Italy is just different enough from America that an American can experience a different culture without massive culture shock setting in - it's the perfect balance for a new traveler or someone looking for their home away from home.
I chose Italy over as Asian country for this reason, that and I have gathered a lovely amount of anxiety after last year before moving. I wanted to make sure I went somewhere in the Goldilocks area of culture. After being here for one year, I have quite a few things to say about America, but I'd rather not get into the current, volatile political debate.
As such, here are some observations on Italy after one year.*
*J.k, I never published this - I didn’t edit any of my words, but I did add a reflection on their universal health system from now, two years later.
Most of us see the Italians as loud, hand-waving, grandma-adoring, food-obsessed people, and I'll certainly admit that I came here with similar expectations, although I had been interested in what makes them tick.
I've come to find out that it's passion. Pure, unfiltered, passion.
Italian culture is grounded in ancient traditions, and Italians tend to be extremely proud of their history, especially in their food. They are a culture that shines through nearly everything that they do, and they do so with gusto. Happiness isn't this watered-down "okayness" that I see in a lot of Americans - it's HAPPINESS, all caps, get out of their bubble because their hands will be flailing in the air.
Nothing is half-assed.
It's the same for any emotion, however. An angry Italian is not to be trifled with.
And it's a lovely, lovely thing to be around after having been in a country that is so doped on medication and their problems: Italians seem so emotionally vindicated. Being around them, at least for me, is like therapy.
And that's, I think, a lot of where their culture is grounded: a passion for life.
The food is amazing because there's passion.
They're busy waving their hands because of passion.
The grandmas want you to eat because they are passionate about family and hospitality.
Italy is passion. When you think of Italy, think of passion.
Driving in Italy is another thing.
Every day of driving here makes me laugh hysterically: the blatant disregard of the rules because of the implications of the ancient history of this country is outstanding to consider.
So, Italy is old.
So old that most of the roads were made for carriages and horses, right?
Well, yeah. If you aren't on the G.R.A., the highway ring around Rome, most of the roads are very small, and as a result, seeing a large, American car is quite rare here, even a pain to other cars, and some Italians will let you know what an ass you are for having dared to purchase such a large car. In fact, most of them have dents.
Lots and lots of dents.
I don't tend to see many harsh accidents here, but people certainly have minor accidents that only dent cars, and it isn't so important to leave a note when they hit someone in a parking lot.
Italians on the road tend to be very focused because they have to be. If you look down for a moment, you'll suddenly have someone on the other side of the road on your side of the road 'cause they want to bypass a huge tractor. There's a solid white line, which means you aren't supposed to cross, but that person is going to pass anyway.
I find it humorous, but there are small moments of terror.
Oh, and most of Europe drives on the right side of the road like America. I thought it was like the UK when I first arrived.
Travel and Public Transportation
I think most Americans can agree that public transportation is a joke. At least in Colorado is was, but I was never in a situation where I had to use it, so my perspective is limited.
When there isn't a strike, and there seems to be every week, public transportation is a wonder to me. The Italians, who are used to it, complain that the buses are always late, but I have to laugh because most Italians are 30% later than promised even without a good excuse like, "The bus was late." They're just more relaxed about time.
So when you ask what time the train comes, the answer is always, "It's a surprise!"
The train stations in major hubs are amazing, especially in Milan. Trains have comfortable seats, and generally more than enough room until it's rush hour to the beach in the summer. Buses are much less comfortable, shaky things that make you hope God is real, but they arrive often and there are generally more than enough options for travelling to your destination.
Trams are fun, also really great for hatching eggs in Pokemon if anyone cares about that game anymore.
As mentioned before, Italians have a passion for life. This can be strange to an American - we are raised on work ethic, that our biggest contribution is the hours we put into our work.
It's different here, and I much prefer it.
To your average American, Italy is probably lazy.
But after being here long enough, you start to see it differently: their priorities are different. Italians want to live their lives instead of spending eight, nine, ten hours stuffed inside of a small office all day. Most businesses have a three to four-hour break in the middle of the day so everyone can eat lunch and spend some time with their family, especially to take care of kids who may be getting out of school.
There is a similar air of "I don't want to go to work" here, but it isn't existential misery if you know what I mean - there isn't a DREAD over going to work. There isn't the same stressful impact. Holidays are also sprinkled in quite frequently to an American - it seems there are two holidays (or more) every month, so there's plenty of time for micro-vacations.
Speaking of stress, my generation, and the ones born after me, probably have a sense of how diagnosed and medicated we all are. I don't want to get into a political debate over that, but I mention it as a point of contrast: in Italy, you are who you are, and that's generally fine, almost like Japan. Almost.
I have developed anxiety. I mention my anxiety ad nauseum, I'm sure. I use it as an excuse quite a bit, but it's also a very real problem that affects my daily life. Americans tend to like to tiptoe around it, make sure I'm okay, talk about it, relate to me, things like that, and there isn't anything innately wrong with that until it becomes enabling, which is what it generally turns into.
The Italians accept it and live around me with understanding. They don't need to diagnose me, they don't ask me about medication, and they don't mention therapy like an American would, and the funny thing is, mental health is taken very seriously here. You want to see a therapist? You have a four-hour break during work, the morning, or they'll work with you to make sure you can see one under their universal healthcare.
Same with medical problems.
Basically, if you have a problem, cool, you can fix it.
Americans tend to manage and enable, I think, because fixing a mental or physical problem seems like a huge hurdle.
