of the first things we expatriates notice in our new Tuscan paradise, along
with the brilliant architecture, breathtaking scenery and myriad gustatory
delights, is our nagging suspicion that Italians can’t stand us. We worry that
they regard our mistakes and fumbles as warts on their culture, and we’re
pretty sure that they think we wear ugly shoes. We try not to annoy them, flailing
and stumbling our way through their country, culture and language, but deep
down we know we do. ‘Che palle!’ is
what some Italians might mutter under their breath when we take too long to
spit out a question in Dante’s language or demand that the waiter bring a menu
in English or accidentally ram our bike baskets into them on the street.
to this realization, I decided to identify some of the things we foreign-born
residents of Italy, the country we now call home, can be conscious of if we’re interested
in improving expat-Italian relations. Wanting to confirm my suspicions and find
ways we can improve our image and be less irritating, I spoke with Italians,
not other expats. Besides, I thought, perheps I’m just being paranoid; perhaps
I’ll discover that the Italians adore us, wishing there were more of us to honk
at while we’re snapping pictures of olive trees from our car windows. Surely,
they think it’s cute when we’re ahead of them at the grocery store and have
forgotten to weigh our bananas. Alas, that fantasy dissolved when I spoke with
Italians who were willing to divulge their pet peeves when it comes to expats.
first a note of explanation: by ‘expats’ my Italian friends and I are usually
referring to Americans or Brits who visit or take up residence in Italy. While
there are clearly expats from every corner of the globe who live in this city,
it is the specific clashes between the British-American and Italian cultures
that give rise to the generalizations I am about to highlight. And ‘generalizations’
is a key word here: in no way do I mean to suggest that all expats are
identical, that all Italians find us irritating or even that the peeves I
highlight here are shared by all.
of Faenza said he’s observed that expats have false notions of Italy, thinking
it is like the ‘Italy’ portrayed in films: either The Godfather or Under the
Tuscan Sun. He believes our dichotomous ideas of Italy are exaggerated
because we see the Boot as either ‘a violent, rundown backwater or an idealized
place with godly food, passionate lovers, heavenly clothes, where everybody
spends their time musing over glasses of red wine.’
I must say the food is divine. That’s just fact. Cheese has a deeper and richer
flavor, produce is crisper and more vibrant, the pasta is bouncier. That’s why
we get excited about our dinners and pull out our cameras at restaurants. Since
the advent of Facebook, we can’t enjoy something without publishing it in
nanoseconds, which, it turns out, is another peeve. Daniele doesn’t understand
‘expats who take pictures of everything they eat and celebrate a banal, bland
dish of spaghetti as if it were the ultimate bliss for the palate.’ He says,
‘Get a grip. It’s just a dish of spaghetti that you can also have in
find it dubious that Daniele has experienced a plate of spaghetti in Cleveland.
expats are different. We look and act differently, we dress differently and
most of us can’t roll our rs without spitting. So it’s understandable that we
get stared at. But sometimes the gaze is intense and embarrassing, as if we’re
zoo animals getting ready to perform a trick. What’s so fascinating?
born and raised in Florence, says that she ‘sometimes feels sorry for [the
expats and tourists] since they look so confused about how they are supposed to
act, whether to pay or order first.’ Ah, the coffee bar confusion. It doesn’t
come easily to order something, drink it, and then after the fact tell the
cashier how to ring up the sale. We immediately jump to the obvious: we could
lie! So our conscience rejects this order of things. We thrust money at the
barista while he’s handing us our espresso, or we try to get the customer
behind us to take our coins, anything other than walk away without paying. As
if they are watching Punk’d or Candid Camera, Italians sense we’re on
the verge of doing something funny or entertaining. As if they are watching a
car accident in progress, they can’t take their eyes off the unfolding
friend, Lorenzo, tires of expats’ condescending comparisons to their home
country, saying things like ‘In my country we…’ and ‘In my country we have…’ He
also doesn’t understand why expats wear ill-fitting clothing. He says it’s
common for expats to wear ‘XL when they are an M.’ Obviously, Italy never went
through a baggy-jean phase. There was a time in the 1980s when Levi’s 560s were
flying off store shelves in the United States, and it’s possible that we have
never quite recovered from swimming in our clothes.
we dress for cold weather appears odd, too. Lorenzo says he finds it funny when
he sees that it’s almost freezing out and we don’t ‘wear heavy jackets but only
gloves.’ Little does he know that American expats, like me, have inside jokes
about puffy coats, sniggering they resemble the tire icon, the Michelin Man.
But they sure look warm. I might be laughing on the outside, but inside, I’m
jealous as I shiver in my breathable Gore-Tex.
owner Roberto, notices how expats ‘forget they’re in Italy,’ where time is
treated differently. He can’t figure out why we constantly complain about the
wait at the post office. He’s noticed we fail to wrap our brains around the
concept of eating later and that we still want ‘dinner at 6:30pm instead of at
8pm.’ Finally, Roberto has a stern warning about pairing pizza with cappuccino.
He says, ‘In Italian culture, that is horrible!’
ways we announce ourselves are endless and some will forever remain maddeningly
mysterious. Yet, more than illuminating the many ways we are annoying, I hope
that I have revealed some secrets for fitting in better, and for smoothing out
the bumps a little. In a time rife with cultural ignorance, I offer these words
as stepping-stones, as a means to improve expat-Italian relations. And I
encourage you to turn off your flash in restaurants.