Category Archives: Just a Little Different Here

Seven Systems Europeans Use That Make More Sense

With World Cup fever heating up, I find myself torn between my two favorite teams – America and Italia.  Thankfully, the teams are not in the same group and so I can root for both squads guilt-free (hopefully all the way to the finals).  As I was comparing and contrasting the strengths and weaknesses of both teams; it occurred to me that perhaps I had stumbled onto something much more important.  I realized that it might be fun to compare America vs. Europe… not just the ability to move the soccer ball around the field, but “bigger picture” things.  What common sense things do Europeans do that Americans fail to recognize?IMAGE

For the purposes of this first post, I will focus solely on the items that appear in the “win” column for Europe.  I will follow-up a little later with another post listing America’s “wins”.  It seemed only fair to publish the posts in this order since Italy logged their first World Cup win before America.

Some background… OK, this piece is not a serious look at which place is “better”.  I’m not weighing in on art & architecture, natural beauty or economic importance.  I’m not comparing the food or the people.  I’m only noting a few of the systems in place that perhaps we would do well to share with one another.  Without further adieu… Continue reading Seven Systems Europeans Use That Make More Sense

Things Are Just a Little Different… Part IV

If you’ve been a loyal reader of this blog or have spent a little time playing around on the pages, you’ll see that I’ve started a “series” that highlights some of the differences between Italy and our native America.  Some of the differences are strange to us, many of them make perfect sense and others are just plain silly.  If you’d like to see where the series began, take a look back here:

Part I
Part II
Part III

Just like the previous editions, I will group these differences by category.  Without further adieu, Parte Quattro (Part Four)…

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All Things Are Just a Little Different… Part III

Another edition in the series that highlights differences between our native America and Italy.  In the first post (HERE), I briefly touched on small things such as uniquely Italian keys while in Part II (HERE), I expanded the list to include differences in culinary habits, banking and shopping.  Like a Hobbit collecting stories or a dragon stashing treasure, I have been storing many more of gems for a later blog post (I just finished re-reading The Hobbit… that may explain those metaphors).

Much like the last post in this series, I will try to organize these examinations of our culture differences in their family of origin.  The previous post also exclusively featured cultural digressions that we determined to be more positive than what we grew up accustomed to seeing.  Here, we take the gloves off and highlight the good, the bad and the ugly – tutti (all).

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DRIVING

Like in the US – cars, trucks and motorcycles are the most common form of transport.  We have spent a lot of time ourselves in our beloved little car touring the country and so, naturally we noticed quite a few differences.

Where are all the traffic lights?!  If there are hardly any traffic lights in an entire country, how are there not piles of collisions and pent up road rage?  Well, it’s because the Italians adopt a much more efficient system by maximizing the rotundo (roundabout).  The roundabout dates back as far as 1768, with more well-known examples as far back as 1907 (around the Arc de Triomphe).  More modern uses of the traffic-calming system were implemented in the 1960’s throughout Europe.  Washington DC is one of the few US cities that actively adopted the roundabout, so the custom was not entirely foreign to us (it can be intimidating for newer drivers).  I love blowing through a roundabout when I’m late for something instead of waiting anxiously at a red light for up to five minutes.

A roundabout in our town

Zzzzoooom!!  What was THAT?!  If you’re driving on four wheels you have to be aggressive just to fit in.  In fact, you’re more likely to get in an accident if you’re timid or ride your breaks.  Since I was probably already considered an aggressive driver by US standards, I feel right at home here.  But what I can’t wrap my brain around is the motorcycles.  They blow past traffic at double the speed limit and everyone just seems to accept it as normal.  You can be driving at a comfortable 120 km/hr and feel like you’re standing still as three or four Ducati’s blow right past you.  They pass other cars and each other, while facing oncoming traffic, in the rain and around blind corners.  I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Watch out for those crazy motorcycle riders

That better not be your car in the left lane!  Don’t you dare drive slowly in the left lane here.  And by slowly, I mean passing cars at 90 mph.  If you’re not flying, the left lane is not for you.  Along with the aforementioned motorcycles passing in the blink of an eye, you’d better keep an eye out for that Alfa Romeo that will drive three inches behind your bumper until you move into the right lane.  I used to pull that tactic in the US (riding bumpers of anyone that dared to drive in the left lane)… man, is it annoying!

