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Three More Things Which Shocked Me in Italy

Wrought iron element, Italy

OK, I hear you groan! Here she comes again, bemoaning her cushty Italian life, finding little niggles to complain about with all that beautiful architecture, millennia-old history and great food around her.

And, yes, you will be right. On a day to day basis my life in Italy is indeed pretty great. In fact, I love it here. When the sun is shining and the sky is blue above Vicenza, I can’t help it but feel a teensy bit smug too, especially if it has been snowing in England or raining in Bulgaria.

It is just that every now and then things happen, small things that leave me a bit speechless and make me draw in my mind cultural parallels and living abroad meridians. When several such things happen one after another in quick succession and/or on the same day, I sit down and write something like this:

Three Things Which Shocked Me in Italy

That’s correct! Initially there were only three such things. All in all, a negligible number. After I posted my blog post I even received some criticism along the lines of: ‘OMG, is that all?! What about riposo? Now this drives me mad.’ Riposo being the period of three to four hours which Italian shops and offices shut for at lunchtime every day only to re-open in the late afternoon. ‘No, I am not shocked by riposo‘, was my carefully thought-out reply to this.  ‘It is a tradition which has been in force for many centuries, whereas shortchanging customers (see my second grievance in the hyperlinked blog article above) is an individual decision taken by the particular shopkeeper. So, whilst the former is a question of national culture, the latter is a sign of lack of morals and this I, personally, find shocking.’

So, yes, when I talk about things which have shocked me here, they always are related to the behaviour of individuals. Inconsiderate people, rude people, people who think they are smarter than you, people whose attitude simply stuns and baffles me. Unfortunately, when such behaviour seems to be perpetuated over and over again, I can’t help it but start seeing it as a sign of a tacit societal norm and ‘norms’ like the ones illustrated below I do find a bit hard to digest.

Here they are. Three little things which have pushed me a bit over the edge lately. I truly hope this is just my experience and no-one else has come across them at all. Still, as everyone’s experience is a valid source of reflection, I am sharing mine.

 

Pushy Men on Public Transport

What is with Italian men who, when they see a woman with a buggy waiting at the bus stop, make it their goal to push in front of her when the bus arrives in order to board first?! Is it the fear that she may ask you for help? Is it the fact that she is ‘used goods’ (as she has a child by another man), so she is not really worth it the time? Or is it something else? I would really like to know. The first time that I got pushed aside like this, it was by a teenager eager to get on the bus and nab a seat. ‘Oh, the youth of today!’, I thought. But then it happened again and again. By men in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s (interestingly enough, the older gentleman are always very considerate and polite). I don’t take the bus in Vicenza that often. I prefer to walk, but once a week I need to get on public transport for a longer journey and, now I know, if there is a young-ish man at the bus stop, even though he may have come long after I have been there waiting for the bus, when said bus arrives, I will be pushed aside. Or, to be precise: the buggy with my child in it would be unceremoniously pushed aside. I have been pushed aside by women, too. But I have also been helped numerous times by kind ladies, so I don’t hold a grudge against the pushing ones. Or not so vehemently anyway. Actually, I don’t expect anyone to help me getting on and off the bus. I always make sure that I can easily lift the buggy with my little daughter and several bags in it. I never ask for help, even when the bus is not adapted for buggies and I need to lift my buggy up and down three steep steps. And I have stopped several ladies and old gentlemen who so very kindly have tried to help me. I know only too well how excruciating back pain can be and I wouldn’t want anyone to get hurt just because they wanted to help me. What I still don’t understand though is why Italian men below certain age like to push in front of my buggy when we all board the bus. All the while avoiding to look at me and maintaining a very surly expression on their faces. It doesn’t correspond with any cultural cliches I have heard and observed about Italy. Are they in a real hurry to board because they are late for work or another such important thing? Well, the bus is not leaving until I am on it with my buggy anyway, so why push? Here I would like to specify that this little diatribe is dedicated without any love and with no consideration whatsoever to the man who tried to push in front me on bus 14 yesterday. If he thought that after waiting for 40 minutes in the glaring sun, I would tolerate someone shoving aside the buggy with my sleeping child in it just so that he could get on a half-empty bus, he had it wrong. Dude, you should be ashamed of yourself!

