Saturday, May 5, 2007

Cultural Musings

The Italian Way:

Random observations, these apply to Florence and Tuscany and could be different in the South or Rome or Milan.

Re: food and eating

Breakfast is a cornetto (croissant) and cappuccino, and usually eaten standing up, and you go to the same place every day. The only place to fine eggs, cereal, etc are tourist hotels.

Lunch: The working man, including all of my partners, go to the same restaurant every day for lunch. Unlike breakfast, they don’t eat the same thing, they hear what is on the menu for the day and choose. There is always time for lunch, and it cannot be skipped. There is no such thing as eating at your desk, in your car, on the bus. Even on a train, you would go to the dining car to eat, not at your seat.

Dinner: eaten late, after 8PM, usually not a very big meal.

People do not “snack” in Italy. Children have an afternoon snack, “merenda”, but only children.

You do not eat while reading, driving, walking, talking on the phone. There are malls in Italy, but you do not find food in the malls, nor do you see people walking around the malls with food or cups in their hands (except for tourists).

Seasonal foods: Italians don’t pick out a recipe and then go buy the ingredients. They go to the market, look what is in season and then decide what to cook. The same is true in restaurants, the menu changes by season.
The ingredients are always fresh, ripe and the flavor of Italian food does not come from sauces but from the ingredients.

Empty refrigerator: An Italian refrigerator is usually empty, they buy the food for one day, going daily to the market, and the portions are just right. Leftovers are a strange phenomenon, and doggy bags are for tourists only.

Go daily to the market. When I go to the market, and want a cantaloupe, the fruit vendor always asks me when I will be eating it, (either today or tomorrow, if it is longer why would I be buying it today?) and then gives me the appropriate melon.

When I go to the butcher and pick out a cut of meat, before he will give it to me, he will question how I am cooking it. It’s almost like going to an animal shelter, I don’t get to take home the meat unless the butcher knows I will be treating it well.

Wine shop: Not only do I have to tell the shop owner what kind of food I will be serving with my wine, but how it will be cooked. There is a different wine that goes with sautéed lamb than with broiled or baked.

Slow food: This is a movement started in Italy several years ago when the first McDonald’s was opened. This organization gives cooking classes, oil tastings, conferences and certifies restaurants with a snail logo naming them as a restaurant that is commitment to the process and appreciation of cooking with good and thoughtful ingredients.


A grand history and range of political beliefs: huge tolerance for differing views
People are not afraid to be: communists, socialists, anarchist or fascist. These are words and political beliefs that we in the United States cannot admit and still be taken seriously. In an interview with the Cultural Commissioner of Florence, he freely stated that he was a member of the Communist Party and got all of his appointments accordingly. These different affiliations are not demonized. It is easy to find people of all leanings to interview.

Italy is not a patriotic nation except during the World Cup. It’s a very new country (just over 100 years old) and people don’t identify themselves as Italian, but rather by their city or region. They are only loyal to their family and local soccer team.

Getting things done:

There is not a sense of manana in Italy, but for an American, things take much longer than we are used to.

An Italian friend said something to me that has helped me understand much about Italy, from the lack of signage on the highways to what makes Italians great lovers.

My friend Giovanni said, in a disparaging tone, “Americans think that the best way to get from point A to point B is a straight line.”
This says it all, Italians are not interested in the most direct route, they are interested in the most interesting route. They abhor boredom, so the process has to be fascinating, challenging and open to many interpretations. There is no place to go to, to find out which stores are closed in the afternoon, there is no set time when they open, for instance on the same block, one store closes from 2-5, another from 1:30 to 3:30, another from 1-6. Nothing is black and white. There are tons of laws and regulations, from hundreds of years back, and even the person at the Questura (immigration office) can use the ones he or she wants to use, which underlines why getting in relationship with people is so important surviving and thriving in Italy. If you don’t ENJOY the art of navigating and communicating and discovering how to get something done, you will not stay in Italy, because it’s just too frustrating.

What surprised me:

Italy is a Catholic country and has the lowest birthrate in the world. When I grew up, if a family had 8 kids, we assumed they were Catholic. In Italy, I find people have no problem being a Catholic and practicing birth control, having an abortion, being gay and going to church, living together (I have met dozens of couples that have been together more than 20 years, have children together and are not married). There seems to be a much greater division between Church and State in Italy than in the US. A very small percentage of people go to church regularly, on Easter Sunday, I was in Portofino, and no one was in Church.

People are thin. We hear of the fat Italian mama’s and we think with all of the pasta that everyone would be fat, but I can’t remember seeing someone really fat in Florence other than tourists.

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