During our month-long stay in Italy this summer, the weather was relentlessly hot and dry. It had been three years since our last visit, with the pandemic lingering like an obnoxious dinner guest who refuses to leave. So we were looking at Italy with fresh eyes.
Overall, Italy is still Italy and one of the best places on earth to be. Some impressions about things that seemed the same and others that had shifted to a new reality.
In conversations with Italians, anxiety about Ukraine, energy prices and other thorny issues came through. The value of the euro was declining, while gas prices inched up. Corriere della Sera ran articles on Prato’s Chinatown and the distribution and influence of foreign residents. At the same time, everyone was revelling in the pleasures of summer.
Spigots with continuously running spring water were more welcome than ever. Anywhere except Rome’s Trevi and Piazza Navona fountains, where the authorities threatened fines, people managed to splash some water on themselves.
I admire Italians for relying less on air conditioning that we do. More systems have been installed in hotels and restaurants, but often the rationale is to please us. When temperatures allow, Italians still open shutters in the morning, close them to the mid-day heat and take time for the pausa before emerging in the evening. The dinner hour shifts later in summer to make the most of slightly cooler temperatures and I always wonder if children have any bedtimes at all.
Washing machines, yes. Dryers, not so much. The smell and feel of laundry dried in fresh air is still appreciated.
Although credit cards, Apple Pay and the like are acceptable most places, Italy still has more of a cash economy than we do. I carry a wad of euros because it often feels more comfortable to pay that way, once you notice that’s how many Italians are paying for their lattes or groceries. Twice we had taxi drivers who turned out to be cash only.
Some American products qualify as cool. Brownies had their day and now muffins seem to be a thing in some pasticcerias. Maine lobsters are prized, and so is American craft beer.
English continues to penetrate the Italian language. Meeting, check in, fashion, pub, scooter, computer, modem are examples. Even when there are perfectly good Italian terms for the same thing, the cool factor often wins–just as in English speakers savor the pleasure of saying “Ciao!” instead of “See ya!” Still, learning some Italian makes a difference. Outside the most heavily touristed places, there’s nothing that opens cross-cultural doors faster or brings more pleasure than speaking to Italians in their language.
The table is yours for the evening and I love that. Just once did a server try to pick up a plate before we’d finished eating and it’s still considered rude to appear to hustle customers out the door by offering the check. If you’re in a hurry or having trouble flagging down the server, it’s perfectly acceptable to head for the cashier to settle the bill.
As New England residents, we feel right at home with Italy’s roundabouts/rotaries. We first noticed them about 25 years ago in Piemonte and now the network extends throughout Italy. As a result, the road system makes more sense than ours, plagued by competing jurisdictions of cities, states and national governments. Trains, same.
Ice cubes! Forty years ago, the waiters at my parents’ Florence hotel argued that the ice water they wanted, even with breakfast, was terrible for their digestive systems. Over time, with the growing popularity of spritzes and G&Ts, a few ice cubes were grudgingly slipped into glasses. Now those glasses are routinely filled to the brim with ice.
Aperitivo now refers to the pre-dinner tidbits served by bars as well as to your wine or cocktail. When the dishes are more substantial, you’re looking at apericena, a tapas-like spread that constitutes dinner.
Italy’s political turn to the right was happening. Following dinner, a friend flicked on the TV and we watched as the Italian parliament dissolved in shouts and Mario Draghi was forced to resign. Since then Giorgia Meloni, with her anti-immigrant views, has become the new prime minister and Berlusconi is back–this time as a senator.
There are more graffiti and message boards than in the past, my husband pointed out, and mostly they do not get washed off or painted out. The messages can be political, romantic, obscene, hilarious. They are found in all kinds of places, from a dingy alley to the boisterous streets of Trastevere. For the most part, they contribute to an exuberant, expressive atmosphere rather than to a scary one.
Tonnarelli cacio e pepe, spaghetti alla carbonara, bucatini all’ amatriciana are examples of regional specialties that appear with depressing regularity on menus everywhere. You can still find truly local dishes and truly creative dishes, but you have to look harder for them. This lovely dish, savored at a Roman restaurant called Quercia, consists of stracciatella cheese and salt-cured anchovies on a chickpea crust (panissa)–simple and irresistible!
Coffee is always better than at home. Because experienced baristas know how to make your espresso or latte fast, to be served in a real cup or glass (your choice). Here’s the next generation, enjoying a decaf cappuccino.
Italian supermarkets can be fabulous, but I’m partial to watching a vendor choosing my produce with care. And the butchers! Still worth the airfare.
Italian signage is more universal and fun than ours. The graphics focus on communicating with people who speak a variety of languages, because that’s the situation. Some signs, such as this one designating a suggested meeting place, I’ve never seen anywhere else.
Italian street fashion continues to amaze, regardless of a person’s age, gender or ethnicity. No point in describing–I’ll just show a sampling.
I’ll close with a couple of art photos. First, the she-wolf nursing Romulus and Remus, a symbol of Rome in the Capitoline Museums. It is a masterpiece but, as you can see, the crowds that now throng the Vatican and Forum are nowhere in evidence. Italy is so rich in its cultural heritage that you can stray from the guidebooks’ must-see checklists and still experience artistic wonders.
We did want to revisit the Giotto frescos in Padua’s Arena Chapel, present on any touristic checklist. Reservations were required and limited to 15 minutes of viewing (in addition to an excellent introductory video). Believe me, we treasured every moment.