An Italian would absolutely agree with that.
Italian money - the euro now, but even more so the lira way back when - with it's multicolored, multi-sized bills and its undignifiedly contemporary collection of portraits may give the well-meaning American the impression that Italians just don't take money as seriously as we do.
An Italian would absolutely agree with that.
While in Italy, you may receive a confusing sort of invitation. It says "appetiser," but the time is 7:30 or 8:00pm. What gives?
Is a sadistic host inviting you to nibble on peanuts at a time when any red-blooded American has already eaten dinner?
Is a disorganised hostess confused about guest's intestinal needs at such an hour?
Is this party going to last 25 minutes, so that you can all still get dinner at a reasonable time afterward?
Nothing of the sort.
This is an apologetic Italian dinner invitation. It is apologetic because when an Italian hears "dinner," this calls to mind certain expectations about antipasto, primo, secondo, contorni, formaggi, frutta, e dolce. Because of this, your host does not dare to say "dinner," but must instead humbly refer to their spread as an "appetiser."
Since an American has almost none of these things in mind when it comes to dinner, here it the invitation in translation:
"Dear guest, please come to my house for tons and tons of food at the dinner hour. I'm terribly sorry, but I'm not going to bust my ass to iron my table linens, get all the right glasses out, and bring out the right courses in the right order. We might not even sit down all at the same time. But you will eat. And it will be dinner. I'm sorry I'm not sorry."
Once upon a time I was in Italy just to visit. As you may have noticed if you have come to Italy just to visit, you don't need a visa on your passport to get in: you can come here to visit or to work for up to three months without a visa. Why? Because Italy and America said so (in a treaty).
During my visit, we wanted to add me to my husband's bank account so a client could pay me for a translation with an easy bank transfer, but we needed a "fiscal code" (a financial identification number specific to me) to do it. It's like a social security number. This is easy to do. In fact, any American who buys property or inherits money here has to get one. So off we went to the local branch of the tax authority (like the IRS) in one of Italy's biggest cities. The following scene ensued:
Bureaucrat (looking at my passport): I need to see your visa. I don't see a visa.
Self: I don't have a visa, I'm American.
Bureaucrat: It doesn't matter who you are, you need a visa.
Self: I can't have a visa, Italy doesn't give visas to Americans for visits under three months.
Bureaucrat: ....I need to see a visa.
Self: I can't have a visa.
Bureaucrat: Then I can't give you a code.
Self: I would like to see the director.
The director arrives.
Director: We can't give a fiscal code without seeing a visa.
Self: Americans don't need a visa. Under the treaty we can work or stay here for three months without a visa.
Director: Well if you want a code you'll have to get one.
Self: I can't get one. This is something my president and your president decided; there's nothing I can do about it.
Director: What do you want it for?
Self: So that I can duly report income from a translation I'll be doing while I'm here.
Director: What for?
Self: Because your agency, the tax authority, requires it.
Director: Well there's nothing I can do about it. I need to see a visa.
Self: Are you saying I should get paid under the table?
Director (of the TAX AUTHORITY): Well, we all do what we have to do, no?
(Then the director walked to the door, opened it, and held it open until we left)
So what did we do? We drove to a town an hour away, went to the local branch of the tax authority, asked for a "fiscal code," and got one in under half an hour.
Old Italians have been through it all. Wars. Fascist dictators. Exiled monarchies. Communist street battles. Political scandal. Scandalous prosecution of political scandals. Bureaucratic dictators. This gives them a healthy dose of skepticism. Plus another dose of skepticism the health of which is debatable. And the effect of which is to be able to always rain on my parade. Consider the following true conversations with Old Italians:
OIP: Why do you think big puffy coats are the trend?
Self: Um, I don't know...fashion?
OIP: No, it's because they're stuffed with cheap polyester so that clothing companies don't have to pay more to use real materials that actually keep a person warm, like wool.
Friend of mine: I'm so relieved that I'm done with those taxes.
OIP: Did you pay the higher or the lower amount?
FoM: I went to talk to the tax authority and they said I only owed the lower amount.
OIP: Pay the higher amount. They always say the lower amount and then notify you seven years later that you've been running up interest the whole time on the amount you didn't pay.
OIP: Take it from me as a farmer, all the panic about pesticides is in the hands of the chemical companies. As soon as the patent expires on a good pesticide or herbicide that has been around for forty years, suddenly you start seeing on the news how horrible it is, and it has to be made illegal so you're forced to buy expensive new ones.
Self: Yeah, I always try to buy organic stuff, you know, to not support them.
OIP: Ha! You're playing right into their hands.
Self: ...I don't see how the organic movement could possibly be in the service of big chem.
