A few insights into Italian culture

19 Sep

In the two days since I returned from spending a week in Bologna and a day in Florence, I’ve been noting more differences between Italian culture and Spanish culture now that I’m seeing them in juxtaposition:

I barely ate any vegetables in Italy. I mean, almost NO vegetables. I’d estimate that I cumulatively ate 6 large tomatoes, 3 mushrooms, and a few leaves of herbs. That’s it. Spanish/Catalan cuisine is not necessarily vegetable-heavy, but there are more vegetables than in the Italian cuisine we ate. I’m glad to have some fiber in my diet again!  Don’t get me wrong, the food was A-MA-ZING (sing it in your head like “fab-ulous”), but not balanced, nutritionally speaking.  I also realize that I was on vacation, eating out at restaurants, and that Italians likely eat more vegetables at home.  There were some beautiful vegetable stands with a wide variety of fruits & vegetables in Bologna.

Although the tourists in Barcelona are annoying, they’re nothing compared to tourist traffic in Florence. I’m so glad I’ve experienced Florence and Rome in the off-season (Winter of 2003/2004); the other tourists probably would have driven me absolutely nutty if I had been there for any other season. Even in mid-September as summer tourist season was waning, the place was crawling with them. For this reason, I enjoyed Bologna much more than Florence. I look forward to returning and exploring more of the smaller cities, especially as a foodie. I absolutely loved the towns I visited in Umbria in 2003. Siena too.

I loved window shopping in Bologna, and a bit in Florence too. However one thing I disliked was the emphasis on wearing expensive brand-name fashion. This seemed stronger in Florence than in Bologna, which is understandable since Bologna is a college town. I appreciate quality threads with a sense of style, but there needs to be a recognition that not everyone can afford them, nor should they spend money on them if they’re having trouble putting food on the table… but they can still be stylish! This is one thing that I appreciate about style here in Barcelona; if you can cleverly apply some folds of fabric here and a splash of color there, it doesn’t matter what the brand name is or if it’s homemade.

I’ve gained a deeper understanding the Slow Food movement in its original context (it started in Italy). In the US, it’s about helping people connect with culture and other people through food, supporting locally-grown sustainable agriculture, and eating more healthily. However in Italy (and Spain as well) there are additional undertones of historical preservation and loyalty to your town/province/cultural heritage by supporting local agriculture and preserving food traditions. In Catalonia, many people try to buy food grown in the province because they support Catalonian independence and don’t want their money to go to other region or the Spanish government, as well as the other standard arguments for supporting local agriculture & businesses that Americans are familiar with.

This artisenal yogurt jar from Italy exemplifies the desire for historical preservation through food.  It specifies where the milk came from and how long the dairy cooperative had been running.  It was a delicious treat: full fat, fruit on the bottom, not very sweet but not too tart either; and quite small at only 150 grams (~5 fluid ounces); one of the smallest yogurts sold in the U.S. is Yoplait which is 6 ounces.

yogurt jar

Artisenal yogurt from a dairy co-op in Italy.

Unfortunately we also ran into some issues due to cultural differences. The biggest one was that we had a long string of problems and miscommunication with the company that rented us the apartment for the wedding. Our relationship started off on the wrong foot when they went outside of the rental terms agreed upon via AirBnB to ask for a much larger deposit, and in cash rather then via credit card. They then were unreachable for the entire month of August until just two weeks before the event, at which point I was panicked thinking they had shut down their business and taken off with my money in a fly-by-night  sort of operation. It turns out they were on vacation for the entire month with no forwarding, because everyone in Italy takes the entire month of August off. She didn’t apologize because to her, everyone should know this (except for the Americans who never get any vacation but benefit from 24-hour customer service from most businesses). There were more issues that have resulted in requesting a full refund from AirBnB for our stay; we’ll see how it works out. In the meantime you can read the full story at a website we created devoted to all the suckiness of our experience. The gist of it is: DON’T EVER RENT FROM HALLDIS.  Their apartments favor beauty over practicality, and are not worth the money they charge; they will rip you off.  I will add to that a warning to not travel in Italy in the summer, and be prepared to run into difficulties if you’re planning a trip for the Fall and need to reach anyone there in August.

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