YOU WILL HEAR THE ANGER: I don’t give a dick! Go up a rectum! But you are really a cretin. What a turd you are! I could kill you! Go give two blow jobs! You have truly broken my dick. Go take a shit! I couldn’t give a cauliflower!
And you will see the anger, both in the eyes and in the hands. Hands will shake. Fingertips will graze the underside of a chin. Thumbs will be raked across throats. Palms will slap biceps. Index fingers and thumbs will form Ls and hover above the hips to indicate just how large your ass will grow from the smacking you will get.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if they’re actually angry or just really, really happy to see you. Either way, here’s how to get Italians to go from merely excitable to downright incazzato.
Exercise your right of way.
I’ve heard rumors that there are traffic laws in Italy. Indeed, I’ve even seen signs that attempt to enforce things like the speed limit and parking zones. But once citizens are on the road, all bets are off.
You’ll see morons driving 150km/h on unlit winding mountain roads at night — slowing down only when they pass the AutoVelox “speed-trap” machine. Cars parked on sidewalks — sideways. Semis passing motorists. Motorcycles passing cars on the right. Pedestrians darting across heavily trafficked roads whenever they damn well please, expecting you to brake for them — you’ll often find yourself braking every ten meters and if you don’t, what are you, an animal?
It’s a freakshow out there, people, and the traffic control officials do their jobs so sporadically that when, after a year of leaving your car in the same space, you actually get the fine for illegal parking, it’s like a double slap in the face.
So which traffic laws can you break? That’s easy — you may break any traffic laws you like, as long as you don’t get caught and as long as you don’t piss off the guy behind you. You may follow traffic laws as well, as long as no other motorists are in a rush.
The other week, I was driving down a main road, fully enjoying my right of way, when some dipshit snaked his car out of an alleyway and cut me off. I honked my horn and shook my hands at him, only to see that he had turned around in his front seat — while driving, mind you — to shake his hands and shout at me, as though I were the asshole.
Italian drivers speed, pass, park, and cross the street like cretins, but if you complain when they do it — or do it yourself — well, you’re just asking for a fight.
Skip the cheek kiss.
It’s customary in Italian culture to greet your friends and family members with a kiss on each cheek — il bacetto.
Sometimes you’re feeling awkward, or you’re in a rush, and you don’t stop to kiss everyone’s cheek. Expect a sour face and a reprimand later: “You didn’t give me the bacetto. I thought you were mad at me.”
Suggest that other cultures’ cuisines might also be delicious.
Italian food is loved worldwide, and with good reason. The Italians themselves are extremely proud of their food, which is why if you suggest other cultures also produce good cuisine, you’ll be setting yourself up for: “Maybe, but nothing is better than our own food.”
- “Yes, but Mexican food is also delicious. In fact, I think it’s my favorite.”
“There is no food better than Italian food.”
“Have you ever tried Mexican food?”
“I don’t have to try Mexican food. I know that Italian food is the best.”
“Mexican food is really delicious.”
“Not as delicious as Italian food.”
Press the issue and see the sparks fly. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Fuck with their food.
Fine, you can eat the other shitty cuisines of the world if you have to. But don’t you dare — dare — fuck with what is pure and holy.
Unbeknownst to the rest of the world, there is an extremely stringent set of rules in Italian cooking. Traditionally, short pasta goes with meat sauces, long pasta goes with seafood sauces. Pasta must be cooked with a fistful of rock salt in the water and cooked until it’s al dente — otherwise it’s not pasta, but shit.
Case in point: a friend of mine cooked me dinner one night and, while we were chatting, he feared that he had overcooked the rigatoni: “If they’re overcooked, I will KILL myself!” (Happily, they weren’t.)
Time-honored recipes are not to be polluted with substitutions. Pasta must never be cut with a knife. Cheese and seafood must never mix unless, maybe, maybe, you’re adding ricotta to spigola fish or camembert to mussel stew, but even those pairings are so avant garde as to be terrifying to most Italians.
Nowadays, much experimentation is taking high-end Italian kitchens by storm — i.e., pairing gnocchi with seafood — but all experimentation is to be done only within strict guidelines. Therefore, when Italians are exposed to “Italian food” outside of Italy — bastardized to suit the tastes of that particular culture — they are not only horrified, but mortally offended.
