My Year Away. And Back.

Four Years Later, My Sabbatical Continues to Teach Me Things.


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Things I Simply Don’t Understand About Italy

This is my fourth time to visit Italy. I have now spent well over 100 days in this country and I look forward to the next 100 days over the next couple of years. After teaching a study abroad class in Rome, the hubster and I are tucked in at Meta, a small town just two train stops from Sorrento. To say I am obsessed with Italy might be a bit of an understatement. In many ways (and I’m not sure why), it feels like home.

Still. From an American’s perspective, anyway, Italy has some odd quirks that I simply don’t understand. Here is my list (in no particular order).

Coffee. I love coffee. Italy is known for its coffee so this seems like a no-brainer. But, non e’ vero! To me, coffee should both satisfy the caffeine fix—and serve as a beverage. Is that too much to ask? In Italy, yes. First, understand that you pay for your coffee by the cup. And by cup, I mean a teeny, weeny hint of a cup. One swig and you’re done. If you want something a bit larger, try a cappuccino, but Heaven help the American who tries to order one in the afternoon. Cappuccinos in Italy are works of art, but still, they are made with a touch of coffee and a whole lot of foam. So, again, a swig or two and you’re done.

I might have conquered the Italian espresso maker but I don’t understand it.

The apartment we’re living in this summer is huge. It sleeps five, but it contains one espresso maker. As in one coffee maker to make one itsy bitsy espresso for one person. I’ve at least figured out a way I can get two (small) cups of regular coffee out of this Lilliputian contraption. While it’s perking, I boil a pot of water so I can pour half of the (okay, yes, quite delicious) espresso into a cup and fill the rest with water. Caffe Americano! It’s a labor of love, but at least I can get a morning beverage. (Now, if I repeat this three times, I will have had my morning coffee.)

Bathrooms. C’mon, Italy. You can do better. I’ll let you have the bidet, although I simply do not understand this contraption other than it takes up too much space in small Italian bathrooms. But, why do the showers have to be so small? Our shower in our apartment doesn’t even have doors that close, which means that after you shower, you have to use towels to dry the floor. Public bathrooms are even more confusing. Why do so many Italian public bathrooms include missing toilet lids? The design of the toilet shows that it calls for a lid, so did someone, somewhere, decide that Italians can’t trust tourists with toilet lids? Of things to swipe to take home as souvenirs, I wouldn’t think toilet lids would top the list.

Street Noise. In every Italian town we have visited over the years, the noise on the street is LOUD. Even the quaint towns with only local traffic have way-too loud noises. Italian towns are built in stone, so noise reverberates off the postcard-worthy buildings. Add to that the barking dogs, the Italian mamas yelling at their Italian bambini, the teammates of the local Italian soccer club yelling at each other just because they can I suppose (we hear this every night), the motorcycles weaving through the narrow streets all day (and night) long, and the street sweeper cleaning the streets every morning, it’s hard to get away from the noise. From pictures, Italian towns look quiet. Rest assured, they are not.

This is the lock to our front door in Meta.

Obsession with Security. All the Italians I’ve met have assured me how safe Italy is. And I feel safe in Italy. Back home, I never walk alone around my town at night. But, while in Italy, nessun problema. Given how late the morning starts, the three to four-hour riposa in the afternoon, and the evening, which begins around 6, if you don’t walk around at night, you are basically stuck at home the whole day. However, as safe as Italy feels, locked gates barricade every home. Each front door has a deadbolt system that would rival any New York City walk-up. Every first-floor window has steel bars on them. I’ll tell you. No one is getting into your home.

This is the view from our terrace in Meta.
This is also the view from our terrace.

Juxtaposition of Squalor and Splendor. Like any tourist, I want my pictures on Facebook to look pretty. So, I post the sea view. The lemon groves. The bucolic vistas. But for every lemon grove in Sorrento, you can see an empty lot strewn with trash. For every winding street, you can find another right next to it packed with garbage, junk, and all sorts of gross things. (Speaking of garbage, every day is a different recycling day, which means basically, that refuse sits out on the street, waiting for pick up, every single day.) For every great masterpiece, you can find 10 times the amount of graffiti. The graffiti is so bad that most of the village names at each stop on the Circumvesuviana local train from Napoli to Sorrento are grafitti-covered and unreadable. Which is challenging giving the train stops for about 30 seconds before moving on to the next village.

Pizza. Pizza in Italy is ridiculously delicious (especially near Naples). It is also ridiculously cheap. Last night, I chose the Marinara pizza (tomatoes and basil). It was huge. It cost 3.50 euros. The hubster splurged and ordered a Margherita (tomatoes, mozzarella and basil) and added olives and eggplant. His totalled 4.50.  The dichotomy of pizza prices compared to the cost of one cup of coffee, water, bread, or just about anything else on the menu does not make the least bit of sense to me. Seems to me that Italy could erase its economic woes just by charging tourists double for their pizzas. I don’t think we’d even notice. 

But I’m not going to complain about cheap pizza. In fact, I’m not really going to complain about anything in Italy. Just because I don’t understand much of it, doesn’t mean I’m dissatisfied. I like the confusion of Italy. I like that my wash takes hours and that I have to wait additional multiple hours for it to air dry (this also explains why laundry is always hanging outside in Italian homes). I like that I need to ask the grocery guy to select my vegetables because, apparently, you do not touch the produce. I like that I can basically mix anything together in a pan, cook it for a long while, mix in pasta, and have a rather delicious meal. I like that we buy our wine from the wine guy down the street and pay 4 euros for 3 liters of wine. I like that we relax in Italy.

Resting. Eating the best food in the universe. Drinking excellent wine. Walking everywhere. Repeat. So maybe I do understand a bit. Amo l’Italia!