Expat Life Italian Lifestyle

Cultural and Uncultured Shocks of Our First Month in Italy

Large plum bought from an Italian supermarket, Vicenza, Italy
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Our first month in Italy swished past in a whirlwind of glorious emotions, gorgeous vistas and delicious food.

Observing the Italians at such a close range made me feel excited, puzzled or a tad frustrated, often at the same time. Here are the main differences with my life in England – little discoveries that sprang at me daily leaving me either breathless with laughter, questioning my common sense or simply quite a few euros poorer:

Everything Is Much More Personal

After close to 14 years in England, where people value their and the others’ personal space so much so as to keep it intact even on a crowded rush hour tube train, having someone stand really close to you and even jostling you with their elbows at the supermarket checkout queue is a bit unsettling. Giving them a dirty look doesn’t quite work the same way as in the UK either. At best, you will be met with a wide smile and a person happy to engage in some small talk with you. At worst, you will be perceived as the rude one for needlessly glaring at them. People are much more personal here, it seems. Many interactions are conducted face to face, to the point where a services company still sends a real person to ring your bell and offer you to switch to them. It gives a new meaning to the term ‘cold calling’, doesn’t it? Also, most payments need to be made in person at la cassa, rather than quickly but facelessly online, a new gas and electricity supply contract needs to be taken again in person to the local office of the supply company to validate it, instead of spending 15 soulless minutes talking to a call centre operator somewhere across the world from you. Yes, all this makes you go out and talk to people, helping you feel less isolated in your new country, albeit a bit frustrated as to how long it takes to do most stuff here.

Health Services Are Not Free

If you are used to free interactions with a generous NHS, it comes as a shock to the system to be asked to pay for most health-related services in Italy – including emergency treatment, if your case is not considered to be urgent. Admittedly, a visit to your GP will be free. Any tests that he or she may prescribe though are paid for. How much? It will vary from province to province and in some cases the fee will be higher than the one prescribed by the Italian Ministry of Health. You only find out how much the test will cost once you have gone to have it done. Then you need to pay for it, before you can have it done.  It can easily cost over a hundred euros for a blood test, for example.  As for the emergency services, we rushed our baby to the Pronto Socorsoat the local hospital in Vicenza one Sunday afternoon. For the previous three days she had suffered with high fever, followed by a heavy rash and heart-wrenching cries. A visit on the Friday before to her paediatrician turned out to be both useless and frustrating, as la dottoressa spent most of the time being indignant at my inability to speak fluent Italian and then couldn’t find anything wrong with my baby. At the children’s section of the emergency services they treated us beautifully. A nurse blew soap bubbles to keep my baby entertained while the doctor checked her over. The diagnosis – roseola (an illness affecting babies and toddlers) – was not considered dangerous and we were issued with an invoice for 20.50 euros. In fact, I thought that introducing a fee for non-emergency treatment at the A&E departments could be quite a genius idea to help out the cash-strapped NHS. It would be interesting though to see the uproar its introduction might provoke in the UK.

Kids Rule

When British kids go to sleep at 7 pm, their Italian counterparts come out to play. Well, who can go to sleep, when the sun is still shining, the balmy air of a lovely evening beckons you out and Mummy and Daddy are getting ready for their passegiata (a gentle stroll around the town square).  It is not unusual to see babies and toddlers with their parents enjoying a trattoria meal at 9 pm. I would be too scared to try this in the UK for fear of being called an irresponsible parent or worse. The most interesting thing is that here kids are not considered a nuisance, even in a restaurant setting.  Sweet old ladies, fellow mums and middle-aged men in business suits will come and fuss over your baby, paying her the most beautiful compliments that would melt any parent’s heart. Then they may even gently pinch her arm or leg. Try this in the UK! No, I didn’t think so. Family life is at the heart of the nation, kids are cherished and in a nice way spoiled. Train travel is free for them up to 4 years of age. Restaurants offer lovely kids meals of pasta and gnocchi, instead of deep-fried chicken nuggets and fries. Had there been more baby-changing facilities in cafes, department shops and even hospitals, I would have declared Italy as the place to raise a child.

Supermarket Etiquette

You don’t touch the fruit and vegetables with your bare hands in an Italian supermarket. That’s a big NO, NO, NO! Instead, you need to put a freely provided plastic glove on and carefully select the fresh produce you want. No shoving, throwing, damaging! After you have placed the selected fruit or veg in a plastic bag, you need to tie the bag and take it to the electronic scales in the aisle, to measure it and price it. For this, you need to memorize the code for each fruit or vegetable, which is shown on its respective price card. You punch the code on the electronic scales and they print you a label with the name, weight and total price, which you stick on your plastic bag. Capishe? So, instead of quickly and efficiently bagging your fruit and veg and moving onto the next aisle, people go to the electronic scales after each fruit or veg they have filled a plastic bag with, then they go back to the crates with fresh produce ready to pick their next choice. This makes shopping somewhat slower than in a British supermarket, where most things are pre-packaged and pre-weighted anyway and the ones that are not, will be weighted happily by the checkout person to save you time and effort.

Let’s explore the deli counters. In Italy, they are simply glorious! Gorgeous sausages, delicious cheeses; an excellent selection! Before you can order un etto (100 gr) of this or that, you need to get a ticket from the ticket machine, introduced to help manage the queues and avoid queue jumpers and any such unpleasantness. Even in a smaller supermarket it’s not rare to have 10, 15 or even 20 people in front of you, all waiting for their thinly sliced salumi.

Supermarket employees are not afraid to speak up. I was apparently targeted by this lovely looking girl, who appeared very distracted by her phone, but was in fact quite interested in my bag. A shelf-stacking employee next to me, observing her every move, wasn’t shy in addressing her when apparently she got too close to me and my bag. I couldn’t quite follow his rapid flow of Italian, but he quite openly accused her of being there to steal and sent her off on her way. Imagine this happening in Britain! He would probably be sued for defamation and most possibly dismissed. I was actually thankful to him.

People Dress for the Season and Not the Temperature

Having moved to Italy at the end of August, we enjoyed the sunny and hot weather and replenished our vitamin D reserves, so exhausted by yet another meek British summer. I quickly noticed that, while I was wearing short sleeved tops, our elegant neighbour would only venture out if she was dressed in a long floaty dress and a blazer. She complained to me that summer this year had been terrible in Italy with too much rain and not enough hot weather. Apparently our understanding of hot was dramatically different. On 21st September – the first day of autumn, the streets were suddenly filled with people with jackets and even jumpers and scarves. In the park, my baby girl and I (wearing light clothing to deal with the 25 C temperature) came across a grandmother wheeling around her granddaughter’s buggy. Both were dressed in buttoned up jackets and had warm scarves tightly wound around their necks. I would imagine there was a jumper or two underneath it all, too. So, no more sudden disrobing of the general British population when in November or in March the temperatures suddenly reach glorious 23-24 degrees. No more open shoes, short skirts and no coats in the London snow. Time to re-adjust to four seasons and the clothing to match each one of them.

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