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Six Things About Italy that Might Surprise You

11/17/2014 12:43 EST | Updated 01/17/2015 05:59 EST
Tu xa Ha Noi via Getty Images

At times, Italy can seem like a boot-shaped cliché: people gesticulating madly, yelling in what seems like a rage when in fact they are discussing last night's delicious lasagna; tiny pink towns on hilltops; toddlers who already know how to tie a natty scarf. And people talking (and talking and talking and talking).

But there are things that might surprise you here. My top six:

Making things complicated.

If there is a simple way to do something, Italians will find a way to make it complicated. If you can take care of something by filling out one form and going to one wicket, Italians will make sure you have to fill out at least three forms and go to at least three wickets (after taking a number). You may also have to go to a bank to pay for whatever service you are seeking or to a tabaccheria to purchase an official stamp. Italians love ceremony and tolerate layers of bureaucracy to beggar the imagination. I suspect some of this also has to do with creativity and love of detail. The culture that gave the world the Sistine ceiling cannot fathom that making things easy or simple could ever be a good thing. None of this, of course, makes Italians any better at standing in line.

Men crying. A lot.

Cliché number one about Italians is that they display their emotions and this is true. Still, given the macho posturing and sexism of Italian men it is odd to see them cry publically, openly. I don't mean just about huge tragedies. I mean that in public Italian men cry about soccer matches and politics and the mere sight of their children or the sound of a song. One Italian man I know cried when I told him I was in a committed relationship and therefore could not date him. We had only known each other a few days, yet he stood there and cried. Awkward. But then, men here have a huge comfort level with much that one might consider feminine: they kiss each other, use more hair and beauty products than I do, know the names of fashion designers and aren't embarrassed about any of it. The crying seems a natural extension. (Plus, they've all been spoiled by their mothers.)

Lack of political correctness. I mean, really.

To some degree, this is an Old World phenomenon, and those of us from New World countries tend to be very sensitive to it. Still, it takes some getting used to, to hear university professors say to a classroom of international students, "All people from [fill in the country/religion] are [fill in the adjective]"; or to hear them make statements about "gli Orientali", Asians, to a classroom which includes Koreans, Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese students, none of whom view themselves as part of a monolith. I've seen Italian TV personalities do impressions of Asians that include doing "slanty-eyes", among other things. While Italy is becoming more of a multi-racial/cultural society, it will likely take two or more generations of immigration to make it truly so. This is much of what lies behind the comfort levels Italians have with stereotypes. When you live in a homogeneous or mono-cultural society, you are surrounded by the like-minded, making it less probable that your comments or behaviour will be challenged.

Historical shamelessness.

Likely correlated to the above, but worse, finding Fascist paraphernalia in Italy is disturbingly easy. It is far from unusual to see -- at covered and outdoor markets -- someone selling busts of Mussolini or decorative plates with his image. We are not talking about scholars of history paying high prices for authentic items that have a connection to the 20th-century's darkest hours. We are talking about recently made items and make no mistake: I've talked to a number of people who both sell and buy these things and they aren't doing so to be camp. Recently, I walked past a table that offered a 2015 Mussolini memorial calendar (what kitchen would be complete without one?) as well as lighters decorated with the swastika. The bleeping swastika. I asked the man who was selling them if people actually bought such things. "Yes," he snapped, asserting -- when he saw me grimace -- that the purchasers were bravissimi, very good people.

Whatever you say, fella.

Terrible customer service.

So much so that Italian customer service deserves its own column, but suffice to say that as with Italian television, we are talking about an "all or nothing" situation. Italian television, I always say, represents "the sacred and the profane." You will either see half-naked women shaking their breasts or you will see a serious discussion, often featuring a nun or a priest. (Or soccer.) Italian customer service is similar. Either salespeople act like they wish you weren't there or they are in your face to the point that you wish they would go back to glaring at you with hatred in their eyes.

Staring. A lot.

And not just because you are foreign or female or blonde and tall. I am all of those things and yes, I may get more stares because of them, but Italians themselves make jokes about how much they stare. They stare at each other, they lean out their windows and stand in their doorways and stare, they stare at your accessories or a book you're reading. Groups of men stand outside the scommesse, betting shops, and stare at everyone (not just women) walking by. It is disconcerting, especially to those of us from the Anglosphere, where staring as rude is drilled into us from birth. But the upside of the staring is that it has made Italians used to looking people in the eyes when speaking to them, and I like that.

In fact, it is one of the many reasons I keep coming back to Italy, complications regardless. The other reasons? That would take another column, though I suspect there wouldn't be room in a mere 1000 words.

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