Italy, famous for the ‘Dolce Vita’, or the sweet life in English, is one of the world’s top tourist destinations with amazing art, culture and cuisine to explore. However, it’s not just the history and landscape of the nation which gives it such an international allure, because the people of Italy have a unique style and approach to life which is enjoyable and healthy in equal parts!
Italy is a very homogenous culture, with over 95% of its inhabitants being Italian by birth. This has created a situation in which the traditions, customs and culture of Italy have remained largely unchanged through the generations. However, Italy is, by and large, an extremely welcoming country to Expats and tourists although you’ll have a much better time if you pick up some of the local habits and traits.
If you’ve moved to Italy as an Expat and are feeling that you’re not fitting in or you just want to live in a more authentic Italian way, then there are a few things to keep in mind to help you make the transition into your new life!
Religion Is Central To Italian Life.
Unlike most of the Western world religion still plays a hugely important role in the life of Italians. The primary religion in Italy is Roman Catholicism and every city or town has several major churches and cathedrals which host services and events for their communities. In fact, more than 80% of Italians identify as Christians or Roman Catholics compared to around 50-60% of Americans.
Everywhere you go in Italy you’ll see religious art, festivals and street fairs. Religion in most of the Western world is largely ceremonial in modern times but in Italy it’s a truly living faith that celebrates its customs and history with pride. This means that to be an authentic Italian, even if you don’t personally believe in the faith, you should be attending church services and celebrating the festivals, the Saints and the Holy days.
Put Your Family First.
Family life in Italy is one of the building blocks of the culture and people take their responsibilities very seriously. Family solidarity and connection is a hugely celebrated part of life for all Italians and their traditionally large, extended families often meet to share meals, holidays and time with each other, including the in-laws!
Another interesting feature of Italian life is that children often continue living with their families until well into their 30s; something which is quite rare in America where children tend to leave home soon after finishing high school.
Putting your family first is a great thing to do and will help you to build a stronger legacy, even after you’re gone. To be an authentic Italian it’s essential to nurture close family bonds and, of course, never stop complimenting your mother’s cooking!
Quality Food Is An Essential Part Of Authentic Italian Life.
Good food, or ‘buon cibo’, is the beating heart of Italy. Of course, Italian food is famous the world over but it’s not just the food that matters because it’s also the whole way that you approach it which makes the difference between an authentic Italian and an imposter.
There’s an old joke that says that ‘the main problem with Italian food is that in just 5 or days, you’re hungry again’; and there’s certainly more than a little truth to this sentiment! Genuine Italians eat huge meals and take their time to do so, enjoying the company and conversation as much as the food itself.
This means to be an authentic Italian you need to allow yourself the time to eat long, slow meals with multiple courses. Generally, for a traditional Italian meal, you would start with a pasta dish, followed by salad, cold meats, cheese and bread. Next, you might have some fruit and then a sweet dessert! Lastly, as you’d expect, you would have an espresso.
Another important element of Italian cuisine is the olive oil for which the country is renowned all over the globe. Olive oil is used in cooking and also drizzled on salads, pasta and vegetable dishes; with the remaining oil being soaked up with pieces of bread. This means to be an authentic Italian you’ll always need to have a couple of bottles of olive oil in your kitchen cupboard!
Now this might sound like the type of diet which will quickly put on the pounds but Italians feel no shame about eating big meals or sweets and pastries. Pastries, and other sweet snacks, are eaten throughout the day, including for breakfast, after dinner and at any other time of the day.
Be Good At Asking For And Receiving Favors.
The world of Italian politics and business is famously corrupt and nepotistic with ‘who you know’ often being more important than ‘what you know’! This can be frustrating if you’re trying to get almost anything done which requires you to interact with the various systems of bureaucracy in Italy but it also has its benefits.
Italians are always ready to ask for or receive favors from their friends and families which acts like a cost free social security net. This means that if you’re facing a tough time in your life you can always rely on your nearest and dearest to have your back.
If you want to be an authentic Italian you’ll have to get over your Western sensibilities that say nepotism is a bad thing and channel your inner Don Corleone instead! Start offering your friends and families help whenever they are in difficulties and in return it’s okay for you to ask them favors when you need a helping hand.
Dressing And Style.
