Some Thoughts on Italy and Italians

Food Dogma

Butta butta mamma che sto pe` veni`!

There are rules about food that, if you violate them, Italians become confused. It's not that you've done harm, it's that your actions make no sense. The following list of food dogmas is adapted from Beppe Severgnini, La Bella Figura (2006):

  • No cappuccino after ten o'clock nor after a meal. Cappuccinos are breakfast.
  • Pizzas at midday are for schoolkids.
  • Rice with meat is perfect but pasta can be with meat only if the meat is cooked in the sauce.
  • The order of dishes matters. A main dish (meat, fish) instead of an antipasto is greedy.
  • Never have cheese with seafood. So don't even think of putting parmigiano on your spaghetti alle vongole.
  • Wine in flasks is for tourists.
  • "Like elegance, garlic should be present but should not intrude."


The popular culture of Italy is imbued with a strong sense of irony. It's part of why we naive Americans -- so literal in our sensibilities -- consider Italians complex and sophisticated. Consider:

  • Ennio Morricone's theme music for the movie classic Giu La Testa -- ethereal harmonies and light-hearted nonsense syllables ("Shom shom shom...") while on the screen is brutality and mayhem. Incidentally, Morricone also wrote the theme music for Il Vespaio/I Lupi Attaccano in Branco (Hornet's Nest), a movie in which I acted in 1970.
  • Mina (icon of Italian pop music) singing a faux light-hearted "Dee-dee-dee-dah" after her impassioned "Ti amo poi ti odio poi ti odio poi ti amo..." ("I love you then I hate you then I hate you then I love you...") in the mid-twentieth century classic, "Grande Grande Grande". And let's not even consider the double entendre.
  • The astonishing 1962 movie Mondo Cane that depicts grotesque, heart-rending cruelty to the accompaniment of one of the most beautiful, lilting movie theme songs, More.



Here are some resources in case you're foolhardy enough to attempt to do business there:

Things Italians Don't "Get"

Invoices. This is an unintended consequence of an aggressive tax code: to hasten collections of taxes, the code was recently changed so that businesses are taxed not on what they collect but on what they invoice. Thus, once they send a bill to a customer, they owe taxes regardless of whether the customer actually pays. The result is bizarre but predictable: now invoices are not sent until after they are paid. Request for payment is verbal, informal, or perhaps by means of a letter vaguely requesting payment... but not by an invoice that could be entered into a bookkeeping system. Thus, businesses have difficulty tracking (let alone collecting) receivables and knowing what they're owed. And the tax system is no more effective than before. Ridiculous.

Refunds. These are neither in their culture nor in their accounting systems. The word itself doesn't exist in Italian; the closest is "rimborso" (reimbursement) which is not the same as refund. Nor is there such a thing as a money-back guarantee. Once you yield money, it's gone forever.

Here is an example of how this omission creates distortions. Sign up for a course at a local adult school. If it proves to be not right for you, you can have a credit for a future course but you can't have your money back. Thus, in self-defense, nobody signs up (i.e. pays) for any course until after the first class, so they can see whether it's ok without risking their money. With no one signed up, the instructors don't know how many to expect and the school doesn't know whether to cancel the course for low enrollment.

Another example: no one ever risks overpaying for anything; they know they'd be screwed. So they underpay whenever possible. It's a bookkeeping nightmare.

Reliable contact. The business world works with remarkably little integrity. For example, when the bank officer goes on vacation, his phone simply goes unanswered. No one covers for him. There's not even an answering machine.

Another example: when someone's cellphone is unreachable -- perhaps it's turned off, out of range, or the bill is unpaid -- the cell company's message doesn't say there's a temporary problem, it says the number you've dialed is no good. You must learn (as with so many things in this unhelpful culture) to interpret the message loosely, that is, keep trying... The message is probably quite literally false.

Flex time. This is the concept of doing something at a different time than the majority. It can reduce crowds and traffic, distribute resources better, etc. It's primarily for meals, but also commuting, vacations, etc. But Italians just don't do it. For example, in August, the beaches are solid flesh. In September, you get them almost to yourself.

Another example is our favorite pizzeria downstairs from our apartment in Rome. Get there at 7:59 for a table right away. A minute later and the queue is already forming. For a culture that purports to revere non-conformity, it's absurdly lockstep.


