It’s easy to misjudge a country. You hear a lot, you see a lot and you imagine even more. Some of it is true but much of it isn’t and it’s up to travelers to get beyond clichés and discover what’s authentic. That’s even harder when the country is Italy and art, history, food and a thousand other things come to mind. Before I arrived I was positive the streets were filled with soccer balls and Marcello Mastroianni lookalikes. It didn’t take long to realize I was wrong and over a decade to rectify all my misconceptions. I learned to accept Italy for its contradictionsand imperfections and discover a country I had never imagined. It requires curiosity and comfortable shoes to escape stereotypes and distinguish between misconceptions and reality but it’s worth the effort.
1] Italians only eat pizza and pasta
Food is an essential part of Italy but to the outside world Italian gastronomy often gets condensed to pizza and pasta. That’s not to say those dishes aren’t popular but Italian diets include many other dishes. In fact there are parts of Italy where it’s difficult to find either. In regions like Alto Adige and Veneto pizza is only for tourists and locals palates prefer polentaand cicchetti. Northern Italy produces enormous quantities of rice and menus in Milan and Turin are more likely to feature risotto than pasta. Even where pasta is king it comes in sauces and shapes that are hard to imagine until you’re sitting down in front of a plate of tagliattelli or strozzapreti. To lose culinary misconceptions requires finding small trattorie on quiet side streets away from the crowds and putting your gastronomic faith in the dish of the day.
2] Italy is Expensive
Getting to Italy can be expensive but once you arrive food and accommodation are no more costly than they are in the United States. Often they are less expensive and of higher quality. That of course depends on currency but the trend is favorable for travelers heading to Europe and one dollar is nearly worth one euro. That means you can drink espresso for €1, get a sandwich for €3 and order a three course meal for under €25. The trick is to avoid tourists and adopt the practices of locals like drinking at bar counters and buying food in supermarkets. Outside major cities prices are even lower and the farther south you travel the less you will pay for house wine or a good night’s sleep. Outdoor markets are ubiquitous throughout the peninsula and offer the best deals on clothes and original souvenirs. Water is always free, admission to monuments and museums minimal and traveling around the country by train surprisingly cheap.
3] All Italians are the same
It’s easy to believe all Italians are the same but in a country that wasn’t founded until 1861 there are many regional differences. That doesn’t just mean menus are different. It means the words and expressions Sicilians use are different from the slang that rolls off Romans tongues and a Puglian accent is distinct from a Tuscan dialect. Differences go beyond language deep into the DNA of 60 million Italians whose family trees include incursions and invasions that brought Greeks, Normans, Arabs, Turks, Jews and many more to the shores of this multicultural haven in the center of the Mediterranean. New faces are still arriving with names that aren’t always easy to pronounce but somehow adapt and integrate into Italy’s own particular melting pot. Don’t be surprised therefore if your waiter has Polish origins or the man slicing your pizza was born in Bangladesh. That’s Italy too and this misconception will be quickly erased as you stroll through any large city and discover the communities who have made Italy their land of opportunity and constitute the new Italians.
4] Driving is risky in Italy
Driving any place you’ve never driven before can be risky. It’s not that Italians drive better or worse but that they have a different mentality to driving and are accustomed to a different driving environment. Patience and courtesy are not always at a premium on Italian roadsand Roman or Neapolitan rush hour can leave the uninitiated commuter in a panic. But there are also many parts of the country where courtesy and kindness are the rule and allowing a pedestrian to pass or giving precedence to a bicycle is second nature. It’s true streets are narrower and cars smaller wherever you go but country roads are often deserted and the scenery along the hillsides of Tuscany and Le Marche will make you glad you chose to drive. Only by getting behind the wheel can you determine whether this misconception is valid or not but you are assured a thrill either way and should always drive with caution.
5] Italians go nuts for soccer
The quickest way to make conversation with an Italian man is to mention soccer. That much is probably true and it’s also true millions of Italian males from an early age until the grave have an unwavering loyalty to a soccer team. The most popular is Juventus, which also happens to be the most despised, and the one that has won the most trophies. They are a little like the New York Yankees except they are never upstaged by basketball or football. Soccer dominates the Italian sporting panorama and nothing comes close to receiving even a fraction of the media attention. Nevertheless a large portion of the population (males and females alike) don’t care if Inter have won or how many points Roma need to qualify for the Champions League. Many Italians don’t even know what offside is and live perfectly pleasant lives without ever watching or listening to soccer. That said television audiences for a World Cup match featuring the Azzuri (Italian national side) are astronomically high and Italians love to win which they often do.
5½] All Italians smoke
Italians have been addicted to tobaccofor ages and scanning the pavement near any bus stop will reveal a plethora butts. Cigarettes are sold in dedicated shops (tabaccheria) and the price of a pack is quite reasonable compared to most western countries. That doesn’t mean Italians have free reign to smoke anywhere they like. Smoking in bars and restaurants is banned and it’s one rule Italians overwhelmingly respect. Cigarette packages are covered with gruesome images of deformed lungs and missing toes and messages couldn’t be clearer regarding the dangers of nicotine yet smoking persists and is unlikely to be eradicated. Smokers are everywhere and although numbers are declining they are unlikely to disappear anytime soon.