The complexity of Italy’s cheating heart

 

I often exchange stories with other expats about the Italians who have lied and cheated us with an ease and nonchalance which is both infuriating and puzzling. Not to say other countries don’t have problems with corruption as the world is rife, but in most Anglo-Saxon countries a politician or public servant or any other important figure caught out doing dodgy deals is publicly shamed and practically disappears from circulation.

In Italy fraud is a sin easily pardoned, I’d go to the extent to say Italians expect their politicians to be sly. In the country where Machiavelli’s Renaissance masterwork of politicking The Prince has become a classic the idea of furbizia (which translates to a mixture of cunning, shrewdness, astuteness and slyness) which has become a solid part of the Italian character, it’s not very attractive and as usual this trait becomes more pronounced in the South. At the risk of offending many Italian’s these crazy foreigners are carefully trying to understand why we are persistently being cheated by the country we love.

Taormina art studios

Really bad Karma

Organized crime rooted in Mafia-style practices such as bribery, extortion, murder, public contracts, vote-buying represents only a fraction of Sicily’s corruption which includes particular areas, such as building construction, restoration and money laundering. Certain practices, though deplorable, are not necessarily illegal in Italy, where the conflict of interest laws are lax and things like nepotism and cronyism are a normal part of professional life. It is still possible, for example, to obtain a high grade at the University through an offer of money or even, in the case of a pretty studentessa, sex.

Corruption in Italy takes many forms from providing public contracts to politicians’ friends, bribery and illegal kickbacks. Funds for a construction project such as building or expanding a hotel, an education program, a skills development program, or agricultural subsidy are mismanaged and terribly corrupt. It took thirty-five years to complete the Palermo-Messina autostrada and some fifteen million Euros mysteriously disappeared during the restoration of Palermo’s Teatro Massimo opera house.

Widespread corruption is endemic, especially where public funding is involved. The situations created by the project managers are real tragedies in a land of poverty and high unemployment, where there are vast differences between rich and poor and where even a simple job is considered a privilege. Rich project designers are paid millions to produce little or nothing, while others work humble jobs just to make ends meet. Most disturbing about these opportunists is their complete lack of any sense of responsibility or guilt.

Despite these incredible hypocrisies Sicilian’s often ignore project scandals and other forms of corruption because these things are part of their daily lives. Pay offs and even sexual harassment are considered perfectly normal in Italy. It is part of the usual system of self decay that has been going on for many centuries in Sicily. If it wasn’t a distinct reality it would be the perfect fodder for a biting satire.

Sicilian’s admire the quality of ‘furbizia’ or shrewdness, the ability to outsmart someone or manoeuvring themselves around an unfair law or authority. This probably is another survival quality left behind from their history of being a so-called colonized or conquered people. This ugly personality trait results in a lot of white collar crime which is detrimental to the country as a whole. A Sicilian who is being too ‘furbo’ is ultimately shooting himself in the foot. Not to mention exposing himself to a whole lot of bad Karma!

Trying to explain the intricacies of Italy to someone who doesn’t live here is like painting a caricature, you can barely scratch the surface and it can never do justice to the complex character of Italy, it’s not that Italy is filled with darkness, violence and injustices it’s more than this country is made up of many different faces which coexist with the darker elements. There are wonderful generosity and kindness in Italy too, I know it is a contradiction but Italy is schizophrenic and amusingly diverse.

google images

Duplicity of character

I was recently reading an anthology titled Cento Sicilie (One hundred Sicily’s) dedicated to the many writers who have attempted to depict the island, in the introduction Sicilian writer Gesualdo Bufalino attempts to explain the reason behind the islands complexities:

‘Atlases say Sicily is an island and this must be true as atlases are trustworthy books. However one must have a shadow of a doubt, when you reflect on the definition of an island, usually comprehends a compact concentration of race and customs, while here everything is dispersed, mixed, changing like in the most complex of continents. It is true there are many Sicily’s, we will never finish counting them. There is the green Sicily of the Carob trees, the white of the salt harvests, the yellow of sulphur, the blonde colour of the honey and the purple lava. There is the foolish Sicily, so relaxed as to seem stupid; a shrewd or sly Sicily dedicated to the most useful practice of fraud and violence. There is a lazy Sicily, a frenetic one who is consumed by the worries of materialistic inheritance, one who performs life-like a carnivalesque screenplay, and one who ultimately looks out onto a ‘windswept ridge’ into the beginning of a blinding madness…

Why are there so many different Sicily’s? Because Sicily’s destiny is to be a link through different centuries between the grand culture of the West and the temptations of the desert and the sun, caught between reason and mysticism, in the contrasts of logic and the heat waves of passion. Sicily suffers from an excess of identity, who knows if this is good or bad. Of course for whoever is born here the happiness of feeling like you are sitting on the centre of the world doesn’t last long, it is quickly taken over by the suffering of not knowing how to disentangle a thousand complexities and interweaving bloodlines to find one true destiny.’

