Saturday, February 16, 2019

Give the Park of Pinocchio a chance; kids and fans of Pinocchio like it!

Il Parco di Pinocchio—overpriced, crumbling rip-off, or an iconic, enjoyable playground for kids and their families? The answer depends on one’s expectations and prior experiences with modern amusement parks.

Juniper in a giant oak.
Though Lucy and I have been coming regularly to Montecarlo—just 15 minutes away from Collodi—for nine years, we had never been to Pinocchio Park until today. Since the park receives mixed reviews on sites such as Tripadvisor, and we’ve not had grandchildren visit us here before, we had no compelling reason to try it. Many reviews say the park is old, run-down, understaffed and boring. But with four children here for almost two weeks, we decided to give the park the ultimate test. What would our American grandkids say after a three-hour visit?

Josie was able to mount the horizontal branches of the Quercione.
We were careful to give them some advance information. Don’t compare it to Disneyland, 6 Flags or other expensive amusement parks with fantastic rides. Think of it as a big playground and a tribute to the original story of Pinocchio. We also read them about half of Carlo Collodi’s book—not the Disney version (with more to be read in coming evenings)—knowing that this would be important for true appreciation of the park. On the way to the park, we first stopped by the Quercione. This is a giant oak near Collodi that the author had undoubtedly seen in his childhood and whom some believe he had in mind when writing the chapter about the assassins who hung Pinocchio from the branch of a tree.

Josie, Clara and Ferhan in the swinging aligator.
Clara finds the assassins: the fox and cat.
After visiting the park itself, Ferhan, 12, and Josie, 14, rated it four stars out of 5. Clara, 6, gave it a 10. “It was great,” she said. “I tried some new things.” Juniper, 2, said that she had fun playing but gave no numerical rating. Their mom, Sandy, said, “I’d give it a 2 if you compare it to Disneyworld without lines. But if you consider that the kids had a great time and it was an Italian cultural experience, I’d rate it much higher. What you compare it to makes all the difference.” One should also consider that the entrance fees, at least during the low season (13 euros for adults, 7 euros for a child), come nowhere near the typical $100-plus for a Disney park.

Junie meets the blue fairy.
It has a few small rides, but since we went in February, they weren’t open. It had some old-fashioned interactive games: a giant chess board and a game where you spin a dial and move players ahead on a trail—with the game pieces being the children themselves. There was a swinging alligator and small zip line, and a maze which the older children and I raced through, with Ferhan winning each time. He named this as one of his favorite parts of the park, while Clara said it was her least favorite. “My brother knocked me over,” she said. “That was cheating!”

Beautiful art taken from descriptions
in the book.
Josie especially liked the Pinocchio trail, where one could see many of the characters and settings from the book, including a giant spouting dogfish (or whale) that the kids could enter and climb to the top on a spiral staircase. There had been a puppet show and some other activities earlier in the day, but we came too late to participate in them.

Money that does grow on trees, which Pinocchio had hoped for.

Clara takes off on the zip line . . .
The last activity, a 10-station ropes course, including a zip line that crossed the small but rushing Collodi stream, was perhaps the best, even though only Clara participated in it. The course was ideal for a bold 6-year-old like Clara to prove her agility and courage, but perhaps too simple for her older brother and sister. We all watched Clara sail through every station with confidence and aplomb. A few kids needed help or turned back, but most completed the course. We were surprised that no adult supervision was provided along the way unless a child called for help or hesitated too long in one place, but we appreciated the informality of the Italian way of doing things.

. . . and crosses the rushing Collodi.
It’s true the park is old and lacking in modern technology, but we appreciated it as a kid-friendly playground that requires participants to stroll, play, imagine and interact with each other rather than be entertained by computer screens, flashing lights, special effects and high velocity rides. With a modicum of preparation, realistic expectations and an old-fashioned spirit of adventure, Il Parco Pinocchio can be a great choice for family fun.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Our attic--ready for nipotini to play, sleep and learn of Pinocchio

I don’t usually post mostly photographic blog entries, but after we furnished the attic with beds in anticipation of a visit with Dan, Sandy, their four kids and Mili, Lucy asked me to snap some photos. I though they were worth sharing here, if for no other reason than posterity. Our attic has come such a long way from when we first moved in three years ago.

One of the first things Lucy said in 2015 after she mounted the shaky fold-down ladder and crawled in under the low overhanging beam is that we could clean this up so our grandchildren—nipoti in Italian—could sleep up here. If you had seen the attic then, you would know her statement showed some vision, and we can’t be more pleased to see that the dream has become reality.