Italy, naw, go see a doctor if it's a problem. If it isn't a problem, it's just who you are.
For example, a little girl is seen as being energetic and dreamy instead of A.D.D.. I live with her. She's incredible. Her imagination is adorable, her energy is often overwhelming, but it's who she is. We start to worry when she shows a pattern of a learning disability, but that worry is reinforced by a trained teacher's observations instead of a Google search.
And it's super interesting to every day life because they can enjoy their life without having to worry so much: there are stressors, of course, but to the degree where we need to medicate an entire generation, no.
So you can wake up, have a cappuccino, ciambella, stretch out of bed, and relax while you consider the day ahead. It isn't about waking up at six to have a five-minute shower before throwing a dirty uniform on to scream your way into retail work, all the while worrying about how you're going to ask your boss for two hours off of your December schedule to see a doctor 'cause you need medical help with the ankle you broke two weeks ago.
Honestly, Italians seem like kings to me.
There is, of course, poverty in Italy, but the spread is unlike America where you see homeless people littered all over the city. Beggars in Rome are actually loaded, or so the locals tell me: they are career beggars. They have a license to work, and they pay their taxes, their contribution to the Italian problem of poverty.
Italy is also going through a jobs crisis, but I'm not informed enough to comment except on a personal level.
However, even people without a job seem to be relatively taken care of.
That gets me into expenses. I mention poverty because it isn't in the political debate here. It doesn't need to be.
The cost of living is amazing. You can own a small beachfront property for less than €300,000 if you so choose, as opposed to, you know, the millions of dollars it costs to own a tiny apartment on the beaches of California. I haven't seen an apartment over €1200/m, and anyone looking to share generally pays less than $500/m for an apartment in Rome. Of course, there are extremely expensive parts of Rome, but there are options, which is the point.
In Colorado, where I'm from, there doesn't seem to be an option between the $1600/m option and living in a dangerous neighborhood in a shitty apartment for $1000/m. Looking for an apartment there was extremely frustrating, even with a roommate in mind.
And if you don't want to live in the big cities, it gets even better. I live in a home about thirty minutes from Rome, and the apartment options here, and I need to stress BEAUTIFUL apartment options, are generally less than €800/m. Flat. It costs €800 per month.
And these are apartments that can easily hold two people in a relaxed and spacious environment.
And they are gorgeous.
Looking at apartments from the outside building is interesting: the buildings are old, so you expect the interior to be a reflection of the exterior. NOPE.
Alright, so the cost of housing one's self is less expensive. What about the food?
Oh my god.
So, most companies here pay you to eat, quite literally. Companies reimburse you for your grocery bill with like... I'm not sure how to explain it. They give you multiple coupons worth €20 (or whatever your job supplies you) that you hand the cashier, and it takes money off of your bill.
Not to mention, most of the food here costs less. There are exceptions, like the cost of canned tuna is just a hair less, but if you consider actual HEALTHY food, there isn't any comparison. I can actually investigate and give a proper 1:1 comparison if anyone cares that much.
It's no wonder America is so fat when the cost of a salad is $13 compared to a $6 burger... that and Italians move a lot.
Internet? €30 max. Cell phone? I pay €10 per month for 10GB and unlimited international. TV and phone? Part of the internet package. It's still €30.
It’s actually two years later as I write this, now. I’m back in the US for a few months to shoot the Rocky Mountains, and, oh no, am I terrified of getting sick here. I’ve already got Hashimoto’s Disease, a thyroid disease that I’ve bad a bad case of, like my thyroid is less than half the average size, COME ON, God really failed his 20D roll on that one.
I’ve been watching a family member suffer through the healthcare system in a way I never had to: my mom was always behind me with insurance or hospital bills, bless.
Whilst in Italy, I spent two years in fear of seeing a doctor: I’m conditioned to expect $6000 bills in the mail for a simple procedure. I did end up seeing one near the end of my stay. The assistant was gorgeous (as in kind, my American friends) and the doctor was soft-spoken, although he did hit on a soft-spot ‘cause, well, family is of utmost importance (long story short: my disease means having a kiddo is heckin’ dangerous for me and the kid, so I’ve gotta be careful if and when I wanna do the thing)
The doc asked me to lay down on a table so he could take an ultrasound of my thyroid. Immediate anxiety: I wasn’t kidding about that $6000 bill. In America several years ago, a doctor took an ultrasound of my thyroid, took about five minutes and the analysis was sent elsewhere. Anyway, I asked him, are you sure? How much is it?
He and his assistant looked at me with their eyes nailed back. What? Why?
I told them why. I later asked if a gel medication was something Italy had. Of course they do, he said. How much?
“About €8, why?”
“In America, it was $350, but it changed my life. I needed it to live, literally.”
I came home afterwards and just sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.
My dream was to earn my Ph.D. in astrophysics, and I had to quit because I couldn’t afford school, and I couldn’t afford all of my medical bills. How could I afford both? I quit.
What if I was born in a county with socialized medicine? How different would my life be?
Have medical issues? Universal healthcare.
Have addictions? They have free places you can put your life on pause to get clean.
Mental instability? Check in, get better, leave when you like: you don’t have to be a danger to yourself or others in order to get help.
Kids? Enjoy a myriad of benefits for them.
Basically, if you can find a job (that's the hard part in the current economy), you're set for life. Italians do complain that a lot of their taxes go away, and they are forces to put a lot of their earnings into their retirement fund, and call me a socialist, but I'm happy to contribute if it means all of these benefits for myself and the country as a whole.