Cheesy seafood alfredo? Chicken parmigiana? Chicken and meatballs in pasta?! Spaghetti “carbonara” made with cream and mushrooms, not egg yolk and pig’s cheek? Cottage cheese in lasagna?! What the fuck is this shit! Who do they think they are!
Once, a friend of mine back home asked me if I had any simple Italian pasta recipes. I sent him a recipe for my Roman mother’s spaghetti al pomodoro — spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce. The next day, he thanked me for the recipe. I was pleased…until he told me he’d added chicken, corn, and cheddar cheese to the sauce. I ran straight to my mother and we had ourselves a good cry. And decided not to send him any more recipes.
Fucking with Italian food is one of the most powerful tools you have in your arsenal for pissing off an Italian, so use it wisely. Like so: my last trip home to the States, I picked up a couple cans of Chef Boyardee spaghetti and meatballs. The next time one of my friends really cheeses me off, I will show it to them. Treat me well, amici. Don’t piss off the American.
Keep your cards close.
Compared to people from other cultures, Italians are very curious — bordering on nosy. They also have strong opinions on what you should be doing. Within minutes of meeting you, they will want to know your life story — “How old are you? Do you have a boyfriend? Are you still in love with him?”
Once they know you, they will often bombard you with “helpful” observations such as: “You shouldn’t wear that much eyeshadow.” “Your skin is breaking out a lot lately — you should see a dermatologist.” “Why don’t you just go out and get laid? It’s obvious your girl parts are rusty.” “Those aren’t the right shoes for that outfit. You didn’t have white ones?” “Your kitchen is organized completely wrong.”
You might be tempted to tell them to mind their own damn business, but to be polite, you’ll just try to keep your cards close or subtly keep on doing exactly what you’re doing. This will get you labeled as “cold,” “closed-off,” “difficult,” and “rude.” And you’re left wondering how it’s not rude to greet someone with, “You look fatter than the last time I saw you.”
Say anything remotely negative about the patria.
Italy, in case you didn’t know, is the best country EVER. There is NO country like Italy. It has the most beautiful scenery. The most wonderful food. It is the birthplace of everything good in the world. It produces the very best shoes, clothes, music, cars, jewelry, technology, leather, textiles, ceramics, and art. It has the most exciting history. It has the most important churches. It also has the best leaves, the best flour, and the best-looking chairs.
Real quotes from my mother:
- “Those shoes are beautiful. Oh. Made in Italy. Of course.”
- “That’s a great store for gifts, you know? Products selected with taste. Just like in Italy.”
- “We won the World Cup! I’m so happy! It’s because we are the best country. The most beautiful country. We have the best soccer players and now everyone else knows it!”
Just try telling an Italian that Italy isn’t the best country in the world. I double-dog dare you. Never mind that most of them are convinced the country is screwed: “This country sucks now. Let’s get out of this economic crisis-fucked hellhole! We’ll go someplace nice, like America.”
If you, however, suggest — whisper, hint — anything slightly negative about the patria, well, prepare yourself.
Make them wait.
I like to think of the Italian people as an intriguing blend of laziness and impatience. While they are all too pleased to take their sweet time doing most things, you can rest assured that if they’re made to wait — in line at the post office, on a stopped train, in traffic — the hands will begin to shake and the voices will rise.
I was on a train the other day, and it stopped between two stations. Immediately, wails began to ring throughout the train cars: “What’s going on?” “What’s happening?” “We want to get out of here!” “Why isn’t anyone telling us anything?” “We’re hungry!” “We’re cold!”
You’d have thought we were at a concentration camp.
North, South, same diff.
Italy has 20 regions and 110 provinces — each geographically distinct with widely varied cuisine, customs, accents, and dialects. Traditionally, the North — Alpine, industrial — is considered to be the “civilized” part of Italy, with shit just getting more chaotic as you go further south.
Italians really don’t like it when you mix up regions (carciofi alla giudia is a Roman dish, okay? It’s got nothing to do with Milan) or, I dunno, make sweeping cultural generalizations about the nation’s people as a whole.
Yep. I can just see it now — dozens of comments following this article bitching: “You’re talking about those boorish Southerners; we’re not like that in the North.”
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Eva is an American freelance travel writer who has lived in four countries in the past four years. She likes to write about her daily humiliations as an expat. She is currently living - and driving very badly - in Terracina, Italy.