The roof is still a bit low for the adults, but the attic is cozy, clean, bright, dry and warm. One of the rooms has flooring with roads and a small town on which the kids can drive their toy cars. Every bed has a reading lamp. There’s a small padded chair just the right size for children from age 2 to 8, and other larger chairs and tables. Skylights can be opened to let in breezes, which will be important to overcome the summer heat.

For some perspective, here's our once leaky attic in 2017.
Now the family has arrived, and Mili and four nipotini are soundly sleeping as I write. Before they went to sleep, Lucy and I read them two chapters from The Adventures of Pinocchio—the real book, not the Disney version. Pinocchio is an important figure here in the Valdinievole, since author Carlo Collodi grew up only a few miles away, and if you open the skylights on the east side of the attic, you can see the town of Collodi on a nearby hillside. I’m sure that if the late Carlo Collodi could look back from there and see inside our attic, he’d be pleased to see that his tale, written in 1883, is still being enjoyed by today’s children.

Friday, February 8, 2019

A warning from personal experience: Avoid those limited traffic zones!

A funny thing happened to me on the way to the police station yesterday. Funny for those who appreciate a good dose of irony, anyway. But first, bear with me for some background.

Lucy points to a ZTL sign in Montecatini Alto. It is
up high like the one in Altopascio that I didn't see.
About two years ago, I received an automated traffic ticket in Italy for accidentally entering a limited traffic zone with a rental car in Altopascio. The sign was up high, and I didn’t see it, but the camera next to the sign saw me, or my auto license plate, anyway. As typically occurs here, first a charge showed up on my credit card from the auto rental company. This is an administrative fee for the rental company to look up my address and give it to the police. A month or so later, I received a letter telling me of the violation and giving me details of how to pay the fine. I should also mention that in 2011 I received a traffic camera ticket for speeding in Pisa and another in Altopascio last year for being stuck in an intersection when the light turned red. These incidents prompted me to research and write about traffic camera tickets in Italy, and my blog entries on these topics are approaching 20,000 page views.

In my research about speeding violators in Italy caught by what Europeans call autovelox  cameras, I found that Italy has far and away the most autovelox machines in Europe. According to Coyote, which describes itself as Europe’s leading real-time traffic information service, Italy has more than 7,043 fixed and mobile speed detectors on motorways, followed by France with 3,324 and Spain with 1,800. But it’s actually not the speed detectors that most foreigners complain about but rather the huge number of fines which are issued to drivers who stumble unwittingly into ZTL areas. ZTL stands for zona traffico limitato, or limited traffic zone, a concept with which I have a love-hate relationship. It’s wonderful that Italy has restricted traffic in many of its historical centers, reducing noise and air pollution and making life so much more pleasant for walkers and people on bikes. But I’m also a nervous wreck when driving in any city in Italy because of all the stories I’ve heard—and my own experiences—of the risks of wandering into a ZTL.

So back to my ironic experience. I pitched the idea about me writing an article for an American magazine, warning travelers about driving in Italian cities and explaining the meaning of those ZTL signs. I found an editor who is enthusiastic about the concept, and with the help of my cousin Claudio Del Terra, a police officer in Altopascio, I set up an interview with Comandante Domenico Gatto of the much larger nearby city of Montecatini Terme. I put the address of the police station into my GPS, and I took with me Simone Torreggiani, a bilingual friend, to help smooth communications during the interview.

I almost got a fine in Montecatini, but I was saved
by the small print. Can you read those hours?
We drove to Montecatini and exited a roundabout onto the curved street of via Sansero. Simultaneously we saw the police station and—you guessed it—up high, a ZTL sign with a camera behind it. I hit the brakes and turned around in the middle of the street—probably another violation, if anybody saw it. We parked the car and walked over to the sign and camera, We noted the angle of the camera and realized that I had undoubtedly not stopped in time. So here I was, heading into an interview warning people about how to avoid ZTL violations, and I had just blundered into one myself.

Ah, but then we looked up again and read the fine print! The ZTL was only in force from June 1 to October 2, and then only during the hours of midnight to 6 a.m. (perhaps to help people sleep). I was off the hook! We still laughed at the irony, not only about the close call but also how it was impossible to come around the corner, read the sign and stop in time. Even more impossible would it have been for us to read the small print about the time and date while seated in the car.

