1) Eat while walking; the calories don’t count. That’s why you see so many Italians walking around while eating gelato, pizza, piadina, panzerotti… Trust me.
2) The “American” excuse. I’ve discovered that if I ever do anything that Italians think is odd, all I have to do is shrug my shoulders and say “Sono Americana”, I’m American, and all is forgiven. A couple weeks ago I woke up with this unquenchable craving for a salty breakfast. Cappuccino and cornetto had suited me just fine for the first six weeks, but something inside of me was craving eggs or sausage or just something a little more, I don’t know… hearty. I searched on Google. I searched on Yelp. I walked around. I knew there were places in Milan that served an American-style brunch – and it was a Sunday – but it was only 8am and it didn’t seem like any of those places were open till at least 12noon! Resigned, I gave up and went into a little bar down the street that serves an array of pastries in the morning. I glanced over the offerings, trying to figure out if anything might possibly fit my craving, and then saw it: there in the corner, shoved aside while it waited for lunch hour, was a stack of pastries that obviously were layered with salame and cheese! I asked for one from the guy behind the counter and he looked at me strangely and pointed to the tray.
“Sei sicura?” Are you sure?
“Si,” I said, then added, seeing the judgey look on his face, “Sono Americana; stamattina vorrei qualcosa di salato.”
“Ahhhh,” he said, a look of enlightenment coming over his features. Everything suddenly made sense.
Sure it was odd, but I’m American. I’m allowed to be odd.
3) Speaking Italish. Pretty soon, switching so frequently between Italian and English, having conversations in English where you refer to agencies, foods, places in Italian, “but” and “ma” (but) combine to become “mat”. “For” and “per” (for) combine to become “fer”.
Not only that, but I’ve started to forget words in English. I’ll be talking on the phone to my parents, telling them how the… the… stendino broke, unable to think of the words “drying rack”. Making a shopping list (in English, because I haven’t changed that much) but unable to think of any word but “detersivo” when I try to write “detergent”. It’s a slippery slope, people.
4) Sidecars actually do exist. I’ve never seen one, though. I really thought perhaps they were an extinct fad, relegated to 1950′s movies and comic strips. But then I was sitting in a bar drinking a cappucino one day, eavesdropping (I admit it) on a conversation between the barman and a middle-aged Italian gentleman who had quickly downed an espresso and now was just standing at the bar, chatting. He was telling the barman about how he didn’t want to get rid of his motorcycle but needed a car that could fit three in it, now. The barman – in all seriousness – asked if he had thought of getting a sidecar. I found myself (with a sudden craving for Christmas M&Ms) thinking, “They DO exist!”
5) Italians don’t drink a lot of water. Comparatively speaking, at least. And that’s, of course, compared to me, not to everyone. When I go out to lunch or to a bar by myself, I’ll order a large bottle of water (1 liter). I figure I’m going to sit there a while and really, I’m supposed to be drinking a lot more than one liter of water a day.
But Italians think this strange (see #2 above). I went to lunch with two Italians last week and they ordered two SMALL bottles of water – the personal size you’d get out of a vending machine – to share between the three of us. And they didn’t finish their portions. I spent most of lunch trying NOT to drink too much. I don’t know how they don’t get dehydrated. I mean, I know there’s the story of water turning into wine, but drinking wine doesn’t really have the same effect. (I know, I know – it has a better one!)
6) Italians take their bike lanes seriously. Super seriously. Or should I say “stra” seriously? There are a lot of cyclists in Milan and I, quite honestly, don’t know how they do it, weaving in and out of traffic and pedestrians, onto cobblestones and across streets, with apparent ease. Don’t get in their way, though. And make sure you pay attention to which way IS their way. I learned that… the hard way (haha).
There’s an area around Parco Sempione that has a large sidewalk and – between it and the street – a bike lane, separated from the sidewalk by only a line. Now, the new bike lanes are painted a brick red color and have little white bicycles painted on them every so often, but this one is so worn that the color is pretty much gone. I was walking along way day, wrapped up in my thoughts, and naturally strayed toward the right, which would usually be with the flow of traffic. The problem was, I strayed so far to the right that I entered the bike lane, simply thinking it part of the large sidewalk.
Suddenly a guy on a bike zooms past me, almost brushing my left shoulder, and yells in Italian, “Walk to the left!” I immediately realized my error and started to move back onto the pedestrian sidewalk – only to almost run into his female companion who was cycling behind him. She cursed at me – loudly – and swerved, yelling something as she rode on that I could only pick out pieces of about the right of way and stupid tourists and paying attention.
