It is impossible to generalize about Italy. Every region has its own customs, traditions, holidays, food, music, language. We’ve enjoyed our time in Italy this year, seeing many places that figure in the history and archaeology. The spectacular art in many museums has been wonderful to see.There is a cost to visiting Italy. All of its delights are not waiting for you with open arms. I will touch on three areas that have me puzzled, frustrated, angry, or laughing, depending on when I last sat down in a cafe.
The Third World?
Having spent a lot of the past 20 years in Peru, I think I know what the Third World looks like. Why does Italy look a lot like that? They may have some of the world’s oldest universities, and great art, but they have a puzzling ethic that boils down to “If it’s convenient for me, I’ll do it.” That explains parking as an afterthought, double and triple parking, trash on the beach, in the street and burning in the back yard, corruption, rudeness, smoking and a lot of other unattractive habits. Are other people perfect? No, no and no. Do people in Italy that I meet in the store or on the road sometimes drive me crazy with their “Why not? attitude. Yes.
Italy is gorgeous. Tuscany has zoning laws to prevent its lovely hill towns from developing urban sprawl. It is clever to put warehouses and highways out of sight in the valleys. People in Italy love going to the beach, they love boating. They appreciate nature and good design.
At the same time, they appear unable to corral their trash. On the beach, people just ignore the empty bottles around them, dropping papers and bottle caps as they go. The result is that even beaches that don’t have many visitors have rafts of empty water bottles, jerry cans, styrofoam, plastic cups, silverware, and plates. There are glass bottles, too, but mostly plastic, every kind of container you can imagine. It seems that people become hardened to what is all around them. We did some great beach combing, collecting beautiful bits of polished beach glass, on beaches that were really unsightly, yet they had plenty of visitors.
Recycling seems like part of the answer, but it is underdeveloped. There are collection points, but there is confusion and people ignore the labels on bins, and mess ensues. Worst is yard waste. It’s not recycled/composted, even in agricultural areas. People burn trash and yard waste in the open, creating smog that covers Sicily. At any time of day, you can usually see two or three fires on the horizon. Smog over Palermo is noticeable, not to mention Naples and every other city. Wouldn’t composting all those clippings from grapes, olives and citrus trees be a goal that could be achieved?
Driving In Italy
This should be easy. They drive on the same side as in the US, the major car companies are there, no problem, right?
Before you decide to drive in Italy for more than a single outing, consider a few things. How much driving will you actually be doing? You may spoil your trip if you do a lot of driving in cities where you need to find parking as well as finding your way. The countryside may not be a lot more forgiving, as roads can be narrow, in poor repair, lacking signs, steep and full of curves. How many hours a day of this can you survive with your good spirits intact?
What about those famous Italian autostradas? They have multiple lanes and high speed limits. Not so. Apparently there are so many groups competing for the income from traffic tickets issued by cameras that they are planted all over the place. Speed limits go up and down constantly and in general there is no way to tell what the speed limit really might be. If you actually followed the posted speed limit over most of Italy, you would drive at 50 kilometers (30 miles per hour) 80% of the time.. Literally NO ONE drives the posted speed limit (except farm tractors). Even the agent at the car rental said “Oh, I have sooo many tickets!” What? It turns out that if you drive in Italy you will have tickets. You won’t know when because they come in the mail about three months after the supposed infraction. They can only be challenged if you are in Italy and I have no idea how Italians cope with the situation. As I noted in a previous post (Life in Campania), most Italians drive at least carelessly if not dangerously. That’s how its done. If you do drive, expect to have at least one accident and it matters not who was to blame.
My recommendation is: Don’t drive if you can possibly avoid it. Stay in one place, enjoy what’s around you and go on excursions driven by others. That rules out some activities like our trip to a bird sanctuary yesterday where we saw a red tailed kite, coots and huge gray herons. I would miss that, but not the driving. You have to be ready for the inevitable accident, too. We had a blowout on the way to the beach and when I called the roadside service the woman said we were not authorized to drive on small roads (that would include the exit ramp from the airport and our driveway…). We were told to drive to a numbered road, call back, and “Don’t say you were on a small road.” A passer-by helped us get to a gas station on a nearby numbered road. Hertz eventually sent someone to tow the car but left us stranded. We had to get to an airport 90 minutes drive away on our own on Saturday afternoon in rural Italy at a cost of 220 Euros (20 Euros less if we did not want a receipt, so the driver did not have to declare the ride on his taxes.)
That was before the fish delivery truck drove into the back of our car. The guy tried to get away and when we stopped him, he said “It was the guy behind me!” (There was no one behind him.)
Basta! Enough about driving! Don’t get me started on parking!
Other things about Italy
We used the train in Salerno, tram in Florence, vaporetto in Venice and subway and buses in Rome. They worked, except when there were strikes (only in Rome and only on two days).
Phone service is good except where geography gets in the way. Naturally service was poor where we had our flat tire, but in general our cell phones with Italian SIM cards (Vodafone) worked well and were not expensive.
Food is good and inexpensive to expensive depending on your location. We ate as many cannoli as possible in Sicily. Fresh ricotta in the south and fresh mozzarella in the Naples area were really delicious. We had great inexpensive wine, and tried a lot of wine made from grapes we had not run into before, like grillo, and inzolia (white), and nero d’avola and nero mascalese (red). It was fun to experiment.
The weather cooperated. I went swimming until the very end of October. The expected two days of rain per week in Sicily in October only materialized the first week. After that we had sun and wind. It was glorious.
Italian people are hospitable and warm if you know them or have been introduced or have some kind of connection. If you are going to Italy, see if you can get an introduction to your friend’s cousin or your neighbor’s uncle in Italy. Friends of professional colleagues might be enjoyable to meet. We had great conversations with our various landlords of our Airbnb rentals, with archaeologists working at sites we visited, even the eye doctors I had to see. A personal connection paves the way for really enjoyable interactions. However, without some kind of connection you may have trouble meeting people who are friendly. It seemed to me that friendliness is viewed as a limited good in Italy, not to be wasted on random, unknown tourists. (Perhaps because there are so many of us.) BUT, a friend of a friend is still a friend and deserves a welcome. Once you’re on their radar, you will see the hospitality that Italy is known for. I hope you have as good a visit as we have had.