Being told off by a sales assistant in a shop in Italy made me sit down and think about the differences between my life here and in England.
Please, believe me. Had this happened in London, where I used to reside for 12 years, it would have been the perfect reason for me to ask to speak to the manager and make a complaint. But in Italy…
In Italy I looked at my husband, he looked back at me and then we said: ‘Grazie! Buona giornata!’, got our stuff and left the shop to get on with our day.
Oh, well! Being told off with a harsh voice and hand gestures and being almost suspected in shoplifting was not the best feeling in the world, but hey… It’s one of those things that happen when you live in a different country and, even after three years in it, leave you a bit speechless.
In case you are wondering what exactly happened, here is a short overview:
We went shopping. At a large do-it-yourself type of business. We needed two things – a showerhead and a special light-bulb. We got them both, queued and as our purchases were being scanned, we realised that we had grabbed the wrong type of bulb after all. So, we paid for the showerhead and as it was easy to carry, we didn’t get a bag (to save the Universe from yet more plastic), got the receipt and walked back into the shop to pick the right light-bulb.
Then we queued again and as the bulb was scanned, we showed our receipt for the showerhead to the sales assistant (the previous one had finished her shift, so we were served by a different person). She said in exactly these words (sorry I can’t reproduce the stern voice, the dismissive hand gestures and the suspicious sideways glance):
‘You should have taken this to the Customer Service desk to have it stickered as bought…’
‘But we have the receipt…’
‘So what?! How do I know you haven’t come in, grabbed the stuff off the shelf and come to my till? You could do this ten times and I have no way of knowing.’
Fair point! But it grated me just a teensy bit.
‘So, what shall we do?’, we asked sheepishly, feeling like everyone around had turned to look at us: the suspected shoplifters of a showerhead.
‘Non importa!’, said magnanimously the sales assistant. And with a dismissive gesture she waved us through.
Oh, OK then! Honestly, we didn’t know about the stickering requirement for already made purchases that you simply happen to have to take with you back into the store in order to spend more money in it. It is one of those things that you could live in a country for years and still not find out as it requires such a particular set of circumstances.
I mean, fair enough, it was our fault. But it would have been appreciated if the lady serving us had been a bit more discreet about expressing her disappointment with us. After all, if we really had grabbed another showerhead from the shelf and tried to smuggle it out, it would have activated the anti-theft gate right by her till. So, she could have explained politely the requirements of the shop and, if she really found us looking that dodgy, she could have called security to deal with us.
Instead, berating us in front of everyone was a bit too much.
We will be back to the shop, as simply there is nowhere else to go, but the whole incident made me think about the fundamental, important and existential differences between my lives in Italy and England.
As a Bulgarian, hence not belonging to the culture of either Italy, nor England, I have been for years in this privileged (if you would call it) position to observe two great nations at work and at play (and at serving customers along the way).
I thought that it would be a great exercise to try to describe the things which I had become totally accustomed to in England and which were thrown on their head once we moved to Italy. Sometimes totally for the best, sometimes not so much.
I am sure I have forgotten to include quite a few, but the ones below offer a good representation. Still, I feel I need to state that it is all firmly tongue-in-cheek and a bit stereotypical at times, as bad coffee in one country and bad customer service in the other are not quite enough to make me lose my temper and state: ‘That’s it! It’s time for us to go!’
So, without further ado, I present you with the:
35 Existential Differences Between The English and The Italians
The English have gnomes in their gardens
The Italians have Snow Whites and the Seven Dwarfs
OK, so technically still gnomes, but not quite. Plus, they get a beautiful girl thrown into the mix. I took the main photo of this blog post in the garden of a small cafe just a few steps away from Petrarch’s tomb. It was quite bizarre sitting there, chewing on our bruschetti called respectively ‘Laura’ and ‘Petrarca’ and looking at the neat line of dwarfs and the cute Snow White in the shadow of their olive tree. The great Italian humanist and poet’s tomb, made of red Verona marble, was just a few metres away from them.