Here's a ZTL in Montecatini that can't be missed!
We continued to the interview, and I can say that Commandante Gatto was extremely helpful, informative, friendly and gracious. He explained that one can look up maps that show all the ZTLs in Italy, along with the hours of enforcement. When it’s necessary to drive inside a city to reach one’s hotel, there’s a procedure for the hotel to provide the tourist’s license number to the police so no infraction is incurred. He recommended that one use an up-to-date GPS device, which can find routes that don’t lead you into a ZTL, and he provided many more tips about driving in Italy which I can use in the article. Equally as important, he helped me set up a photo shoot with two of his officers, because good visuals will be needed to draw attention to the story.

Comandante Domenico Gatto and me.
The article will be printed later this year, and I’ll revise this post to include more information about how to read it at that time. Hopefully, I’ll not have any more unfortunate personal examples to include as research in the meantime.

Other posts on traffic tickets in Italy:

Monday, February 4, 2019

Changes in our Montecarlo home hard to notice, but still important

Each of the last four times we left our house in Montecarlo, we made arrangements with our downstairs neighbor, Juri, for improvements to be made. The first time, to repair the roof and add three skylights; next, to add a staircase to the attic; the third time, to install walls and flooring in the attic and paint and treat the roof beams for insects. Each time, we returned to Montecarlo to see dramatic and pleasing changes.

When we left the last time, in November, we made more arrangements for improvements, but the changes this time are much subtler, even if no less costly. We asked Juri, who is an electrician by trade, to completely rewire the house, adding more circuits, more outlets and a circuit breaker panel with separate circuits for lighting, kitchen appliances, the washer, the dryer, the water heater and the furnace. We had been operating with wiring that had been installed in the 1960s, and we could only operate one appliance at a time without tripping the main circuit breaker and plunging the whole house into darkness. To turn it back on, I had to go down two flights of stairs. In addition, the house suffered from a severe lack of outlets, forcing us to run extension cords in numerous places.

Our new electrical panel, now with multiple circuits, installed in our attic.
If the lack of circuits and outlets weren’t enough reason to order the work, Juri had informed us that our old outlets had not been grounded. We had wondered about this, as we occasionally received mild electrical shocks when loading the dishwasher or using the range.

We arrived back in Montecarlo last week to find the wiring all complete, with an abundance of electrical receptacles. Last fall we had purchased a used clothes dryer, and now we actually have adequate power to use it. This should come in quite handy, especially next week, when Dan and Sandy and their kids come to visit, along with their au pair Milagros. We’ll have nine people in the house in the middle of a rainy winter, when it can take several days for clothes to dry by hanging on racks or on the radiators.  So while the house doesn’t look much different than it did when we left, we realize that it would have looked quite a mess with wet clothes constantly hanging in every room.

There is still one hurdle to overcome, as Lucy and I have both been shocked when touching the dishwasher and range, so something is wrong with the grounding system. We don’t expect this to be a major issue, because we are confident that Juri can find the problem and fix it as soon as he has the time. I should also mention that during our last absence, the plumber finally got around to correcting the drain on our kitchen sink so that the waste water goes to the city sewer instead of the neighbor’s garden.

We’re hopeful that this will be the last major expense for some time, because frankly we’ve spent way more money fixing the house in the last three years than we ever expected. It turns out we were lucky our business didn’t sell, because we needed the earnings from the past two summers to pay for all our home repairs. Hopefully, this will be our last summer working full time so in the future we can have the option to come to Montecarlo in May, June and September (but still not during the insufferably hot days of July and August), when most of the sagre and feste are held, not just in Montecarlo but also in the surrounding Tuscan towns.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

“Ten Years in Italy” is a candid and often sad tale, but worth reading

Italy can be a cruel, dismal, abusive and unforgiving place for immigrants from developing countries. This was the experience of Cristina G., who dreamed of improving her conditions by escaping from the poverty of her family’s farm in Romania to Italy, where she hoped to find a better life. Instead she mostly found bigotry, misogyny, cruelty and abusive conditions that bordered on slavery. She writes about her experiences in Ten Years in Italy, Three Weeks a Human.

I’m Italian-American and live in Italy at least three months every year, and I love Italy. However, I can’t help but notice the harsh conditions that many immigrants there endure. Most of them can’t publish books about their stories, but Cristina, who lived in Italy from 2000 to 2010, gives voice to an experience that one can only hope is rare —but perhaps is too common.

