Pictures of pasta and other pet peeves

Manifesto for the improvement of expat-Italian relations

Julie Butterfield
November 8, 2012

One 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.


Coming 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.


But 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.


Daniele 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.'


Well, 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 Cleveland.'


I find it dubious that Daniele has experienced a plate of spaghetti in Cleveland.


Granted, 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?


Alice, born and raised in Florence, says that she ‘sometimes feels sorry for 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 spectacle.


A 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.


How 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.


Business 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!'


The 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.

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