Monday, November 19, 2007


I love Italians. I really do. I am happiest when I am among them and their kindness has been saving me from despair since I was 19 years old. But here are 4 of their foibles that I will never understand:

1. In Modica we’ve been legally able to have the heating on since last Thursday. Yet Sicilians will sit around in their own homes muffled up in several jumpers, scarves and even a jacket rather than put the heating on. Why turn the winter into an endurance test?
2. Food which is meant to be hot is sometimes served stone cold here and everybody finds this perfectly normal. A lot of dishes are made hours in advance so that is one reason and the other is that ovens are a relatively recent addition to most Italian domestic kitchens so it doesn’t occur to many cooks to use them to heat dishes up. Look around any Italian kitchen and, whilst it may be spacious by British standards and there will be a table that pasta can be made on, you will see little counter space. There is certainly no room for a kettle or microwave. Italians just don’t go in for “recipe” concoctions in the way that Brits do and most preparation is quick, takes little space and then the food is usually cooked on the hob.
3. A student has just left here bearing one of those tiny, grid-ruled exercise books that Italians use as children to practise their spindly handwriting and later as adults for all notetaking. When I give this lady printouts, she just folds them and stuffs them into this exercise book. The schoolmarm in me so wants to advise her to purchase – or even purchase for her – a nice A4 file with polypockets. I grit my teeth and remind myself I am dealing with an adult.
4. The way some Italians behave around pets! I have 2 friends who are really jumpy around Simi. “Can’t you tie her up?” asked one as he entered the apartment the other day. I’m not tying up my baby!! She only wants to greet them and receive an acknowledgement of her presence. – What’s the matter with them?! This is Simi’s home as well as mine and if you can’t accept that, don’t come! Kate Fox, in Watching the English , writes: “You see, the English really are quite capable of Latin-Mediterranean warmth, enthusiasm and hospitality; we can be just as direct and approachable and emotive and tactile as any of the so-called ‘contact cultures’. It is just that these qualities are only consistently expressed in our interactions with our animals……People who object to being jumped on, climbed over, kicked, scratched and generally mauled by English animals who are ‘just being friendly’ also clearly have something wrong with them.” Quite.

It is only fair now to cite some British charcteristics that are disturbing to Italians:

1. Ever since the sad McCann affair began in May, I have found myself defending my countrymen and women and trying to convince Italians that we do not, as a matter of course, abandon our children when we go out to dinner. Admittedly, if they are very young we do not often take them with us , but we do normally employ babysitters! No one believes me on this, so convinced are they by the media criticism.
2. On a lighter note, every Italian I have ever met who has visited Britain has commented on the fact that, when washing the dishes, the British do not rinse them. The journalist Beppe Severgnini bears me out here: “No one has been able to explain to me why you insist on flavouring your meals with washing up liquid. I often rinse my plate myself before dinner with friends but I can feel the hostility around me. I wonder when it will occur to you that washing a dish without rinsing it afterwards is bizarre and actually not very good for you.” [I , on the other hand, have often concluded that Italians are “rinsing mad”.]
3. Then there is our plumbing, on which Severgnini has this to say: “No one has explained convincingly why the British persist in installing sinks with 2 widely spaced taps, one for hot water, one for cold, placed at the very edge of the sink, so that when you want to wash your hands, you either scald them or freeze them but you never manage to wash them.” And on bidets: "A more likely explanation for why the bidet has been ignored is that if the British installed them, they would have to use them.”
4. Severgnini also has an opinion on pets: “It seems that no other country in Europe consumes as much water between 7am and 9am as Britain. Now, apart from the fact that people might simply enjoy the sound of running water, remember that half of British families have pets. My theory? In the morning, they run water and bathe them.”
[All Severgnini quotes from An Italian in Britain, 1990.]

Quid pro quo.


Leslie: said...

Very amusing post! My pet peeve is when Europeans assume that we Canadians are Americans so I always wear a little maple leaf pin when I'm over there. Canadians are SO very different from Americans! In fact, when I was in Italy (actually in Taormina) and we went for high tea at the San Domenigo Palace Hotel where we were staying, I was horrified and embarrassed by their ignorance and ended up leaving before the rest of them (pleaded a headache). I think the Italian server must have thought we were all barbaric. Oh, don't get me started! lol

Anonymous said...

WL -

As an immigrant to the UK of some 16 years standing, I can assure that the first few years of my life here were consumed in wondering why the hell the British did the things they do in the way they did.

de gustibus and all that.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Thanks, Leslie. I can see that that would be very frustrating for you.I'm so sorry you had that experience in Taormina. It is always wrong to think in stereotypes.
Ciao, Ludlingtonian. I'd love to know what British quirks annoyed you the most!

jmb said...

In this day and age when we think so globally it is always interesting to note these cultural differences. Although we can't be sure that all of them are cultural and not individualisms.

Cost could be a factor in the heat business. I think you said yourself that it was horrific there.

Don't you find similar differences between say the Welsh and the English?

Interesting post Welshcakes.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post - I think the worse misconception in Europe in general about the Brits is that we eat terrible food. Well some people do of course, but a lot don't. I don't - I cook fresh things everyday, and I hate instant food. One reason that Brits dine out with children less than Italy is that they are often unwelcome in restaurants here...

Yborchild said...

One cultures quirkiness is another's conventionaliy.

But was Severgnini correct in saying Brits don't rinse their dishes after washing them. Being totaly clueless on the topic, I rather thought he was exaggerating a situation and expected you'd set it straight.

