The other day I was chatting with an Italian friend on Whatsapp while doing other things and apparently my answers weren’t long enough or articulate enough to satisfy his curiosity. (Not that we were having a meaningful conversation but he was kindly asking how I was and I didn’t have the time to say much more than “well and you?”). At some point he said, exasperated: “At least in Italy we are warm people, you don’t even take the time to make an effort and be nice”. I get that told a lot. As if I weren’t Italian too.
I wouldn’t say that Italians are warmer than other people but they certainly are generally more determined to express their feelings – good and bad – during human interaction. My friend’s remark nevertheless stayed with me for some time that afternoon and made me think that despite the fact that I have never been a very outgoing person, I might have changed according to my expat environment.
I don’t care much about nationalities but there’re a few things I really miss from home, when I start thinking about it.
The generosity, first. Italians are generous people. Extremely generous. Excessively generous compared to some more measured northern Europeans. They will go a long way to make you feel at home – should you be their guest – and will carelessly spend a whole afternoon cooking and selecting the freshest ingredients for the upcoming dinner. They won’t expect you to clean up afterwards or to see you working in the kitchen. They truly want their guests to have a good time and would feel ashamed of not celebrating enough your visit. Of course, this means sometimes that you will feel overwhelmed by the food and attention and desperately seeking a way out but everybody should experience once in their life a big, welcoming, Italian dinner. I think of that every single time I find myself in a home where a sick-looking roast is thrown on the table accompanied by some overgrilled frozen potatoes and a plastic-tasting salad, because it is soooo chic not to waste time on the bare necessities. After all – most Belgians think – the point is spending time together, right? Not obsessing on something as low as food. And-you-know-we-are-all-busy, you won’t imagine the lady of the house sparing her precious time to prepare dinner, won’t you?
The widespread knowledge of classics. Beside Italians, I have only noticed something like that in Greeks. It has maybe to do with the past glories of our countries and the subsequent lack of contemporary successes but common people, in Rome and Athens, will throw some ancient literay quote in their everyday conversations. Taxi drivers in Greece talk of Socrates with nonchalance as an Italian factory worker can surprise you quoting Horace. That happens because public schools (till my generation, at least) used to put great emphasis on an accurate knowledge of ancient poets and philosophers, despite the future career orientation of the students. It might not be strictly useful in life but I miss it. I miss people valuing culture for the sake of it, independently from their daily occupation.
Clean food. Some traditional italian recipes are good for making you die of a heart attack at 32 but you can actually order grilled chicken breast at a restaurant and have it served on your plate as it is: no suspicious sauces, butter or mushy vegetables. It.is.a.chicken.breast. After a while you become sick of playing the crazy lady who specifies three times that she only wants a grilled chicken breast, but grilled with olive oil and not butter and please, no sauces and also no butter vegetables on the side. Do you have any grilled vegetables?
The flexibility. It is irritating as it is sometimes useful but, as you might have noticed if you have ever spent at least a day in Italy, everything can be discussed there. There are rules but no public officer or employee is scared of studying your specific situation before deciding how and when to apply them. Italians like to decide on a case by case basis.
The free compliments as you walk down the street. This doesn’t only happen in Italy but is a staple of the Latin world. Any woman of average looks – young, old or middle-aged – will receive a free compliment, at least once a day. In South America they call it piropo and it indicates a flirtatious yet innocent remark paid to a woman. Eleven years in Belgium and I could as well be transparent. I now have to rely on my girlfriends to get that little tiny compliment that will make my morning. If I were feeling blue in an Italian city, I would just put my sunglasses on and take a stroll. Someone would call me pretty for sure.
The cappuccino. I am dairy intolerant yet I have gulped down Venti Lattes for years. I am used to the taste of lait russe (Russian Milk, the Belgian version of the classic Italian cappuccino) and lait renversé (swiss version) as well as to the German Milchkaffe. Truth is, no matter how much you can invest in the latest coffee machines and milk foamers: it will never taste as good as in Milan. It has to do with the water, they say.
The yellow light. Take an average sunny day in central Italy: the light is yellow. It’s a warm and flattering light completely different from the off white one you notice in the North. I sometimes miss that particular shade of the sun.
And you, fellow expats,what do you miss of home when you think about it?