Keeping up with the Italians

Life after the rose-tinted glasses. An almost year of treading the fine line between la bella and la brutta figura.

Here I will tell the tales of our exciting, sometimes embarrassing, and often wine-fuelled adventures in Italy. From books, films and travel magazines you would think that living in Italy is la dolce vita. Well, I do drink prosecco like it’s water, and I’ve accepted pizza as a main food group, and I’ve forgotten what anything post-1900 looks like. But it’s not all a Roman Holiday, especially the very particular social rules that expats have to master. Here, I find myself in a minefield of potentially awkward social situations. Italian etiquette is a series of contradictions which is seemingly pre-programmed in Italian minds. Sparkly platform trainers are in every shop window but wearing two different shades of white together is a blasphemy. Men can drink straight grappa at 9 in the morning but it’s verging on illegal to drink a cappuccino at 4 in the afternoon. And yet Italians negotiate these unspoken rules with ease, elegance and Armani heels.

The most important phrase in Italian social life is ‘la bella figura’.

“Their suits, their shirts, their ties, their shoes, their haircuts, even their fingernails were all beyond perfection … bella figura … no American businessman without Italian blood would lavish the time, money and attention that were necessary to look the way they did. To present a bella figura to the world, no matter what was going on inside, was an Italian tradition that reached from the nobility to the peasants.” — Judith Krantz, The Lovers.

You don’t even need to have visited Italy to know that Italians are exceptionally stylish and will look like a supermodel even if they feel the opposite. But la bella figura is much more than appearance. It applies to the way you say hello, how much you can force-feed yourself at your boyfriend’s grandmother’s house, and how elegantly you can cycle in a skirt while talking on the phone. Aesthetics are important even in actions. So when you live here it’s enough to make your head spin. Beppe Severgnini, author of La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind, sums up his crazy country perfectly;

“Your Italy and our Italia are not the same thing. Italy is a soft drug peddled in predictable packages, such as hills in the sunset, olive groves, lemon trees, white wine and raven-haired girls. Italia, on the other hand, is a maze. It’s alluring but complicated. In Italia, you can go round and round in circles for years. Which of course is great fun.” 

And he’s right. While we expats make a fool of ourselves often, nothing is more hilarious, challenging or addictive than living in Italy.

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