Generalizing Italians as a nation is nearly impossible. The unification of the various nations of Italy happened a little over 150 years ago, and since then, a collective identity has been building. However, regional cultures and quirks are very much alive, along with their associated languages and regional pride.
Sardinian culture is no closer to Sicilian culture as British culture is to American culture. They’re worlds apart, and they do things differently…
But there are a couple of things that tie them together. Superstitions, customs, and traditions that span the peninsula from north to south, and into the islands. Here are 6 things that create the Italian collective.
1. La Bella Figura is a real thing
La Bella Figura is basically making sure that you’re presenting yourself well at all times – both in your dress and in your behavior. When you go out into public, you want to be presenting a high degree of dignity and respect for yourself.
This is why so many tourists to Italy get a bad rap for being shameless and lower class. If you didn’t know that, then you probably don’t speak Italian. If you understand what passersby are saying, it becomes a lot more apparent.
When you’re traveling, it’s not easy to carry around and often present your best outfit. Fortunately, you don’t need to go the whole hog. Just be fashionable and presentable. That means no flip flops, flip flops with socks, flip flops with shorts…Do you see a pattern here?
If you look in the mirror and say anything short of, “Dang, I’m looking good”, then reconsider your outfit for the day.
2. A passegiata is central to local social life
Every afternoon, you’ll notice that the streets are eerily quiet. People like to joke that the Italians are having a siesta, basically a rest time during the afternoon after lunch. Apparently Italians are sleeping and relaxing.
My opinion is that they’re preparing themselves for the evening stroll, ensuring that they’re presenting the best their bella figura has to offer…Because soon after the rest time is over, the streets are abuzz as people start the passegiata – the daily stroll through the streets with friends or family.
Italians use the passegiata not only as a chance to socialize, and not only as a chance to show off their bella figura, but also to see the other people of the town. It’s like a peacock dance, where you’re gauging the current vibe in your town. The better your impressions, the greater your pride in your town. During your stroll, you might find a nice cafe or restaurant to settle down into for a while.
This is your best chance to see where the hippest and most popular spots in town are. So, join the Italians in their evening strolls to see what’s up.
3. Italians have a love-hate relationship with alcohol
For a nation with such an excellent range of alcoholic drinks, Italians are far more responsible drinkers than people assume. Italians don’t drink to excess, and alcohol is always consumed as part of a meal.
In fact, many Italians are baffled by the mindset of going out to get plastered, which is the mindset shared by many younger tourists. By-and-large, Italians disapprove of both this mindset and behavior and describe it as “classless”. This all relates back to la bella figura, since your presentation is not only about how you dress, but how you behave. You need to have know-how and social awareness, and being motherless on the streets of Rome do not represent this.
4. Italians think air is dangerous
We’re not talking about a hazy sky with thick layers of pollution. We’re not even talking about the pollen floating on the breeze, contributing to the endless cases of hay fever in Italy.
We’re talking about colpo d’aria. It’s kind of similar to how your mother will tell you that you shouldn’t go outside with wet hair because you’ll get sick. Italians believe in that too, by the way, and of course, it also plays into la bella figura. Dry hair shows a degree of care, and that you didn’t leave the house in a rush.
But we digress – what on Earth is the colpo d’aria? Directly translated, it means ‘a hit of air’. If you get hit with air, you’re going to fall ill wherever the air hit you. If you get hit in the liver, you’re going to come down with a liver ailment. Stomach, chest, throat, whatever. So stay out of the path of breezes.
The other way you see this remedied is through use of a maglia della salute, a shirt of health. It basically keeps the air away from your body. If you go to the parks, you’ll see little kids running around with chunky attire and a scarf around their neck. More than likely, the parents have kitted them out with a shirt of health to keep them safe from that pesky breeze.
5. Indigestion is taken very seriously
I swear ‘indigestion’ must be one of the top 100 words in Italy. I grew up with Italian grandparents – a grandmother from Bologna and a grandfather from Rome. Every time I saw them, I must have heard this word at least daily. When I was growing up, my father would also ironically throw around that word since he heard it so often when he was growing up.
If you’ve ever wondered exactly why Italians don’t drink milky coffee, i.e. a cappuccino, after approximately 11 a.m, this is the reason. Milk is a breakfast item, and it is too heavy to be consumed later in the day. If you do drink milk later in the day then you’re going to get, Lord help you, a spell of indigestion.
Indigestion can also be induced if you prendere freddo (get cold), so it’s really important to dress warm enough. Feet can be seen as offensive too (Italians really do prefer not to see your feet), so if you take off your shoes indoors, be sure to keep your socks on and wear some slippers. This will make sure that you keep yourself safe from the cold, and ultimately indigestion, and save your host from the sight of your bare feet. It’s a win all around.
6. Italians celebrate Christmas twice…Kind of.
Italy is one of the most Catholic nations in the world, with over 70% of Italians identifying as Catholic either religiously or culturally. It’s not surprise that they’re big celebrators of Christmas, and believe in the classic tales of Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) delivering presents on a reindeer-led sleigh.
Italians, however, have another day where they receive presents from a friendly witch. La Befana comes specifically from Italian folklore, and rides around the peninsula on a broom during the evening of January 5th. Much like Santa Claus, la Befana delivers toys and candy to the good kids, and a lump of black coal (or dark candy!) to the bad kids.
La Befana will drop off the prizes kids deserve inside the stockings that they have hung up outside of their houses. In return, the children will leave a glass of wine waiting for the witch – classic Italian fashion! The origins story behind la befana is really cute and worth reading about – we’ll cover that in a future article!