As an expat I often get asked which I like better: Living in Italy or Living in the US. Expats (have I mentioned how much I hate that word?) we are often asked to compare the two, or what we miss the most about home. Sometimes this is really tough to explain. So many people think I’m crazy. I get the impression that some Americans think that I don’t live in America because I didn’t like it, or ran away from it for some reason, and think I am nuts for going to live somewhere that is NOT the good ol’ US of A. Sometimes, when Italians find out that I am originally from California, they also think I am crazy because “oooh! Califorrrnia! Che bello! Baywatch!” and why would I ever leave the beautiful state of California, where everyone is beautiful and famous, right? OK so obviously the two things I just said are meant to be humorous and a bit ironic, but I’m not totally exaggerating… people have really reacted to me that way before! Not everyone, but enough to make the moments memorable.
Life in Italy vs Life in the USAPosted on February 4, 2014
One of the reasons I started a blog is because I was inspired by other blogger expats who are hilarious and offer wonderful insights that remind me that I am not alone. This post was inspired by Misty Evan’s blog, www.survivinginitaly.com, and specifically this blog post about the 25 things she learned living in Italy. If you haven’t ever checked out her blog… it’s hilarious. Do it.
Well I really can’t say which is better. They are too different to make fair comparisons. Both countries could honestly learn a lot from each other. I have days in the US where I just get really frustrated and think to myself “why can’t they just do things like they do in Europe!” and other days when I am in Italy and I just think “this place is so backwards that I may as well live back in the 1500’s,” and other colorful words come out of my mouth. This is, if anything, a true testament to how as expats, we are just never satisfied. One thing that I have noticed about people who live abroad or have lived abroad is that we may come off sounding snobby or like know-it-alls in conversations, and that is purely unintentional. It’s honestly because now we have seen two different ways of doing things and can’t help but think of how things could be better. In my dream of dreams, someone just hands me a continent and says “Here! Make up this whole country and design everything about it yourself so that it’s perfect!” In my make-believe country I would have Swiss clocks and banks, German trains and cars, Italian chefs and architects, Scandinavian urban designers and environmentalists, American entrepreneurs, French designers and artists, Polynesian beaches, South American mountains and forests, Irish musicians, Dutch bike lanes, and all the tourists would always be Canadian. Apologies to anyone I left out, that’s just a beginners list.
So without further ado, here is what I think:
In Italy, and most of Europe, the pace of life is a bit slower. In America, we are always in a rush. I have a theory about this, based on no scientific research whatsoever. America is effing HUGE. We also have no real mass or public transit in most of the country (I will get to that later). We are always having to cross big distances just to get to work, school, shopping, or lunch with a friend, so naturally, we are always in a hurry over there. Europe seems more small-community based, for the most part, so in Europe we don’t spend as much time rushing between one place and another. I think that this American desire to do things so quickly affects other aspects of life that we don’t realize, like how fast we eat. In Italy, it is perfectly common and acceptable to sit down for a 2 or 3 hour dinner. The food is prepared with care, and if you are eating at a restaurant, chances are that the restaurant operates with a skeleton crew, i.e., one chef and one waiter, at most two. The waiter isn’t trying to make you leave so that he or she can turn over the table in order to receive more tips for the night, because tipping isn’t really part of the culture in Italy. In America, the waitress brings you the check before you are even done eating.
Point awarded to: Hmmm. I’m gonna say Italy. Rushing around is no good for us. Although I will admit, sometimes you really are just in a damn hurry. A half point to the US!
Oooh, this is a good one. Okay so no question about it, Italian food (in Italy, not that Olive Garden stuff that calls itself Italian), is AMAZING. You rarely ever feel guilty after a huge meal in Italy, because you enjoyed it so much and it was likely made of something really good for you.
Italians full-heartedly believe that their food is the best in the world and will not accept any argument against that. Well, I’m not saying they’re wrong, but they’re not totally right either. Italians have, for sure, some of the best and finest ingredients in the world, with which to cook their food. I’m telling you, if you haven’t ever eaten a tomato that was grown in Italy, you have not really ever had a tomato, and in the summer time they are worth a trip to Italy alone. (Side note: I used to hate tomatoes until I came to Italy).