You trust me to do what now?!  Some things are a long-forgotten memory from an era far gone.  25¢ phone calls, hand-cranked car windows and floppy disks are all things of the past.  I thought pumping your gas first and paying second also fit into that category.  But here, people are a bit more trusting.  And it’s nice.  Reminds me of a more innocent time.  The first few times I tried to pump my gas, I kept searching for that mistrusting credit card machine, until I realized that it’s a “pump-first pay-later” society.  Which is kind of surprising, because…

Gas costs how much, again?!  Did I hear you complain about the price you just paid at the pump?  Is it the current administration’s fault?  Or perhaps the previous administration?  Go ahead and tell me all about how you just came close to hitting $4/gallon during the high-travel season…  I remember when I used to grumble about that too.  Never again.  I was happy to see gas was so cheap here at first.  Then I realized it was price per liter.  And in Euro’s.  I did the conversion one time (also… never again) and realized I was paying almost $9.50/gallon.  I threw up a little on my sneakers.

Gas costs how much?!

A TIME ONCE LOST

Pumping your gas first and paying second is just one example of the trusting and warm society we’ve encountered while living here.  Many (many, many) things here are rooted in tradition, which lends to a more easy-going lifestyle.  One of relationships and trustworthiness.  Personally, I find it refreshing.  

I’d like to withdrawal some money please.  Think about your bank.  When you go there to conduct business, did you have your ID?  Your ATM card and PIN code?  Your account number?  You bet you did.  It just occurred to me recently that I’ve been walking into my local bank branch for months without knowing my account number, presenting an ID or passing any form of security check.  This may sound somewhat alarming, but I kind of like it.  They just know me.  And I know them.  It’s the same three people and they always help me find my account and transact my business.  It sort of has that Mayberry vibe, where your smile and handshake are good enough.

Don’t feel well?  Call the doctor and sit back.  Doctor’s make house calls?  Seriously?  That’s amazing.  The “house-call” era ended long before Jen and I grew up.  We were surprised recently to see a doctor leaving a neighbor’s apartment.  He even had the little black medical bag, like something straight out of a movie.  Of course, they have normal doctors offices and hospitals, but apparently they also make house calls.

Don’t expect me to jump up to help you.  The “slow-going, there’s time to do that later approach” can be charming, but at times it can also be madening.  The local definition of customer service is uniquely Italian.  It means, “I will be happy to help you… just as soon as I’m finished doing whatever it is I’m doing.”  For example, when buying my car (which was an ordeal worthy of it’s own blog-post) the salesman would constantly show up late for appointments (slowly finishing his coffee at a nearby bar), take phone calls resulting in long conversations while I stared awkwardly at the wall and require me to come back multiple times for paperwork he could have mailed.  “Surely, that must be isolated to this particular guy” you say.  Wrong.  Go to the bank.  Just be sure you’ve planned for over an hour, because you will wait.  Go to the butcher… or florist… or anywhere.  Just be prepared to wait.  Please understand – I don’t mean to say that people aren’t pleasant.  They are incredibly nice and love to chat about nothing and everything.  The only problem is that the 5 people waiting behind you are doing just that… waiting.  Multi-tasking customer service is a concept that hasn’t arrived.

Babies get all the love.  I had heard that Italians were incredibly nice to babies before we got here.  I had no idea just how true that was.  It’s not unusual to be stopped time and time again by kindly older ladies or men, asking Julia come ti chiami (what’s your name?).  But even the younger kids (the tweens that don’t yet realize life exists outside of Facebook) are incredibly nice to babies.  We recently took Julia to the doctor for a check-up and the pediatrician was as sweet as could be.  He complimented Julia and even gave her a couple kisses on the check.  As born and raised American’s our instinct was to think it peculiar (and even get a bit defensive) that a stranger kissed our daughter.  But it was so very sweet and affectionate that we charmed by the act.

Some friends of friends… they just took to Julia and she took to them
Julia made a friend and shared her Nonno Franco with her

BABIES

Jen is the primary caregiver in our family – she is a wonderful mother and takes care of Julia (I like to just swoop in and be “the fun dad” – you know, avoid all the dirty work).  Since she has done such a good job taking on this role, she has also been the one to notice many of the following differences between US and Italian babies.

I can’t kick the habit, mom!  Know what a ciuccio is?  Sure you do.  You probably know it as a binky.  A ba-ba.  A nu-nu.  C’mon, stay with me folks – a pacifier.  You know who else knows what it is?  That five year old little boy that’s walking around with it hanging off his lower lip or the six year old little girl that pops it in for a quick fix in between bites of her risotto.  We tried to get Julia to stop using her ciuccio around 18 months and people thought we were crazy.  “If she wants it, why not just give it to her?” they would ask.  We eventually relented and the ciuccio is now as much a permanent fixture as her hair bows and coloring books.