 

Smoking Around Babies and Children

OK, smoking seems to be a very popular pasttime here in Italy. Shiny new vending machines are everywhere giving you quick access to all brands of cigarettes at any hour of the day and night. People smoke as they walk down the street, take cigarette breaks and so on. Smoking is also not restricted to a particular gender and/or age group and/or social status. It is quite ubiquitous. Fine! It is your health, so you do what you need/want to do. I have grown up surrounded by smokers, all my friends at school were smokers and I even tried to become a smoker once (yes, it was considered the grown-up thing to do at the time), but I somehow didn’t succeed. So, yes, everyone decides for themselves and if they want to use smoking in order to belong, to control their appetite or because they don’t know anything better, I am not going to waste my time preaching how terrible smoking is and how smelly and disgusting and headache-inducing the resulting secondhand smoke is. Oh, I started preaching?! Couldn’t resist! Anyway, the thing which really shocks me is how often people actually smoke right next to babies and children, including their own. I often see mums and grannies in the park cigarette in one hand right next to the buggy with their baby in it. Or with a cigarette in hand at the kids’ playground. Or just smoking and walking next to their children. Smoking next to children is something which upsets me no end. Please, don’t do it and if you decide to have a cigarette as you are walking down the street, consider passing little children too, as they will be right at the level of your cigarette. After writing this, I felt a bit down and thought that perhaps I had imagined everything I wrote about above and may be I was making a lot of fuss about nothing. So, I decided to clear my head and go out for a quick coffee. Now, it is Labour Day here plus it is Sunday, so the streets in our part of Vicenza were deserted. And just as I was heading to the local coffee shop, this is what I came across – two ladies with a baby in a buggy buying cigarettes from the vending machine attached to the wall of the local tobacco shop. Then they lit up and continued down the street pushing the buggy. Honest to God, I am not making it up!

 

No Smiling, Please! We Are Italians

For all their national stereotypes as passionate convivial people, most of the Italians I have come across so far seem extremely serious and restrained in their day-to-day lives. Which was a bit of a shock to me. Something similar to the shock I experienced when I moved to England and soon realised that the English are not the reserved cold people which the national stereotypes make them out to be. They smile a lot, are very good at small talk and seem to always have something ready to say in order to break the ice in a nice way. I miss this! It is so much easier to walk into an office or a shop and deal with a smiling clerk or sales assistant, even though she may be polite only contractually, whilst otherwise she may be hating your guts. At least she is not showing it! Unfortunately, most of the clerks and sales assistants I have come across here so far have been the exact opposite of ‘bubbly’ (I am using this term on purpose, as British companies often indicate or at least used to indicate ‘being bubbly’ as a pre-requisite for front of house jobs). Italian clerks and sales assistants seem totally restrained, matter-of-fact and very, very serious. It is like there is this unspoken fear that if you smile, you will lose your authority or something. Once again I felt terrible about putting this into words, so I thought long and hard if I should or if I shouldn’t write it here. I even went out for a coffee to mull it over (same outing for coffee as mentioned above, not another one). And whatdoyaknow?! The lady in the coffee house who must have seen me now about hundred times over the past year and a half, didn’t even say hello. She took my order silently, only opening her mouth to say ‘Bresciana‘, when I asked her for the name of a particular sweet. ‘Ah, is this because it is from the city of Brescia?’, I said in my best broken Italian, meaning to say: ‘Is this because the sweet is originally from Brescia?’, to which she replied sternly and condescendingly: ‘No, of course it is not from Brescia.’ Which I took to mean: ‘No, of course this one sweet in particular is not coming all the way from Brescia. We made it here with our own hands.’ I just scooted over to a free table and decided then and there to go ahead and express my concern about the missing smiles on the streets and in the shops of Italy. So, yes, if you feel offended, blame that lady selling me the Bresciana sweet (which was very nice and one of the reasons why I keep going to that coffee place time and time again, service with no smile notwithstanding). To be honest, after having been through the grinder of Bulgarian customer service I thought nothing really could surprise me anymore. I thought I had seen it all, but it feels strange, very strange to buy things from people who are so proper and stern, and so good at keeping their distance at all times. I fluctuate between: ‘Oh my God, what have I done wrong?!’ to ‘Is this because she doesn’t like me?!’ Definitely neither is good when you support a business with your husband’s hard earned cash. But, let’s be honest here. In two of my local shops where they see me a couple of times a week at least, apart from the obligatory ‘Buongiorno‘ now I also get something like a smile. I would call it ‘half-smile’, but mathematically it is more like a ‘sixteenth of a smile’. I gather I will have to settle for this. In fact, a couple of days ago, when I was developing the concept of this blog post in my head, I did a very representative and exhaustive survey of one person on the topic of smiling in Italy. Basically, I gathered the courage and asked my favourite sales lady, who is always smiling and is very nice, the following thing: ‘Excuse me, ahem, may I ask you a cultural question, please?! Why is that when I go shopping here, people are very stern? They are polite and all, but they never smile.’ She said: ‘Ah, people are like this because of the crisis we are going through. They lack money and are not earning what they used to.’ And then she finished: ‘But, it is always nice to smile. As I say: You need to show your teeth, because if you don’t, you are getting zero back.’

