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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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?!


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


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.


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!

One thought on “All Things Are Just a Little Different… Part III”

  1. Very interesting to read about the additional cultural differences between Italy and the US. Certainly a number of them are similar to what we see in the South of France. I look forward to your next collection.

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