Symbol of Sicily

The frustration of fraud

So now you are as confused as I am we can begin to admit how totally utterly overwhelming Italy is. Welcome to the life of a foreigner in Italy who daily confronts the labyrinth of double-dealing. All Italians are victims of their culture of duplicity, they complain about the impossibility of getting a job on merit alone, the necessity of seeking out a political recommendation, the convoluted public service, a banking system which is persistently trying to rip them off, rampant tax evasion, an abyss of constant political upheaval and corruption which affects everything from health care, law enforcement to education.

Lining up at the local post office everyone complains about the inefficiency and liberally share their stories of scams or rip offs they have suffered. Local GP waiting rooms are a source of collective therapy and gossip for people who are frustrated by delays and handballing of medical treatment from one specialist to the next. It is one big mess which seems to overwhelm all who live in this country. Despite all this everyone gets along with the business of living life. After all what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, less naïve, more ‘furbi’ (shrewd) and not so likely to fall victim to the next fraud.

One particularly grating thing about being a foreigner living in Sicily is how a Sicilian hears an English/American or Australian accent and automatically rubs his hands, thinking about ways to rip you off. You can be living here for decades and still be treated like a cretin, charged double at the shops, ignored at the post office and spoken to as if you are a simpleton. Sometimes when I am feeling overwhelmed by this resistance to foreigners I delegate phone calls and some errands to my husband or do as a Sicilian does, complain loudly with copious amounts of Sicilian swear words and tell them where to go.

Rustic Sicily

Italy’s Dark Heart

In 2003 English journalist Tobias Jones published The Dark Heart of Italy in which he described the diabolic character of Italy’s complexities focusing on the post world war two history right up to the Berlusconi dominated years. After the book’s publication Jones was hounded by the Italian press for being a preachy Englishman who didn’t know what he was talking about. I recently read the book and apart from a little Berlusconi bashing, Jones experiences and observations about Italy are insightful even if they are at times a little superficial. It is generally a good, truthful book and expresses the frustration many foreigners feel while adjusting to living life in Italy. It’s the kind of book one would write to vent a little.

I totally agree when he says things like: ‘What really, really pisses me off is the fact that talented people in Italy very rarely rise to the top.’ And knowingly nod my head at seemingly shocking statements like: ‘Every week I’m assailed by a new example of nepotism. My favourite is the fact that, at the RAI (Italian T.V stations), employment can literally be inherited.’

Tobias Jones comes to the same conclusion most long-term expats and locals do, which is despite the ugliness you fall in love with the beauty and simplicity of day-to-day life in Italy which helps you to live through all the sordidness. Ending his book with the same note of acceptance most lovers of Italy come to: ‘And for all the complications, Italian life can sometimes seem incredibly simple. Sometimes I don’t even hear the noise of my gnashing molars.’

wcm0046

What to do in Sicily

I am constantly sitting down and planning out trips to do through Sicily. Often I don’t do everything on my list as I run out of money but I am generally happy if I do one of the trips every year as they are based on my experiences living here on the island.

Sicily is so rich, there are endless itineraries you can complete if you search on google but these are the things I’d recommend to my own friends and family.

The island can be terribly uncomfortable in July/August so I suggest do some of these in June as the weather is warm without being too humid or if the summer holds out as it usually does September is a perfect time to visit the island, with a lot less tourists too!

Aeolian Islands

These ancient islands off the north-eastern coast in the province of Messina make gorgeous day trips and are easily reached from Messina and Milazzo.

The ‘seven sisters’ as the islands are colloquially known are a series of wild and volcanic archipelagos surrounded by a deep turquoise colored sea. Alicudi, Filicudi, Lipari, Panarea, Salina, Stromboli and Vulcano were the home of Aeolus the mythological guardian of the winds who populated these islands with his family.