OIP: Of course it is! This way they channel all the people who could potentially lobby for less chemical use, or the use of only certain chemicals, into the totally unreasonable expectation of using no chemicals at all. They're even happy to make concessions for this small, noisy, niche market group. And once they've diverted all the most concerned citizens into a very small niche, they are free to charge ahead with merrily poisoning the rest of the population, passing off the concerned citizens as crazy, exacting, and elite.
Self: Well it sure is great that everyone recycles so much here!
OIP: Of course we do, otherwise we get fined. That way the city forces all of us to divide the valuable from the non-valuable trash for them for free, and then forces us to pay them so that they can sell it to companies who make horrible polyester clothing out of it. So the city and the companies make a tidy profit, and we do the work and pay them for the privilege!
Self: IS NOTHING SACRED?!
I said to my three-year-old, who has lived all her life in Italy:
"Hey, do you want some cheese?"
She replied, after looking at the plate, "No thanks, I don't like pecorino."
To Northern Italians, Rome is an occupying force whose goal is to rob them of all their hard-earned money and redistribute it to Southern Italians.
To Southern Italians, Rome is an occupying force whose goal is to rob them of all their autonomy and power and redistribute it into the hands of Northern Italians.
Either way you look at it, it's nice to be Rome.
In 2008, an immensely popular show first aired in the United States with the following plot idea: some genius chemist guy is not making enough money teaching chemistry, so he decides to make better drugs than all the idiot non-chemists currently making drugs, and makes oodles of cash. The show was Breaking Bad.
In 2014, an immensely popular movie called Smetto Quando Voglio (I can quit whenever I want) came out in Italy with exactly the same plot idea: some genius neurobiology guy is not making ANY money teaching neurobiology, so he decides to make better drugs than all the idiot non-scientists currently making drugs, and makes oodles of cash.
Despite this precisely overlapping premise, the two productions have pretty much ZERO in common. Why?
Let's break this down into its basic elements (see what I did there?):
In Breaking Bad, protagonist Walter White was once a passionate, prize-winning chemist. Now he teaches high school. This embarrassing profession justifies near-total despondency, drab wardrobe choices, and a lack of sexual chemistry with his wife . Inexplicably, teaching high school science full time and working every day at a car wash is not enough to support a modest family of three in one of the cheapest areas of the country.
PS - Working at a car wash is clearly beyond degrading and humiliating, and naturally seeing his students there justifies an avalanche of self-pitying pathos.
PPS - The mean salary for US high school science teachers in the public system is almost 60K.
In I Can Quit Whenever I Want, protagonist Pietro Zinni was once the most brilliant neurobiology PhD student at his University. Now he is one of the last of his generation of straight-A university students still holding out hope for a teaching position in his late thirties as he eeks by in unpaid researcher positions under an evil, wheeling and dealing professor-boss. To make ends meet, he and his girlfriend rent out rooms in their apartment to disrespectful pot-head students. Zinni is frustrated but, inexplicably, this situation of massive injustice seems to have no impact on Zinni's inner sense of self or his ability to dress well (although the frustrations do lead to comical disputes with his girlfriend over how much of their spaghetti their housemates are eating for free...)
PS - Associate professors in Italy (the position Zinni is hoping to land, but doesn't get) make half of what high school science teachers make in the US, even where the cost of living is the same.
THE BREAKING POINT:
Breaking Bad's Walter White discovers he has terminal lung cancer (so far this show is a real upper, wheeeeee!). Therefore he tells no one. Except, eventually, his wife.
I Can Quit Whenever I want protagonist Pietro Zinni is passed over for a paid position and loses even his small research grant, despite submitting brilliant results. Therefore he tells EVERYONE. Except his girlfriend.
Walter White blackmails an odious former (failed) student-turned crystal meth maker into forming a business partnership for "cooking" crystal meth. The student will show Walter how to do it, and Walter will make the best meth ever sold on the market through his nerd skills. They hate each other, but it's all about the benjamins. As if dying of lung cancer were not enough, Walter is plagued by his wife's obnoxious sister and her DEA officer husband (oops!), who are apparently the only people Walter ever hangs out with, presumably out of a sense of familial duty.
Pietro Zinni motor-scooters around town visiting all his close friends. All of them were once brilliant researchers who, like him, were denied university posts thanks to corrupt university bosses. Two Latinists are working at a gas station. They speak Latin amongst themselves and Arabic to their boss, who runs a tight ship but lets them live in the shed. Another former chemist washes dishes at a Chinese restaurant. An economist is doing his best as a card shark, playing poker and using his mental math skills. An anthropologist makes routine attempts to be hired at a junk yard, where he is always rejected on suspicion that he has a degree due to his nerdy vocabulary. Finally, an archaeologist friend works for the city digging and repairing roads, boring all his co-workers with his soil and rock analyses.