Italians are well known for being extremely stylish and dressing with a superb taste in fashion. Walking through the streets of Rome, Milan or Florence you’ll see a lot of people who look like they have just stepped off a cat walk at a major fashion show; but in reality, this is just how they dress everyday, even if they’re only running a few errands!
A ‘bella figura’, or beautiful figure, is a crucial part of keeping up appearances in Italy but the concept includes much more than just the clothes you wear. It also refers to the way that you carry yourself and go about your daily life. This is the underlying key ingredient which gives Italians that universal respect in all aspects of fashion, style, and even the ‘Dolce Vita’ itself!
To fit in as an authentic Italian you’re going to have to up your game when it comes to style and your dress code. Always dress up for dinners, putting on your finest clothes, to make sure that you give the chef, your companions and even the food itself the respect it deserves. This appreciation for the finer things in life will ensure that you dress with a stylish elegance which looks great no matter where you are.
Contradictions And Cleanliness.
Italy’s cities are famous for being dirty and unclean. Rubbish often piles up in the backstreets while in Southern parts of the country you even see stray dogs wandering around on the beaches and in the cities!
However, despite this, Italian people themselves are extremely concerned with their own personal hygiene and cleanliness; seeming to walk around the filthy streets that are covered with graffiti while being completely oblivious to the apparent contradiction in their cultural life.
Italian men and women alike, spend a lot of time in the hairdressers and wear expensive perfumes as a matter of course; to ensure that they are and appear to be clean in the eyes of others.
Therefore, if you want to live an authentically Italian lifestyle you need to make sure that your own cleanliness is not only of a high standard, but exceptionally so!
Pay In Cash Not Card!
While the vast majority of Western nations are rapidly moving towards an almost entirely cashless society, Italians not only buck the trend but it seems to revel in their use of cash.
There are several reasons for this, some of which might surprise you! One reason why Italians, particularly those involved in business, prefer to operate in cash is because this way they can often avoid paying the full tax that they are supposed to pay. Italians are famous for taking a relaxed approach to their tax requirements and so by using cash they can often reduce their overall tax bill.
Another reason why Italians use cash is that it is simply a cultural tradition and as a nation, Italy is very good at holding on to their customs and habits. There’s also the fact, which you often hear, that Italians feel that when they use cash they can see exactly how much money they have left whereas if you use a card for payments it’s easy to lose track of your budget.
Electronic payments are increasingly being used for larger payments however for all small bills an authentic Italian will be paying in cash. For example, if you drop into a cafe for an espresso you will be expected to pay in cash and you may get a frown from the barista if you whip out your credit card!
Take Your Time – All The Time.
In most countries if you loiter around in the streets or hang around outside shops and restaurants in groups you’re likely to get questioned by people as to why you are hanging around. In some cases, if you linger outside of a business, or just in the street, the police may even be called.
However, in Italy, it’s completely normal for people to linger in the streets, stop to chat to people they vaguely know, and get into long heated discussions outside of bars, restaurants and stores without raising any eyebrows. It’s also common for people to take a slow stroll through the town after dinner at a restaurant to linger in the town square and chat to whoever happens to come along.
These traditions can feel a little awkward for newcomers to Italy but once you get used to the habit of lingering around in public squares and places you’ll soon find that you’re making new friends and contacts in the community. Taking your time, especially after dinner, is good for your digestion and lets you get plenty of fresh air; so from now on, particularly if you’re staying in Italy, slow down and relax, linger outside and be ready to strike up conversations with the passers by.
Learn Some Italian!
There’s no way that you can begin to be an authentic Italian if you don’t have at least a smattering of the language! Over 90% of Italy speaks Italian as their first language and in rural parts of the country it can sometimes be hard to find anyone who speaks English at all. Therefore, learning some Italian is vital to living life in a more authentic Italian manner.
Mastering The Dolce Vita.
Italians are a quirky people with a whole raft of unusual habits and customs but if you approach their lifestyle with an open mind you’ll soon realize that they really do know what they’re doing!
Italians are famously healthy, have strong family bonds and a wide circle of friends, dress with stylish elegance and know how to enjoy their food; all things which are often lacking in the lives of other Westerners.
Therefore, if you’re visiting Italy, or moving there as an Expat, why not take up some of the habits and lifestyle choices that go into making an authentic Italian?