Her first job as a live-in babysitter started badly. “Useless Romanian!” her employer, a countess with two children, shouted. “Stay out of my sight! You make me feel sick. You shouldn’t have been allowed to come here.”

Cristina, then 24, slept in a smelly basement bedroom, its walls covered with damp green mold. The countess made Cristina walk behind her at least a meter because “you’re not on my level.” Cristina tried to learn Italian as quickly as possible and wrote words on her hand to help her remember. The countess saw this and grabbed the pen, shouting, “Illiterate creature! You didn’t come here to learn, you came here to serve and follow the rules! You’re here because you were starving in your petty country, not to write words on your filthy hand.”

When a young man rescued her from that family, it seemed her life had taken a turn for the better. Within a month they were married, but it soon turned out that he and his mother treated her as a servant as well. Within eight months, she was back on her own again. She worked as a waitress, a woodworker and a secretary, among other things, for the next nine years, and mistreatment became the norm. Many of her problems stemmed from her attractive appearance. Men tended to treat her as a sex object. Women resented her because of the attention shown to her by her male bosses.

She refused the advances of her employers, despite receiving advice like this while working in a restaurant: “You silly girl, every man in in this room has their eyes on you. Rich men would buy you a house where you would wait for them and do nothing all day. They would pay for your clothes, food, holidays. You’ll never get out of this. You’re wasting your tremendous beauty and youth.”

Cristina reading two books at once.
She rejected this idea, but her status as a Romanian and a woman made it difficult for Cristina to rent an apartment and buy a car. She also battled ill health and depression, sometimes contemplating suicide, but she persisted. This is not an inspiring rags-to-riches success story, because in the end, riches never came. After 10 years, nearly as poor as she was when she started, Cristina wrote that “defeated in everything, without a shred of dignity left intact, I went home.” She had held only one job during her stay in Italy, a temporary contract that lasted for three months, where she felt accepted and appreciated by both co-workers and supervisors. In recent years, Cristina has found a measure of success as an author while living in England.

Despite all the difficulties, she does not regret going to Italy and says she would absolutely do it again. “It goes without saying that I would have preferred to be spared at least half of the (sufferings), but I survived. I look back and know that everything happens for a reason. I owe Italy everything I am today. I must emphasize that (my story) could have been any other country. My goal isn’t to denigrate but to raise awareness of unwitting prejudices in many of us.”

The story suffers from some grammatical and organizational errors, but Cristina’s voice is sincere and compelling. It’s likely that some of the unsympathetic characters she encountered would want to dispute some of her perceptions, but this is Cristina’s recollection. It’s not flattering to either her or Italy, but the story deserves to be told and is worth reading.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Take a family heritage trip to Italy for a meaningful, unforgettable experience

If your ancestors came from Italy, you should strongly consider taking a family heritage trip to explore your roots. In recent years, various touring organizations have sprung up to offer customized tours of the home villages of one’s ancestors, combined with genealogical research to expand one’s family tree. While I’ve managed to do this on my own by learning Italian, living in Italy part time and devoting many weeks to research, not everyone has the time and resources to do that. The next best thing is to pay someone in Italy to help you plan a customized trip, where you can visit your ancestral villages and possibly even meet living relatives.

Cassandra Santoro, the founder of Travel Italian Style, offers family heritage trips along with other travel planning services. Send her what you know about your Italian ancestors and she’ll partner with Italian genealogists and researchers to explore your family tree and then take you on a tour of your ancestors’ home city or village.

“From genealogy research to meeting relatives in your familys village in Italy, anything is possible with our team of experts,” Cassandra said. “There’s nothing better than a bilingual tour guide to walk you through the streets and discover the areas where your family lived and worked. We can even book you a cooking experience, so you can learn recipes from the local area that your family comes from.”

Elena, Paul and Andrea
If your ancestors come from the area of my roots, between Lucca and Montecatini, you can make no better choice than to put yourselves in the able hands of tour guide and interpreter Elena Benvenuti and researcher Andrea Mandroni. Elena knows the area’s history well—she’s Tripadvisor’s number one rated attraction in Montecarlo—and Andrea is the premier local genealogist. Andrea can search out your family tree, and Elena, who speaks English well, can show you the towns and churches where your ancestors came from. Born and raised in Lucca, Elena even offers cooking classes that feature her family’s local recipes.

