In Italy, a number of chemical cleaning products are on the market for the purpose of limiting the amount of time one must spend cleaning house. Take, for example this "easy wax," a floor polish that can be spread with an ordinary damp mop, so that you don't have to go digging in your closet for the floor polishing machine and put down real melted wax (duh). You can see the picture of a floor waxing machine in the upper left corner of the label, with a red line through it. I had to ask someone what it was...
In America, we know that the ultimate purpose of all chemical cleaning products is so you don't have to clean your house at all. As usual, we're a step ahead.
Italians and Americans have wildly different feelings about doctors. Leaving due room for the exceptions, Americans in general trust the advice of medical professionals and scientists in general, and Italians in general do not. Here are two true examples that illustrate this nicely:
A) After an Italian Person I know went to the doctor and was diagnosed with a fairly serious condition we had the following conversation:
Self: So, what do you have to do about it?
IP: Sometimes I have to take a pill.
Self: What do you mean sometimes?
IP: Well they told me to take it after every meal, so I decided only to take it after dinner.
IP: Anyway, they said something about it conflicting with another medicine I have...
Self (becoming alarmed): What? Isn't that serious?
IP: Well I had already decided not to really take that other one all that often anymore, anyway...
B) After an American Person I know went to the doctor...
Self: What's that?
AP: Oh it's a nasal steroid.
Self: For what?
AP: My sinuses.
Self: I didn't know you had sinus trouble.
AP: I don't, really, but she asked if sometimes I get stuffed up and she gave me this prescription.
AP: So I'm gonna try it and see if it helps...
It may be tempting sometimes to think that Italians are like us. That because they walk, talk, go to school, have jobs, fall in love, have hobbies, and do other things like us that we are the same. But Italians are not like us. They think things we do not think and they say things we do not say.
If you are ever tempted to think that American and Italian cultures are pretty much the same, just remember that Italian men normally greet one another, "Hi beautiful," and that ought to clear things up.
Life is harder in Italy. Italians face problems that Americans will never face. For example, an Italian may well have to wonder where their next pure wool-silk blend sleeveless undershirt will come from. Americans don't have to worry about things like that.
Luckily, neither do Italians. Obviously all the supermarkets carry them. Right next to the toilet paper. At a seasonally discounted price.
No hits of air here.
1) CAN'T GET. Good cake mix in a box. Everyone knows American cake is better! So stock up on Betty Crocker or something you like better for every birthday you will encounter while abroad, with ample "just because" boxes to pull out when you miss the old U.S. of A. Don't forget the tubs of frosting, cause you can't get those either!
2) CAN'T GET. Baking powder. The baking powder situation in Italy, although largely overlooked by the international press, is desperate. While it's true you can find it everywhere (it's called "lievito per dolci," leaven for sweets), it is always mixed with a horrible fake vanilla flavoring. Apparently someone can find it without the fake vanilla, but this girl cannot. So pick yourself up the biggest container of baking powder you can find, go home to Italy, and cheer yourself up with a nice pie crust that doesn't taste like chemical vanilla.
3) CHEAPER. Something second hand. Thrift stores rock. Italy (mostly) doesn't have them. America does and they are full of amazing things. We all wish we could just import thrift stores generally, but since we can't, at least go buy something from them before going home. Tip: go to a thrift store next to a major university, especially in late May. American college students live like millionaires for four years, and you can reap the benefits when they give all their designer clothes away to thrift stores rather than pack them at the end of the year.
4) CHEAPER. Brand name clothes. These are a favorite souvenir for Italians visiting Italy, but don't let the fact that they are cheaper in America even when you pay full price fool you into actually paying full price. There are several chains of stores in the U.S. that sell "top" brands for cheap. Two of these are T.J. Maxx and Marshalls. Don't go to a department store or (gasp) the actual brand-name store if you want to go home with American brand gifts and souvenirs, try here first. If you don't have one nearby look for "outlet" malls.
5) CAN'T GET. Decent Saran wrap and Ziplock bags. While I don't condone the use of either of these two things, if you're going to do it, do it right, and get the American stuff. It works a billion times better. I've been washing and reusing the same ten Ziplock freezer bags for two years, and they hold up very well.