The English have tea
The Italians drink coffee
And when the English try to make coffee, it is not that nice. They sometimes – shock, horror, get me off this planet now – microwave a cup of instant brown gravel and call this coffee. On the other hand you can buy black tea in Italy, but it is, usually, not half as strong as the version drunk in England (it is questionable whether any tea leaves have been involved – a note added by my husband, who is English, so he should know. As such he carries the total responsibility for this statement. Any complaints, please, refer them to him. Thank you!). Plus, the price of a cup of tea in an Italian cafe is double that of coffee and they serve it to you in a dainty cup with a slice of lemon and just not enough water. Where are the mugs, people?
The English have English gardens – haphazardly quaint
The Italians have Italian gardens – tailored and grand
Although both nations like to imitate what the other has achieved in terms of the gardening art. Hence, you can find Italianate gardens all over England (Leeds Castle, anyone?!) and English gardens next to Italian villas (Vila Pisani, anyone?!).
The English may start thinking about needing a light jacket over their t-shirts when it’s 10 degrees outside
The Italians wear 10 layers for that kind of weather
One of my most cherished memories of London was seeing a girl wearing cutout shoes when it had just snowed outside. She was on the tube with her mum and both were carrying lots of shopping bags, so it was not that she couldn’t afford boots. It was just one of those eccentric ways in which the English show their complete disregard for the cold. Not to mention the girls wearing skimpy outfits when they go out clubbing (even in minus temperatures), as the clubs (apparently) don’t have cloakrooms and it has become somewhat of a badge of honour to show that the cold doesn’t seem to affect you. Click here to find out more about how the two nations approach weather and feeling hot or cold.
The English think pizza is a pie slathered with barbecue sauce and piled sky-high with toppings
The Italians have the real thing
You need to stand in the queue for the fresh pizza counter at one of England’s supermarkets to realise how far from the original idea pizza has moved on in Britain. It is not bad in taste, mind you, it’s just that it doesn’t have much to do with the real thing anymore. This is not to say that you cannot come across bad pizza in Italy. For example, our local pizza joint has just been sold to new owners and they slather the cheap mozzarella by the bucket load which has already convinced me that we should start making the ten meters longer trek to the other local pizza joint where pizzas are still delightfully thin and restrained. Whereas in England, such a small transgression would have never stopped me going there. Instead, I would be like ‘yea, gimme the cheese’. Not to mention that in England, you can even get sweet pizza with chocolate chunks and marshmallows. I know, I know, I won’t even go there. Oh, the sacrilege!
The English have Italian restaurants
The Italians generally don’t have English restaurants
This is self-explanatory, methinks, so let’s move forward.
The English stop at zebra crossings
The Italians not so much
Yes, this is something which really upsets me to this day. Cars whiz past you while you spend half of your life waiting for a break in traffic to cross a smallish street. Then, just as you have stepped on the zebra, a car will come from the opposite direction speeding up to drive right in front of you, because to stop and let you pass would be admitting to a driving weakness and we can’t have this in Italy, can we?! I once observed an old Italian gentleman waiting to cross the street for several minutes. He grew visibly angry and he was muttering some choice words to himself. All of a sudden, he threw his hands up in the air and shouted something. The cars braked on both sides of the zebra letting him pass. ‘Aha!’, I had a light-bulb moment. This is how it should be done! So, if you see someone around in Vicenza throwing her hands up in the air and screaming something while waiting at a zebra, be sure that this is me, just getting on with crossing the street.
The English like their portions rather big
The Italians are crazy about portion control
Which basically shows in the size of the population. Sorry, for being un-PC et al. The Italians seem obsessed with their weight with pharmacy displays advertising slimming aids and tablets, with people smoking to curb their appetite and breakfasting on two biscuits and a cup of coffee. At the same time, in England you can buy the most fashionable clothes in any possible size. Having grown in a very strict in terms of weight-obsession and extreme dieting culture (hello, fellow Bulgarian ladies!), I am not going to engage further on this topic at this moment in time as it needs its own blog post.
The English call summer two weeks of no or very little rain
The Italians call summer a disaster if it rains more than three times
And this is one of the main reasons why I was adamant that we move to Italy. I wanted sole and I wanted it now. Mission accomplished!
The English are masters of queuing
The Italians will take any chance not to queue. It is a national sport.
