January 26


The Semi-Sweet Life in Italy

By Rick

January 26, 2014

life in italy with rick zullo

Any expat in Rome will tell you that they’ve heard the question a hundred times: “What is life in Italy really like?”  The common assumption is that we’re all buzzing around on Vespas, attending operas, and eating pasta at every meal.  My blog has always been an honest attempt to address those perceptions and offer a more realistic picture, for better and worse.  But before I get into the “meat” of this post, I’d like to share some really cool news.
I was recently nominated by Italy Magazine as one of the top (English-speaking) bloggers in Italy!  It’s an incredible honor…I’m pretty sure that Italy Magazine is the largest publication on all things Italian.  They are to Italy what Sports Illustrated is to sports.  No joke.

In fact, I was short-listed in two categories, “Best Living in Italy Blog,” and “Best Overall Blog for Lovers of Italy.”  There are some other real heavyweights among the nominees, including people who write for the New York Times, the Associated Press, and National Geographic Traveler.  My humble little blog is the proverbial “David” in the fight, but honestly, I’m thrilled just to be nominated.

If you’d care to help me in this contest, you can do TWO things:

rick zullo blog, italy magazine
Vote for me!

1)      Go to the links and VOTE.  One click will get you to the page, one click to vote.  Super easy–NO form to fill out.  You can vote for me in both categories, which would be great, but I think that I have a better chance in the “Overall Lover of Italy” category…fewer nominees, less competition—at least that’s my theory.  Here are the links:

Best Overall Blog for Lovers of Italy

Best Living in Italy Blog

2)      SHARE this with others!  Post it on your Facebook status, email it, Tweet it, Pin it, etc.

Thanks so much for supporting me in this effort.  If I can pull this off, it will really increase my exposure in the blogosphere and hopefully lead to bigger and better things.  And if you don’t vote for me, watch out…I’ll be sending the malocchio your way!

OK, now for the regularly scheduled blogging…

What is it about the sweet life in Italy?

A couple month ago, I was interviewed by Anthony Capozzoli on his excellent radio show, How to Tour ItalyOne of the questions that he asked was, “What’s the objective of your blog?”  It was a great question, and it made me think, because I don’t know if I’ve ever stopped to define it.  I enjoy touching on a variety of topics that, when combined, give an overall impression of life in Italy.  And I try to create a balanced forum on which to discuss Italy and Italian culture.

The folks who read my blog have diverse backgrounds, with very different experiences encountering Italy.  In fact, about 15-20% of my readers are Italians who obviously know their country very well—better than I ever will.  Then some of my readers are Americans or Brits who are enchanted by Italy, but have never actually stepped foot inside the country.  So it’s always a challenge to find something that engages everybody.

But that’s really what I want to do, engage readers by focusing on little details that somehow illuminate the bigger picture.  There are plenty of Italy guides out there and lots of other blogs that will give you the museum hours or tell you where to find the top gelaterie.  I love those blogs (you can find some them on my “blogroll”) and I refer to them often myself, but that’s not really my style of writing.

I’ve had a couple of posts that have irritated a few people.  I always try to avoid stereotypes, but some generalizations are occasionally needed to create a talking point.  Yet people still take exception, which is fine, as long as they present their counterpoints in a way that will add to the discussion.  And several times, commentators on my blog have changed my mind about certain issues, so I’m always willing and eager to expand my own understanding.

la dolce vitaThat discussion sort of segued into Anthony’s next question which was about separating the reality from the myth of living in Italy.  The timing was interesting, because I had just re-watched “La Dolce Vita” after having seen it about 15 years ago—in other words, before I had ever been to Italy.  What I saw the second time was a completely different movie than I remembered.  (I wrote in more detail on this topic in my recent post on Italian Cinema.)

But for example, the iconic scene of Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroiani splashing around Trevi’s Fountain was actually a brief, fairly insignificant scene.  And yet that’s what we all remember about the movie.  Indeed, Fellini was being ironic, or even sarcastic, when he chose a title for his film.  He was commenting on a “sweet life,” that everyone thought they wanted, but was always just out of reach, largely inhibited by their inability to communicate with one another.  (And this was before social media!)