However, one thing that Italy lacks as far as food goes is variety. I cannot tell you how many foreigners I have met in Florence that are just dying for proper Mexican, Indian, or South East Asian cuisine. Because Italians seem to like their own cuisine so much, they are really skeptical about other types of food. I was amazed when I saw a tray of sushi at a grocery store in a small town in Northern Italy. I swooped in on that and headed straight for the check-out line, and the lady ringing me up and the lady behind me in the store both said to me that it was disgusting and I should cook that food before I ate it. That was 5 years ago, and now, thankfully, Florence has quite a few sushi restaurants.
Variety is so lacking in Italy that it is even hard to find other kinds of Italian food. Let me explain: Italy is split up into 20 very different regions, each with their own dialects, customs and cuisine. Keep in mind that Italy has only been a unified country for the last 150 years. Before this, the regions were their own kingdoms or countries and were constantly at war. So it is no wonder that it is so hard to find, for example, food from Puglia in Florence. In Tuscany, you will really only find restaurants that serve Tuscan food, and in Naples, Neapolitan cuisine, and so on.
Meanwhile, in the US, when you go out to dinner, you can choose which type of cuisine you want to eat from literally every country in the world. The choices are even overwhelming at times. Vietnamese? Mongolian? Brazilian? Mexican? Vegan? Barbeque? Korean BBQ? Sushi? Tacos? Pick a part of the world and you can find that cuisine within 20 minutes of your house.
What Italy lacks in variety, it more than makes up for in quality. It is difficult in the US to find food that hasn’t been treated with some sort of pesticide or hormone, and when you do find it, it is really expensive. Italians eat seasonally, so you won’t usually find things like strawberries in the winter time, or butternut squash in the summer time. Thankfully, a lot of the meat and produce you find in Italy is organic and grown with health and quality in mind, which results in some of the best tasting food you have ever had in your life.
Point awarded to: Sorry Italy. I know you want to win this one, but it’s a TIE! Both countries have awesome food.
Italy has a bad, but unfortunately well-deserved, reputation for its crippling bureaucracy and over-complicated matters. Things that would be so simple in the US, like opening a bank account, changing address or residency, or opening up a business, are sources of a great amount of stress here. It. Is. A. Freaking. Nightmare in Italy. In the US (and lots of other countries for that matter) if you want to start your own business, you can apply to a bank for a loan, go to the chamber of commerce, fill out some forms, pay for some permits, and then after some time, it’s opening day! In Italy… No. Just no. Want to start a business? Ok. First, go to this office where they will tell you that you are in the wrong place and they will send you to a different office. Then, you get to that office and they yell at you because you are in the wrong place again, and they send you back to the first office. There, you talk to someone who is having a good day, so they stamp a few pages, take your money and send you on your way to yet another office, only to be rejected by a bank, and then there are a million courses you have to take, and people you have to hire to come in and measure your office/shop/restaurant, maybe bribe a few authorities, and then MAYBE you can open your business within the year. If you’re lucky. Then once you open your business, the government will take 60% in taxes, because they need money to pay for all those useless bureaus and offices.
One of the most frustrating things I ever went through in Italy was getting my residency, which is nonsense if you ask me. I have Italian citizenship, but anyone living in Italy has to also apply for residency. You would think that this would be as simple as going to an office, showing them my ID, my address, and an electricity bill of where I am living (which is what you do in the US). Not in Italy. Here, they have this weird medieval policy that a police officer has to come to your house unannounced to verify that you live there, and only then do you get your residency, which will then entitle you to things like health care over here. This whole process took me a year. WHY? Because the police kept coming to my house when I was at work. Yea, because I have a job, and I don’t have months and months to sit at home waiting for freakin’ Barney Fife to come over to make sure I’m not lying about where I live. So the cop came over 3 times, and each time I was gone. One day I had enough, I marched right over to the office and I said “You need to come after 5pm so that I’m home!” and just like that, they did, at 8pm, several weeks later.