I mean, the English can really form an orderly queue of one. When in England, you know that you will never suffer the indignity of queue-jumpers. Instead, people will very politely keep your place in the queue. Makes life so much easier. In Italy, I once stopped going to a particular cafe for a while, because every time I went there, at least one person who came after me would be served before me. There was not a discernible way to know which direction the lady behind the counter would look at next and you had to be in her ever-changing line of vision in order to place your order. To combat the constant queue-jumping and the passions this would provoke, many Italian institutions – from banks and hospitals to even market stalls – have installed ticket machines. So, you get a number and wait to be called. Genius!
The English start their fiscal year in April
The Italians start it on the 1st January
Plus Italians pay more tax. Been there, done that, it was painful. But Italians can claim back the tax on such stuff as dental work and pharmacy-bought drugs. You just need to keep the receipts and give them to your commercialista (Italian for accountant). I think that sorts of explains why such a simple thing as paracetamol can easily cost anything between 3 and 4 euros here in Italy, whereas in England it is less than a pound. In some English supermarkets, they even have their own brand paracetamol for 16 pence! The lucky things.
The English like to spend the night at the pub (ideally, without the nagging wife)
The Italians spend the night rather more socially
Pubs seem to be the centre of social life in England, especially in smaller towns. They are cool to go to a couple of times in order to imbibe that particular English atmosphere. Spend a bit longer there though and you will start noticing the same thing over and over again – a vast number of men nursing a pint of weak lager after another, having a repetitive banter with the bar staff and not going home until after the bell, even though they have families. I guess, it just relaxes them being there. Italians seem to spend their evenings in a more social way, first by going for a traditional passeggiata – a walk to see everyone and be seen by everyone round the town’s square – and then to a restaurant with the family including the children and even the tiniest babies.
The English kids go to bed at 7 pm
The Italian kids go to bed rather later than that
Yep, in Italy you can see children having meals with their parents and extended families at restaurants as late as 11 pm and even midnight. Even if they don’t go out for the evening, the children still tend to stay up past 8 o’clock. In England child-rearing can be a rather tightly regimented activity with expectations what children can and cannot eat, when children can and cannot make noise and when children should go to bed. There are many families where children have an early dinner (often also called ‘tea’) and then go to bed for their parents to have their own supper at a later time and enjoy an evening without putting up with the demands of their offspring.
The English are very good at customer service
The Italians could be better
It’s not that the Italians are bad at customer service, but, at best, they are irregular at it. Meaning that they can be either super friendly and nice or very authoritarian-like barking orders at you and telling you in no uncertain terms what you did wrong as a customer. I am all for honesty and being direct, but, please, expressing your suspicions aloud that we could have used the same receipt ten times to steal a showerhead, makes me resent spending money in your shop. At the same time, the English have learned how to excel at customer service not least because customers are not shy to ask to speak to the manager should something doesn’t go entirely their way.
The English have an ever-shrinking lunch break
The Italians close shop for hours at lunchtime
It is tacitly considered bad practice in some English companies to spend your lunch break away from your desk. Many employees are reduced to having a quick sandwich with one hand while answering emails with the other. Apparently, it shows dedication to the company and how good at multitasking employees can be. At the same time, Italians keep faithful to their tradition of riposo – when they stop working for up to four hours every afternoon in order to take it easy during the hottest time of the day. Learn more about riposo here and how you can make it work for you.
The English like to buy even bigger houses and to take even larger mortgages
The Italians tend to stay in the same house/flat for most of their life and add bits to it
It is an unspoken expectation that you need to scale the property ladder as high up as you can in England. Ideally, in your 20’s you start with the purchase of a smallish house in a not ideal part of town. Then, as you get married and pool finances with your significant other, you get a larger mortgage and a larger abode. And then you move every seven years or so in order to provide a room for each member of the family or, simply, to be in the catchment area of a good school. In your twilight years, the idea is that you would sell the large home you have acquired, buy yourself something smaller and more manageable and use the difference to go on a cruise every year. With property prices rising, this is not as easy to achieve anymore. Still, the English continue dreaming of buying and selling houses. How far up the property ladder you are is a symbol of success. Heck, even national newspapers are in the habit of mentioning the value of your house if, for whatever reason, you have become the subject of one of their articles. The Italians also take mortgages to finance the purchase of a home. Yet, they tend to stay in the same flat or house much longer, opting to add to it, wherever possible. It is quite often that you can see houses where visible additions in the shape of rooms and whole new wings have been done through the years. This way, you can keep the family together and not spend crazy money on interest.