Giuseppe Daniele Pantera, taken between
1860 and 1880.
I recently recommended Elena and Andrea to Paul Jurmo, a friend I met through the Internet. Following my advice, he and his wife and son wrote to Elena and Andrea and planned a trip to Montecatini. They met up in nearby Montecarlo to hear Andreagenealogy discoveries and to learn about the nearby town of San Gennaro, where Paul’s great grandfather Giuseppe Daniele Pantera and earlier ancestors had originated.

I was very grateful for the care Andrea took in making my family tree and providing documentation, and in how he clearly presented the information and patiently responded to my questions when we met,” Paul said. “Elena is a very knowledgeable, professional and personable tour guide, and she and Andrea were a great team, both informative and friendly. I highly recommend them.”

Paul discovered the names and dates and places of birth of about 35 ancestors and cousins that were previously unknown to him. He learned some history of San Gennaro, and, after leaving Andrea and Elena, he and his wife and son visited the town and its church to get a feel for the place where Giuseppe Pantera had been born and raised. Paul wrote a very complete report for his American relatives, and he also shared a copy with me.

These are some excerpts from his pilgrimage to San Gennaro, which took place on Christmas morning of 2018:

We drove along back roads for about 30 minutes from Montecatini Terme, passing through small nearby towns (including Collodi, where the author of the Pinocchio story spent time as a boy). After getting lost a few times on the winding roads, we made the turn onto the rural lane to San Gennaro. We drove slowly up a hill through pretty olive groves. As we rose higher on the hill, we stopped for beautiful vistas and looked out over the rolling hillsides and to distant mountains on the horizon. One could imagine life on that same road in those same orchards two hundred or more years ago.

The Pieve di San Gennaro, the church that the Pantera families attended in Italy. 
Old stone houses began appearing along the roadside. We drove the final stretch of the road and into a parking lot at the edge of the village main street, which serves as the backbone of the community and is lined with old three- and four-story residences painted in yellow and other eye-pleasing Italian-style colors. The village was quiet, with no cars on the narrow street and only a very few people walking along. It appeared that most people weren’t home, maybe visiting elsewhere on Christmas Day or at the village church. We walked to one end of the street and then back up the street in the direction of the church, whose tower could be seen poking its head up over the houses at the other end of the village. I wondered whether our ancestors had lived in one or more of these houses or perhaps in another house on the outskirts of the village.

As we made our way up the hill, we made a final turn that took us to a small cobblestone plaza in front of the church. Christmas Mass was underway. We didn’t want to intrude, so we waited outside, listening to the congregants singing and the priest praying. Then the church bells began ringing and the parishioners emerged from the front door. Not wanting to be intrusive, we didn’t get too close, though I secretly was hoping to catch a glimpse of someone who looked like one of the Pantera aunts or uncles I’d grown up with. Though I didn’t quite see anyone who fit that description, I did see a lot of nice-looking, friendly, well-dressed people greeting each other and looking like they were happy to be together on such a special day and beautiful morning.

After most of the congregants had walked or driven away, we went into the church, which we had read was built around the 13th century on the site of an even older church. The church was not one of the big cathedral-type churches that tourists tend to visit in places like Italy. We took photos of the interior and exterior from different angles, which showed the altar, the priest, his lay assistant, the pulpit, some of the paintings and other decorations, one of the holy water fountains, and the baptismal fountain. I thought that this was a place where many members of our family tree had spent a fair amount of time, being baptized, taking sacraments, attending masses, getting married and attending weddings, and attending funerals.

Paul met the priest, but they were only able to communicate on a very basic level because of language differences. However, Paul said he was greeted warmly and felt very welcome. His visit was too short to allow time to see the cemetery or seek out any possible living relatives in town, but that could be on the agenda for a future visit.

Paul’s visit shows that one doesn’t necessarily have to pay a high price and opt for complete travel arrangements. He made his reservations himself, and by paying Elena and Andrea directly, he saved a bundle over the fees needed for complete trip planning services. However, it takes time and even a bit of good fortune to find a top-notch guide who also partners with the area’s best researcher, so it could be safer to hire a complete travel service such as Travel Italian Style.

