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By September 22, 2015Culture

It’s damn-near impossible to “holiday” in Italy and not return with some fine leather goods and too many souvenir t-shirts. But, without a doubt, the best thing I came home with was perspective.

The impressions left by the cultural distinctions between Italy and the United States range from curious, to humorous to thought-provoking. Here’s what I mean:

ON PERSONAL SPACE: In stark contrast to America where close drivers, close sitters, close walkers and close talkers make us bristle, there seems to be little or no regard for personal space. Space invaders will sit right next to you when there are plenty of open seats in the vicinity, they’ll use the stall or urinal right next to you even though there’s a row of open fixtures (a flagrant foul in the States), and on the sidewalk they either ignore your path altogether or literally dare you to step aside as they approach.

ON GELATO: Walking around eating gelato is to Italy what walking and drinking Starbucks is to the U.S.

ON SHOPPING: Shopping etiquette requires that you first greet the shop owner or salesperson before browsing and that you get permission before hunting through racks or piles. This show of respect and patience took some getting used to, but made perfect sense.

ON EARNING POWER: Italy’s street entrepreneurs could definitely teach America’s panhandlers some things. Creativity and effort, among them. Granted tourists help perpetuate the growth and success of many of some make-shift professions. Still, credit must be given to the ubiquitous street-corner accordion players, pop-up train car musicians, artists and caricaturists, personal tour guides in all languages, photo-op performers costumed as gladiators and other historical figures, and selfie-stick sellers – everywhere.

ON TRANSPORTATION: Three very practical modes define Italy’s transportation. The vast majority of automobiles are compacts – perfect for squeezing down narrow streets, snaking through pedestrian crowds, and backing or nosing in to gaps between parallel parked cars. Those not driving these toy cars ride around on motor scooters like swarms of gnats. People of all ages, shapes and attire race them with abandon – commanding attention on the streets, alleys and sidewalks. The third form of transit is the highly efficient mass type. The trains exude an atmosphere of controlled chaos, yet are consistently accessible, reliable and always full. Equal to New York’s subway system, the vision and commitment associated with Italy’s (Europe’s) mass transit is remarkable.

ON DINING: Although the menus of most restaurants are very similar, the food seems to be consistently fresher and healthier. And seasoning and condiments are as never-present as the server when you’re ready for a check. The custom is that the table is yours for the evening; in stark contrast to U.S. establishments where you barely have time to digest your meal before you get the bum’s rush so they can turn the table. But, the absolute best difference is the absence of tipping! A small service charge is simply tagged on to the bill.

ON WORDS: The Italian language is as beautiful as the people. Greetings of “buongiorno” and “buonasera” make every morning and evening that much more enjoyable. And you can’t beat use of the economical “prego,” which covers “it’s my pleasure,” “not at all,” and “you’re welcome,” among other pleasantries.

ON INCLUSIVITY: But the best perspective I returned with comes from how the Italian culture embraces and integrates all generations. Three or more generations of family members labor together, dine out, visit parks, go to the market, and simply sit on benches and talk. It’s truly inspiring; something hopefully a maturing United States will import.


  • Tracy Huddleson says:

    What a well-observed summary! I think that charming custom of integrating generations for everything may have sprung up in those smaller villages where people remained for centuries….and it endures today, even when the generations have become more mobile. In America, one culprit for our comparative lack of this custom may be our transient nature — there’s always something beckoning us over the next horizon — paired with the vast physical dimensions of our country. We’re always on the move, and often very far-flung from our relatives. The town square, the village where families live and mingle for generations is rare today in the U.S.,…and the concept of elders living with their family members is a tradition that really bit the dust by the mid-20th century here. It probably lives on to a greater extent in Italy, which seems to revere the family in its entirety more than we do.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful addition, Tracy. And by the way, Italian restaurants’ custom of service charges instead of tips makes no difference in servers’ ability to mess up orders. Or, they simply can’t comprehend that someone could not like tomatoes.

  • Gary says:

    Thanks for the cultural lesson. Very informative and entertaining.

  • ed says:

    That personal space thing kinda blends with the transportation thing. Spacing between cars is optional and braking is not recommended as the spacing doesn’t allow for that. Gotta love how those laid back people that have hours to sit around and chat over a cappuccino have no patients for a leisurely drive.

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