You can usually pair up a couple of the larger islands for a leisurely day (Lipari/Vulcano or Salina/Lipari) or be more adventurous and hike out to the more distant rocky islands (Filicudi/Alicudi). If you shop around there are mini cruises and sailing trips to the four main islands (Vulcano/Lipari/Panarea/Stromboli) and night time cruises to see the volcanic eruptions on Vulcano.

North coast of Sicily

I am always going on about how easy it is to experience Sicily by road and I urge people to hire a car from Palermo, Catania or Messina and plan out a trip.

I’d grab a hire car from Messina and head along the coast towards Palermo stopping at which major coastal city may tickle my fancy. Do you research and see if there are any food festivals (or sagras) on the way to stop and taste. I’d stop at Milazzo for some great seafood in the summer, browse around the ceramic stores at Santo Stefano di Camastra, see the Norman Cathedral at Cefalu’, spend the night at Palermo be sure to visit some museums, the Teatro Massimo which is known as the La Scala of the south and if you want to be impressed there is the Duomo, the Palazzo Normanno which is the seat of the regional government and both decorated by golden mosaics left behind by the golden age of Norman rule in 12th century Sicily. A day trip from Palermo is the Abbey of Monreale a magnificent arab/norman cathedral built by William the II in the 1100’s.

I encourage people to keep heading west along the coast and visit the cities of Marsala and Trapani filled with delightful beaches in the summer, fine food all year round, museums and towns to explore.

The heart of Sicily

The central provinces are seldom explored by tourists so I would pack a lunch and head out to the belly button of the island for a new experience.

I’d go straight to Piazza Armerina, outside of the town is the Villa Romana del Casale which is one of the most well-preserved archeological sites from the late Roman period and allows you to walk through an aristocratic Roman villa filled with elaborate mosaics which have recently been restored.

Enna, Caltanissetta and Agrigento are easily reached from Piazza Armerina and are filled with rich historical sights and festivals depending on what time of year you visit.

Noto Valley

For the lovers of the Baroque a fascinatingly rich part of the island is the Noto Valley (Val di Noto) which is a UNESCO world heritage site and includes many towns in the south-east of the island.

I’d meander my way down the coast from Catania and stop off in each of these towns who were all rebuilt in the Sicilian baroque style after a major earthquake in 1693.

Caltagirone, Militello Val di Catania, Catania, Modica, Noto, Palazzolo, Ragusa and Scicli represent a considerable collective undertaking which created an amazing architectural and artistic achievement.

Further down the coastline from the Val di Noto in May and June every year there are performances of ancient Greek Classics in the Greek amphitheater at Syracuse which give world-class performances in this suggestive ancient location.

Around Etna

A fantastic way to experiencing the depth and breathe of the Mt Etna volcano is to take a trip around its base thanks to the Circumetenea railway (Ferrovia Circumetnea) which goes from Catania stopping at most small towns around Etna and ending up at the coastal town of Giarre (perfect for lunch and museums dedicated to ancient times).

You can also stop at Randazzo which is a suggestive small town that connects the provinces of Messina and Catania in fascinating dark lava historic center.

If you are staying at Taormina you can catch a bus out to the station and head either towards Catania or Giarre for the day.

Cultural Sicily

You can plan an entire trip to Sicily simply by going from museum to museum which can be an effort. I suggest choosing a couple of major museums and trying to fit in other cultural activities such as the theater.

I’d defiantly check out Teatro Massimo if you are staying at Palermo, their 2015 season is filled with orchestral concerts, ballets and opera. This elaborate historical theater can be visited during the day with regular tours.

The same can be said of the Teatro Massimo Bellini at Catania.

Rather than rushing through Taormina during a hot summer rush with the rest of the tourists why not take in a show during the Taormina Fest and spend the night in this beautiful town which will no doubt be unforgettable.

If you want to book tickets I suggest you try to get these done early to avoid disappointment.

The cultural element in Sicily is best explored towards the end of the summer even better in September.

Enjoy your summer or early autumn/fall in Sicily and be sure to let me know how it went.

wcm0046

5 easy steps to becoming a good tourist in Italy

COSI good tourist

 

1) Don’t complain too much

So it really doesn’t matter if you can’t track down your favorite candy bar or if they do things differently here. Italy is an old country so things are kinda slow, it will be dusty and a little dirty but that’s to be expected.