Having come to Italy myself to research my roots and see the places where my grandparents grew up, I can relate to the satisfaction that Paul felt. I’ve been fortunate enough to live in Montecarlo long enough to meet dozens of living relatives and other members of the local community—a source of great pleasure and fulfillment. Seeing the homes, streets, places of work and churches where my ancestors were born, baptized, married and gathered for worship evokes feelings that are difficult to describe and impossible to duplicate.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

A trip westward becomes a defining experience for young John Wagoner

The muted glow from the cloud-covered moon cast only the faintest light in the deep, tangled Idaho forest. The year was 1908, and John Ernest Wagoner was wet, alone and lost. Only 17, he had recently graduated from high school in Carroll County, Indiana. He had never been away from home, but when brother George, 11 years John’s elder, told him about a job prospect in a logging camp out west, John succumbed to the lure of opportunity and adventure.

John E. Wagoner, date unknown
Now, standing in the dense woods, John regretted his decision. He tried to fight back the lump in his throat and the hot tears that coursed down his cheeks and mixed with the rain. Never had he been so scared or lonely. George had written directions about which trains to take and where to get off, but they ended with the words, “Go up the trail about three miles and you’ll come to the camp. Ask for me there.” Indiana had stations for its trains, and John had not considered that the final stop might be just a platform in the woods, nor that he would arrive well after sundown.

He should have asked more questions of the other passengers. They would have known which direction he should take to reach the camp. Perhaps some of them were even bound there themselves. But now it was too late. The half dozen or so riders who exited with him at the final stop had marched off in different directions, disappearing in the darkness, as did the train.

Only one thing seemed certain: He had to take a chance and pick the most likely direction, because he didn’t want to spend the night exposed to the dangers of the dark, moist forest. He noted that just beyond the platform, train rails branched off from the main line, and guessing that this spur track might lead to a logging operation, he set off, stumbling occasionally over the rough ties. The gap between the trees seemed to narrow menacingly, as if the trees were moving closer, ready to swallow him as he plodded forward. The blanket roll on his shoulders grew heavier, saturated by the persistent rain.

John plunged onwards, buoyed by the thought that no one would build a train track to nowhere, but it seemed to him that he had covered far more than three miles. Could this be an abandoned line?

John as a young man.
And then he saw it, a faint light in the woods. As he plunged into the woods away from the track, he realized with disappointment that it came not from a camp with barracks but from a single tiny shack. Still, it was a house and a light, which promised people, comfort, information—vast improvements over his prospects only a few minutes before. He knocked on the door, and the light quickly vanished. He heard scuffling noises from inside, and then silence. He knocked again and called out, pleading for help while trying—with only partial success—to keep his voice from shaking.

Finally, a gruff voice answered, “Who are you and what do you want?” A man inside opened the door a crack and lit a lantern. “Why, you’re just a boy.” Shivering, John stammered out his plight, and the man invited him in to warm up.

“You’ve not far to go,” the man explained, offering John a seat and a sip of reheated coffee. “You’ve taken the right track, and the loggers are just up a little farther. Let me get my boots on and I’ll take a lantern to light your way back to the tracks.”

The man from the shack accompanied John back to the tracks and even walked with him until they could see welcoming beams of light emanating from the logging camp. John, relieved beyond measure and with his composure and courage renewed, thanked the kind stranger profusely.

“I’m sorry I called you a boy,” the man said. “I can see now that you’re actually a man.”

“It’s quite all right,” John answered. “You may have been correct—both then and now.”

⧫ ⧫ ⧫

Teacher and principal
Author’s note: This story is based on accounts from my mom and grandmother, with some descriptive details added from my imagination. I grew up in Rosedale, Washington, next door to my grandfather, John Wagoner (1881-1962). He worked in the logging camp for only one winter before he and George moved to Chewelah. They went to college in Spokane, took a state examination and became teachers in 1910. John taught in Washington state for the rest of his working life, often doing double duty as teacher and principal. He had a profound influence on my life.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Other Americans have difficulty “being Italian” (but they still love it here)

Six years ago, I wrote a blog about how I desired to fit in with Italian society but often fell short (I want to be Italian, but I come up lacking in some vital areas). It was lighthearted in tone, because fitting in is truly not that important or necessary for me. I’m not a teenager who needs to belong, and I’m not isolated from old friends and family, as is the case with some foreigners. I just made some observations that it would be easier to blend with Italians if I had more love for coffee, wine, fashion, art and a late-night lifestyle.

Hunter posted this photo of  the Italian
way of people waiting in a "line."
Recently I shared this blog on the Facebook group Americans Living in Italy, and it struck a chord with many people who were quick to pour out their tales of woe. It seems I’m far from the only American who suffers from a touch of chronic culture shock. I’ll use first names only for privacy reasons.