So true!

 

Thank you for reading! I would love to know your opinions and experiences with regards to the above. Is it all in my head? Am I expecting too much? Let me know what you think, especially if you have an answer to my first issue above. Ta! 

About the author

Rossi

Rossi

Hello! I am Rossi - a Bulgarian currently living in Italy after a 14-year stint in England. This is my blog about my life in these three countries, travels around Europe and opinions about the world we live in. For regular updates, please, subscribe to my newsletter and follow me on social media online. You can also get in touch via the Contacts form or by commenting on the articles in my blog.

6 Comments

  • Hi Rossi, I am currently in Italy on vacation. There have been a few cultural differences that I wanted to look up, and the lack of smiling or seriousness was one of them. I’m in Venice now, and we finally encountered some smiling people at our hotel and the restaurant we went to last night. I assumed it must be cultural because we have been to Sorrento, Amalfi, Capri, Rome, Florence, Cortona, Arezzo (where I got yelled at by an elderly Italian man because the item I wanted to purchase at the market was 3 Euros and I only had a 10. I guess he didn’t want to make change), and finally Venice. It seemed the further north we went, the nicer the people (Arezzo excluded). We were in Rome at the Coliseum and I heard one of the vendors ask’”where are the people that are happy and smiling from?” Someone answered,”America” to which he responded,”I want to go there.” In response to your comment about the situation with jobs, my wife talked to a tour bus ticket person about his job because he had only been doing it 2 days. He said there were no jobs so that’s why he was out there trying to make a living.

    Italy was not what I expected. I am a former chef and I was excited about the food, but it has been somewhat disappointing. Yes the pastries, coffee, cheese, cured meat, and sandwiches have been good, but I’ve only really had 3 good meals in 12 days. We have enjoyed our trip, but I’m not thinking about our next trip to Italy. There are other places I would go before coming back.

    A couple of questions that maybe you can answer. Why do Italians put the change down on the counter or not grab it when you hand it to them? Why is there so much graffiti in Rome and Naples? There is way more than in New York, which was surprising. Why are there armed forces, Carbinieri (who are they), politzia nacional, local police, etc? What is the purpose of each department? When tipping, what is appropriate? I’ve read that overtipping can be considered an insult. Thanks for your blog.

    • Dear Francisco,

      Thank you for stopping by and for your detailed comment.
      I am really sorry that your time in Italy doesn’t seem to have met all the expectations that people usually have about this otherwise fascinating destination.
      I have to say that in spite of many things, I still love living here and, personally, for me there are more pluses than minuses although sometimes a small Italian minus can really spoil my day.
      I think, after having been here for four and a half years, that, ideally, Italy needs to be explored slowly, region by region and without trying to see all the large tourist hotspots at the same time. I fully understand that we all are time-poor and try to see as much as possible within a short amount of time. Sometimes though this can put us under a lot of pressure and not give us a chance to enjoy the small joys that Italy so abundantly offers like a slower rhythm of life, a long afternoon break and lots of family time. When it is all about sightseeing and visiting a large number of unmissable places, it is only too easy to have a few negative experiences along the way.
      Italy is going through some very testing times in terms of job availability and economic situation. There is a lot of uncertainty and when you don’t know where and when your next salary is coming from, smiling and being nice become less of a priority. Also, it seems to be part of the culture to be a bit more guarded and not open easily to strangers. This way when someone finally smiles at you, at least you know that it is sincere. 🙂 I would imagine that it can be a bit of a shock being faced with customer service in Italy if you are used to sales assistants really doing their best to help you. Customer service here is much more matter of fact and direct. It’s a transaction rather than a special experience. You give money, you get a product. That’s it.
      As for the graffiti – they seem to be everywhere. I don’t know why. The Italian youth seems not to be able to contain themselves at the sight of a historical wall and they seem compelled to scribble something on it. Actually, a couple of months ago, I went to the birth house of a famous painter – Cima da Conegliano – who lived several centuries ago and in one of the rooms there were actually graffiti on the wall scribbled by Cima himself! Obviously, Cima’s graffiti have a historic value and are protected. 🙂 So, the tradition of scribbling or painting on the wall goes a long time. In some Italian cities like Padua, for example, there are whole creative collectives who create some rather stunning graffiti. So, again, graffiti here can be a plus or a minus depending on the city, the street, the artist and the final result.
      All in all, I think that Italy is a very multifaceted country and some of its facets we, as visitors, are not prepared for. Unfortunately, we all are fed a constant diet of stunning Italian images and cliches and then we come here expecting a quasi-perfect country. Which it cannot be. Reality can be very different from our expectations. The important bit, at least for me, is to concentrate on what I want to gain from this whole experience and simply don’t worry too much about the rest. Otherwise, it gets truly overwhelming. For example, my local fruit and veg person can be quite grumpy at times but I keep going back because the fruit and veg are outstanding. So, I have come to understand that I can’t have it all from him – the smile, the constant attention, and the great produce. One or two suffice. 🙂 Although, the minute he starts selling me bad apples and wilted asparagus with a smile, I will stop going there. 🙂
      In any case, I hope that you have great time from now on until the end of your Italian trip. I hope that you give Italy another chance in the future as it is really a country very rich in art, history, beauty, and emotions.
      About the police here and its very many and different branches: I am not really a specialist, I am afraid. Each branch of the police is in charge of a different thing but, all in all, I am also not completely sure how it works. I need to read a bit more about it or ask some Italian acquaintances to see if they can shed some light for me.
      Thank you again for getting in touch.