  • Formulaic and propagandistic "news".
  • Quasi-porn entertainment; misogynistic and pandering to the tawdriest of tastes, e.g. the Veline (famously "senza mutande").
  • Dubbing: Many programs are imported and dubbed, always employing the same tiny cast of voices and stylized, stereotyped deliveries.
  • Censorship e.g. Sabina Guzzanti whose political satire TV show was terminated after she ridiculed Berlusconi and his corrupt government. She was also sued by Berlusconi's TV empire Mediaset's lawyers. Censorship is alive and well in Italy.

Pop music. Italy is infamous for crappy pop music. When it's well-produced, it's derivative (e.g. Giorgia, Neri per Caso, etc.) When it's genuine/original, the quality is low. The classic cantautore has rarely had music lessons or voice training and can't carry a pitch (e.g. Lucio Dalla, Fabrizio De Andre, etc.)

Air conditioning. It's expensive and must be consumed wisely. Yet Italians don't close doors and windows when AC is on. On the contrary, when they run the AC, they throw doors and windows wide. It's a superstition; somehow it would be unhealthy to seal the room when the AC is running. Wasteful and weird, this attitude appears universal in Italy.

"Get out of the way" -- instead they have "squeeze past" (which Americans would do well to learn).

Queueing. Even doing it sneakily and cleverly doesn't make cutting in line ok. It's one example of the belief (universal among Italians) that the rules, deep down, don't apply to them. They can get indignant when someone else uses this principle, but they do it with a humor that Anglos don't exhibit because Italians understand that the same principle is at work for everybody. So when someone cuts ahead of them in line, they complain but not with the self-righteousness of an Anglo.

Customer service. The crews that trim the hedges on the medians of the highways wisely block off the adjacent lane for safety. But alas they do it during the hours when traffic is heaviest. After all, it would be unreasonable to expect them to work nights or weekends. Thus constricted, traffic grinds to a halt. Italian rush hour traffic is ghastly.

Another example: A tabacchi has run out of bolli (the government-issued tax stamps required on any official document... you buy them at the tobacconist). Tough luck: you don't learn this without waiting in line. It wouldn't occur to the tabaccaio to post a sign and spare the hapless peon.

A third example: Receipts, copies of documents, etc. When you fill out a gov't form, you don't get a copy. When you pay a bill, buy a bollo, or submit a fee, you don't get a receipt. Hey, it's the government! (Or a faceless company). They owe you no service -- quite the opposite! In Italian culture it's well-understood who works for whom.

Salaries. Workers in Italy are so poorly paid it's no wonder they're slow, grumpy, and utterly without initiative.

Banking. Opening an account is a lengthy process, with lots of discussion among bank employees about procedures and requirements. Standard procedures? In your dreams! But that's just the staff. The banks themselves are predators. Their goal is to deduct as many fees, charges, interest, etc. as they can from client accounts while delivering the least service possible. In the US, we expect courtesy and service from banks, and they compete for our business. Switzerland, needless to say, has elevated this to an art form. But in poor, benighted Italy, customers meekly put up with their banks because it's hard to live without a Bancomat (ATM) card. They hate their banks... with good reason.

Obeisance before officialdom. In the agenzia Entrate (and other government offices) great attention has been paid to the waiting process that applicants endure. The waiting room is elegant and well-cleaned; even the take-a-number ticket system is refined and high-tech. Too bad equal attention was not paid to the effectiveness and efficiency of the services for which we supplicants -- I mean applicants -- endlessly wait.

Shower curtains. In Italy, there's no such thing. Evidently, a shower's primary purpose is to wash the floor surrounding the tub.

Diversity. Among the few things we're uniquely good at in the USA is inclusion and acceptance of foreigners (Mr. Trump notwithstanding). My Italian is nearly flawless and my accent is subtle yet in every conversation with someone new there comes a moment when they cock an eyebrow and ask, "Ma non sei di qui, vero?" And I know that from that point forward what I say will be discounted. The absence of this instinctive, unthinking arrogance is one of the few aspects of American culture from which Italians can learn... Indeed, must learn. Italy is suddenly awash with immigrants. Just like the USA (in normal times).

Things They Get Brilliantly

Integrity about food. At a restaurant the other day, the maitre'd was setting up a table for a group of six. He pushed a table for two next to a table for four and stepped back to survey the result, making sure that their experience would be perfect. This is entirely normal and expected. At mealtimes, perfection is the norm. The napkins and tablecloth shall have been ironed, certainly.

Garb, appearance. Pressed jeans and above all good shoes. You can be an idiot but you must look good.

Empathy toward friends. Sense and do whatever the friend needs, regardless of inconvenience. My Italian friends tell me that in adversity it's not to siblings they turn but to friends.