Point awarded to: 100 points to the US! Negative 5 billion points for Italy.
In the US, people often seem nervous around police officers and either respect or fear them. (We’ve all done it, you see a police car behind you and you start swearing and freaking out even though you’ve done nothing wrong). In Italy, police officers are often seen as bumbling buffoons and don’t get much respect. You can even sometimes talk back to a cop here and they won’t do much. For anyone that has been following the Amanda Knox case, you’ll see what I mean. Whether she is guilty or innocent, who knows, because the investigation was totally fumbled by the cops. It is really common to walk by a group of police officers all standing around, smoking cigarettes and checking out girls, whilst paying little attention to what is going on around them.
Point awarded to: Neither. In America they go a bit too far at times, and in Italy they do very little. In my imaginary continent, the police officers will be British bobbies with their funny hats and batons. At least if they’re yelling at you, they still sound polite.
America has great service. Always friendly and helpful. That’s because so many Americans work in the service industry, and since tipping and commission are a huge part of our culture, good service means you earn more money.
Italy has a lot to learn about good customer service. It is really common to go to a shop, for instance, to want to buy something, and the person behind the counter will ignore you for a while, until they are good and ready. Perhaps they are on the phone to their mom or they just don’t feel like making another sale. One reason for bad service in Italy is because of the nature of certain kinds of labor contracts. A work contract means you have tenure in Italy, and with that comes the total impossibility of ever being fired from your job, no matter how much you suck at it, which means you don’t have to work very hard or impress anyone because there is no motivation for it at all.
Point awarded to: ‘merica!
I can tell you right now, America loses this one. We have the most pathetic excuse for mass and public transit. In America we are totally car-dependant. Europe has an amazing network of trains, busses and bike lanes that make getting to work and other places so much easier. If there is one thing that I definitely DO NOT miss about living in the US, it is how much time I spend driving from one place to another. Traffic is insane in many metropolitan areas. Parking is disgraceful. Worst of all: Unnecessary traffic lights. In Europe, most traffic lights have been replaced by traffic circles, or roundabouts, which make so much more sense. They keep traffic flowing, and your car doesn’t idle at a so it’s far more environmentally friendly. In the US, we still have unprotected left turns, which is CRAZY. When are we gonna get rid of those??
In the US we use our cars too much. I drive everywhere, even to the grocery store if it’s 2 minutes away. In Italy, I don’t have a car, I walk or bike everywhere, and as far as going to the grocery store, I buy only what I can carry home.
Point awarded to: Italy, and all of Europe. Get with the program, ‘merica!
Eh, kind of a no-brainer. American cities have amazing museums. In Florence, I practically live in a museum. Even for people who aren’t into art, you can’t deny who wins this.
Point awarded to: Italy. Duh.
This is a funny one. Without a doubt, Italians are way more fashionable and daring when it comes to getting dressed. Living in Italy, I wouldn’t even dream about going down the street to the grocery store in my sweat pants or pajama bottoms. In the US, I do that all the time. Italians are more concerned with the bella figura, which means making a good impression (loosely translated).
There is one thing though, that drives me bonkers in Italy about fashion: Italians dress for the season, not the weather. So if it is February or early March and you have an unseasonably warm day, it doesn’t matter: You will still see a lot of Italians (mostly of the older generation) all bundled up like it’s -25 degrees outside. Why? Because officially, it’s still winter, and until the official day of summer solstice, you still have to dress like it is winter. This is why I get weird stares from people when I am walking around with flip flops in March on a sunny day. Bella figura, people! Bella figura.
Point awarded to: Italy.
When I was single, I was always asked about Italian men. I’ll be honest, I never dated an Italian guy. No reason really, I just never got around to it. Men in Italy and men in the US are so different, I can’t really explain a whole lot. It’s mostly their style. Men in Italy are also way more attached to their mothers, which is probably one reason I stayed the hell away from them (I did have a boyfriend once who was way too into his mom. He wasn’t Italian, let’s just leave it at that).