Nothing is going to be like home so go with it, embrace the difference, stop swiping your smartphone and savor life the Italian way. You will be stepping into another magical world embrace the change. Try to eat, live and drink like the locals, even if you don’t usually drink wine or eat pasta, forget all your diets, leave the beer behind for a bit and be like an Italian. Try each regional and local speciality from fresh pastas, cheeses, cold cuts, breads, drinks and desserts. Just live in the moment and stop being uptight, don’t program every moment just allow yourself to explore and discover Italy, walk around, observe and be open, this country is filled with surprises which will astound you.

2) Dress appropriately

If you don’t want to feel out of place or get stared at. Italians are impeccable dressers and so hot pants, wife beaters and skin tight jeans aren’t going to cut it. Dress neatly, do your hair and try to look smart. I know it will be hot in the summer too don’t strip off your clothes, it is not suitable. If you intend to visit important attractions and churches, bring a scarf to cover bare arms or legs, it is only respectful. Your dress will also identify you as a tourist and could make you a target for pick pockets, shifty souvenir vendors and horny Italian men who can be a little aggressive. What can I say? Italians are superficial, they can read a lot about a person by their dress, so make an effort and you will fit in better and feel a little more fashionable, it is worth the effort.

3) If you are coming to Sicily, don’t make jokes about the Mafia

 No country wants to be identified or recall the worst part of their recent history. Look beyond the stereotypes do not try to reinforce them. Sicily isn’t about organized crime it is about ancient history and art. La Sicilia is made up of nine diverse provinces each with its own distinct traditions and cuisine to explore: Agrigento, Caltanissetta, Catania, Enna, Messina, Palermo, Ragusa, Siracusa and Trapani. Explore all of Sicily, it’s the largest island in the Mediterranean and you won’t do it in a couple of days 😉

4) To avoid being ripped off by money exchange rates

Or without the pain of having to track down an American Express office for travelers cheques, try taking money out from an ATM, you will be charged only for using another banks ATM but it is handy. Talk to your bank about it. It is always a good idea to take some cash as some places don’t accept credit cards.

5) Don’t say ‘Ciao’ to everyone

You say ‘Buongiorno’ (in the morning) / ‘Buonasera’ (in the afternoon) and ‘Grazie’ all the time. Be polite rather then friendly, Italians will appreciate the effort. It would be nice if you try to learn a little Italian, just the basics even if you study a phrase book or download a couple of podcasts to listen to on the way to work a few weeks before you leave. It is amazing how friendly Italians can be when they see you are trying to experience their culture and country by attempting to speak in their language. I think Italians get a bad wrap for being arrogant to tourists but often they have seen so many tourists come through who simply don’t say ‘grazie’, try it and you will notice. Having a basic vocabulary will help you navigate Italy better and understand more of what is going on around you too.

wcm0046

North verses South in Italy: from stereotypes to rampant individualism

 

North Verses South Italy

 

Yes, there is a difference between Northern and Southern Italy; in fact, it took a major political and social movement to merge the different states of the Italian peninsula in the nineteenth century. The process began with the Congress of Vienna at the end of Napoleon’s reign in 1815 and continued with various revolutions and internal conflicts to finally proclaim Rome as the capital of the Kingdom on Italy in 1871.

The reason the ‘Risorgimento’ period took so long to put Italy together is simply because each Italian region is really so unique, even today there is a strong cultural individualism which makes it difficult to group Italians together. It may be a pithy example but just look how each region has its own different cuisine each town has its own type of pasta, wine, cheeses, festivals, traditions and even dialect.

Italian dialects are not simply variations in accents they are different languages, so its normal there is going to be some cultural conflicts there.

A personal example of mine are my own parents, my Dad was born on the Adriatic coastal town of Vasto in the Abruzzo region of central Italy and his dialect is heavy with Croatian and Greek influences. While my mother, born in Sicily and speaks a dialect peppered with diverse influences from Arabic, Turkish, Norman and German (Sicily boasts thirteen distinct foreign dominations in their history each of which has left its mark on the Sicilian language). So if my folks speak their dialects they won’t understand one another, even if standardised Florentine Italian is taught in the schools, dialects are strong in the homes and Italian is spoken with deep regional accents.