For visitors to Italy, none of this matters—everybody ought to enjoy whatever “la dolce vita” means to them while on their two week vacation.  But for newly expatriated Americans, it can be an uncomfortable wake-up call about a month into the adventure.  After a few nasty encounters with public employees and one transportation strike too many, you might start to question why you left the “sweet life” in the US.

However, if you stick around a little longer and push through all the aggravations and inconveniences (large and small) of fighting the bureaucracy and an unfamiliar cultural mentality, then you might start to enjoy the “semi-dolce vita” even more than you’re original idealized version of Italy.  That’s how it was for me.  Small victories at the post-office feel like the achievement of a lifetime.  You learn the art of “arrangiarsi,” how to get by (with a little help of an Italian mentor—Jessica, in my case).  Now you’re starting to really understand what life in Italy is all about, for better and worse.  And you’ll appreciate it all the more for your efforts.

Listen, I won’t lie, the politics are a mess and the economy is in a free fall.  There have been a couple of articles in the New York Times lately about this heartbreaking tragedy.  But Italy has survived worse.  Rome was sacked by the barbarians and has been corrupted by popes and politicians throughout its history.  It has endured Mussolini and two World Wars.  And yet it still stands.

But we should also mention that expats, no matter how long they’ve been in Italy, will never feel as frustrated or angry as the Italians do about their broken system.  We always have the option to go home, and the emotional impact of watching your country fall apart is something that we don’t have to face.  In this way, I don’t think it’s wrong to say that foreigners are often able to “appreciate” Italy more than the Italians can. visit sicily with Rick Zullo

So if all of this is true, why has Italy remained so appealing to so many people from every corner of the globe?  It continues to be a top tourist destination (if not the top) even as more and more of the world is opening up to mass tourism—and despite the political and economic mess.  No matter what, people just can’t get enough of Italy, it seems. (For the record, neither can I).

I believe it’s because Italy offers, and has always offered, an abundance of the things that touch our humanity at the deepest levels: art, food, music, beauty, family, and a tangible connection with human history.  And even some of the negative things—corruption, greed, jealousy—because that’s part of being human, too.

Orson Wells said it even better:

“In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed…BUT they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance.  In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had five hundred years of democracy and peace…and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

I think that sums it up pretty good.

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About the author

Living in the Caput Mundi and trying to decipher Italian culture for the English speaking world.

  • You got my vote Rick. I’m Canadian but I’ve been living in Italy since 1994. It’s nice to read your point of view if things knowing that you may even smile at times, like post office or crossing lanes or parking issues… I sometimes wonder… when will he ever get fed up with all this? Don’t get me wrong…I love this place, but like you said…only for a two week holiday 🙂

  • Ciao Rick! Complimenti! We have bumped into each other on Twitter and share in the honor of being shortlisted for Italy Magazine’s 2013 Blog awards. If truth be known, just being considered with wonderful finalists such as yourself makes me feel like I have already won. It is all too much fun and so lovely to meet others passionate about Italy as well! A presto! “la studentessa matta” aka italiamelissa!

    • Grazie, Melissa, e complimenti anche a te!! Yes, I’m also honored to be nominated among such a talented crowd by such an authoritative publication. Your blog is incredible, and I love that you publish in both languages side by side. The content itself is always interesting and informative…AND it’s a language lesson at the same time! Best of luck to you in the voting. Ciao!

  • Congrats! voted.

    This blog post made me think a lot, about various things in regards to Italy and “La Dolce Vita” (the idea, not the film). I live in Italy, and am hanging on for as long as possible, because at the end of the day, I feel better here. That said, it irritates me when I read, or hear, people who visit the country for 2 weeks, or a month scoff at people who bring up the very glaring defects one sees only by living here, not holidaying. Not being one of the few privileged expats who lives off a trust fund or enormous wealth and never has to deal with things like learning the language, finding/keeping work, sending kids to the public schools, commuting, lines to pay bills, etc etc. There was an article in the NY Post a while back about Italy’s current downward spiral and a lot of the comments were bashing the author, saying he was just a cynic, the Italy “they saw on vacation just last summer” wasn’t in shambles, everyone was happy and nice, blah blah blah. I think posts on some of the realities most expats might face are useful. I wasn’t really prepared for the “issues” I faced, nor the issues Italians face on a daily basis. My first year was like a big long vacation when I think about it. I lived smack dab in the center, never had to take a bus, didn’t work much, enjoyed aperitivos, leisurely walks, the museums, most of my friends were fellow expats, etc etc….and then everything caught up to me when I had to make a ‘real life’ happen.