Julia has a love affair – with a cuiccio

You’re going to use a scarf, right?  Baby scarfs.  Did you know an entire market exists for baby scarfs?  Italians are paranoid about the warmth of their babies.  They will quite literally wrap them in layer after layer of clothing, covered with a down jacket, accessorized with a fashionable scarf (tied in that tricky Italian bow-knot), topped off with a wool hat and sandwiched in between their sleeping-bag stroller thingy’s.  We were less concerned about the warmth of our baby (or perhaps, less prepared), often draping a ghetto sheet over our stroller, hoping she wouldn’t kick it off while trying to avoid the judging stares.  Next year, we will be armed with all the latest baby high-heat fashion.

Pass me those clippers, I’ve got a head to shave.  Italians believe that if you shave your babies head, their hair will grow back faster and thicker.  Who knows, maybe it’s true.  I’m not taking a position either way – but I sure know that Jen (and her mom before her) were ready to claw, scratch and pull the hair of anyone that came close to their babies with clippers.

I like my butt shiny and clean!  After a dirty diaper (pee or poo), they don’t just use wipes here.  It is almost imperative that you clean your babies butt the proper way.  In a bidet and with lots of soap.  Pat dry and wrap in a new diaper.  Just wiping with those pre-soaped wipes is not nearly enough.

MISCELLANEOUS

The miscellaneous.  Don’t really have a category for these times – just a few more things we’ve noticed.

Bring me a chair… please!!  Jen is much more obsessed with this than I am.  Partly because I’m not entirely convinced it’s different, but she insists that it is.  The cashiers in the grocery stores sit down.  I can’t picture it, but Jen reminds me that our cashiers are on their feet all day.  Having been [on occasion] all day on my feet – I do hope they’re wearing proper footwear!

Let’s build them just for show!  We have come to love the grocery stores here – with one exception.  When it’s time to checkout, the stress begins.  The two grocery stores we frequent the most have lane after lane of checkout desks.  I would estimate over 30 in each store.  But I have never seen more than four or five open at any given time.  It doesn’t mean the store is any less busy… they just never have a sufficient cashier-to-customer ratio.

Tons of people crowded into three lanes

Push, don’t pull.  Not an earth shattering revelation, but something that might help you prevent a broken nose on your next trip to Italy.  I’m sure you’ve never thought about the swing pattern of the door at the local store.  So let me help you.  To open, you pull – it swings out.  To exit, you push as you leave the store.  Here, it’s the opposite.  The only reason I would notice such a thing is that 30+ years of natural instinct had to be re-learned.

Spingere – Push

Bidet’s aren’t just for babies.  I mentioned above that the bidet is used to clean a baby after a dirty diaper.  Well, it’s original purpose was not for babies, but for us big babies.  And let me tell you something… it’s glorious!  I always caution all visitors – be weary of any hand towels hanging next to a bidet – do not use it to dry your hands.

Bidet on the right

That’s all for this post – more observations to come in Parte Quattro as time goes on!

All Thing Are Just a Little Different… Part II

When we first moved here, we noticed that while many things are very much the same as the States… there are also many, many subtle (and not so subtle) differences.  Early on, I did a quick post about things being different HERE but I didn’t go into many of the specifics.

Now that we’ve been here a while, it makes sense to go a bit deeper.  You know, the kind of “hard-hitting journalism” you’ve come to expect here at Sipping Espresso.  For this post we’ve focused on some of the differences that we find particularly charming, beneficial or just plain better.  So here we go…

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RESTAURANTS

Let’s start with the food.  If you’ve been a follower of this blog for a while (or read more than one post), you’ll notice that many things here are cuisine related.  This in itself is something amazing, but not an entry.  Regarding food/eating, I’m referring to:

Get it while it’s hot!  In the States, it is polite to eat only when all the food has arrived at the table.  This means most of your dishes have been baking under a heat lamp anywhere from 5 – 10 minutes while your buddy-with-no-taste-bud’s extra well-done steak continues to char.  Here, the food arrives at the table just after it’s been cooked – and it’s meant to be enjoyed that way.  You can eat when the food arrives – in fact, people might think your pazzo (crazy) if you sit and let your food get cold.  Admittedly, this takes some getting used to – but it makes all the sense in the world.

