Being able to call yourself Italian is awesome. So much so, that many of us claim to have an Italian bloodline (“I’m 1/34th Italian, on my mother’s side”) and swear that our Nonna’s spaghetti is the best. There is a certain investment Italians put into their food, relationships and their very lives that makes the very phrase, “Buongiorno” resonate with people from all over the world.
America, aka, land of “Bigger is Better,” and where ketchup is the main side to just about any dish, can stand to take a few tips from Il Bel Paese.
So take a seat, grab your freshly made espresso, and ascoltami!
What makes me an expert? I lived in Italy for almost 4 months. I lived in both Milan and then in a tiny town called Castelmassa.
In Milan I witnessed about as fast-paced a life as Italians can possibly have. Milan has rush-hour traffic, people rushing to every corner of the city and yet, everywhere I went I saw small hints of the sought after Italian lifestyle – old shopkeepers making conversation with everyone passing by, couples kissing in between scarves and beanies in the park, and stores shutting down for their afternoon pranzo.
When I moved to Castelmassa, I lived with a dear friend, Massimiliano. When I wasn’t his dental assistant (I know more about root canals, fillings and tooth surgery in Italian than I do in English), I was spending time with his family, friends, and neighbors. Castelmassa is the polar opposite of Milan, and the closest example to a true Italian life. My days would be leisurely, even at their most taxing. Lunch was a two hour break, Massi walked home from the office and we would sit at the table every afternoon, talking and enjoying pasta con pomodori.
Long walks were consistent, often starting with one friend and as we passed through the town center we would stop at houses, ring the bell and more friends would join us (if they weren’t studying for their university exams). Dinner “parties” were regular. I put “parties” in quotation marks because in Italy it is beyond normal to have friends to your house to eat, there no cause for celebration. It’s just a way of life. Friends are treasured above all else (well, second place to la famiglia, but a close second). I can’t remember the last time a friend invited me to her house to have a sit-down, full on meal with her whole family.
The food. Oh my, the wonderful food. Everything has love baked, stirred or boiled inside of it. The pasta is handmade. The fish is fresh. The tiramisu was always made earlier that morning. The cheese is eaten liberally and sprinkled on top of everything. There are always at least 3 bottles of wine on the table, each designated to compliment a specific dish that is being served.
The Italian passion. Phew. Makes me sweat just thinking about it. Massi became more than just a long-time friend during my time in Italy and to this day, the months I spent with him are at the apex of any romantic relationship I’ve ever had. What can I say, when a man consistently makes you breakfast, gives you articles of clothing off his back when you walk out of the house with not enough layers on and tells you how beautiful you are (even with a large breakout of acne due to a faulty microdermabrasion), you know he’s a keeper. Massimiliano would also consistently bring me one fresh red rose on his walk back from work. Enough said.
In March, when Massimiliano left for a Saint Patrick’s Day trip to Ireland with some amici; I was excited for some peace and time to myself. Well, I never got to enjoy time to myself (thankfully) as his mother, sister, the nurses at his work and his friends ALL offered to take me out, visit their family in the Alps, have me over for lunch, dinner or otherwise. It was a wonderful five days filled with lots of laughter and friendship. Every day at 12 pm the doorbell rang and Massi’s family stood on my doorstep. The first time it happened, I was quite unprepared, in pajamas and glasses and still rubbing my eyes. It was the beginning of a wonderful five days; within the first day I realized that it must be impossible for one to feel lonely with all these loving, giving, caring and hospitable people surrounding them.
When the day came for me to leave Italy I felt as if I were leaving my home behind, rather than going back to it. Subsequently, my deep love for the country and the myriad of cinematic experiences I had there have completely convinced me of a few things.
Numero Uno being, I must return to Italy to live there, learn the language and figure out how to live la bella vita. That’s still being figured out. Turns out, moving your life across the world is not easy.
Numero Due being, since I am not in Italy, nor am I Italian, the most I can do is enlighten my fellow Americans on this well-loved and envied culture and how we can capture a bit of their anima.