Italians are staunchly parochial, the phenomenon of Campanilismo is an important aspect of life in Italy it creates a sense of identity, pride and belonging to the place of your birth with a pinch of local rivalry which is stronger than any sense of national identity.

The geographical isolation between one town and the other thanks to the Italian Alps doesn’t exactly help with unifying the various subcultures and actually magnifies the Italians sense of distance from their compatriots. I am constantly bemused when Sicilians compare cities from different parts of the same province as if they are talking about two different countries.

Then we come to all the stereotypes like these I have overheard in conversations through my years living in Italy:

Northerners are cold and calculating.
Southerners are lazy and corrupt.
Northerners are efficient and money hungry.
Southerners are inefficient and poor.
In reality, these problems exist in both the North and South and such generalisations are nonsense.

Matteo Salvini the ultra-conservative and current leader of the Lega Nord political party is a creation of the Umberto Bossi separatist movement of the 1980’s/90’s which attempted to cut Italy into two pieces. According to the Lega the South has sponged off the North’s industry and would be better off without them. On the flip side Raffaele Lombardo’s independent Sicily movement was seeking the succession of Sicily from Italy after centuries of underdevelopment on the island. Neither has succeeded in their bids, Salvini recently trawling Sicily for votes in the next upcoming election and Lombardo is being dragged through the courts on corruption charges.

Italy is such a rich place which has been inhabited by human beings since Palaeolithic times, each generation layering itself upon the one before, creating endless complexities which link Italian together and create a rampant form of individualism associated with closely linked communities and families.

The North versus South debate is a result of this complex tapestry.

 

wcm0046

Leading an authentic life in Sicily

Authenticity Quality of being genuine to

My friends and family think I am totally insane to be living my life in Italy, they are waiting for me to come to my senses and move back to Australia, like I’ve been playing around for the past decade of my life.

The truth is it’s been more than chasing a dream, I’m not bathing myself under ‘the Tuscan sun’ or running a bed and breakfast in Puglia.

Brolo c:da castello

I live in small town Sicily which at times is trying for my patience, challenging for my sense of space and privacy and above all it comes with an entire spectrum of misunderstandings and culture shock with whoever is around me. So why do I do it to myself?

Because Italy talks to me, it whispers sweet nothings into my ear, makes me laugh as loud as I ever have, it allows me the time to write, smell the pasta sauce on the stove and taste life.

Italy has infuriated me as much as it has made me fall evermore in love with it.

Moving to Italy has changed me, it has made me let go of many unimportant things, life here is more authentic, a simple less cluttered life which speaks to me louder and clearer than anything else.

wcm0046

Insights into Ferragosto

Ferragosto COSI

Italy has an abundant amount of public holidays, ranging from the usual stuff like New Year’s day and padded out with things like Liberation Day (25th April), International workers day (1st May) and Republic Day (2nd June).

Not to mention a fine cavalcade of religious celebrations including the Epiphany (6th January), All Saint’s Day (1st November) and the Immaculate conception (8th December).

In addition each city and town gets their own holiday to celebrate their local patron Saint (Rome for example celebrates St’s Peter and Paul on the 29th of June and Milan gets Saint Ambrose on the 7th of December.)

By far the most sacred of all holidays is the major Ferragosto summer vacation which Italians look forward to every year with a heightened level of fervent desire.

Surprisingly there is actually some serious history and culture behind this time of the year, according to Wikipedia :

The term Ferragosto is derived from the Latin expression Feriae Augusti (Augustus’ rest), which is a celebration introduced by the emperor Augustus in 18 BC. This was an addition to already extant ancient Roman festivals which fell in the same month, which celebrated the harvest and the end of a long period of intense agricultural labor.

During these celebrations, horse races were held across the Empire, and beasts of burden (including oxen,donkeys and mules), were released from their work duties and decorated with flowers. Such ancient traditions are still alive today, reflected by the many Palio celebrations all around Italy, the most famous on the 16th August in Siena. Indeed the name “Palio” comes from the pallium, a piece of precious fabric which was the usual prize given to winners of the horse races in ancient Rome.

The popular tradition of taking a trip during Ferragosto came about during the Fascist period. In the second half of the 1920s, during the mid-August period, the regime organised hundreds of popular trips through the Fascist leisure and recreational organizations. People’s Trains for Ferragosto were available at discounted prices.