Gnocci Castelmagno and Papparadelle Cinghiale
This dish would lose texture/flavor quickly if allowed to get cold

Continue reading All Thing Are Just a Little Different… Part II

Who Needs Petting a Zoo?

Our little bumblebee has been busy buzzing all over town – and we were right behind her with cameras and video rolling!  Here are a couple of her recent adventures.  Coincidentally, both stories fit in with the Easter theme perfectly; a fortunate blog occurrence given the upcoming Easter holiday.

Julia’s Egg

Julia’s Egg
Our little family likes it’s morning rituals.  Jen and I enjoy drinking our American coffee (probably the one habit from home we don’t want to give up). Julia likes to chose her own breakfast and then eat it herself (even though half ends up on the floor).   Continue reading Who Needs Petting a Zoo?

Italians are HIPPIES?! Who knew?

OK… not quite your Grateful Dead listening, moccasin wearing, pot smoking, “make love-not war” type of hippies.  More of the modern-day “green” kind.  Which is a good thing.  But let me tell you something…

IT SURE IS INCONVENIENT!

When we first moved here and were getting our run-down of the new rules of life, one of the first things we discovered was that everything gets recycled.  You’re likely saying, “what’s the big deal?  I recycle!”  Sure, we did too.  I was quite proud to carry my bottles, plastic and paper to the big blue bin next to the trash chute.  Our building actually changed from having to separate paper from plastic into one big bin to make it more convenient.  Now that’s the type of recycling I was used to.

But this… this is next-level recycling.  Thinking about throwing that banana peel away?  You’d better stop in your tracks!  Planning on throwing away that package your kids toy came in?  Stop right there!  You were planning on seperating the paper label from the plastic cover and removing it from the cardboard backing, right?! Continue reading Italians are HIPPIES?! Who knew?

Fact or Fiction?

We made a discovery recently about Italians that contradicted an earlier belief of ours.  So it got us thinking… what other misconceptions do many Americans have about Italians?  Let’s dig a little deeper and see what we discover.  This is a collection of observations we’ve made since we’ve been here and we will likely have additions over time (and possibly corrections).

*Disclaimer - this post is meant to be fun and in no way itself, factual!  These are simply things that we have observed [and this is important] in this region.  One of the first things that we learned is that there are dramatic differences throughout the country - cultural, culinary, lingual... you name it!  So, while something may be fact or fiction based on what we've noticed; it's highly probably that it could be the opposite somewhere else.

FACT OR FICTION – ITALIANS LOVE GARLIC…THE MORE THE BETTER!

 

While garlic is prevalent in many dishes, like most other things… they prefer it in moderation.  In fact, what appears to us like a little amount of garlic in a dish is probably already far too much.  Interesting Italian tidbit – eating raw garlic is good for you, but cooked garlic has no impact.  Vampires beware, I’ve been gulping the stuff!

Answer – FICTION

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FACT OR FICTION – ITALIANS LOVE THEIR COFFEE?

 

Given the name of this blog, you most likely have already surmised that coffee is enjoyed several times throughout the day.  However, the experience is very different than the US.  Instead of going to any Starbucks in the morning and ordering a 20 oz coffee that you’ll guzzle in your car on the way to work, Italians prefer several small cups of espresso throughout the day.  Sometimes with milk (con latte or a machiatto), sometimes very small (corto) and occasionally a bit bigger (lungo) – but always in an espresso cup and never “to go”.  An enjoyable custom is visiting various “bars” throughout the day, ordering your coffee, chatting with your friends, plunking down your €1 and heading out only to return a few hours later.  CAREFUL – one of us (and it wasn’t your author) learned a couple years ago that you NEVER order a cappuccino after a meal.

Answer – FACT

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FACT OR FICTION –  ITALIANS HAVE TWO HOUR LUNCHES?!

Pranzo circa 2006 when we were here for Jens cousin’s wedding

Perhaps not two hours exactly, but pranzo (lunch) is an event that is not to be missed or rushed.  In most households, pranzo is the most important meal of the deal – a wonderful moment to spend time with family.  You’ll find most shops close around 12:00 and don’t re-open until after 2:00 in order to allow shopkeepers and workers time to make it home and eat.  Many households will regularly serve pasta as a prima (first course), sometimes followed by a secondo (second course of fish or meat) and usually rounded out by a salad at the end.  Of course, wonderful bread and cheese are present and many households will happily open a nice bottle of vino (wine) and finish with caffè (coffee).  With a younger generation and big box stores ushering in new norms, pranzo may not have as much emphasis as it did in the past – but the act of eating an enjoyable lunch will always have a place in Italian culture.