      With best wishes,

      Rossi 🙂

  • cannot agree with you more! Just got back from Italy, beautiful place, lovely desserts and gelato, lots of helpful people…! but Omg! the most annoying thing was smoking! Fine, its your cigarette , your health! but why doing this disgusting thing everywhere! There was no fresh air literally in railway stations and near the tourist place and restaurants! They are making everyone smoke, including kids! and yes , I was googling about the exact same thing which is how I found this article.

    • Ah, so sorry you had to experience this!! I think, over the years I started to notice fewer and fewer smokers on the streets of Vicenza and Italy. I don’t know if this is because I just got used to it all or because people smoke less. Most probably it is the former.
      Anyway, the other day I came across a very nice coffee shop here in Vicenza. It was inside a gallery (which is like a small shopping street with a roof on top), so all the clients who couldn’t smoke inside the coffee shop were smoking in front of it. Yes, that’s right! They were smoking outside of the coffee shop even though the coffee shop was inside the gallery (a space with a roof on top) so, technically, they were still smoking inside. The smell was really nasty. Cue an immediate headache for me and a rush to leave the gallery even though there were some nice shops there.
      So, yes, smoking is a problem here. Which is a shame, as the history, the art and the beautiful views are really to die for!
      Best wishes and I hope that people smoke less where you are.

      Rossi 🙂

  • Hi Rossi! Nice to ‘meet’ you. I found your blog when I googled “Why don’t Italian women smile” so, no, it isn’t all in your head nor are you alone in being self deprecating about it (What did I do?) or, for lack of a better word, bummed by the aloof response by sales people in Italy. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit beautiful Florence, Venice and Rome twice in the last couple years and got the same reception as you. Try as I might to elicit a smile or ‘friendly eyes’ from folks I was doing business with, it never really happened. As you said, Italians are very pleasant and I can honestly say I only remember one outwardly rude waiter, but their demeanor is quite different from what I’m used to (I live in the states). It’s hard not to take it personally. But for me that’s part of the fun of travel – not only learning about the history of a place and getting to see its beauty, but also learning about different cultures and the way they do things. Too often in the US there’s an attitude of “OUR way is the right way and to do it differently is wrong or (worse yet), stupid!” It makes me sad. Little wonder we have the reputation of “Ugly American”. I get to go back to Italy for a couple weeks this October and despite the lack of smiles I know I’ll get, I’m over the moon excited about it! Hands down, Florence is my favorite place in the world. It’s beauty is incomparable…the food and wine ain’t too bad either! Ciao! Lisa

    • Hi Lisa,
      Many thanks for your very nice and personal comment.
      I love living in Italy and to be honest, for a while now I have stopped paying attention to the general lack of smiles. 🙂 I think I am just very used to living here now. 🙂 The art, the history, the architecture, the gorgeous nature really make up for everything else.
      I wish you a great time in Florence, it truly is an amazing city.
      Thank you again for stopping by and for sharing your thoughts with me.

      Best wishes,

      Rossi 🙂

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