Friday, January 31, 2014

3 Reasons I Will Never Leave Italy

The title is probably an exaggeration. I most likely will live in the United States again. Statistically, very few expats live out their lives in a foreign country. Most, eventually, find their way back to the land of their birth.
So let me just say that these are the top three reasons that I can't imagine leaving Italy... today.
#1. Coffee. Coffee is not just a drink in is a work of art.
Starbucks may have 17,000 stores throughout the world, but Italy does not have a single one. A barista will make your espresso, simply called a caffe`, with the precision of a skilled craftsman. From the coffee beans, to the pre-heated machine, to the properly sized cup, to the exact strength and temperature of the caffe`, and milk, it will all be controlled by a professional. The "no foam, skinny latte, double shot of vanilla" order does not happen here. To drink an espresso, macchiato, or cappuccino in Italy, is to enjoy something just as it has been made for generations. The taste is exquisite....perfection. I cannot go back. And, it's the only place I have ever found that wants to drink coffee as I do, all day long.
#2. Emotion. There is just so much of it. 
My first week in Florence, I rounded a corner on a narrow side street and walked right into a melodrama. A man was crying out to a woman next to him that he was, "Frustrated. Heartbroken. Devastated." Arms raised, palms up, he wailed to her, (and the neighborhood), that he just "couldn't take it anymore." "Wow," I thought. What could she have possibly done that had him so distraught? It didn't take more than a couple of weeks of living in Italy to realize that was everyday, normal conversation. She'd probably forgotten to pick up his dry cleaning. Similar dramas can be heard from any open window, trattoria or sidewalk, on any given day. And while everything is of the utmost importance, nothing is private! Passionate, kissing couples are everywhere, while the rest of the traffic just walks around them. Life seems to be lived fully in the present, engaged and emotional. It's raw, real and refreshing. It makes me smile a little as I walk by. Good stuff here, happening just outside my door.
#3. La Bella Figura. There are rules here that simultaneously impress and frighten me. You may not know the rules exist the first time you visit Italy, but live here for a while and they become clear. This is an entire country of people who strive for "la bella figura", the art of making a good impression. These are the sometimes subtle, but always present, rituals of behavior that make this country unlike any other. As a foreigner, you may just notice how polished everyone seems to be. It's staggering. Constantly aware of aesthetic beauty, confident and manicured, they are a walking advertisement for the good life. But there are rules to be followed in creating the good impression that go beyond how one is dressed. And here's where it becomes a little tricky. You don't know the rules. You only begin to learn the rules after a certain number of withering looks. It might be from the server at the trattoria, fruttivendolo, or a full out scolding by an Italian Grandma in the market. Pretty soon, you catch on. (As a side note, these rules of behavior have been in place longer than the United States has been a country. So don't be asking why a certain rule exists. It just does.) As well mannered as you may be, no outsider is a match for those that were born and raised in the country of la bella figura. Many of the rules come from cleanliness and spreading germs. So please don't touch the produce at the market, unless you have placed on a disposable plastic glove, and if you do touch it, buy it. Don't share food, even pizza.
That's just the tip of the iceberg. There are rules on when to drink cappuccino, what sauce goes on which pasta, and what color to paint the shutters. I haven't even mentioned the language rules. There's an entirely separate vocabulary for those that must be spoken to in the formal, rather than informal, context. I am not complaining. Rather, I enjoy a society where everyone is making it a priority to be civil. But what about how they drive? And the dreadful condition of the sidewalks and public squares? Many neglect to pick up after their dogs or themselves. How is it that they continually butt in line or refuse to move over even an inch on the sidewalk? Therein lies the paradoxical life of la bella figura in Italy! I would miss the rules. I have worked so hard to learn them.

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