*We have the benefit of wonderful cooks both upstairs and in our own home – we have enjoyed many wonderful two-hour lunches ourselves; even though my waist line isn’t too appreciative.  Future posts on Claudia and Jen’s delicious cooking to come.

Answer – FACT

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FACT OR FICTION – “SPAGHETTI AND MEATBALLS” IS ALWAYS ON THE MENU?

No meatballs here

While pasta is very common (and spaghetti, a type of noodle is one of the most popular varities) – polpette (meatballs) are never served on top of spaghetti and oozing with marinara.  In fact, the only time we’ve ever had polpette was a second meat course and they tasted very different than what we’re accustomed to.

Answer – FICTION

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FACT OR FICTION – ITALIANS DRINK TONS OF SAN PELLEGRINO SPARKLING WATER?

This was something Jen and I assumed, not necessarily something that is commonly thought of.  Every time we have gone out to eat in the states with Italians, we order aqua frizzante (sparkling water) and 9 times out of 10 they would deliver San Pellegrino to the table.  Given Jen’s Italian upbringing, we actually became quite accustomed to stocking the delicious “bubbly stuff” in our own home (thank you Costco for selling cases).  So, naturally we assumed that the big player in the US market would dominate on their own turf.  But the truth is – we haven’t seen a single bottle!  Not at a restaurant, not at a friends home, not at the supermarket.  It’s like they bottle almost exclusively for export!  Don’t get me wrong… there is a bottle of frizzante at every table we’ve graced – just not San Pellegrino.

Interestingly enough, Illy and Lavazza (the two espresso brands most dominant in the US) are not only very prevalent in Italy – they are regarded as the best quality.

Answer – Fiction

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FACT OR FICTION – ITALIAN SUBS ARE BETTER IN ITALY?!

 

Well, this just seems like common sense.  We’re in the mecca for the cured meats, wonderful cheeses and incredible bread that could make the world’s greatest submarine sandwich.  We have access to carefully aged vinegar and the most delicious olive oil.  The lettuce and tomatoes… well, OK – they’re pretty much the same.  So, of course they should put them all together and give it the namesake of their own country, right?

I dare you to go into any restaurant and order an “Italian Sub”.  You’ll get a look like you have three heads, because for some strange reason twelve inches of layer after layer of mixed meats, cheese, vegetables and oil smashed into a piece of bread doesn’t sound appealing to them at all.  Weird – I’m getting hungry just typing!

Italians prefer to keep most things separate, so that they can taste each item.  Sure, they have sandwiches (post on our sandwich adventure), but not of the “sub-sandwich” kind.  In fact the place we went in Milano is quite rare.  Most places simply put one type of meat on bread (salami or prosciutto or prosciutto cotto) sometimes accompanied by cheese and maybe some arugula.

Sorry Jared – we have no use for you here.

Answer – FICTION

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FACT OR FICTION – ITALIANS ARE VERY LOUD…YOU CAN HEAR THEM A GREAT WAYS AWAY?!

“I already TOOOOOLD you!!!!”

I feel as though I am credible to be able to write about this, as I have known a great many Italians over the years and been privy to many, many conversations.  As it’s been explained to me… they’re not loud – they’re passionate!  And they’re not always passionate – only when topics of conversation requires it.  Like politics or religion…. or what to cook for lunch, or who’s right or wrong, or what the temperature is, or if the sky is actually blue, or if breathing is important, or whether the neighbors can hear them.  That sort of thing.

Answer – FACT :-) 

Well, we hope you had as much fun learning about what’s Fact and what’s Fiction in this great country as we did creating the list.  We’re hoping to learn a lot more so we can continue to add to the list.

All Things Are Just a Little Different…

I think this will be a recurring theme… most differences are charming, some can be frustrating and all of them can be humorous when looked at in the right light.

A perfect example of some of these differences that “welcomed” us to our new life in Italy was our own house key.*  There are normal keys right next to it so that you can get a proper scale.

Didn’t know we were living in a bank vault!

*When we say “our house,” we really mean Dominic and Diane’s beautiful home that they have so graciously allowed us to live in for the next year.  We’ll do a separate post with pictures of the place as well.