6) CHEAPER. Kids everything. Toys, clothes, bottles. EVERYTHING. Our stroller in America cost 1/8 the cost of the same stroller in Italy (and that's even if we didn't get it on Craigslist). Don't know where to go? Try Target or T.J. Maxx. No matter what state you are visiting you are likely to find both.
7) CHEAPER. Rain and snow boots, and those heavy shoes with thick soles that are kind of like rain and snow boots in disguise.
8) CAN'T GET. Desitin. The original stuff in the purple container that says "maximum rash fighting ingredient." That ingredient is fish oil, and the only reason they changed up the formula is because they could't entirely get rid of the hint of fish smell, which put some people off, but I promise you it's worth it. This stuff is so good that sometimes I even use it on my kids. Split lips, chapped noses from having a cold, those awful cracks in your heels or your fingers, they all disappear overnight when you slather them up with this stuff. Fissan has nothing on it, and I never leave America without it.
In America, a refrigerator is a large kitchen appliance that keeps perishable foodstuffs cold.
In Italy, a refrigerator is a small kitchen appliance that keeps perishable foodstuffs cold.
Two developments of modernity have changed the nature of buying souvenirs: 1) Amazon and the fact that you can get your gold-tone plaster miniature of the colosseum without getting your butt off your couch in Akron, Ohio; and, 2) the fact that airlines now charge a pound of flesh for extra weight in your luggage.
The result is that there is almost no reason to buy anything at all while you are actually traveling EXCEPT for two kids of things: 1) those few, amazing, precious, magical things that truly can only be bought on location; and 2) those things that are much, much cheaper or better on location. And here they are:
If you are American traveling to Italy, don't go home without:
1) CHEAPER: Caffè Vergnano (my favorite, from Torino) or another really yummy coffee that is totally ordinary in Italy and totally costs a fortune in America. It's worth buying a dozen at 3€ a package and filling up your stash at home, rather than paying $10 a package. Keep in mind that espresso is not a type of coffee, it's just the way the beans are ground, so you can brew Italian coffee in your normal coffee pot if you don't want to make it Italian style, but still want a nice smooth java...
2) CAN'T GET IT: Your broken stuff from home, all shiny and new. The cobblers, jewellers, and tailors are twice as good and half as expensive in Italy as the best rated ones I could find when I was living in New York City. Drop off all your shoes that need re-soling, watches that need repair, purses that need new handles, clothes that need taking in, pants that need hemming, and jewellery that needs fixing when you get here, and pick it all up before you go home.
3) CHEAPER: If you're the kind of person who spends a lot on business suits (which I am not), and you will be in Italy for a few weeks, consider having one made. You can still find a few fine tailors for very affordable prices, and the quality is really unbeatable.
4) CHEAPER/CAN'T GET IT: The same goes for having shoes made. If you have difficulty getting shoes that fit comfortably, the quality-price relationship here really makes the custom option worthwhile. At any rate silk ties and fine shirts and shoes for work purposes are much cheaper and worth purchasing in Italy.
5) CHEAPER: Parmigiano Reggiano. This ain't no parmesan. It's also not what I found labeled "Parmigiano Reggiano" in our supermarket in Indiana (I'm still not sure what that was...) You should bring an extra suitcase for this stuff and buy the biggest block you can. Its success is guaranteed: whether you eat it by the chunk or grate it onto your pasta (or heck, finish it on the plane) this is one purchase you will never regret. Remember that it MUST BE VACUUM SEALED to bring across the border. Don't try to bring prosciutto, salami, or mushrooms home, or border control will make you cry as they once made my husband cry (well, almost). If you don't like to eat cheese, you could just use it as insurance: when my great-grandfather immigrated to the Bronx in the early 1900s, he brought wheels of this stuff just in case the bottom went out of the economy. Some people have gold bars under their mattress, my family had a room full of cheese...