“This post is me exactly,” Sheila wrote. “I don’t like coffee unless it’s a frappuccino or caffĂ© crema.” For health reasons, Sheila also doesn’t drink wine. “Italians are like, ‘Omg, you can’t drink wine?’ But then I tell them I save lots of money and my health when I don’t drink alcohol. And my vice is Italian sweets.”

Carole also is not fond of the tiny Italian servings of coffee to start her day: “I do the Italian life when out and about, but I have to have a mug of coffee in the morning that I can hug with both hands. I bought an American coffee maker from Amazon.”

Most of those adding comments brought up other Italian habits that they are loath to adopt.

An Italian breakfast.
Miranda: “I eat dinner early. I eat a big breakfast. I drink caffĂ© lungo. In the summer when it’s hot, I go to bed with wet hair and the fan directly on me! I always go shopping on Sundays.”

Jack: “Ice! I want ice in my soft drinks.”

Reeta: “I want to enjoy my coffee for more than three seconds.”

Serena: “I miss salad dressing and Mexican food.”

Dawn: “I love breakfast. A REAL breakfast.”

Thea: “Yes. A PROPER HEALTHY BREAKFAST without so much sugar and flour in it, also known as cake.”

Sandy: “My personal temperature gage is not very Italian. I hate feeling hot so frequently. I’m dressed too lightly for my Italian friends, and they are scandalized by my short sleeves or lack of scarf.”

Kayt: “I just can’t make myself eat fish with the heads still attached. I don’t care how small they are. Gross! They’ll have to lie to me and tell me it’s something else, just like when they tricked me into eating ravioli with asino. It was actually not too bad, haha!” Note: asino is donkey.

Kim: “It mortified my Italian ex-boyfriend when I’d ask for a doggy bag. I wasn’t gonna let good food go to waste.”

A few people really took my blog as an inspirational starting point and added long lists of complaints about Italian society. Dawn from Rome made several observations:
  • ·       The slowness of this place or lack of urgency unless you are paid off really gets under my skin. I’m all about planning, preparation, timeliness, doing what I say I’ll do. Italians don’t grasp this concept.
  • ·       Food places close after lunch and don’t reopen until 7.30 p.m. for dinner. Come on, elderly people in the U.S. have dinner between 4 and 5. Also, places either don’t serve breakfast or stop by 10 or noon.
  • ·       I don’t dress like Italians temperature wise. I get overheated if it’s not that cold. I just started wearing a scarf two weeks ago (late December).
  • ·       The driving! I follow laws. To Italians, it’s just a suggestion.
  • ·       I hug. I can’t do the kiss kiss thing. It’s just unnatural for me. Not to mention I always lean to my left first and they always go to kiss my left cheek first so we pretty much almost kiss on the lips. It’s awkward.
Bush and Berlusconi combine hand shake and
cheek kiss greetings somewhat awkwardly.
Following Dawn’s “kiss kiss” comment, Kayla added an amusing story: “My husband accidentally kissed our babysitter!!! I have learned to go right, but he hasn’t. After I said goodbye to her, he went to say goodbye and they brushed lips! He was mortified, and she said, ‘I have a boyfriend’ and left. He’s still embarrassed, but it’s my favorite story.”

Lauren also made a list:
  • ·       I hate layers of clothing.
  • ·       I smile and laugh a lot and get stared at constantly.
  • ·       I hate eating past 5:30-6:30 p.m. We wake up at 5 a.m. daily, so by 5 p.m., we’re starving.
  • ·       I like yoga pants and sweats for comfort. At first, I cared and would get ‘dressed’ to go places. Now I do what I want.
  • ·       I also am paying for my (American) coffee. I’ll drink what I want. Don’t worry, my digestion is fine.
  • ·       Who the hell wants ONLY olive oil as an option for salads? It’s great, but I miss Ruby Tuesday’s salad bar. So many toppings!
Michael posted this photo with the tongue-
in-cheek comment that Italy has too many
traffic jams.
One might wonder why I and other Americans live in Italy if we have all these complaints, but several of the commenters pointed out that the benefits still outweigh the inconveniences. A couple of days later in the same Facebook group, someone asked the question: “Out of all of you who have bought property here in Italy, are you happy?” The comments are running almost 100 percent yes, so just because we face cultural differences and like to express them doesn’t mean we’re dissatisfied. It just means we’ve adapted and embraced that very Italian custom of complaining about our beloved country.