Coffee bars. As everyone knows, the coffee is splendid. It is delivered in minute, silken doses. The barman (or lady) is a performer on a stage, emptying the old grinds, replenishing the new, and throwing the steam valve with great economy of motion and pride. The protocol followed by we who belly up to the bar, too, is precise. Our place is established by a saucer and teaspoon that mark the imminent landing zone of our coffee and briefly entitle us to 30 cm of gleaming stainless steel bar-front real estate. We earn this by presenting, as evidence of payment a scontrino from the cassa, often accompanied by a small coin to win special treatment -- a smile, perhaps, or even a grazie if he/she is not too busy. A charming theatrical ritual.

VPLs. Whereas for American girls, revealing the outlines of their underwear is gauche, an embarrassment, for Italian girls it's part of the outfit. Underwear is not a dark secret that must be denied. After all, everyone wears it (mostly). What's shameful about that?

Rubber stamps. They adore them! Entire stores are devoted to Timbri e Targhe. No official or monetary function can proceed without them in joyous profusion. At the post office (of course), in any kind of office, even in an ordinary shop the clerk rubber stamps and signs the instruction manual of the hair dryer you bought. Rubber stamps reassure Italians that something real has taken place, that they are alive, that they exist!

Saying no. At a store, you ask for something and are told, we're closed, come back in two (or even four) hours. You do and then they tell you they're out of stock (which may or may not be true.) The point is that the customer is an annoyance. At the bank, a clerk tells you that the routine operation you request is impossible, never done, "Mi dispiace," those are the rules. Come back later, ask a different clerk, and your transaction is completed in minutes, no problem. Too bad this experience is not unusual.

Flowery language is how Italians convey seriousness, gravity. Severgnini: "Verbosity... is the hallmark of consequence. Simplicity risks passing for superficiality, and a light touch can be taken for lack of authority." Thus, statements made in American-style brevity are often dismissed by Italians who pay more attention to presentation than to content.

Rules are for other people. Supporting facts:

  1. My mother knows everything important and is never wrong.
  2. She says that I am special, extraordinary, brilliant. Flawed, perhaps, but only in ways that increase my charm.
  3. If you doubt #2, see #1. That's why rules don't apply to me. Oh yes, and girlfriends who are not like my mother won't last. In other words, all of them.

The misfit child/sibling/parent Esp. in movies. E.g. the angry, autistic brother in Lettere dalla Sahara, the schizophrenic sister in La Meglio Gioventu`. Italians love skeletons in the closets of others.

Old man, young woman. The Berlusconi ("Mediaset") TV channels pander to the lowest of the low. More than one parent has told me that those channels are off-limits to their kids. The offenses are many. Among them are those featuring fatuous old windbags who behave like pedophiles. But that's irrelevant. Your attention is instead riveted to the camera angle: up the dresses of the young lovelies they nearly molest. One can't help but wonder what goes on behind the scenes and how tiny are the sums for which these beauties yield their dignity. For Mr. Berlusconi it's a race to the bottom line... and the bottom. Shame on you, Italy!

The Power of Intangibles

Oct. 18, 2009

In the culture of Italy (where I grew up, to which I have returned nearly every year, and which continues to be very present in my thoughts) intangible, legalistic, and conceptual things have unusual power. They possess reality in a way that is much stronger than in our own North American culture. Here are three examples.

I joined a health club. One of its requirements was a medical certificate stating that my cardiac health was adequate for physical exercise. The weird part was that the little man at the desk refused to accept this information unless it was the original document created by the doctor. A photocopy was not acceptable. In other words, the purpose of the regulation -- protecting health, avoiding potential lawsuits -- was subsumed by an intangible characteristic of a piece of paper. The material fact (my good health) that motivated the regulation was irrelevant.

Example 2: A street was being re-paved so the curb lane of traffic was rerouted. City buses were thus unable to make their customary stops at that curb. The temporary sign that covered the bus stop sign said, "Bus Stop Suppressed During Construction". In other words, the ordinary behavior of the bus -- a convention or activity, not a physical object, was not merely ceased but vigorously subjugated -- "suppressed" -- just short of violence, though the subject of the announcement was merely a concept. It's somehow gone beyond just being a place where people would usually get on a bus and become almost a force of nature, an entity with a will of its own.

Example 3: Many of Rome's narrow streets in the city center have restricted traffic flows that vary from day to day. Illuminated electronic signs proclaim whether or not traffic is permitted on a particular street on a particular day. The wording of these signs, too, imply a kind of physicality to the rule. When passage is forbidden, the signs say "Regulation is Active", in other words, the rule (again, a conceptual thing, not an object possessing physical manifestation) has, to the Italian mind, power and physical-like properties. It's not just in their heads, it's somehow a real thing out there in the world.

