Cultural Differences

It’s always helpful to participate in a few of the cultural differences you’ll find when visiting another country — particularly if they’re easy to do…..not something like having to cheerfully eat sheep eyeballs. Here are just a few easy-to-adopt suggestions for Italy.

Actually, this first one is for both Italy and France: Acknowledge the shopkeeper when you enter her/his shop. Unlike in the US, where you’ll probably never see the person waiting on you again, most of the people behind the counter are the owners — particularly in the smaller towns — and they’ll be there day after day. It really is their second home, so be as courteous as you’d be if you were their guest, and give them a hello when you enter and a goodbye when you leave.

Restaurant etiquette #1: Don’t just sit down. Wait for someone to direct you to a table.

Restaurant etiquette #2: The first question you’ll be asked is what kind of water you’d like. They do not ask IF you’d like water. The answers are naturale (still water) or frizzante (sparkling). (You could also say gassata, which means the same thing.) Since these are both mineral waters, acqua minerale is not a helpful answer. Unlike in Germany or Switzerland, where we’ve paid up to $10 for a bottle of water, you seldom pay more than $2 in Italy. I suppose you could always say you don’t want any water, or just a glass of acqua di rubinetto (tap water), but….well…’s not often done…..and aren’t we talking here about cultural differences you want to practice?

Restaurant etiquette #3: Just like the shops in the smaller towns where the owners work all the time, the restaurants are also mostly family-run. You will often see 1 person doing the job that would be done by 3 or 4 people in the US. So be patient. The same goes with the food. Mamma or nonna might be alone in the kitchen churning out all the meals. Good as she is – it’s impossible for her to have the plates for a table of 4 come out at the same time……

Restaurant etiquette #3-A: ……And since you should eat your meal at the proper temperature, it means people should start as soon as the food arrives and not wait for everyone to be served. I know it seems impolite to us, but to Italians, it’s even more impolite to disrespect your meal by not eating it as it should be eaten.

Restaurant etiquette #3-B: When I said “proper temperature” in the previous paragraph, I should point out that Italian food is normally neither very hot nor very cold. You MIGHT burn the roof of your mouth on pizza cheese, but that would be the only real possibility. Even coffee will be served so you can drink it now rather than having to wait 5 minutes to let it cool down. And as for chilled foods – I’ve seldom had either my white wine or my acqua frizzante as cold as I like them….not that I’m complaining. “Moderation” is the key word when it comes to “proper temperature” for eating…..

…..And “moderation” is also the word when it comes to drinking. If someone is loud and drunk, there’s at least an 80% chance the person is American, and a 99% chance they’re not Italian. Italians have been drinking since they were children tasting Uncle Giovanni’s homemade wine at family dinners. It is a part of everyday life, and they respect it as such. With our history of restrictive drinking laws, our young people often go wild once they hit Italy. If there’s a broken bottle in the street, there are probably American fingerprints on it. While American youth often look at drinking too much as being the measurement of how much fun they’re having, Italians learn early that being drunk is brutta figura, which loosely means appearing in a way that will be looked down upon – and that’s something NO Italian wants.

Last on today’s list is Lane Discipline. I believe I’ve mentioned this before, but it won’t hurt to remind you that on the road, you pass on the left, drive on the right. You should NOT get in the left lane and clog traffic for miles behind you. If you aren’t actively in the process of passing someone, stay on the right.

So — I don’t think any of these nods to Italian culture fall into the eating-sheep-eyes category,  In fact, now that I’ve re-read them, I see that it’s more like saying “please” and “thank you”.  Maybe your mother really was right:  it’s all about good manners.





On The Road Again

I went to Munich for the weekend, and after my last trip-from-hell train ride, I chose to fly.  The downside of flying is that I have to get to the Rome airport, and while it can theoretically be done by train, in practice their schedule will seldom fit yours.  This leaves driving.