Point awarded to: I have to give it to my fiance who is neither Italian nor American. Below are two (extreme) examples of guys that are just not my style:
Italians seem healthier because they walk or bike everywhere, and eat food that is better for you. Americans have of course, a reputation for being unhealthy and overweight and eating food that is full of preservatives and fat.
On the other hand, many Italians smoke. A lot. It’s hard to walk 5 feet in this country without getting the whiff of cigarette smoke into your nostrils. I just spent a month in California and don’t think I smelled any cigarette smoke even once.
Also, Italy has universal health care that is actually pretty good.
Point awarded to: It’s a close one. I think as a general life-style, Italy gets the point.
Taxes are high in Italy and people don’t like paying them here! Not even the former Prime Minister! Do you own a business or are otherwise independently employed? Have fun paying 40-60% in taxes. They tax you for everything here. Even for owning a TV. When I hear about Americans complaining about how high the tax rates are over there, I want to bitch slap them.
Point awarded to: USA.
Italians are really skeptical about foreign foods, as I mentioned before. Also, there are a lot of racist people in Italy. In fact there are still even some political parties here that are outwardly, blatantly anti-foreigner, anti-semitic, and anti-everything, and they admit it too.
Although America is more of a cultural melting pot, there are a lot of racists and psychos in the US. I would like to point out the recent uproar in the US over the Coca Cola commercial that aired during the Super Bowl that depicted different people singing “America the Beautiful” in different languages.
Point awarded to: Neither, both countries have a seriously long way to go.
Friendliness and Warmth:
So many people who come to Italy have positive interactions with local people and rave about the warmth and the friendliness of the people. I have to absolutely agree with that. However, I can also argue against that. As a foreigner, I can tell you that it is extremely difficult to be accepted into a “circle” or a “group of friends”, especially in Florence. Even Italians from other parts of Italy come to Florence and say the same thing: Florence is not an easy place to make friends. You can go to coffee with your work colleagues a million times, but that does not mean you will ever be invited to go out socially with them, no matter how well you get along. My personal observation is that people who are friends from when they are in kindergarten stay friends, and those are the friends they have forever, and no one else is really allowed into their close-knit groups.
In the US, I think it’s a bit different but I’m not entirely sure. It’s not like I ever struggled with a language or culture barrier there, and I grew up there, so I can’t fairly judge on this. However, I do think in the US that we are more inclusive of other people. If you start a new job, for example, it wouldn’t be surprising that within a month you were already invited to birthday barbeques and baby showers for one of your new co-workers. Not really the case over here. Not bad, just different.
Point awarded to: USA
As a dog lover, I am really happy to live somewhere that is so dog-friendly. In Europe, people bring their dogs everywhere, and they are allowed into almost any building. You will see people bring their dogs into coffee shops, grocery stores, restaurants, basically anywhere. A lot of Americans would think this is gross, but I never understood why. What’s the big deal? The dogs aren’t doing anything they shouldn’t, they’re well behaved and they’re just sitting there. I’d rather have a cute dog at the table next to me than a screaming toddler, I’ll tell you that much. Americans make such a big hullabaloo over pets and cleanliness but I am willing to bet that most of the people who are outraged over seeing a dog in a restaurant have dirty, messy houses, or they have a dog at home that they allow all over the furniture. Just because there is a dog 5 tables away from you at a restaurant doesn’t mean you are going to die from some dog disease, or that you are going to somehow eat a big hair ball that somehow ended up on your plate. The ironic thing in Italy is that as dogs are allowed anywhere indoors, they are super clean: They don’t poop or pee indoors and they don’t smell. Go for a walk on any Florentine sidewalk, however, and you will see that it is the owner, and not the dog, that is the problem. Older people in Florence are notorious for not picking up after their dogs.
Point awarded to: Italy. Get over it America. Dogs are awesome.
Short and simple: America has a big effing problem with guns, homicides, violent crime, and especially random killings and crimes against women. In Italy, I feel really safe. I never worry about looking over my shoulder if I am walking around alone at night. There is a lot of petty crime in Italy: Robberies, pick-pockets, and burglaries. Of course violent crime can happen anywhere and it certainly does happen here from time to time, but not to the scale that we see in the US.
