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.