Ah…Italia. Not many countries come equipped with a wistful sigh, a little pause where someone with imagination could insert a nostalgia-soaked slideshow of a morning walk along the Cinque Terra, espressos sipped with fashionable high-flyers in Milan or a summer sojourn off the coast of Capris.
Italy basically invented La Belle Vita, but what is their secret really? How do they do it? And, more importantly, how can we start doing it too? Presenting our foolproof guide to living Italian.
What to eat
Let’s start with the important stuff. Italians begin their day with breakfast (colazione), usually a caffé e latte and a pastry, maybe a brioche or cornetto. Lunch is serious business, and most shops close down in the pausa pranzo (lunch break). Locals might snack on a fresh insalata caprese (tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and basil) in summer, or a range of pizzas and pastas. Feel free to take a mid-afternoon snack (merenda) around mid afternoon, maybe a cold granita or fruit salad. And for dinner (cena)? Usually something light like soup, salad or a selection of cured meats.
What to read
You have two roads to walk here: classic or contemporary. If you’re a fan of the heaving giants of literature, start with Dante’s Inferno or Machiavelli’s The Prince. Both excellent, although not exactly poolside reading. For a more modern feel, try some of Italy’s excellent fiction writers: Paolo Giordano (especially his Solitude of Prime Numbers), Niccolo Ammaniti or Dacia Maraini (one of the country’s most important female writers). Whatever you choose, practice this phrase to blend in with the locals: “L’arco carattere mancava di sostanza” (“The character arc lacked substance.”)
What to drink
In a country where wine flows like water and espresso is used to revive palliative patients in hospitals (don’t quote us on that one), you can bet Italians take their drinking seriously. Campari is of course the traditional aperitif, and a small glass before each meal is almost mandatory. But there’s also the Negroni (a classic Italian cocktail of red vermouth, gin and Campari) and grappa if you’re feeling brave. For espresso, pick your poison: short, long, with foam, without, in a glass or a pre-heated cup; the main thing to remember is to drink it fast, drink it standing.
What to wear
For a flamboyant bunch, Italians dress rather conservatively (they’d say stylishly). Remember, fashions come and go, but Italy endures. Opt for earth tones, greys and whites for most of the year, although locals do go for pastels in the summer months of June or July. For women, go light on the makeup: Italians prefer a soft, natural look. Avoid shorts in the evening, flamboyant prints or revealing clothes (when visiting churches and other sacred sites in particular). If in doubt, it’s better to err on the formal side. No Italian will tell you off because your tuxedo is too sophisticated.
What to watch
Italy has a proud cinematic heritage, and you could do a lot worse than begin your Italian movie education with Fellini’s masterpiece La Dolce Vita, along with Life is Beautiful and La Strada. A good one to stir up conversation is Paolo Sorrentino’s 2013 controversial hit The Great Beauty (loved by foreign critics, but deplored by most Italians). As for TV, you’ll find reruns of the great comedian Toto on all night in Naples, but make time for some classic Italian reality TV. You won’t understand much, but cringe-worthy drama is the same in all languages.
Where to travel
For Italians, summer holidays mean the beach. It’s been considered a healthy option for a long time (it stems from fascist days when beach front ‘colonies’ were built to escape the city grime). Most Italians take one month-long summer vacation each August, in Portofino, Sardegna’s ‘Emerald Coast’ and Capris if they can afford it, or Abruzzo and Campania if they can’t. For the real local experience, join the huge exodus from Rome and Florence on around August 1 as angry, Fiat-driving Italians honk and swerve their way to the seaside (we’re kidding: don’t do this, it’s very stressful).
For a taste of La Dolce Vita, you’ll need a guided Peregrine small group tour.
Image c/o Pay No Mind, Flickr