Tourist shop

My first summer alone in Italy I found myself stuck in Bologna in between projects, right in the midst of August holidays. I didn’t know anyone in this major Northern Italian city which becomes like a ghost town, every second store is closed and there is hardly anyone around. Bologna isn’t a touristy town so it wasn’t like being in Florence or Rome which are always filled with people all year round. It was a lonely place to be.

August in Italy means the thermometer hits its peak and the humid Italo summer closes down the entire peninsular as all Italians go to the beach.

In Sicily families who have migrated to the north of Italy traditionally come home to visit estranged parents and relatives and lie roasting on some Sicilian beach. With the Economic Crisis most are no longer making the trip, holidaying closer to home or not at all.

The 15th of August itself is a religious feast day which celebrates the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, when the Catholic church believes the Madonna’s sinless soul and incorruptible body was taken up to heaven. In my small part of Sicily there are many ancient festivities in the cities where the ‘Virgin of the Assumption’ is the patron or protector, the day offers elaborate parades and celebrations from Randazzo to Messina, Capo d’orlando, Motta d’Affermo, Novara di Sicilia and Montagnareale. Sorry but all my links are in Italian but the images really give you a sense of the elaborate nature of the celebrations, Sicilian’s know how to put on a show! 

Sicilian Cart

All Italian towns have their own saint which they call upon for help, nowadays it’s a quaint tradition and great excuse for a celebration but Patron Saints were an effective form of propaganda for the early church and brought in many new Catholics into the fold.

Sicilians like most Italians celebrate mezzo-agosto holiday with copious amounts of food, strange isn’t it ;-), either picnics in the mountains or bomb fire barbecues on the beach not to mention an endless array of food festivals or sagras which offer you taste of all things Sicilian. There is plenty of drunken action and I’ve witnessed many a heated argument over nothing, silly car manoeuvres and accidents. Don’t get me started on the mess that is left behind the next day! The whole nation strips down into vacation mode from suits to speedos and loud shirts, it seems ‘in ferie’ or on holidays gives people an excuse for bad behavior and worse fashion.

So what do I have planned?

Well I’ll probably will be guzzling beer, scoffing downing BBQ lamb while wearing a bikini which shows off my prosciutto thighs and flabby mummy tummy, trying to keep cool.

Buon ferragosto a tutti!

wcm0046

Quirky questions about life in Italy

Today I want to tackle your questions about living in Italy full-time. To be honest I haven’t been asked many questions so I got my virtual and real Facebook friends to send me some random ones, which I’ll answer below.

 

Life in Italy

Maryann asks: How is the plumbing and the water?

Well, the average Italian bathroom is made up of a strange contraption called a bidet, which is parked beside the toilet, not it’s not an alternative place to do your business but rather a spot to sit and wash your intimate bits. You can also close the bidet’s plug to wash your smelly feet after a day of sightseeing or do a rinse of dirty socks or underwear, quite versatile really!

In private homes the hot water system is usually manually turned off and on as required. This is a money-saving device as electricity is so expensive in Italy (which is also partly the reason for the lack of air conditioning along with the fact Italians think cold air can make them sick, but this is a whole other topic to explore!) So you need to think at least twenty minutes to half an hour ahead before you want a shower, unless you don’t mind cold water.

You will find the water pressure totally piss weak compared to the U.S or Australian standards, so try to do one thing at a time, either wash your hair or give yourself a shower as you won’t be able to rinse well.

The drinking water here is awesome and there is plenty of it! Water restrictions and filters don’t need to exist here and in most major cities there are public water fountains overflowing with mountain spring water which are regularly controlled by the local authorities. Yes, you can even drink from a tap at the Trevi fountain, obviously it doesn’t come from where all the coins are thrown but it is from the clean source which comes from the original roman aqueduct.

It is an excellent sign when you see locals waiting in line with their water bottles in hand, it’s like drinking Evian, but it’s free!

Sharon asks me: Do you think in English or Italian?

Well, I obstinately think in English, simply because I read it and write it so much.

I quickly translate into Italian in my own head, I’ve been doing it for so long that it’s pretty much instantaneous.

I sometimes dream 50/50 Italian and English.

When my brain isn’t working I’ll accidentally slip in an English word or do something silly like pronounce an Italian word with a particularly heavy Australian accent which gets me some puzzled looks.

Why not check out our expat blogging group C.O.S.I’s last post about what it’s really like to learn Italian in Italy. See Tongue tied in Italy for more insights.