Point awarded to: Italy.
Italians love to talk, they never shut up! In my humble opinion, it’s because their language is so beautiful and fun to speak. Italian hand gestures are their own entire language to decipher. Italians cannot answer a question with a simple “yes” or “no”. You will get a long drawn out response, so hopefully, you’re not in a hurry to go anywhere if you decide to embark on a conversation. One of the funniest examples of this is listening to Italians talk on the phone. Even though they are alone and no one is watching them, they are still using the hand gestures. Also, because they like to talk so much, it is especially funny to hear them try to end the conversation and say goodbye. You hear “Ciao. Si. A dopo. OK, bene. Si si ok. Ciao. Ciaociao. Ciao, ciao, ciaociaociaociaociaociao. Ciaooooo. Ciao ciao ciao ciao.”
Point awarded to: Italy.
I mean, do we really have to compare? Politicians suck in both countries and both are pretty effed up in their own ways.
Politicians aside, the politics in Italy are super complicated and I have tried understanding the system here but I just give up. I went to vote in an election a year ago. I am not even sure I understood what I was voting for. The ballot was extremely weird. It was a huge piece of paper with about 30 squares on it, and each square had a political party’s logo on it. Yep, 30 or more political parties in Italy. Since I didn’t know what the logos represented (I only knew names of some politicians), I just voted for the one I recognized. So rather than vote for an individual or even an issue, I was voting for a political party, which I totally disagree with as a matter of principle. I hate political parties.
In the US, we really only have 2 parties and right now they both suck. Voting, however, is a bit more straight forward, though I would argue that quite a few people in the US also don’t know what they’re voting for and why, even though it’s spelled out for them right there on the ballot.
Point awarded to: Neither. Actually this whole category should just be disqualified.
Again, both countries could improve a lot on this. Both countries have extremely biased journalists and news agencies. Both countries have mega news sources like network TV channels and newspapers owned by terribly corrupt and self-serving assholes.
One thing about the journalism in Italy is that I actually find it extremely unprofessional on a practical level. For example, it is not uncommon in Italy to read a headline such as “French Prime Minister Fucked His Mistress and Ended His Marriage”. (It may be an ironic newspaper, but even the “real” newspapers have questionable headlines). Or, when reporting on a crime in a newspaper, Italian journalists are definitely too opinionated and make really inappropriate inferences. So for example, if a robbery is committed and they have a suspect in custody, the newspaper says something like this: “The Moroccan who committed the crime was taken into custody for questioning”. Whereas in the US, it would read more like “The (alleged) suspect was taken into custody for questioning.” The Italian journalist not only needlessly comments on the ethnicity of the suspect, but also forgets to use the word “allegedly” and condemns the man before the investigation is over. Also, when a crime is committed, journalists seem to have the freedom to just go right up to a suspect or a victim’s home, knock on the door, and interview said suspect or victim, showing the house and address and badgering the people until they get an answer. Then the victim/perpetator is able to tell their story a million different times over and over to different news reporters, and this causes the stories to change, public speculation to spin out of control, and for news reporters to take on an investigative role that is really not their job. In contrast to this, in the US, whether you are a victim or perpetrator of a crime, you almost never talk directly to the media; your lawyer does that for you so that you don’t say anything that can be taken out of context by a hyper-sensitive sensationalist media. Your story gets told one time through a third party in order to protect everyone involved.
In the US, we have the likes of Fox News and Nancy Grace who love to scare the bejeesus out of people with their insane ranting and raving, the likes of which are broadcast everywhere, even gas stations and hair salons. It’s a bit much.
Point awarded to: Negative points to both countries.
Final point tally: Who cares? Both places are amazing at different things and both countries have lots to improve on. One day when they give me my own continent to run, you guys can all come live there. I promise you’ll love it.
(I realize Italy technically won by 2 points just now, but I am deducting 2 points and making it a tie because Tuscany bread is horrible and tastes like nothing, and because “breakfast” here is a cappuccino and a croissant, which is, in my opinion, a very unhealthy breakfast that leaves you starving an hour later. So there. It’s EVEN).