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5 Solutions to Ugly American Syndrome in Italy
Discover how you can make a good impression with the Italians by avoiding common errors committed by foreign tourists.
by Francesca Di Meglio
People will tell you, "When in Rome, do as the Romans." But let me be the first to tell you that the Romans – and the rest of their paesani in the Boot – do not exhibit the most predictable behavior. You might think you're playing the part, but then you'll screw it up. Trust me. A few of my Italian American relatives have visited me in Italy over the years, and despite growing up in homes with full-blooded Italian natives, something or other always trips them up. Don't feel badly. It used to happen to me all the time, too. Here's what you need to know before you vacation or – dare I say it – move to Italy:
1. Cut the cheese.
It's not what you're thinking. Americans put Parmigiano cheese (or worse Parmesan) on any type of pasta. But it's considered sacrilege to top linguini and clam sauce or any other fish dish with cheese. The only exception is if you are a gourmet chef charging a lot of money for the meal. Then, you might opt to put some cheese in with mussels, for example, and no one will bat an eyelash. However, you, average Joe, better put down the cheese shaker. The waiter will tell you it's wrong when you ask for it. And he might not give it to you either. (This actually happened to a relative of mine when he visited Italy recently.) The argument is that the seafood – especially in southern Italy – is so fresh and tasty that you just ruin it with cheese. And friends don't let friends ruin their meal in Italy.
2. Be pasta specific.
That's another thing. You'll call every dish made of Italy's favorite carb pasta. But Italians specify the type of pasta by shape – farfalle (what we Americans think of bowties), spaghetti, penne, etc. There will be raging debates at dinner about what sauces go best with each shape. You won't be right. Not ever. So, just observe the argument and see what unfolds. It's always dinner – and a show in Italy.
3. Avoid wrinkles in time.
So, if you read this column, you already know ironing is a sport for Italian women. There's a reason for that. Folks never wear even slightly wrinkled clothes out in public (or in the house for that matter). Seriously, they iron underwear here. No joke. So, learn how to use one and make use of it, unless you want everyone to spot the American immediately.
4. Realize there's no second chance to make a first impression.
The idea of running your errands in sweatpants and a T-shirt is completely foreign to Italians, who believe in the bella figura, which literally means "good figure" and figuratively means "make a good impression." I've lived part of the year here for nearly 10 years now, and I still screw up. I just can't get behind the ironing craze (even though I give in sometimes), I dress pretty casually when doing errands, and my plastic flip-flops make the people cringe. But weddings in Italy are far more casual than the ones I've attended in the New York tri-state area, and funerals here make me cringe. There is no wake, just a Mass. And people literally have worn jeans and button-downs to their own father's funeral. I've been overdressed for both weddings and funerals – and I plan to keep up that streak.
5. Understand the big flush is only for the deuce.
Many modern Italian toilets have two flushers – one is a big button and the other is a little button – mounted on the wall. The big one is for when you go No. 2 because it makes a big flush that might take down small children (so make sure they are not close by when you press it). And the little one is for No. 1. Got it? Good. Oh and that other thing next to the toilet is a bidet. It's for washing your nether region after No. 2. But since showers have become less of a luxury in modern Italy, most Italians I know use it as a hamper. Feel free to dunk your bottom or dump your laundry in there.
Di Meglio is the Newlyweds Expert for About.com, and you can read her blog on the Italian Mamma Web site or follow her on Twitter @ItalianMamma10.
Article Published 7/28/2014
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