Michelle asks: Do you have pasta for lunch and dinner?

It’s true Italians love pasta and I think Sicilians would love to have it for breakfast, lunch and dinner if they could. I have overdosed on pasta and try to avoid it but the locals usually do have pasta at least once a day.

They are also big on bread. As if the pasta doesn’t make you gain weight, the bread will! After a plate of pasta there is usually a second course of either meat or salad in the summer and don’t get me started on their roasted vegetables usually conserved in extra virgin olive oil, their predilection for all things fried and cold cut meats!

Yes, my waistline has been gradually let out through the years.

Jason asks: Do all Italian men exude romantic charm?

Well, what a surprising question, coming from a guy too!?!?

I’m sure the majority of Italian men believe they are romantic and charming. But girls keep in mind Italian men are extremely sleazy, their ‘romantic charm’ is all an act to try and charm your pants off. Now there’s nothing wrong with that if that’s all you want, just don’t think you’ve found the love of your life or expect to be taken home to meet the family. If you want an Italian husband be prepared and expect a long hard road to be excepted into the family!

My Sicilian husband is quite shy and reserved and he doesn’t have a romantic bone in his body (we have a rule, if he wants to buy me a gift I have to be there to choose it or else he will get something I don’t like!) I guess I got ripped off with the whole ‘romantic charm’ quota, but at least I can trust him and he stands out from all those other Italian peacocks!

Aron asks: What are the biggest differences between here (Australia) and Italy?

Wow! Now that’s a huge question and I’m constantly making comparisons between my native Australia and Italy. It’s kind of tricky as over the past decade the Australia I fondly remember has changed a lot, it isn’t as relaxed as I recall it, Oz too is going through the same economic crisis as Europe and it has become a terribly expensive place to live amongst other things (which is yet another topic to explore!)

The biggest difference comes from the very distinct cultures, a general topic which trickles down to form the many bumps and pot holes in the road of expat adventures in Italy. The constant culture shock between Italy and Anglo-Saxon expats makes everyone around you think differently, behave bizarrely and confuse the hell out of you constantly.

One real shock for expats and visitors from outside of Europe is the discovery that Italy is a living breathing museum. Like the rest of Europe, Italy is a place where people have lived since prehistoric times and where history and people have left behind their junk. If you dig a deep hole in Sicily you will probably find pieces of Greek ceramics, Roman coins and Etruscan tombs. There are many stories of construction workers or farmers digging around who have discovered complete Roman villas and valuable archeological sites by mistake. The Roman villa filled with the best preserved mosaics from the late roman empire in the whole world at Piazza Armerina near Enna, Sicily was buried under twenty meters of earth, local farmers had been cultivating crops on top of it for generations without knowing anything about its existence.

Cultural differences

Those are the end of the questions I received but here are ten more funny and infuriating cultural differences off the top of my head which I’d like to dedicate to anyone thinking about moving to Italy:

1) Italian’s don’t walk around without shoes, they take it as a sign of poverty/barbarism and if gals take off their shoes in the front of a guy it will be taken as a sign you want to have sex!

2) Italian’s are superficial, appearance is vital to them. They never do their shopping in a track suit and sneakers with morning hair. I’ve seen women do their grocery shopping in high heels, sequins and freshly dressed hair!

3) Food is a religion in Italy. Don’t you dare overcook the pasta or else you will be ostracized. It’s ‘al dente’ or die of shame. Stick to the cooking time on the pack!

4) Italy can be as dirty as a teenagers bedroom floor, recycling is a new concept and many Italian’s are used to other people cleaning up after them, which is never the case in the real world.

5) Italian hospitals are scary places, avoid them if you can.

6) Customer service is a foreign concept in Italy, as is politeness along with the words ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. You will be pushed aside on trains, others will jump the queue in front of you, doors will be slammed in your face and bank tellers will pretend you don’t exist and close as you reach the teller.

7) It is still fashionable and socially normal to smoke in Italy so you will have to put up with smokers puffing in pubs, restaurants, bars and people polluting your house and car.

8) Italian’s aren’t into sport as a pass time (of course there are always exceptions to this, especially when it comes to soccer or cycling.) So you won’t see many sports activities or clubs happening on the weekends.

9) Italian bureaucracy features heavily in Dante’s Inferno.