This feature of Italian culture may at first seem subtle and little more than a curiosity but it has remarkable power in daily life. It contributes to a docility and acceptance of bureaucracy as normal. Italians put up with things that would be unacceptable in the USA because somehow the underlying conceptual mechanisms have, to them, more force, more power, more reality. There is of course much to love in Italy. But this bureaucratic mindset is one of the things that makes me glad to be back home in The Land of the Free.

Legal Schmegal -- Italy's Xenophobic Legal System

Sure, I've tried only two cases. Sure, anecdotes are not data. But I remain convinced the Italian legal system is a sham for non-Italians. Both cases related to matters that were near-existential for me. An ugly lesson has been learned, twice. The stories are both complex and simple. Let me explain.

Historically, Italy has produced a remarkable body of jurisprudence. It is based on principles quite different from our American ones. Ours derive from the English, with litigants in a kind of gladiatorial system in which each party hires the best they can afford. By contrast, the Italian system, based on a tradition called Justinian (after the Roman emperor) purports to seek not to reach an outcome through battle but to arrive at the truth by a collaborative process. Each has its merits. But is that how it really works?

In America, indubitably. The rich get justice when they hire the best (read: expensive) gladiators. What about the Italians?

First, let me recount a small parable from the engineering world in which, professionally, I grew up. You're working on a project. You must manage tradeoffs -- fast, cheap, or good: pick two. Turns out that's true in legal strategy, too.

Italy is a case in point. For one thing, their lawyers and judges rarely get rich. They are not well paid. So you get "cheap". Then, everything takes forever because there are no incentives for service. So forget "fast". That leaves only "good". Can you get that in Italy? Yes, if you're Italian.

Given the poor pay, it's remarkable that Italian lawyers and judges would bring integrity to their work. Surprisingly, they often do... when the case involves fellow countrymen. Alas, that's as far as it goes. As I've discovered by painful experience, such integrity does not extend to non-Italians, non-Catholics, non-whites. Italy is astonishingly xenophobic. Modernity is little more than a veneer.

I remember from the 60s -- when my family first moved there -- being chided by Italian friends, "Why are you Americans so mean to your Blacks?" Now that Italy has Blacks (and Asians and every other ethnicity and racial stripe flooding in from suffering countries everywhere) suddenly Italians, too, are racist. I have seen it with my own eyes, strangers on the street hurling curses -- unprovoked -- at people with dark skins.

OK, what about my own ugly experience with Italy's benighted legal system? I have suffered through two legal battles there, both of which were -- or should have been -- simply matters of enforcing agreements whose terms were unequivocal.

Ha! turns out, Italian judges ignore evidence that's contrary to the outcome they seek, and, when convenient, impute contract clauses that are imaginary.

In one case, my inheritance of a house was stymied by a judge who, in order to achieve the outcome favoring Italian defendants (who sought, with a falsified will to countermand the real one) by accepting "evidence" I had proved fraudulent. This was no ordinary judge; I'd fought the case for 19 years, ending in the Corte di Cassazione (Supreme Court) which proved no less perfidious than the lower courts.

My second, shorter battle (merely a year -- the fast track) was an attempt to recover loaned money. The borrower was my erstwhile "fidanzata" (fiance). We planned to acquire -- as 50/50 partners -- a Rome apartment together. As she was dead broke, I loaned her her half. In writing, she promised to pay me back. When, following bitter disagreements, the matrimony was called off, I sought to recover my loan. Though no such condition existed in her promise to repay, the judge ruled that the failure of the betrothal negated her debt. To achieve the outcome he sought (voiding the debt) the judge imputed a non-existent condition. I can only conclude that on her day in court she spoke without an accent. Or had a nice hairdo. Or, most likely, it sufficed that she was Italian.

The point is that Italian judges will never find for a plaintiff (or, I suppose, defendant) who isn't Italian.

My conclusion? Go to Italy! Enjoy the food, the art and culture, the good times on the beaches and mountains, your lovely Italian friends. Don't try to own property, launch products, do business. In a deep way, a way that's never acknowledged out loud, in Italy the deck is stacked against the non-Italian. Don't fall for their pretensions of modernity. Don't expect a level playing field. Instead, enjoy your home court advantage. What resources you have, keep in your own land, among your own people, in a system that works for you. Because theirs surely doesn't.


Bryan Morse liked what I have written here and made a copy of it on his own web site, here. I'm flattered.


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Dan Keller