7) Food is life. Don’t say it, even though I know you’re thinking it: “Duh, of course it is! We have that saying in the US, too… You are what you eat.” But do we really understand it? I know I didn’t.
In the States everyone talks about portion control and less fast-food, low-carb, no-carb and glutine-free, saturated fats, high fructose corn syrup, GMO’s and juicing and cleansing, calorie control, vegetarianism and veganism and all sorts of other singularly-focused nonsense that completely misses the point. I mean, you have to start somewhere, I guess, but by breaking it down into all those marketable pieces, everything just becomes a fad. It would be nearly impossible to ever really wrap your head around food and eating in a healthy, life-mind-body sort of way.
This may be the most important thing “living” in Italy, albeit for a short time, has taught me. As tourists, we eat what we want and imagine Italians doing the same, days full of whole pizzas and big bowls of pasta and endless wine and gelato. But I’ve discovered that there’s a natural balance here, when it comes to food. It starts with quality ingredients and moves on to food preparation with “love” and attention, embodies itself in moderate portions and flavors that satisfy and delight. There’s a natural balance of the food groups, and I’ve discovered that when I eat “well” (and that doesn’t mean low-calorie, low-carb or low-fat), I rarely want desert. I don’t need it. In fact, when I worry about flavor and creativity in cooking, I actually eat less because the food itself is more satisfying. And I want a satisfying life. So when I say “Food is Life”, I don’t mean that food is fuel or that we shouldn’t put harmful things in our bodies. I mean that the way we eat reflects the way we live. How do you live?
8) Walking for an hour or so a day isn’t only good for your health, it also works marvels on your complexion. My mother was the first one to say it to me, over Facetime a couple weeks ago: “Have you gotten a tan? You look dark!” I thought it was just her imagination or perhaps the lighting, but then a few other friends and family members made similar comments.
It really hit me, though, when I had pictures taken for my Italian passport. I barely even recognized the olive-skinned Italian staring back at me.
But how?? I wondered. It’s not like I’ve been laying out in the sun. Until last week I was wearing a jacket, for goodness sake! The one thing I have been doing – a lot - is walking. I’ve been walking all around this city, sometimes for hours a day, exploring or just preferring my own to feet to shoving into a crowded bus or tram. And quite naturally, though I hadn’t thought of it before, spending all of those hours outside in the sun has changed my complexion.
I guess it’s time to throw out my “Fairly Light” foundation powder.
9) Speak incorrectly or you won’t speak at all. When I first came to Italy I was hesitant to speak too much. I didn’t want to make too many mistakes, didn’t want to make a bad impression. I’ve gotten over that. It’s not that I don’t care about mistakes – in the long run, of course I do! I’m still studying grammar every day, have three books of exercises in various states of completion and engage in a language exchange with an Italian post-doc each week. But I don’t care – I can’t care – in the short term. I’m resigned to the fact that every day I’m going to make a lot of mistakes. A lot of mistakes. But I’m trying, I’m communicating and I’m learning, and that’s what’s important. What other choice do I have, really? If I don’t want to make mistakes, I simply shouldn’t talk. And if you know me at all you know – I have to talk
10) If your face is sore, you’re finally speaking Italian. I had noticed that as I became more and more comfortable speaking Italian and was having more and more lengthy conversations with random people (not random people – I didn’t accost strangers on the street! I just mean that I was able to say more to people in shops or restaurants who I came in contact with, with whom before I would’ve said only the bare minimum), that these random people were looking at me more and more as if I were some strange puzzle they were trying to figure out. Almost as if I weren’t speaking Italian at all, but some in strange code that they had to piece together. I asked a friend about it and she told me that I have a tendency not to really pronounce words. “What?!” I was shocked. “What do you mean I don’t pronounce words?!” I certainly thought I did! Turns out, my American mouth wasn’t opening up enough. My American tongue wasn’t active enough. My American lips weren’t forming the sounds enough. In the end, we determined that I need to feel like I am over-exaggerating, almost like I’m making fun of Italian, and that when I do that I’m a lot closer to being understandable. After only a few minutes I knew that my poor face and jaw weren’t used to this. I feel a bit ridiculous, besides, but hey, “When in Rome…” Or Milan.