The English seem to favour the rough-and-ready look
The Italians are very image conscious
The English are quite practical when it comes to how they dress. Having to commute long distances for work every day, they tend to dress for comfort. It is a regular thing to see on the London Underground a business woman dressed in an expensive suit and with some well worn sneakers on her feet. This is because she keeps her nice but not very comfortable shoes at her desk at work, ready to slip into them once her morning commute has finished. Unlike the English, the Italians are obsessed with looking pristine. Without giving too much information away, there is a local lady who always wears super high heels – in the snow, in the sun, even on the icy roads last year. How she does it? I don’t know. I wince in pain just at the look of her balancing perched high above the pavement.
The English like their fruit and veg perfect and packaged
The Italians put plastic gloves on and pick from piles of fresh produce
It is a bit ridiculous how perfect the fruit and vegetables should look for them to be considered fit for sale in England. It is definitely a look over taste matter there. At the same time, fruit and veg in English supermarkets tend to be pre-packaged in plastic for, allegedly, bigger convenience. So, instead of two carrots, you get a 1 kg pack, then you manage to eat half and you throw the rest. In Italy, fruit and veg don’t need to seem absolutely perfect, but their taste is always sublime. Most of the produce sold locally is actually grown locally, too. I have described here in some detail the curious act of using a plastic glove when shopping for fruit and veg in Italy. Click to read it, so you would be prepared next time you are here.
The English have the Two-Fingered Salute
The Italians have the Cornuto
Showing someone the two-fingered salute in England is an act of great offence. It is just like the victory sign, but with the knuckles rather than the palm facing the other party. Whereas in Italy, if they want to insult you, they use what I am more used to refer to as the ‘metal music fan’ sign. Which means that you stick out your index and your little fingers whilst keeping the other three bent. This hand sign is called the Cornuto (Horned) in Italian as, apparently, it looks like horns. Showing it to someone means that their significant other is being unfaithful to them. It is especially useful if you want to make your feelings known to a driver who has committed a major road faux-pas, like undercutting you or not stopping at a zebra. I feel that here it is important to add that flicking the middle finger seems to work in both countries. Based on cultural observations, not first-hand practice.
The English policemen have flippads
The Italian carabinieri have firearms
The Italian policemen also have some very swish uniforms and some of them even carry manbags. The three times that I have had to deal with Italian policemen face to face, they were incredibly courteous and sympathetic. I hope not to have the need to bother them again with me and my small time complaints. The English policemen don’t have guns, but have some funky hats and these tiny notebooks in which they take detailed notes when you approach them with your issue.
The English love their crisps
The Italians stick to breadsticks
When you enter an English supermarket, you cannot help it but notice that there is a whole aisle dedicated to crisps. In different flavours (some of the most popular of which seem to be: cheese & onion, salt & vinegar and prawn cocktail) and in colourful packaging they wave at you and sort of force you to buy a bag or two. You may not want to, but if you live in England for any length of time, you end up eating crisps. I was particularly partial to the crinkly flame grilled steak ones. At least, I am happy that I never adopted the English habit of having crisps sandwiches, which is exactly what you think it is, namely two buttered pieces of bread with a thick layer of crisps squished between them. Yum! Or not. Anyway, the Italians seem to love their breadsticks and anything dry and bread-based to nibble on. There is a whole aisle with breadsticks and variations in the Italian supermarkets. Mind you, they sell crisps, too and in an ever increasing range of flavours, which seem to be slightly more refined than the options in England. For example, rosemary and even truffle.
The English invented football
The Italians play it better
Well, this is also self-explanatory, so let’s move on forward.
