, my father-in-law could go on for hours about how bad a bar was because the cups weren’t hot or whatever so it seems ironic to me that people would chance it with a plastic cup.

      1. Uhm… yours could be a good point but my question is…. why you guys keep saying office? I live in a small town (not many offices here) I’ve bought espresso to-go myself for the Barbiere, Dottore, Vucumprà, fruit market guy, ecc. it’s a time of the day they just need that amount of caffeine to keep working but cannot leave the working place so….. “Wey amico mio please get 2 coffees that I need some coffeine!” Ok, maybe it’s gonna lose the heat, the aroma or… whatever…. but at least they had that sip of excellence while working! Uhm…. Am I explaining myself better now? P.S. I’m not trying to argue, just my point of view!

      2. Doesn’t anyone have instant for when you need a caffeine fix and taste and aroma are of no consequence? Can’t believe I really asked that!

      3. I welcome your view very much and that’s the point of a blog after all, to have discussion. Yes, it’s better than nothin and keeps you awake that’s for sure!

  5. Thanks, Sal, you validated my original comments about coffee standards needing to be kept high without paper to-go cups! Jessvenuture, you hit a nerve with you post and I am very much entertained by all the lively comments here. Keep it coming!

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