6) CAN'T GET IT: Big onesies and wool stuff for kids. Italians are obsessed with defending themselves from "hits of air," which might invade their clothes and afflict them with all sorts of maladies we don't seem to have in the US. One of the nice results of this paranoia for us visiting parents is that they make baby onesies in sizes that fit children up to four years old. And if you like keeping your kids' tummies covered like I do (to, you know, protect them from hits of air), then these are very convenient. And the cotton clothing in Italy tends to be very nice quality. You can also still find some wool clothing for babies and little kids, which is warmer and less bulky than cotton winter clothes and has become really hard to find in the States.
And actually, wool and cotton stuff for adults is great in Italy, too. Go into one of those ugly little storefronts with no sign, but with long johns, socks, and pajamas pinned up in the tiny window and stock up on pure cotton and wool socks, undershirts, and long johns. No hits of air here!
7) CAN'T GET IT. Napisan. I don't know why this doesn't exist in America, but it's amazing. It's a laundry additive that doesn't bleach your clothes, but eliminates germs. For things that can't be washed in hot water and aren't white, it's a must! Make sure it has the approval of the "presidio medico chirurgo" on it, with the red cross symbol - that's the one that is certified to eliminate germs.
8) CHEAPER. THIS THING. Simply the best. Better than all the rest. (Since I drafted this post, the Bialetti Tuttocrema became available on American Amazon. It costs more than it does in Italy, but who can put a price on happiness, I ask you?)
9) CHEAPER/CAN'T GET IT. Chocolate. Get a local one and stock up! Put this in your extra suitcase with the parmigiano. If chocolate is not your thing, another artisan ("artigianale") desert option is really worthwhile. Generally the especially good stuff has simple and local ingredients, and the kind of stuff varies by region (e.g. lots of things with hazelnut and chocolate in the north; lots of things with citrus, pistachio, and almond in the south). Although often these things are imported to specialty stores in the US, here they're a quarter the cost and you can pick them up at any supermarket.
10) CHEAPER. Wine. Make sure it says d.o.c. on the label. Six euros will get you a very nice wine. My favorite is a red wine called "dolcetto." And don't forget that bubbly prosecco makes everything better. If you happen to be in wine country (which you very likely are), go to the place that makes the local d.o.c. and get your bottles for as cheaply as 2 or 3 euros there. Maybe you're going to need another suitcase...
11) CANT GET IT. I LOVE Italian "amari," after-dinner drinks that are apparently called "digestives" in English by English speakers who take constitutionals, wear smoking jackets, and say things like petit-four. You can get some of them in the States, for a high price, but not my favorite one, which is an Alpine digestive called Braulio. On your way home you can always touch down in England and find yourself a smoking jacket...
12) CAN'T GET IT/CHEAPER. Tuscano cigars. Medium-width, long cigars to be cut in half and smoked with a friend. Too mild for a strong praise; too tasty for a mild praise... Don't inhale, people.
13) CHEAPER. Something made with leather, linen, or embroidery. These include: bed sheets, leather gloves, shoes and boots, curtains, table linens, purses, and clothes. Go into an off-brand store that has these items in the window. The prices will be higher than getting polyester or plastic equivalents, but will be significantly lower than getting comparable items in the States.
14) EASIER TO GET. Unlocked by law, smartphones that are unattached to a particular phone plan are widely available in Italy.
Italian expat readers, what do you bring back to America when you visit Italy? Add your own must-haves in comments!
If your fridge stinks in America, it could be because the cheese has gone bad.
If your fridge stinks in Italy, it could be because the cheese is extra good.
Life is simpler in America. There are many problems that plague Italians that we will never have to deal with. These are called Italian Person Problems. Here's one that happened to me today:
I was ordering groceries for delivery online (you can take the girl out of America...), and suddenly the following message popped up on my screen (in Italian of course):
"Dear Sir or Madame: the raspberries you wish to order may not have been grown in Italy, or they may have been grown in Italy but packaged outside of Italy. They may have been grown or packaged in one of the following countries: Spain, Portugal. Please confirm that you agree to receive raspberries from any of these three countries. If you prefer not to agree, we will ship you Italian-only raspberries once they become available."
Italian Person Problems.
American baby pet names include: honey, sugar, cupcake, and sweetie pie.
Italian baby pet names include: onion and potato.
E' più forte di noi!!!!!!!!!!!
I'm an American living in Italy and making gross generalizations about it.