RALLENTARE (Slow down)
The biggest well known difference between America and Italy is the Italian’s ability to take life at a slower pace. When I mean slower pace, I mean that quite literally. I had to drastically slow down my walking pace to keep in step with my Italian friends. They’re in no rush. They walk along slowly, heads together, talking, gossiping and laughing. They take their sweet time. Growing up in LA, this was a completely foreign concept to me. I grew up always having places to go and people to see… STAT. But by the end of 4 months I was walking like an Italian and it felt good not to be in a rush. On a larger scale, Italians take their WHOLE lives with a bit more calm. This may seem ironic, because they always seems to be yelling loudly and throwing blasphemies around like nouns (no really, blasphemies are a good solid part of the Italian language) but looking past the loudness, you realize very quickly that they take life slowly. It lends a really wonderful quality to everything they do. Which moves me on to the next point.
LA CENA (The Dinner)
Italians actually spend TIME to make their meals. I never saw an Italian person at the local market with frozen pizzas or lean cuisine dinners in their baskets. This is one of the hugest and most easily applicable “Italian lessons.” Here’s how to become Italian when it comes to your meals – buy fresh a couple times a week instead of once at the start/end of the week. It makes sure you will use everything you buy and keep you inspired for meals. Keep things simple. I was talking to Massimiliano about the differences between Italian and American cooking and he couldn’t stress enough that true Italian food is SIMPLE. The radicchio is cooked with olive oil and salt and that’s it. Pasta con pomodori is made with fresh tomatoes (not with store-bought sauce), basil and fresh grana parmesana. They make everything by hand, the pasta, the dessert, even the wine sometimes. Now I know we live in a different culture, so perhaps making and bottling your own wine is not feasible, but what is, is spending more than 10 minutes on your dinner. Practice cooking food simplistically and honestly (meaning you aren’t using chemicals or preservatives or something else nasty). Enjoy feeding it to those who sit around your table, and take the time to enjoy what you eat with those you love and cherish.
L’AMORE ITALIANO (Italian Style Love)
The persona of the “Italian Stallion” has long invaded our American culture through movies, songs and culture. Every woman wants an Italian man with dark eyes and a passionate soul to sweep her off her feet. Well, regardless if you ever catch your “Italian stallion”, you can always apply the same principles in your own love life. What principles are those? Well, quite simply, fall in love just a little bit more. Literally. Italians love with all they’ve got. Hence the screaming, crying and serenading outside a shuttered window in the middle of the night when a relationship does end (not all Italian love stories are fairy tales, ya know). A simple application is to fall in love with the person you’re with. “But I’m ALREADY in love with him/her!” you’re thinking. The trick is to KEEP loving them, keeping the passion alive by surprising them with a passionate kiss, a rose, a small token of appreciation, cooking dinner or giving a back massage. We’ve all heard these things before, but Italians actively show their affection and love for each other, again and again and again, not just within the “honeymoon period.”
When I lived in Italy, every SINGLE day involved some sort of sharing of opinions. Opinions were sometimes shared over breakfast, at lunch, almost always during dinner and ALWAYS over espresso. Italians almost never agree with one another. They raise their voices and wave their arms and the conversation just goes in circles. Mostly they argue over politics and soccer. But the point is, no matter how differing their belief may be they always end the conversation with a hug, a pat on the back or an invitation for dinner. Opinions do not determine their relationships. Americans have a LOT of work to do on this front. We have a horrible tendency to equate someone’s opinion with their worth, especially if we strongly disagree with them. Over the latest presidential election, I witnessed numerous friends who purposely cut family members or close friends from their lives because they could not handle the fact that they held opposing views. We need to adopt the Italian attitude. Really. Let’s learn how to express our beliefs and opinions without ruining our relationships.
These four points are only a tiny taste of what it means to call yourself italiano/a, but are all reasonable and understandable ways for America to transform our hurried-individualistic-microwave-dinner lives into something a bit more beautiful.