The English have English breakfast
The Italians have brioche and cappuccino
The English have developed this particular style of breakfast meal which seems to fascinate people the world over. ‘What?! They eat beans for breakfast?!’, used to play on repeat in my mind when I moved to London in December 2000. Then, I sort of got used to it and I would sometimes indulge in an English breakfast, particularly enjoying the eggs, the mushrooms, the grilled tomatoes and the strong black tea, no sugar, please. I didn’t care much for the hash browns, but the beans on toast were, actually, rather nice. The Italians on the other hand keep breakfast a simple, but sweet affair. They usually have a brioche and a cappuccino to start the day. If you are interested to find out what a brioche is in the Veneto, please, click here. In Vicenza, instead of cappuccino, they also often have macchiatone. This is something like a half-sized cappuccino or a super-sized macchiato.
The English children start school at 4 years of age
The Italian children stay at nursery until they are 6
Little children in England start learning how to write and read at the tender age of 4! With parents working long hours and commuting long distances, starting school early seems to be a good solution to the eternal issue of organising childcare. Also, nurseries in England can cost an arm and leg, as the government generally covers only about 15 hours of nursery time for free. Depending on where they work, some parents can get up to 30 free hours of nursery time. Either way it is not quite enough for a full-time working parent, so people end up spending small fortunes on nurseries. In Italy, nurseries (called scuola materna) for children between 3 and 6 years of age are free. Parents pay only for lunches, insurance, some extracurricular activities and may be asked to provide small items for the children like felt-tip pens and tissues.What is paid for (and often is quite expensive, too) are nurseries (called asilo nido) for children from >1 to 3 years of age.
The English kids have their school holidays spread through the year with six weeks off in summer
The Italian kids have less holidays through the year and a massive summer vacation lasting three months
English parents have it really difficult. They either have to pay through the nose in order to vacation during school holidays (flight and travel prices increase dramatically when the kids are off school) or they can risk paying a hefty fine if they take their children off school in order to take them on holiday. The six weeks of summer vacation is a particularly pricey period. In Italy there is much less time off school through the year, but then children have the whole three months of summer off. Close knitted families rally round to help. The grandparents look after the offspring so that the parents can continue going to work. There are also many sports and crafts summer camps which cost between 80 and 100 euros per week (strictly based on my experience in Vicenza) where the child joins the activities through the day and returns home in the late afternoon.
The English get scandalised when a mother breastfeeds her baby under a blanket in the dark corner of a coffee shop
The Italian mothers get on with it in the middle of the square. No blanket required
It is quite glorious, really, being a breastfeeding mother in Italy. No-one bats an eye and nursing tops even have slits across the breasts for a quick access. Click here for much more information on this very interesting topic. I definitely salute the Italians for their attitude to breastfeeding.
The English are constantly worried that they are an inconvenience to someone
The Italians don’t really worry about such things
It’s like, when in England and you are at the front of a queue, you feel you need to turn around to apologise to those waiting behind you if the person serving you needs a bit longer to deal with your request. Like, the label on the product you are buying didn’t scan right the first time or you have asked a question which needs the clerk to browse through a couple of screens on the computer in front of him. No such worries here in Italy. Everyone takes as long as they want once they have finally reached the front of the queue. Sometimes, they even jump the queue as, obviously, their time and the issue they need help with is much more precious than yours.
The English don’t allow dogs in shops
The Italians shop with their dogs
Dogs are truly loved, adored and cherished in Italy. They are taken everywhere and spoilt rotten. People even go shopping with them. Our first weekend in Italy, after we moved to live here, we went to Ikea (as you do!) and I was gobsmacked by the number of dogs who were quietly shopping for new furniture and knick-knacks with their owners there. No such thing in England, where dogs are not allowed in shops and people may actually call the council to report you if your dog dares to bark once or twice after ten pm. The only shops where dogs are not allowed in Italy are food shops. But they make up for it by often placing a bowl with water for the doggies to refresh themselves while they wait. Click here for more information on Italians and their puppy love.
