Ciao, Bella: 15 Lessons From My Life in Italy

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Photo: Jean-Pierre Lescourret/Corbis

When I moved to Italy in 2009, I never thought I’d stay much longer than a year. Instead, I remained for the length of an (American) university education. And learned a whole other set of skills and new perspectives. Here are 15 lessons that — along with my newfound penchant for things like amatriciana, leather, and vowels — I’ve carried with me on my return to the U.S.

1. Peppermint-mocha-pumpkin-skinny-whip-whatever lattes are gross.
I swilled Starbucks for years. Now, I can’t drink one of the café’s concoctions without choking.

2. There is such a thing as too much man-scaping.
Noticeably plucked, shaved, or waxed eyebrows? That’s where I, personally, draw the line.

3. When one door closes …
Many, many things can seem impossible in Italy. I don’t just mean getting a visa or opening a business; I mean, sometimes, something as simple as finding a place to buy postage stamps. While this was endlessly frustrating, it also made me a little more creative in how I face obstacles, as well as more optimistic. If a door is locked, I’ve learned, there’s always a way to pick it. Or MacGyver a window.

4. If you don't like an answer to a question, ask again.
Pose one official a seemingly straightforward question, “What documents do I need for a permesso di soggiorno?” for example, and you’ll get one answer; ask someone else, and you’ll get another. It’s always maddening. But it sometimes works in your favor. So, when at first you don’t succeed ... try, try again (with someone else).

5. Flip-flops are the worst.
In Italy, I realized that the pieces of rubber I often attached to my feet not only made me look like a serious tourist, but, compared to alternative footwear, they’re terrible: They slide when it’s wet, they give no support and they wear through quickly. Plus, stubbing your toe on a cobblestone is not an incident you want to repeat.

6. When it comes to being candid, other cultures give Americans a run for our money.
We like to pride ourselves on our bluntness, but when it comes to some topics, Italians have us beaten. In the U.S., saying something like “You’ve gained weight, haven’t you?” or “You’ve lost weight!” would be rude, at best — or relationship suicide, at worst. In Italy, even mere acquaintances would share their take on my appearance with me.

7. Do not underestimate a New York bagel.
Not only do other cities not have good bagels, but some don’t have bagels at all. I looked. (Okay, there was maybe one place. But one, and this in a city devoted to carbs.)

8. La vita è bella.
There’s a gross stereotype that Italians love the simple things in life — so much so that the juiciness of a ripe tomato can make up for problems like economic stagnation and a broken political system. Obviously, that’s not true. And it does a disservice to the country by deflecting from the country’s challenges. And yet, what I did find was that many Italian friends seemed particularly good at appreciating, and engaging with, a positive moment — even if they were down about life in general. Yes, it might be food, the ability to really appreciate a good meal even after a terrible day at work. But it could also be the feel of a leather bag or the splash of the Mediterranean. Almost no preoccupation seemed so great that it meant that you couldn’t enjoy, really enjoy, that split-second of pleasure, whatever it was from. I loved that.

9. And la bellezza è la vita.
Beauty is so important in Italy, the word itself shows up again and again: Roman guys yell out to each other “Ciao, bello!” — literally “Hey, beauty!” — in greeting; a delicious pasta is bellissima, and so was your last vacation. Then, of course, there’s la bella figura, cutting a “beautiful figure." Want to be invisible in an Italian city? Throw your hair in a ponytail, toss on jeans, and forget even lip balm. But put in a little effort, and I’m not talking makeup-artist tricks here, and suddenly, people smile; compliments pop up; strangers go out of their way to help you. It’s not just for women, either; for men, paying attention to the details, the leather belt, the polished shoes — is paramount, too. In general, the hoodies-and-sandals look of Silicon Valley cool remains an ocean away from most Italian offices. This could be irritating, like the time an Italian friend upbraided me for wearing flats to dinner. (Heels, as a more elegant choice, were also, apparently, the only one.) But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that now, I think twice before leaving my house in a sweatshirt or with a chipped manicure. Although I do still wear flats.

10. This year is a blip.
Because every year is a blip! Humanity has been around for a long, long time. We all know that intellectually, of course, but nothing really puts your own insignificance in perspective like being surrounded daily by the monuments and baths and temples built by people 2,000 years ago, all of whom undoubtedly also thought that their way of doing things would be around forever. It’s daunting. It’s also a wonderful reminder that the stain on your new shirt or a spat with a friend isn’t really the end of the world.

11. When it comes to a career, Americans have so many options.
I realize that the job market in the U.S. is bad and that debt-laden college graduates can’t just snap their fingers and get their dream job. But I met an absurd number of talented, smart young people in Italy for whom the job opportunities they wanted were not merely tough, but impossible, to get — because they simply didn’t exist; because they were expected to apprentice for free not for a semester, but for years on end; because they needed a family name to get an interview; or because the red tape and expenses in starting their own business make it prohibitive. And, just as important, because they just weren’t seen as anyone with authority or expertise until they were at least 40, regardless of their talent or merit: Italians tend to find it incredibly surprising that, in the U.S., twenty- and thirtysomethings run everything from Wall Street to Silicon Valley. In Italy, most people that age are still in university.

12. In fact, when it comes to (almost) anything, Americans have so many options.
Forget jobs. In more minor ways, we also remain the Land of Plenty. I almost had a panic attack at a Kroger shortly after moving back to the U.S.: My brain was boggled by having that many kinds of not only soft drinks, but sports drinks, to choose from. (There must have been 200.) That said, of course, the same store only had two kinds of tomatoes. Still.

13. But we don’t get enough vacation. Or free health care. Or cheap university educations. Or …
Let’s just say there are a lot of perks to living in Europe, too.

14. A little hunger won’t kill you.
Once I adapted to the traditional, local rhythms of eating, I realized I stopped snacking; if I was a little hungry before dinner, I just waited until dinner. (It helps knowing it’s going to be a three-course meal.) I also stopped eating in front of the television, while walking, on public transportation, or at my desk. On the other hand, when I went out to dinner with friends, I planned on it being an all-evening affair — usually two or three hours. And I didn’t watch what I ate at all, enjoying pasta, wine, and the occasional tiramisu with the best of them. The result, to my surprise, was losing weight.

15. Ask for help.
When I first moved to Italy, the idea of asking a friend or relative, never mind a stranger, for a favor or advice made me supremely uncomfortable. Over time, though, that started to change. Part of this was a function simply of expat life; living alone and still learning the language and culture, sometimes I didn’t have a choice. But part of it seemed cultural. My Italian friends — far more than my American or Anglo ones — willingly asked for favors, be it borrowing a necklace or getting a ride. They also, very willingly, gave them. So did strangers. I once saw an entire airport staff pitch in to make sure three friends and I would make a flight — when it took off exactly 15 minutes after our first plane landed. They didn’t know us. They had no reason to help. Except, of course, that we’d asked.