10) As of 2020 the act of breathing will be taxed in Italy.

wcm0046

 

 

Tongue tied in Italy

It is always a challenge for non native speakers of any language to learn and assimilate into a new country but Italy has its own particular surprises reserved for struggling expats.

  COSI language collage

Before moving to Italy permanently I thought I was quite savvy with my Italian. After all I had almost majored in Italian, lived in Bologna and did the usual Florentine study thing. Heck it would be a breeze. I’m Italo Australian for god’s sake, how hard could it be to become fluent? A few more months of should do it, right?

Man, I was never so wrong about anything in my life. I soon discovered, Sicily isn’t like the rest of Italy, it is another planet.

Sicilian’s don’t know how to handle foreigners trying to learn their language, they will pretend not to understand you, furrow their brows, pick your accent, painfully point out your terribly foreign sounding voice and try to charge you the triple price.

A world away from my beloved ‘Firenze.’ I remember one time in Florence while ordering an iced tea drink, I accidentally said I wanted a ‘pesce’ (fish) flavour instead of pesca (peach)! I got a strange look from the barista but the charming Florentine smiled and corrected my mistake in the nicest way. He said I shouldn’t lose heart and told me if it wasn’t for the mistake with the words he wouldn’t have picked me for a foreigner at all *gush*.
Meanwhile in Sicily when I open my mouth it’s:
‘You’re not from here are you?’ After the first syllable.

There are Sicilians who are dipped in a thick syrupy dialect. Most people have grown up speaking their local tongue at home and look at you strangely as you speak Italian to them. If you think learning Italian is going to be difficult, going all feral and trying to learn a dialect is nearly impossible, it takes years of practice to speak a dialect well and it helps if you’ve been born speaking it too 😉

So how did I handle my first moments of living in Italy full-time? Very awkwardly and shyly. At first, I didn’t speak too much, thank goodness hand gestures are big in Italy. Then one day I just told myself to stop being a big baby and stop caring about making mistakes. Even native Italians aren’t perfect while speaking ‘proper’ Italian and if the only thing they can say is I’m a foreigner well, then that really is the truth and why should it bother me so much. So that’s been my attitude until this day and it seems to work fine.

The one thing bothers me still is the lack of actual Italian lessons I’ve taken while living in Italy, which is none. So in a vain attempt at perfecting my Italian I searched out courses for foreigners, the closest school was at Taormina and now there is another place at Cefalù but both are terribly far away from me and expensive.

Taormina art studios

I thought about going back to University and enquired at the language faculty at the University of Messina. I wanted to study Italian as a second language and perhaps pick up French or another European language. It was an ambitious idea, but surprisingly enough even if the course was taught in Italian they didn’t offer Italian as a second language. So I’d be doing everything in Italian and studying English, French and German. It wasn’t going to work for me!

This left me with the long hard old school of language learning known as ‘total emersion.’ I had a basic grammatical foundation so I spoke only Italian, watched t.v and as a workout made my way through the convoluted journo-speak of Italian newspapers.

Now after twelve years of living, working and interacting with Italy I can say I am a fluent speaker but I still feel insecure as I lack a certain level of academic or intellectual polish. I’d love to write in Italian but I am lost when it comes to the conditional tense which is used to express opinions, wishes and hypothetical ideas. Those pesky reflexive verbs give me the creeps as do feminine and masculine word endings and other tricky stuff which doesn’t exist in English.

Santo Stefano Ceramics

I’m trapped in the present tense and simple past participles as my grammar is very basic. It’s enough to get by and understand the world around me but I hope to study more to wrestle this monster that is Italian language.

Not to mention what it’s doing to my English! I often reverse my syntax and it seems I’m inventing my own personal dialect. When I can’t think of the word in English I will throw in an Italian one into the mix. I think I may be accidentally teaching my young son pigeon.

My son has begun to attend school here so I can always learn Italian with him as Italian school children study truckloads of grammar. Most high schools who are geared to preparing students for university do Latin, which is like the ultimate grammatical workout for Romance languages. Could I go back to High School? Hmmm, perhaps I should simply invest in an online language course!

One thing is for certain, you never truly finish learning a language and there are no secrets to it, you simply need to dive in or else you will lose your independence.

And above all ‘Nil carborundum illegitimi’ (Don’t let the bastards get you down) as everyone has their own special way of acquiring language it’s an individual journey, enjoy it!

wcm0046