It's funny the things that grabs one's attention. Having an overly zealous rinsing gene myself(some things continue to be passed on generationally) I wonder what is behind the no-rinse school of thought (if there is one).

I thouroghly enjoyed the post. Vive la difference! N'est pas?

Gledwood said...

That McCann affair is a real scandal. It really is. If you had ANYTHING to do with your child's death, would you have put out the biggest world-spanning publicity campaign EVER SEEN for a missing child? I don't think so...

it's interesting what you say about the South European/North European supposed difference.

One thing I once read went along the lines of: Southern Europeans are allowed to express anger and their inner, momentary feelings. What they are not allowed to do is express meaningful difference from the herd. E.g. London is full of people with green hair, who are gay, who have decided to live life in a "different" way... Spain and Italy are actually far less tolerant of this... so the bargain works on a see-saw kind of basis. What you get with one hand, the other takes away. Such is life!!

What do you mean "legally able" to have heating. Does the government really have power over the individual's heating being on or off!? What a scandal!

Liz Hinds said...

I particularly hate it when children are encouraged in their pet fear. 'Don't go near the dog!' said in an hysterical voice. For goodness sake'!

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Hi,jmb. Yes, cost could be a factor but I think it's more a culture of "putting up with it". The Welsh and the English: that's a hot one! Welsh people are supposed to be warmer and more outgoing but are also seen in some quarters as being narrow-minded. It depends what part of Wales you come from. Attitudes are very different in Cardiff, say, than they are even in nearby Caerphilly or the valleys. And I'd better not even start on north and south!
Ciao, Mutley. Yes, they think we eat terribly and that we've never heard of Italian food! Some Brit food is awful, of course but I don't think Itals who don't travel realise how much it has changed in recent years. It is true that in Italy children are nevr regarded as a nuisance.
Hi, yborchild. Well, the Brits certainly don't rinse the plates as diligently as the Itals! Vive la difference indeed!
Hi, Gleds. The way the Brit media turned against the McCanns fascinates people here. I thought it was bound to happen. I think they were perhaps naive in the way they handled it but they did what they thought would help get their daughter back. They'd have to be actors of Oscar-winning calibre to have had anything to do with it. you are right - the Italians are much less tolerant of difference than we are but more tolerant in other ways. Every town here has its own rules for when you can have the central heating on. It's based on average temperatures. Here in Modica we were allowed to switch on on Nov 15th for 10 hours a day to 20 degrees. We have to switch off in March. No one checks private homes but businesses are checked. It's a nonsense, of course - the temp varies from year to year.
Hi, Liz. That drives me crazy too!

Ellee Seymour said...

I found this really interesting. I wouldn't want to eat cold food either. We all have our funny ways. The fact about the McCanns is very true. How many British families have a siesta when they go abroad and take their children out this way in the evening? Our culture is still geared to the "children should be seen and not heard" mentality.

England's loss is Sicily's gain ;-)

PinkAcorn said...

Now I know why my husband's Sicilian grandmother once said to me "A wife must always have clean windows". At sixteen I could have cared less about clean windows or being a wife. Now looking back I realized I could have eaten off her floors.

And why is it that every time I go to Canada I buy oodles of maple syrup in maple leaf shaped bottles...just a silly American.

Not rinsing dishes, I shudder over that thought.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Hi, Ellee. I will never get used to the cold food! I suppose it is the "children should be seen and not heard" attitude which prevails, to some extent, in Britain.

Crushed said...

But at least we ARE nice to our animals.

Anyway, many dogs are nicer than many people, better behaved, friendlier. loyal.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Completely agree, Crushed!

Whispering Walls said...

LOL WL! The thing I miss most in Italy is a good cup of tea. My Italian colleagues are always impressed by kettles in England and take one back home. Italians are far more excitable than Brits, aren't they?

James Higham said...

What did the Italians do before ovens?

Sharon said...

I detest cold food! And not many of the folks I know use their ovens for much more than storing the pots and pans or leftover food. I do not like food left out and not refrigerated either. I do not like eggs not refrigerated. (We get ours from the farm). I hate to see a woman cutting bread while holding it against her chest. The Italians are very clean in some ways and unsanitary in others. In this town they wash dishes in cold water. The tap water isn't that good to start. I hear the lumping thing..
I don't like being called an I come from Stati Uniti. I wonder if Italians would like to be called Europeans! I love Canada and Canadians!

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Hi, pink. Never heard that saying before! Were you 16 when you met your husband? Yes, most Sicilian women are cleanliness-obsessed. Hi, WW. I can't stand to see Itals make a cup of tea - no ceremony, no teapot and no idea how many teabags to use. Definitely more excitable! Hi, James. They did most cooking on the hob, as now or used communal ovens for bread, etc. That was heartfelt, Sharon! I do find Italians cleaner than the British when it comes to the house. I don't like unrefrigerated eggs, either. "Americana" is just the term that they understand to mean the US [they wouldn't think of South America when using it] . It's similar to me being called "inglese" when I'm Welsh. "Britannica" does exist but sounds pompous and strange.

Gledwood said...

That central heating rule thing is really weird.

Since when has it been LAW?

Is it to do with global warming?

Or a remnant of a 1970s fuel crisis? Or something??

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Hi, Gleds. Yes, it's really starnge for a British person to get to grips with. I don't know how long it's been law but certainly ever since I've been coming to Italy - and that's a long time!


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