Zinni tells his buddies his plan: to use their nerd skills to invent a new drug. Not only will it be the best drug ever sold on the market, but it will also be legal, because no one will have ever heard of it before. They are afraid of losing their jobs, but eventually agree.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT:
In Breaking Bad, White does succeed in cooking his magical, high-quality meth. But before one sale can be made, everything spins out of control. By episode 2 of season 1 Walter is melting drug dealers' bodies in acid (the most extreme punishment reserved by the Mafia for its top offenders, just FYI) and doing unspeakable things to his wife because of the animalistic release he achieves after finally getting away from all those years of emasculating existence as a mere high school teacher.
In I Can Quit Whenever I Want, Pietro and the other guys succeed in inventing their wonder drug, which is technically legal. They sell it through one of Pietro's tenants, who has been living with him and his girlfriend (and eating lots of spaghetti) for free because Pietro thought he was poor, but it turns out he's super rich and goes to all the coolest clubs. The guys are thrilled with their success and, even though they're supposed to be keeping their money under wraps, they can't help buying rooftop apartments with great views and throwing big parties.
In Breaking Bad, the guns are out of their holsters already in episode one, and by episode four we are killing people off with poisonous gas, bicycle locks, and shards of broken flatware (ok the last one is only an attempted murder, but still).
In I Can Quit Whenever I Want, unable to get large enough quantities of the basic chemicals they need to make their drug, Zinni and his friends hold up a pharmacy with a blunderbuss from someone's grandpa's closet.
THE OUT OF CONTROL DUDE:
Walter's delinquent accomplice is smoking their meth on the sly. This is portrayed as scary and full of backlit camera work, overly-loud sounds, hallucinations, toothless prostitutes, crappy hotel rooms, and paranoia.
One of Pietro's buddies (the dishwasher) is popping their pills on the sly. This is portrayed as funny (if sad and unattractive), and full of bombastic scenes, over-the-top fur coats, hot Russian escorts, lots of yelling, and eventually a car accident and a stint in rehab.
HOW IT ENDS:
In Breaking Bad, season 1 ends with Walter buckling down and continuing to make meth, steadily hoping to become a big fish and using the alias Heisenberg, after the Nobel prize winning physicist. Serious. Nerdy. Seriously nerdy.
I Can Quit Whenever I Want ends in hilarity and a clever escape by the little guys from the drug world dominated by bigger fish. When a big drug don, threatened by their sales, demands their recipe and a huge cache of the drug OR ELSE, the little band of nerd-criminals is in trouble. They force one of them to finally marry his long-time fiance, a gypsy, and agree to meet the drug don at the wedding for the hand-off, with the rationale that the gypsies are the only people more armed than the drug lord. Then, in a scene that goes down in the middle of the wedding, they pull a slick trick to get away with not producing the drugs for the don after all. Meanwhile, Italy makes the drug illegal, and all the guys, after a year of high rolling, go back to their old jobs at the gas station and etc. Oh and that last guy finally gets his job at the junkyard. Cheers all around.
Luckily for Pietro, he gets put in jail for tax evasion and finally gets paid to teach chemistry (to his fellow prisoners). He's thrilled. At the end of the film, it seems like he'll be let out early for good behaviour and lose his "teaching position," but he reassures his now-wife that with a staged fight in the cafeteria, he's hoping to add some time to his sentence. Nerdy and funny.
The other day my father-in-law asked about my ethnic background, so I told him, "I'm half Irish and half Italian."
Then he started describing the ethnic background of my husband. It turns out that, as Italians count it, he's not 1/8 French and 7/8 Italian, as I once thought. He is 1/8 Piemontese, 1/8 Calabrese, 1/8 Emiliano, 1/8 some place that used to be Italian but is now Swiss, 1/8 French, and I can't even keep track of his other 8ths which, in any case, all mean ITALIAN.
It's complicated over here.
In America, a cookie is a thing the eating of which is not limited to any particular place or time.
In Italy, the other day, this happened:
I was giving my kids cookies at two in the afternoon (obviously). The old man from the next table leaned over and scolded, "what do you think this is, breakfast?"
Yup, a cookie in Italy means breakfast.
They don't tell you that in the "Mediterranean diet" book, do they?
The other day I was listening to a major Italian radio station, RDS. Right after playing Bruno Mars, the DJs played clips from listeners who had called in to answer the question, "what smells do you love or hate the most." A LOT of Italianness ensued.
First of all, no one called in with smells they hate (what??). Second of all, here were the first four calls, in order:
1) The smell of "wild boar meat sauce and polenta after a long day of skiing." Yes, that's an exact quote.
2) The smell of "pure marseille soap. The one Grandma used to wash your sheets." Yes, THAT's an exact quote.
3) The smell of bread. This one caused extensive reminiscing on the part of the DJs about bread with all their favorite companaticos.
4) The smell of the glue in the notebooks you had to bring to school as a child.
Go on, admit it, Italians are cute!
I'm an American living in Italy and making gross generalizations about it.