La Bella Vita

Hello all,

I know that I haven’t written in what feels like forever.  So far, I’ve mainly been blogging about my weekend excursions, and lately I haven’t gone on many.  I think the reason is that I’ve become more comfortable with the way of life.  For me, it’s beginning to feel like I’m not just a tourist anymore, and I’m actually living in this country.  Also the hilltowns surrounding Perugia (so far I’ve been to Assisi, Deruta, Siena, and Cortona) are only a half hour away and all are so beautiful, not nearly as tourist-centered as Rome and the Amalfi Coast.

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A few weeks ago, after spending my first weekend in town in a while, I had a very realistic dream where I went back to America in December and was so disappointed and disillusioned by everything in American culture.  In the dream I missed Italy like it was my home and Italian culture like it was my own.  When I woke up hearing Italian voices outside in the street, I was so relieved.  As much as I still have struggles finding my niche here and navigating the nuances of Italian life, I’m so grateful to be here.  I’m grateful to have such wonderful friends here to rely on that make me laugh. I’m grateful for the pervasiveness of local products and fresh produce.  I’m grateful for the constant breathtaking views.  I’m grateful for Italians and the loud personalities that are everywhere.

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Let me just say a few things about Italians, now that I’ve met and talked to a good few of them.  There are so many aspects that I love about Italians, but the one thing that sticks out to me that I admire is their respect for tradition.  I myself love traditions, and now that the holiday season is starting to come around, I’m a little homesick for my own family’s traditions.  Italians have traditions and rituals for almost everything, even though they might not notice it.

Many profess to be Catholics (whether they actually go to mass or not) and that Catholic tradition permeates everything in their lives.  The school calendars revolve around holidays on the Catholic calendar, every child in public and private schools gets a Catholic education, and Italians name their children after saints (so that saint will protect them until death).  Apparently there’s been a lot of babies named Francesco lately because of the pope.

Another tradition is their loyalty.  Italians are loyal to their friends, to their family members, to their soccer team, to their neighborhood.  It’s a part of their character and it’s the way they are brought up.  It’s how they identify themselves.  Everyone greets their friends and family with kisses on either side of the face, hugs, shoulder pats.  The people love to relate to each other and make small talk and laugh, whether they’re best friends or strangers sitting next to each other on the MiniMetro.

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One thing that continues to amaze me about these people is their fashion.  There is something Italians call fare la bella figura which directly translated means “to make a good figure.” It’s kind of like making a good impression, but it’s more than that.  To Italians, it means being recognized as a member of the community and being positively evaluated. It plays a huge role in Italian society, and helps the rest of us understand how Italians can look so effortlessly good all the time  (I was told by a professor that Italians are brought up learning how to dress well and make it look effortless, it’s not in their genes or anything).  Within Italian social culture, a lot has to do with how you’re perceived by your community members and this reflects on you and your family.

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Fare complimenti, literally “to make compliments,” is the unspoken rules and etiquette of Italian society.  Our professor gave this example: say you are at a bar, and an Italian man is asking you if you want to go on a date and you really don’t want to go with him. You have to be rude.  For Americans, this seems somewhat logical.  But in Italian rude and American rude are two different things. In Italy, rude means no smile, no “no thank you.” Just a “no” and turn away.  If you try to let the guy down nicely, and say no grazie with a smile, that simply tells him “I’m just flirting, I really mean try harder.”  She told us that it wasn’t that Italian men were “creepy” as they’re often perceived by unknowing American girls, but that there is some miscommunication through social cues.

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The main difference I’ve (just) noticed between Italian culture and American culture that makes me love being in Italy, is the pace of life.  Italians know how to appreciate the little things in their day.  Going to get un caffé with a friend, cheering on Perugia at a soccer game, people watching on the steps in Piazza IV Novembre, running into someone you know on the street.  They really appreciate these experiences.  Sitting on the steps is something everyone does here that I’ve never seen in America.  In almost every main piazza I’ve seen in Italy, there are steps.  And there are always, without fail, Italians sitting there.  Sometimes they’re talking with friends, sometimes they’re drinking, but mostly they’re just being Italians.  They sit, watch people walk by, enjoy the weather.  They’re not listening to music.  They’re not playing on their phones.  They’re not reading a book. They just sit, and literally live in the moment.  The fact that piazzas exist in Italy gives you a hint as to the importance of socializing in their culture.  In the piazza, you see people and you are seen by people (this goes back to the fare la bella figura I was talking about).  People are able to recognize each other and the members of their community, which is a big deal.

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Italians value relationships over time and quality over quantity.  We Americans tend to focus way too much on time and put our effort into making more of things, not necessarily good quality.  We have to be on time, we have too much or too little time, we have deadlines for deadlines, we’re always rushing to be somewhere.  In Italy, they take time as a suggestion.  They don’t tend to focus on it.  For example, in one of my classes about Italian short stories, when we’re done discussing the story for the day, class is over.  Usually that takes up the full hour and a half, but a few times that means class ends early.  If an Italian has to choose between making it somewhere on time and finishing an important conversation, the conversation wins every time.  Twice on tours in Italy, I’ve had tour guides that answered their phones right in the middle of pointing out the historical significance of a building. In America, that would be unheard of, unprofessional, or rude.  In Italy, it’s just the way it works.

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As you can see, I could go on and on about Italians and their way of life.  It just amazes me to see stereotypes being completely supported and then turned on their heads in the next minute.  I was talking with some friends earlier and realized, I’m not changing.  I’m still me.  But I’m finding out things about myself that I hadn’t noticed, and I’m also able to understand other people’s perspectives much better than I could before coming to Italy.  You listen to so many stories from people who have such a strong sense of the way things are in their culture, and you begin to see how they function in that society.

Sorry this was a long, rambly post.  I just realized that although I’ve posted a lot about what I’ve done, I hadn’t taken a post to just reveal all I’ve learned about this culture that I’m exposed to every day.  My Italian continues to improve and it continues to become more natural (and the Italians always say how great my Italian is, although I’m really only a beginner compared to their knowledge of English).  This is midterm week and then I have fall break (which will start in Paris and end at Eurochocolate!), but I will be updating again when I return!

Ciao!

Abby

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