1) The infamously bad service is infamously correct.
When Italian service is good, what you get is this delightfully relaxed atmosphere where you can talk with friends for as long as you like, drinking wine and debating the sad state of the world, until eventually – lackadaisically – you wave a finger and the waiter comes over eventually with your check. (They do not bring you your check before you ask for it, ever, which seems delightfully civilized.)
When it’s bad, you sit at a table for forty minutes and nobody pays attention to you, even though they waved you over to sit down yesterday. Or you tell them, “I need the check, our bus is leaving in fifteen minutes” and they fuck off until with three minutes left you have to find them to throw money at them, and they look at you like you’re the asshole. Or they lie and tell you their credit card machine isn’t working so they can fake the taxes.
We had some wonderful meals, when the waiter took a liking to us and chatted with us. All the other patrons suffered while he chatted, but fuck it, at that point we were like, “Okay, fine, this is the way it works.”
2) Americans are freaks for wanting water.
We thirsted. All the time. But there is no free water in Italy, and they think us mad for even wanting some. As it is, you have to ask for “still” water or they’ll bring you seltzer, and it comes in little tiny bottles that don’t serve a table.
We had to go to so much effort that even a cup of water seemed like a monstrous effort. And yet we never stopped. After a while, it felt mad to even try, but goddammit we were thirsty and we can’t just drink wine. When we got home and found waiters refilling our glasses unprompted, it felt like a waterfall of luxury.
3) Italians do not dip their bread in olive oil.
Nor do they like their pizza the way we do. But the pasta is delicious beyond what you get; you have to work to have a bad meal in Rome, you really do. Our worst meal was an Applebees-style experience, and even then the sea bass was above the cut. Our average meal was a fine meal in Cleveland. Those Italians know how to eat…
…except for all their bitching, really, bread in olive oil is delicious. Get over it, Italians. Get past tradition.
4) Italy’s main pasttime is hating their neighbors.
When I went to England, the history there was “We had an empire.” When I went to Germany, it was a staunch “Here is what we built.” In Italy, it was “Here’s how we fucked over the next city over, ha, those shits, they totally deserved it.” Over and over. In every place we visited.
Which is to say that Italy wasn’t really a country until it got unified around the time of our Civil War, and most of their history consisted of fighting with their neighbors and the barbarians until someone said “Hey, you’re all family now,” so even to this day a lot of local rivalries kick in. There’s a lot of jockeying for position, and snarking, until an outsider comes in and suddenly hey, who are you to tell us anything, we are from Southern Italy.
5) There is no beauty like Italian beauty.
The Vatican looked like a very expensive yard sale, what with all the art piled willy-nilly about, but St. Peter’s Basilica was the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen, bar none. It was like walking into God’s mind. Likewise, Pompeii was breathtaking even as a ruin, the Coliseum was impressive, and the Doge Palace was gorgeous, and San Marco’s Basilica with its gold-and-glass inlay stole the breath.
They build big in Italy. Like, huge. Everything is oversized, even the landscape, and yet not so big that it sneaks out of your perception and just becomes noise. They know how to build things in Italy so you are forever forced into a sense of scale, where you sense how small and frail this human flesh is compared to the great powers around, and it’s glorious now that we’re tourists. (I suspect the effect was slightly different when they could flay you alive for pissing them off.)
6) There is no style like Italian style.
As a fat American, I drew glances, but the people in Italy were on average astonishingly good-looking. And even when they weren’t, they dressed sharply. I won’t claim that my Italian suit wasn’t an attempt to emulate them a bit, but crossing a public square was a little like walking through a commercial.
Yet they weren’t, weirdly enough, sexy. Sex is a big part of Italian culture – our tour guides made a lot of innuendos and “You-knows” when discussing the great fucking that went on in the past – but stylish and sexy didn’t mesh. They were all oddly restrained, though admittedly since I was with my Mom and kids I didn’t hit a lot of nightclubs. I suspect the sexy flows like wine there. But in the public square, just a bunch of pretty hunky folks meandering about.
7) Venice is not stinky…
Admittedly, we had good weather and the garbagemen weren’t on strike, but the odors we got were pretty much just low tide in Connecticut. It could be worse, but I think a lot of that stench is just living by the seashore, man.
8) …but it is a maze.
We tried to map it, and got lost. Every time. And Yelp was useless for finding restaurants, since apparently a lot of them open and close in Venice, which is for rich tourists, and even for those with followings most locals use the Michelin guides anyway. We always found our way back, since we just headed for the sea, but we never got there the same way twice.
9) The Italian people are super-helpful, and communicative.
We had people offering to help us constantly, and only a handful wanted money. Most people were very happy to chat in our handful of broken languages – the married couple on the subway who congratulated us on thwarting a pickpocket attempt and told us it was their second wedding anniversary, the taxi driver who was thrilled to discover we were from Alaska and revealed, through absolutely no English at all, that it had been his lifelong dream to go fishing in Alaska and interrogated us as to flight times and costs.
The language wasn’t nearly the barrier we thought it would be. Which was nice. The people were very kind, on the whole, when they weren’t waiters or repairmen. I guess they’re friendly when they choose to be, not when someone makes them.
10) But they are super-racist when it comes to Roma.
We did have two pickpocket attempts our first day in Rome on the subway, which was super-exciting; one person warned us as the mother with the baby snuck her hand out to filch my wallet, and then when Gini slapped the hand away when the second tried, we got roundly congratulated. So there’s definitely some crime, but we felt like low-grade superheroes for busting them. (Even if we didn’t “bust” them, really; they just ran off the subway to steal from someone else.)
But everyone we spoke to in Italy discussed God, those Roma, we tried to educate them, they don’t want to be civilized, so they prefer to steal. They train in it. They’re not like normal people. And we were left in this uncomfortable position of not knowing how to refute this, as yes, these people (who I assume were Roma, based on what people said, but who the fuck knows?) did try to steal our wallets, but every time we mentioned it it unleashed a flow of complaint to the point where we pretty much just stopped talking about it.
I have friends who are Roma. They don’t pick pockets. I’m sure some subset of Roma do, but the easy willingness to tar everyone with the same brush – and furthermore, to assume the scumminess of a whole culture – was a little distressing.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.