The English clean fanatically after their dogs
The Italians don’t always do it
For all their love for dogs, the Italians not always clean after them. It is not as bad as another country in Europe, which I am not going to name, but quite a few dog owners in Vicenza, at least, fail to pick after their doggie friend. Please, guys, do it. I know it is not fab having to deal with poo (this is the main reason I am not ready for us to have a dog yet), but it is really gross to have to watch where you step so as to avoid the mess your dog has made on the pavement. Bleurgh! Honestly, if you don’t clean after your dog, you should be ashamed of yourself. You are not clever, you are disgusting. There! I said it.
The English have the stiff upper lip notion
The Italian live by the ideal of the bella figura
In England, the less emotions your face betrays, the better. Ideally, you should appear and act like nothing really affects you. When you really, really need to offload, you can use a bit of dry humour. The notion Italy lives and swears by is that of the bella figura. In other words – people need to look nice, speak nice and lead nice lives. Everything needs to be perfect. And if it is not perfect, then it needs to be just so. You need to be slim, elegant, beautifully dressed, stylishly polished. And you are very much judged on your appearance all of the time. Which can become a bit boring.
The English have double-decker buses
The Italians have double-decker trains
Doesn’t need an explanation, really. If you need my personal take on this, here it is. I love the double-decker trains. You get a great point of view up there. I wasn’t too partial of the double-decker buses in London. They do look great (especially the old Routemaster ones), but they always seemed to me unbelievably dangerous in terms of navigating the steps down when you needed to get off the bus. Most often than not, you need to do it before the bus has stopped and with London traffic suddenly stopping and then suddenly starting all the time, you need to hang on the railings for dear life, so as not to come tumbling down the steps.
The English favour dark-coloured cars
The Italians prefer their vehicles bright white
There is an unbelievable number of bright white cars on the streets of Italy. I don’t really remember seeing any white cars in England at all. I am sure there are may be a few, like a couple or one. We used to have a little red car, which I would mention lovingly on my blog here. Unfortunately, it was in an accident this past summer and it had to be scraped off. Don’t worry, we were not hurt and it was totally the other party’s fault. We soon realised that we needed a new car. I mean, public transport here in Italy is great, but if we wanted to continue exploring little known places around the Veneto, we needed a car and that was that. So, after a lot of research we got a bright white one, as apparently white is the most favoured colour for cars in Italy and white cars are easy to re-sell, which we will have to do once our time here comes to an end.
The English eat stuff like jellied eels and cockles
The Italians favour horse and donkey meat
In terms of weird foods the two nations show their inherent weirdness in different ways. Jellied eels and cockles used to be a London staple and are still offered there as nostalgia dishes. Instead, the Italians eat horse meat. Yes, there are whole butcher shops specialised in the sale of horse flesh which I wouldn’t eat. Sorry, I am a meat-eater but I have my limits. Apparently, the popular belief is that if you eat horse meat you will be like a horse, read very energetic, between the sheets. I don’t know if there is a popular belief about eating donkey meat, but I have seen donkey meat sausages sold at markets here.
The English like to sit and read on the toilet
The Italians used to prefer to squat on it
If you have ever walked in a public toilet in Italy and have been shocked by the fact that it was a ‘hole in the floor’, I would like to re-assure you that at home Italians definitely have modern sit-on toilets. They also have bidets, which are quite the rarity in England. What the English like to have in their toilets though are books. Some families even set up a shelf with books to help them pass the time on (as they lovingly call it) the bog.
The English still separate the hot and the cold water
The Italians may use a foot pedal to get the water flowing
A proper English sink would have separate taps for the hot and the cold water. This, apparently, is due to the fact that different pipes would feed the hot and the cold water to the taps. Nowadays mixing taps are slowly making a progress in English homes. Still, due to the old infrastructure and the huge number of old houses which would be extremely expensive to modernise, most people continue to scald one hand and freeze the other when they do their morning ablutions. The Italians have their own little sink-related idiosyncrasy here. In a public toilet, if you feel at loss as to how to make the water flow from the tap, look underneath the sink. Just above your feet, there will be a pedal, which you need to step on in order to pump the water out.
I know, this last point is really so weird, I had to enclose some proof. Enjoy!
Separate taps for hot and cold water in England
A pedal-operated sink in Italy
What do you think of my list? Have I missed anything?
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