I have a like-hate relationship with driving.  I seldom love it.  So the morning that I left for the airport, I felt that kind of dread you feel when you have to do something that you really wish you didn’t have to do….similar to when you have to go to the dentist and you know he’ll be drilling.  I had the same feeling on my return flight thinking about my drive back to Orvieto.  I was so relieved to finally pull into my parking lot.

A few days later I had to go to a town I’d never been to, and when I checked Google Maps for directions, the fastest way was via the Autostrada.  I wasn’t in a hurry, so I took the alternate route.  As soon as I started out, I felt a sense of calm, and that’s when the obvious finally hit me:  it’s not the driving I hate, it’s the road; I HATE the Autostrada.  I had time to dwell on this during my drive….when I wasn’t ohhhing and ahhhhing over the gorgeous countryside along this back road.  I thought about all the highways in the US that I really hate and that make me wish I were visiting my dentist instead of driving:  I-95, the Blue Route, the New Jersey Turnpike, NJ 295, PA 202, the Schuylkill Expressway, ALL roads around New York City.  People in my area of the East Coast are no doubt right now shaking their heads in agreement.  But people everywhere have the same kind of hellish roads.  And what do they have in common with the Autostrada?  They all have trucks going very, very fast.…lots and lots of barreling-down-the-road trucks.  I know we need those trucks and depend on those trucks, but I just don’t want to drive with those trucks.

So there I was on an absolutely beautiful, truckless winding country road with incredible vistas around every corner.  When you travel from Rome to Orvieto at night, you see the twinkling lights of hilltop towns scattered off in the distance to the right.  This road was the one that connected those towns, and as I was meandering along, I would occasionally catch a glimpse below me of the Autostrada and it’s omnipresent trucks.  You know how I hate to feel smug, however…….

I don’t usually put 2 days of driving back to back, but the next day I went to Monticchiello in the Val d’Orcia to have lunch with my friend Daria at her wonderful restaurant.  Google Maps says the back way is 15 minutes longer than the Autostrada way.  That extra 15 minutes gives me 90% LESS stress.

This ride, which I know well, is one of my favorites in the world.  I tell everyone who will listen (almost nobody does, by the way) that for absolute beauty, they should see the Val d’Orcia in the Spring and the Chianti Classico area in the Fall.  This is the Fall, but I have to say that the Val d’Orcia still managed to take my breath away.  Unfortunately, the day wasn’t good for taking pictures.  I tried, but my iPhone camera just couldn’t capture what the Autumn light did to the gently rounded hills.

THIS was the kind of driving that made me feel lucky to be behind the wheel instead of cursed because I’m sharing the road with gazillion-ton trucks whose main desire is, I’m pretty sure, to crush me.

It also reminded me once more of what I told you back when I started this blog:  I’m a rolling green hills person.  Italy has delightful people, wonderful food and wine, gorgeous towns and an embarrassing amount of art treasures.  But put me on one of its back roads with incredible views around each bend, and it defines the words “Italian Dream” for me.

As I said, during these 2 days of Driving Heaven my iPhone camera could never adequately capture the beauty my real eye was seeing.  But here are a few photos from the past:

View from Torre del Moro of the Duomo and Orvieto's surrounding hills.

View from Torre del Moro of the Duomo and Orvieto’s surrounding hills.  You can be in the countryside within minutes.

Poppies in Canale

Poppies, grapes, olives — just outside of town.

Val d'Orcia in the Spring.  When the wind blows, the wheat fields look like the hills have been draped in velvet.

Val d’Orcia in the Spring. When the wind blows, the wheat fields look like the hills have been draped in velvet.

Chianti in the Spring.  On second thought, why only go there in the Fall?

Chianti in the Spring. And this is the less-attractive season?

Orvieto Classico vineyards in early Fall.

Orvieto Classico vineyards in early Fall.

Taken from Daria's restaurant, the haze lets you see the waves of hills.

Taken from Daria’s restaurant. The haze helps define the waves of hills.  It’s my Italian Dream.