    • GREAT observations, especially the last few sentences. That pretty much sums up my experience, as well. And in any case, living someplace is never the same as vacationing there. Life ALWAYS catches up to you sooner or later. Still, we all have our individual criteria as to what we can put up with and what fulfills us. You just have to accept that there is always some compromise. Ciao!

  • Congratulations on your nominations Rick, certainly well deserved. Your posts always make me think as does this one. Yes, what is it about Italy. My first trip 12 years ago was when I fell in love with Italy, consequently I have returned many times. Friends often ask me, what is the attraction. There is so much that attracts us, but most of all for me, it is a feeling that really cannot be described.
    People I share this love with do know that feeling. I guess one needs to visit Italy to “get it”. But, ma, not everyone will and that is OK.

    • Hi Lyn, you make a good point. I also know many people who are perplexed by my fascination with Italy (and quite often they are Italians…ha, ha!). But I guess we all have our own personal criteria for what we find appealing…and you and I seem to have much of that in common. Thanks so much for your comments…ciao!!

  • Hearty congrats. Rick! I did my thing and cast my vote for you in both of the categories….after all it isn’t often one has a “friend” up for being acknowledged in this way! Have always enjoyed your observations on life in Italy and look forward to your realistic and often very amusing comments…keep up the good work! I wish I could meet up with both yourself and Victoria in Rome…Victoria and I thought we would connect either in Rome or Florence, but will miss each other by a day…dammit! Bad timing or should I say bad planning! Next time and there will be a next time. Looking forward to hearing about the tour of Sicily!

    • Ciao Phyllis! Thanks so much for voting and for your kind words. I’m very honored to be included in such a list of great bloggers. And yes, there will always be a next time! A presto!

  • Nice article! I fell in love with Italy the first time I ever went there, with my father as a teenager. I vowed to move there one day 😉 I got close (back to Europe, from the US) but I am not there yet. We toy with the idea but we visit often enough to feel fulfilled. Perhaps one day… 😉

  • Well done Rick. I think part of the answer as to why American’s (and the rest of the world) are so enchanted by Italy is that It is one of the few places that has held on to its culture and values even in modern times. The economic power and melting pot of cultures in America have created a culture missing essential elements: respect for the family, respect for oneself, and respect for the land. Greed and available capital means that any pristine piece of land will eventually turn into a shopping mall, or gated community of cookie-cutter houses. There is “development” happening everywhere, but perhaps it is Italy’s fortune and not misfortune that it’s economy is not doing so well.

    • Thanks for your comments, Larry. For sure, tight banking regulations prevented a housing bubble in Italy, but as you suggested, it also speaks to a cultural mentality that values roots and family connections. In these days of financial crisis, those connections are not only a choice; the have become necessary for survival in some cases. So even though I’m sure that prosperity would be welcome over struggle, it can have a positive spin, as you pointed out. Grazie!

  • Congratulations, Rick! I was so thrilled to see you make the shortlist of Italy Magazine’s Top Blogger Awards in two categories, and I must say, so well deserved! I have already cast my votes for you!

    I always enjoy how you describe both sides of life in Italy, as it truly is a country full of beauty and charm as well as economic and political problems. And I agree that for those native Italians it must be very frustrating sometimes that life is not always la dolce vita! Great post!

  • Rick,
    First – congrats on noms! 😀
    Then, about the “sweet life” – well, you know that “la dolce vita for me” is a favorite mantra of mine and I LOVE all things Italian (and am Italian American)…When I come to visit again in April I will be writing “Postcards from La Dolce Vita” – that said…I have no illusions and I think you have presented a balanced view…which is reality – there & here! It is easy to romanticize living abroad, to “visit” & be enchanted and enthralled but actually “living” somewhere is always a mixed bag and a different story- in Italy and elsewhere. But that’s life, si? And, for me, it makes it all the sweeter –

    • Great points, Victoria, and I agree with you. No matter where you are, it’s all about what you make of it…and Italy makes it pretty appealing to us “stranieri!” I think I’ve finally come to this realization after coming full circle through all the ups and downs. Can’t wait to follow all your travels in April…and hopefully we’ll get to meet up in May…ciao!

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